Hear These Students Lead: Promoting Women’s Leadership through Spoken Word

Five members of the University of the District of Columbia's AAUW Campus Action Project team stand with their leadership project poster for #HEARMELEAD.

UDC's CAP team organized spoken word workshops to empower women on campus.

June 29, 2017
I never tell them how art is my every step
With every breath
And that the gods that you pray to
Paints too, with the most beautiful palette
I never tell them how my hands are stained from creating life
They turn nothing into something
Blank canvases into the people I love
The people I love into eternity
Art is not just a pretty picture on a wall
It is the summer sun waltzing across the dining room table
It is the careful hands and lingering looks of a lover
It is the way my mother hips curve to hold her grandchildren
It is something that words cannot possibly say
It is something that can only be felt
And that’s why
When they ask me what will my family eat
I will say art
Because art is enough
For Women Artist who’ve Considered 9 to 5’s when Art Was Enough
Kimberly Cunningham

On April 28, 2017, 25 student leaders performed spoken word poetry for a crowd of supporters at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). The performances mixed personal stories with lessons in leadership and empowerment. Students shared experiences based on their intersecting identities and tackled sensitive topics ranging from police brutality to systemic racism.

This performance was part of UDC’s #HearMeLead initiative, which was funded by an AAUW Campus Action Project grant. Throughout the spring semester, students attended eight workshops led by Alexa Patrick, a local professional spoken word artist. Designed to teach students the power of their own voices and stories, the #HearMeLead project “encouraged women to build skills in self and community advocacy by using creative expression.” This motivated students to “engage, explore, and elevate their creative side, which increased their self-awareness and sense of personal work.”

UDC — like the District itself — is a diverse community. To create a space where participants felt they could be heard as individuals and as a group, the #HearMeLead team focused on building trust with each other.

Student leader Camille Warner said she worried that students would resist performing vulnerable pieces about their identities, but the group proved eager to explore issues such as race, religion, love, and gender in their poetry.

As my footsteps avoided my own home,
Ashamed of a struggle
I’ve faced forever and never won
Their Eyes searched searched for things
That could try to seal a wound that
Still needed healing
I promised them no more self harm
And actually kept that promise a few weeks later
I bragged about the gift in therapy too
But the hole in my hand is healing
And the scar is ugly
But I remember that my life is beautiful
Because of the people in it
My hand is healing
And I was reminded by very important friends
That maybe I can too.
Why My Friends Bought Me a Shirt with Drake’s Face on It for Valentine’s Day
Warner, Camille

“Prior to starting I thought the most difficult part of the project was going to be getting the students to share,” Warner said. “However, I was completely wrong — the students loved to share. We almost never had a silent moment.”

#HearMeLead used spoken word poetry to help college women develop leadership skills and prepare for professional careers, allowing them to “serve as effective change agents on campus and in their communities,” said Kemmell Watson, UDC’s coordinator of development, outreach, partnerships, and communication and a staff coordinator.

Warner said that she credits the team’s growth to the project advisers.

“At UDC we are lucky to have faculty who are incredibly dedicated and creative,” Warner said. “Your faculty should be open to your suggestions and encourage the members of your student organization to push boundaries and make noise.”

The #HearMeLead team will empower women next year by continuing their spoken word trainings and building upon their collaboration with AAUW. They believe AAUW’s mission and the goals of #HearMeLead align seamlessly.

“AAUW brings women of all walks of life together and creates environments where open discourse is encouraged,” Warner said. “This matches #HearMeLead’s presence as a safe space that the women felt comfortable sharing their stories in.”

UDC is already preparing to establish an AAUW student organization in the fall, which will collaborate with #HearMeLead to offer mentorship and leadership opportunities.

UDC students perform spoken word poetry as part of the #HearMeLead initiative funded by an AAUW CAP grant.

Interested in promoting women’s leadership on your campus? Apply for an AAUW Campus Action Project grant today!

This blog was written by Campus Initiatives intern Theresa Hice Johnson.


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