2010 Expressions Talk Up, Not Down Teen Poetry Residency Camp & Hip Hop Poetry Choir – A Powerful Week!
By J. Joy “Sistah Joy” Matthews Alford

Several persons who attended this year’s teen Hip Hop Poetry Choir and others from throughout Prince George’s County have asked about the week-long Expressions Talk Up, Not Down teen poetry residency camp, the week that preceded the 2010 Hip Hop Poetry Choir.  Overall, it was beautiful to witness the growth in the teens after only one week of working with the “support team” dedicated to helping them achieve new levels of communications and life-coping skills.  This year’s support team included 5 adult master poets, a visual artist, a camp director, camp counselor and 4 peer mentors, as well as the Patuxent River 4-H Center staff, all of whom worked with the teens to show them that they are valued members of the camp and of society, and that their voice counts.

What happens at camp

For one week, 37 teens relinquished cell phones, ipods, video games, radio and television, (all electronics), enabling them to get in touch with their “true selves.”  The teens worked in groups as well as one-on-one with the adult poets and with the visual artist each day of the camp.  With a focus on poetry (often as a means to an end) activities were geared to character building, self esteem, public speaking, interpersonal communications, group problem solving and more.  In addition to poetry and creative writing, the camp “curriculum” included introduction to group performance, skits and role playing.  Poetry by some of the classic (historical and hip-hop) poets and spoken word artists was presented to the teens, who were also frequently queried about and asked to expound on the meaning of several philosophical quotes and concepts pertaining to issues such as personal character, integrity and self-esteem.

In addition to working with the poets and artists, the teens were also able to connect with nature by working with the 4-H staff.   The campers participated in outdoors activities such as canoeing and kayaking, archery, rope climbing, nature hikes, slip ‘n slides, and more.  They get to explore different forms of expression vocally, lyrically, theatrically, and (although to a lesser extent), musically.  This year’s camp was particularly effective in combining visual art with the poetry and spoken word components of the camp, allowing the teens to incorporate a variety of approaches and techniques into their creative expressions.

How we do it

Mutual respect is the framework for the entire camp.  While not every story for every teen was a total victory, clearly each of them got to experience what is possible when they are in a safe place and their voice and views are respected.  While they were with us, the teens learned the necessity of making allowances for views and ideas that differed from their own.  They were encouraged to invest their energy and skills in creating group projects and engage in group problem solving.  They learned to value and appreciate different cultures, life-styles, opinions and objectives.  Ultimately the reality emerged— they have a major role and responsibility in defining their own future. As with any sizable group of teens, they struggled to deal with significant life experiences, some of which include grief, loss, abuse, family and interpersonal dynamics, peer pressure, as well as personal trust and integrity.

The teens make it real

The teens were tasked with expressing themselves effectively in different situations; learning how to address conflict and deal with “the unknown,” which often evokes inappropriately extreme or emotional responses, especially when external forces may be adversarial or hostile.  The scenarios were designed to equip the teens to better prepare for life.  Their ability to formulate and express their own views, opinions and ideas, despite apposing views of others, equips them to be confident leaders rather than merely followers.

To see so many of our young people coming to terms with life, and in several instances, changing their self-image (sometimes literally from victim to victor) was beautiful and amazing.  Teens are teens, so clearly the energy and yes, the drama that comes with the turf is always going to be a part of the package.  That, frankly, is to be expected.  The reality is that each of them needs to have something inside that will allow them to get through the challenges of life that lie ahead.  Our greatest task was directing that energy and showing the teens how to channel it for positive outcomes.

Miracles do happen!

Ultimately, God is still on the throne and definitely in the miracle-working business.   This was my fourth year with theExpression Talk Up, Not Down teen residency camp and I pray this opportunity continues for Prince George’s County teens and also for the adults that work with them.  Between the positive bridges that are built and the negative barriers that are broken, this is truly life-changing for everyone involved.

The Hip Hop Poetry Choir is the culminating activity and “public performance” of the camp, which permits the teens to display the results of the hard work they put into their camp experience.  Each year the teens put on an incredible poetry performance at this event.  This year’s performance, which was once again presented at The Bowie Center for the Performing Arts, was exceptional!  On the final day of the camp, parents, siblings, grandparents, neighbors and friends came out and gave that final and essential message of support by showing up and showing love with thunderous applause, hugs, and in a few instances, flowers for the budding artists that made their on-stage debut.  This in many ways validates for the teens that they have reached a new plateau in their growth, not solely as poets, but as emerging young leaders in their society.  What a privilege to witness and be part of these special and critical moments for our teens!

Join us

Be on the look-out for our 5th year anniversary announcement for next summer’s Expressions Talk Up, Not Down camp, and the teens’ performance finale, the 2011 Hip Hop Poetry Choir.  We’d love to have you witness what we already know will be another chance for Prince George’s County teens to show just how incredible they are!

 *The Expressions Talk Up/Not Down teen poetry residency camp and the culminating Hip Hop Poetry Choir are sponsored by The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission Department of Parks and Recreation with additional support provided by the Maryland State Arts Council.  These organizations fund the program 100% without any cost to our teens.


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