The lyrics in a song by female rapper Rhapsody depict the story of a boy who was forced to grow up too quickly and whose life was cut short by violence: “I had dreams and plans, but gave it up to be the man, see. When my father didn’t bother, well, now I’m the man.” Those words served as a starting point for a creative writing workshop presented by Syracuse students to eighth-graders at Expeditionary Learning Middle School (ELMS) in the Syracuse City School District (SCSD) in November 2015. The lesson began with a conversation about poetry—the ways poets and musicians use their words to convey emotion, talk about their lives, and bring important social issues to light. ELMS students then worked in small groups to create their own poems exploring the theme of youth violence, just as Rhapsody does in her song. Throughout the process, Syracuse University mentors provided prompts—“Why should we care about this? What can we do?”—and offered encouragement—“Great question! Good job.” At the end of the hour, students took turns sharing their work. “Be there for each other and stick up for each other,” one young poet read aloud. “Calm people’s anger and change their minds about negativity. Hopefully it works. And it will go on to each person and reduce the violence over the years.”
The team behind the workshop is the 30-member Syracuse University student organization Making Expression and Scholarship Heard (MESH), which was founded in 2009 with the goal of intertwining the voices of Syracuse student writers and artists with those of kids in the city’s schools. Each semester, MESH volunteers offer weekly creative writing or art workshops and one-on-one mentoring at three SCSD middle schools. Student work is published in a literary magazine, complete with a launch event held on campus with students performing their own pieces. “We try to use writing as a source not just to improve students’ literacy skills, which is very important, but also to empower them—to give them a voice in their own lives, to help them discover that voice, and get the confidence through writing to take it outside of the classroom,” says MESH co-president Rachel Brown-Weinstock ’17, a Coronat Scholar majoring in sociology, policy studies, and citizenship and civic engagement.
We try to use writing as a source... to give them a voice in their own lives, to help them discover that voice, and get the confidence through writing to take it outside of the classroom.—Rachel Brown-Weinstock ’17
MESH members also hope to promote post-secondary education for the kids they work with. Toward this goal, they host March to College Day each spring, bringing SCSD students to campus for a workshop series that offers a glimpse of University life. “We want to encourage them to go to college,” says MESH co-president Neha Rauf ’17. “This is one way to help them see that’s really a possibility for them.”
Participation in MESH holds great benefits for the Syracuse students as well. “MESH gave me a place where I found people with similar passions and an opportunity to meet and work with people in the Syracuse community,” says Rauf, a Coronat Scholar majoring in international relations and citizenship and civic engagement. “And the kids mean a lot to me. We try to be a stable presence in their lives. We really love it when we see them get encouraged to share their talents.”
Brown-Weinstock agrees. “The kids are why we do it. They’re so resilient and creative in different ways,” she says. “And their capacity to want to get to know you and build a relationship with you is a really beautiful thing.”