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Warning: The videos and recordings in this piece contain explicit language
April 3, 2017
Strolling past the heavy glass doors of the Des Moines Social Club, it’s common to hear the distant loud roar of a bustling crowd. The Social Club is a venue with the aim of fostering a sense of community by hosting several events throughout the week. On Thursday afternoons, at 3:30 P.M., most of the moderate ruckus travels up the main stairs and around the corner in the handball court. There, the chairs that line the wall are full of students, chattering, laughing and jamming out as music blares from the speakers. This is the home of a passionate poetry club.
Movement 515 starts off their meeting by engaging in a group chant, followed by a discussion and prayer for a local students who had passed.
This energetic scene is typical when kids spend an afternoon with Movement 515, a program available for students of the Des Moines School District that promotes activism through the art of poetry. The program began when Des Moines School District teachers Emily Lang and Christopher Roland (or as the students call them, “Mama Lang” and “Rollo,” respectively) put together the program back in 2010. Ever since, consistent biweekly meetings occur after school, with a Tuesday meeting at their home high schools and a Thursday meeting where the entire district meets at the Social Club downtown.
Movement 515 members stand up to perform their poems
While the handball court of the Social Club is surrounded in concrete barriers, all metaphorical walls come down once these students enter the room.“When we go into that community, it’s a clean slate. You go into this space, and all that is wiped away. All they see is you as a person,” shared Kristin Shirley, a freshman at Roosevelt High School who is new to the club.
In agreement with Shirley is Lincoln High School senior Miavliag Lee, who explained, “I come every Thursday because it’s a safe space, it’s a good place for release. You don’t have to look for acceptance, you’re already accepted.” Lee joined the club three years ago and diligently attends the weekly sessions. “Just the sense of having each other is inspiring to me because you feel like you’re never going to be alone. You always have someone to fall back to.” She continued, “It’s definitely been a journey, I’ve always had pain and never any way to release it, just holding it in. My journey has almost been a redemption. I’m on a journey to finding myself, and it’s just been eye-opening.”
Movement 515 member and North High School senior La’Shon Allen has been a part of the family since the very first day. “I’ve watched the movement grow. I feel like this is me visiting my family every day,” expressed Allen, who has been a prominent member of the 515 family since 6th grade. “I started connecting with people in the group after I was able to really talk to them about stuff I wasn’t able to talk with anyone else about.”
Allen’s first time speaking in front of the entire district was a monumental moment for them, as well as the rest of 515. “When I first came out of the closet, I came out to them. I didn’t come out to anyone else,” Allen informed. “I was really struggling with it. And at that point, not a lot of people were really writing about sexuality. It was a big deal. I remember shaking.” That particular Thursday, the daily prompt was ‘write about something that has been weighing down on you.’ This felt like,‘okay, this is the time that I need to do it.’ I just got so much love and support,” explained Allen.
Movement 515 members stand up to perform their poems
The most recent topic that most of their poems have focused on the theme, “Take a Chance.” Based off Grammy-winning artist, Chance the Rapper, the whole concept it to express yourself and take more chances. “Last week, at Roosevelt, they gave us all his songs; and we could only use the titles, also known as blackout poetry, to make our own poems,” informed Shirley.
“At the same time, [the prompts] aren’t required. So if you don’t feel any inspiration to write about those, then you can probably write about something else in your life,” said Mathilda Keith, Roosevelt freshman and 515 member. The entire club is mainly based off the belief that kids should express themselves without restraints. While prompts and topics are available, students are encouraged to follow in Allen’s footsteps when it comes to opening up about their innermost thoughts.
“We are the next generation.We need to not let our voices be shushed,” shared Shirley about her opinions which she had recently written about. Shirley’s close friend, Roosevelt junior Meredith Mansueto, also voiced her opinions through a piece called “Things They Don’t Tell You at Freshman Orientation.” Mansueto recited, “Nowhere in Biology are they gonna tell you why you inhale oxygen and exhale apologies. No one is gonna explain to you about anxiety. No one’s gonna tell you about eating disorders or depression or how much worse it gets in high school. No one’s going to tell you that you don’t have to lie to fit in.”
Lincoln High School freshmen Devon Walker wrote about the struggles of finding romance in the sea of over 2,400 students that attend Lincoln. “How do I describe it? It was pretty much, ‘Why don’t I have a boyfriend?’ It was basically about searching for your prince charming and going through all these obstacles to get there,” mentioned Walker. A majority of the members in 515 have opened up to the group about painful topics in their life. “I still struggle a lot from not having my father in my life so just finally being able speak about it, and just crying about it even when I’m performing it and having everyone be there for me,” revealed Lee.
Adolescent activism is not only promoted, it’s applied and shared with the public. Whether it’s through their weekly “safe shares” and “brave shares” or in front of thousands of Des Moines citizens, the students are offered multiple opportunities to share their work. “A safe share is when you have a small group of people and you share anything you’ve written about. You can choose a topic that’s sometimes provided or you can just write what you feel you need to get off your chest,” said Keith, “A brave share is when you share it to the entire community, like in Thursday workshops when there is everyone in the room.”
Many of these young poets are striving for an even more ambitious goal than the brave share. Allen, along with 515 members Maddie Johnson and Jalesha Johnson, spoke in front of Des Moines capitol building on January 21st for Des Moines’ Women’s March. Allen shared their favorite poem out of their extensive collection. “I ended up writing a poem making objectification into an object. It was my favorite poem,” Allen stated, “It was 26,000 people, and it was dope!”
Along with performing at the Women’s March, 515 poets participate and compete in poetry slams in cities like Washington D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia. 515 also hosts local poetry slams like their tri-yearly “Share the Mic,” where they donate all proceeds to non-profits. According to Run DSM’s website, the organization has given away $12,000 in the past five years.
Share the Mic holds fond memories for Lincoln senior James Reasby. His first time sharing the mic “I went up there kind of scared because part of my poem I had my hood up. I was really scared, and I didn’t wanna take my hood down. I did anyway, and at the end, everybody was like, “That was so great!” I was really surprised,” Reasby admitted. Lee also had a positive experience with her first share, which also happened to be her first time coming to Thursday workshops. “I had no idea I was going to share that day… and I did. The reaction I got from the crowd [made me think] ‘Wow! Y’all really like my poetry? Y’all think I’m good?’”
The whole community is focused on loving and accepting each individual that walks through the door. “They give me courage to just do stuff, it’s just a great support system when I didn’t really have anywhere else to go,” said Allen. In fact, Allen even stated that while it’s technically classified as a club, 515 is more of a family than any other thing they’ve taken part in. “It’s for anyone who loves poetry, or anyone who loves being a family. Mama Lang and Rollo are really good about making you feel welcome. All the other mentors do too, even from schools you don’t go to, from schools that clash on the sports field,” expressed Keith, “They make you feel like a human being.”
Two years ago, when Mansueto came to her first 515 meeting, she was just a shy freshman. “I had heard so many bad things about the kids from East and North and Hoover, and then they came in, and they were the first people to welcome me with open arms,” explained Mansueto, “You leave your rivalries at the door when you come here. You come in and you’re a community, you’re a family, you’re a squad. That’s really what I value about this place.”
Movement 515 members stand up to perform their poems
Reasby also joined just two years ago, when he was a sophomore. “I didn’t really do much. All I did was sports. So everybody saw me as the big sports guy, like a big mean guy. Like they don’t ever think ‘he does poetry too.’” Now, Reasby is able to release the pain after being a victim of bullying during the majority of his childhood. “Everybody’s been through something. I’ve been through a lot, everybody’s been through a lot. I just want everybody to feel safe,” mentioned Reasby.
Especially in such a innovative and outspoken generation, a program such as Movement 515 could benefit Waukee High School, at least according to Lee, who happens to be a former student at Waukee.“Waukee definitely needs some sort of release like we have here with Movement 515. I encourage the students to come and check us out,” she shared.
Each school groups together to compete for who can write the best poem based on the prompt they are presented. Miavliag Lee, followed by several other of her fellow 515 members, shares her poem based on the prompt “High School.”
“People who are going through certain situations don’t get to have a voice, so I try my best to be that voice,” expressed Allen. While Movement 515 is limited to the Des Moines School District only, their mantra and their beliefs are something they hope to spread all across the world. Because, as the Movement believes, “Say it Loud, Say it Clear.”