The She Poets drumming; Nancy Umanzor, Stephanie Upshur, Miya Nashone Upshur-Williams, Shayna Baggatts-Porter, Kristen Arant, Treasure Chapman, and Naudy Martinez.
A year ago at this time, I was awaiting a letter from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and trying to prepare for what could be an incredible opportunity to start a summer program called the Young Women's Drumming Empowerment Project (YWDEP). Anxiety and excitement kept me up nights waiting -- questions -- how much work would this really take? Could i really relate well to teenage girls from DC? I had spent the last 4 years working as an organizer in the labor movement and the peace movement, for a local 3rd party governmental organization, and for the Rhythm Workers Union - a rhythm and music-based activist group I helped to start, and for which I eventually became the primary organizer and artistic director after several years of commitment. In December 2004, I decided to take on a full-time job as a manager of a dance studio in DC thinking it would be low maintenance enough for me to have time and resources to get the vision off the ground.
Treasure Chapman's stunning performance of the original blues song "No Sympathy," written and performed by the She Poets.
The grant finally came through in February - $3460. I began by reaching out to local organizations that work to empower youth (and especially those working with girls), along with boys and girls clubs and schools. I started to get some bites, and began putting together an application for interested young women.
The basic premise of YWDEP was to bring together young women in DC across racial and economic lines, and show them how to do what has empowered me the most in my life, which is play the Djembe - a West African drum - along with other drums and percussion to accompany. Meanwhile I wanted to give them a safe space to really bring out their visions, experiences, emotions and opinions through poetry, song and movement. So I gathered together about 6 of my best colleagues - excellent DC-based female artists - and organized a schedule. We would meet every Saturday through the summer for a workshop, and build a performance for the end of the year.
This brings me to the point of this blog entry - which is to describe my fascination and amazement at the result of this vision. The young women who became the core group of performers (6 total - who call themselves the "She Poets of the Rizing Moon") are talented, ingenious, sensitive and largely committed despite the insanity of their teenage lives. They are ages 14-18; 3 have begun their first year of college this year but still remain involved. Basically, after about 12 weeks of workshops, myself and the staff of YWDEP stepped out of their way and what emerged was their very own set list of original songs and poems, coupled with the African rhythms and drumming. The combination manifested a unique, fantastic performance. Audience members were floored, and we've performed at 8 separate venues since then, including a 1-hour-long radio show performance on the local Pacifica station.
The girls are starting to get a little burned out now and we're taking a break. Meanwhile though - I've got 3 grants in the oven and another I'm working on. Next year, the She Poets will mentor a new group of girl members, and we'll have two fabulous interns to help make the process even smoother. We've also added 3 more female artists to the workshop schedule, and have 3 other committed staff members - one of whom has dedicated herself to the creation and maintenance of our website and accounting.
Again - excitement and anxiety abounds as this project has taken on a life of its own. My job now, is to keep up, keep the energy flowing, and most importantly, keep the safe space open and ready for the powerful voices and hands of these fabulous young women. We need all the support we can get though - please visit our website at www.youngwomendrum.org to learn more about how to get involved. Recruiting starts in February.
Peace and RHYTHM!
Founder, Young Women's Drumming Empowerment Project