By Charles Blackwell
Alan Laird who once operated Expressions Art Gallery in downtown Oakland, and would also visit inmates on death row at San Quinten Prison in Marin County, had returned to Oakland for a visit from Miami. He requested me to go with him to Youth Spirit Artworks on Alcatraz in Berkeley. Alan had worked on some art projects in the past and introduced me to Sally, the director and Victor Hindman. After a few minutes of conversation with Victor, Alan and I were asked to conduct a session with the youth. We both agreed.
About 25-30 young people attended. Alan and I spoke about life. Not trying to paint a pretty picture, but being real with them. We went from A-Z, prison, politics, love, God, and life’s struggles. They were seriously listening, even telling us, “this isn’t the classroom at school, this is real.” Alan suggested I do a couple of poems and I did. Then towards the end some of the youth presented poems.
A few months later, Sally contacted me and the next thing I knew, I was recruited to conduct writing workshops at the agency. Soon I was doing writing workshops with young adults, homeless youth, and high school students. I was stunned to find out how many young people are homeless. One night Angel Perez, the art instructor, and I went to a shelter in Berkeley, trying to locate one of our clients. It was alarming the number of homeless people there.
One extremely gifted writer, Enera Wilson, who is homeless, writes:
It’s bizarre to believe,
that a man who could not see,
cleared my vision.
This man opened my eyes,
and allowed me to see things in a
Before encountering this young sanctuary
filled with much spirit and many works of
I was deathly afraid of expressing the twisted
thoughts that came to me.
it’s unbelievable to think that a man who
allowed me to realize,
That I was talented beyond what I had ever
Imagined about myself.
I am thankful for the gift that he bestowed
I give thanks to the man whose name is
At YSAW, I use creative writing to confront and convict some of the thoughts which youth today embrace. Its all in an attempt to create the looking glass self. We write about violence, fear, forgiveness, anger, hope, racial hatred, color and love. To move them away from the self-centered world to seeing others, with a concern for various issues; other than self.
After a writing exercise, we have discussions, sometimes provoking them to participate. No matter how intense the discussion, there’s always a note of comedy with Jason Powel Smith and his fried chicken poems:
I saw fried chicken
In somebody’s office And I went past Somebody offer
And I was like ummmmmm!
I always love me that
I’ve conducted writing workshops in prisons and I’ve worked with youth before. I can be very hard line, but this is different. Sometimes these youth really hit my heart. Some stories are about horrible situations with parents, family or circumstances they have no control over. Probably the best way to explain the impact of the YSAW Writing Workshop, maybe summed up in a poem unexpectedly presented in a workshop by Elias Gutierrez:
Crash! The thunder booms in the raging
wind blows me back as I am rushing
back at midnight. Phone dead, no money,
no food, no protection from the rain.
I pray, someone, anyone will let me in.
How can this world be so cold as to
take everything I was, am, and will be,
my future and my history away from
me. As I feel the freeze from my
bones and my fingertips, you cannot see
my tears through the bullet like rain
almost piercing my skin. I am not here
anymore, I do not exist.