Charles Blackwell reads at poem at Ase.
Charles Blackwell reads at Ase. (Courtesy of Youth Spirit Artworks)

An art cart parked on Adeline Street was the first sign that there was an event happening on Saturday, January 26. That night, passersby would have noticed a crowd gathered inside of Youth Spirit Artworks’ Shanice Kiel Gallery. The crowded, well-lit room stood out against the dark streets surrounding it. 

Inside, community members gathered from all over the East Bay to participate in Ase (pronounced ASHAY), Youth Spirit Artworks’ monthly poetry open mic. (Disclaimer: Youth Spirit Artworks is the publisher of Street Spirit.) Paintings hung on the walls in rows, along with African designs flowing across the room on curtains and furniture. The crowd held about 45 people, most of them people of color ranging from 25-to-60-years-old. As individuals shared their poems, the crowd listened quietly. 

One poem was about Native Americans and people of color, and the rights they deserve as human beings. Another was about domestic violence, and a little boy who watched fights in his house between his mom and her boyfriend. Another was about fried chicken, and eating it all day long. 

Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) is a non-profit organization that uses art as a jobs training medium for low-income youth in the East Bay. It has been hosting Ase on the third Saturday of every month since September. The event was founded by Berkeley poet, Charles Blackwell, along with Youth Spirit Artworks Executive Director, Sally Hindman. The inspiration behind the event was to generate a stronger sense of community among young people in South Berkeley. 

“I think [Ase] allows the community to hear the other sides of different express themselves and adults express themselves, and I think it’s good for for their community to hear what they have to say,” said Jimi Evans, a staff member at YSA who was working the event. 

A number of the people who read poetry at the event are youth participants at YSA. For the past year, Charles Blackwell has led a weekly poetry workshops at YSA where he teaches participants to express themselves through poetry. 

One of those people is Greyson Wright, a YSA participant and aspiring poet who MC’d the event in January. Wright has been writing poetry since he was 12 or 13, but has been doing so more regularly since he started attending Blackwell’s workshops.

“You cannot change society if you cannot change yourself”

“Honestly, I am very grateful for YSA and the poetry events. It’s kept me sane and on the right path” said Wright. 

Wright hopes to see more young people at the poetry events, especially youth of color. “We don’t always get a voice, and I think events like this tend to give us voices and make us feel heard. I think it’s very important because the self-esteem of people of color has been destroyed after years and years of racism.”

Greyson Wright reads a poem from his notebook at Ase.
Greyson Wright reads at Ase. (Courtesy of Youth Spirit Artworks)

Blackwell can relate to this shattered sense of self-esteem—and the power of poetry to inspire community engagement. “It is an open mic, we don’t lock anyone in on a theme, but we try to keep it clean cut, nothing degrading. Because we’re trying to help youth with their self-esteem. I used to have poor self-esteem,” he said. 

Blackwell has been writing poetry since 1969, after he lost his eyesight. Prior to pursuing poetry, he painted, and majored in art in college. “I had a second God-given talent of writing poetry, short stories, novels, theatre plays, so I kept doing that. I learned that I needed to mingle with the public to get my work published, which I did” he said. 

Blackwell believes that poetry unites community through understanding other people’s experiences and challenges. “It definitely adds some flavors and cools down the anger, it can build anger too, but it’s mainly used as a catalyst to get people together, as a community, to speak to each other” said Blackwell. 

This was also a theme that came through the poems that were read at the event. One poet, named Mary, shared a poem she had written about Nelson Mandela. As she read her piece, the crowd listened quietly. 

“I learned that courage was not the absense of fear,” she read. “You cannot change society if you cannot change yourself.” 

Sylvia Sawislak is a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. She was previously the Youth Spirit Artworks Street Spirit leader.