Ask a group of middle school students what music they like to listen to and you might anticipate answers like Megan Thee Stallion, Drake, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles. I asked the young people from LinkSTL's Summercamp at Clay Community Resource Center (CCRC) what song they'd like to listen to during their last workshop and the consensus: Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come.
"Let's listen to Born by the River," says a twelve-year-old.
Others second the suggestion, "Yeah, Born by the River." A couple children start singing the first lines, "I was bo-o-orn by the river…" Another young person starts talking about the first time they heard the song, telling the class, "My grandma played me this song."
"Does everyone here know this song?" I ask the class.
"Yeah," they reply with an undertone of, "Of course."
2015 was the fifty-year anniversary of A Change Is Gonna Come. It was also the year that Steve Handoyo and I founded YourWords STL, with the help of Eileen G'Sell, Jennifer Rengachary, and Sarah Vehige. If you were to look up our profile pictures, you'd see that not one of us is Black. Yet, the protests surrounding the killing of a young Black man, Michael Brown Jr., motivated us to amplify the voices of St. Louis youth. Like every human, we all had our own stories.
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, a city that couldn't be farther from the homes of my grandparents. While growing up, my father, a Filipino immigrant, had nightmares about starving and running from soldiers. My grandmother survived World War II by "playing dead" until the Japanese soldiers left their camp, leaving her three daughters, who didn't survive, in my grandmother's arms. I don't know the music of my grandmother, but the single time I was able to meet her, she was around five feet tall, skinny, smiling, and she loved holding on to me, her then seven-year-old granddaughter. She also drank whisky and smoked cigars, sometimes backwards, lit-end in her mouth, as a sort of party trick. My grandfather survived the war but died when my father was thirteen, from what my father would describe as a lack of access to adequate healthcare. My grandparents didn't attend high school but their oldest son, my father, graduated from medical school.
My grandmother's story is one that I can't, as in I'm unable, to take for granted. Although, admittedly, at age twelve, I would have asked to listen to Paula Abdul. The young people who attend workshops and tutoring at CCRC are, however, acutely aware of their grandmother's stories. They live with the loss of fathers, uncles, cousins, and siblings from gun violence or, more recently, COVID-19.
In workshops, students brainstorm together then work individually. If they want, they share their work aloud. Every piece receives applause, a reward for putting their thoughts and feelings on paper and allowing others to hear their words. This simple act entails more courage than I usually have, yet it's also the basis of YWSTL workshops. I shine a light on a radiograph of my Gen-X self only long enough to contrast with examples of some Gen-Z wisdom.
"I am afraid to leave this world and in heaven is God and great power
but I want to live my life and grow old.
I am waiting for my brother to come back to his family..." - Cuddle, age 11
"We are a basketball but the hoop is the heart.
We are blazing with the fire in our hearts.
We are smart but knowledge is in our hearts..." - Jeremiah, age 12
"The Collective Affirmations
I want to be happy
I want for society to see deeper than my beautiful black skin
I want to eat an entire Lobster (I’ve never had one before)
I want happiness & adventure
I want to sit next to my abuela, cousins, brother, and my dad and have a good meal.
I want to find my inner happiness again…
I want to make a lasting impact on the world
I want to be a pro-hooper or an artist
I want to wake up in the morning and not worry about the future
I want the heights of the mountains and the depths of the oceans.
I want for us to LIVE, REALLY LIVE and not just exist."
- Dreambuilders 4 Equity Summer Academy, ages 16 to 18
YourWords STL has seen changes this past year. Due to funding needs and staff shortage, Marygrove Children’s Home had to close both of their transitional residences. Heartbreakingly, all of the young people we served at Marygrove had to move to various other housing arrangements. At the same time, St. Louis University's School of Education invited us to join Clay Community Resource Center, where the former Clay Elementary School was housed. Working alongside several other nonprofits, SLU, and SLPS, we'll provide afterschool and summer tutoring and workshops for North City residents. And we are thrilled that Kyah Bridges, graduate of the Brown School of Social Work, is our new Tutoring Coordinator!
View of McKinley Bridge from YWSTL's Tutoring and Workshops room at Clay Community Resource Center at 3820 N. 14th St. St. Louis, MO 63107.
In addition to our Dreambuilders 4 Equity Summer Academy Writing and Presenting Workshops, Washington University MARC U-STAR Narrative Writing classes, Missouri Arts Council Gardening and Writing Workshops, CCRC Tutoring and Writing Workshops, and Tutoring at Urban Strategies Renaissance, we are continuing our collaborative projects, working with Loyola Academy and St. Louis Priory this year. Thanks in part to grants from the Arts and Education Council, Caleres Cares, and St. Louis Philanthropic Foundation, we were able to hire James Sykes as our part-time Collaborative Projects Coordinator. James is a recent fellow of the Education Equity Center and Forward Through Ferguson, and is the Special Projects Coordinator of the St. Louis City Treasurer’s Office.
DB4E Summer Academy Poetry Slam at Webster Arts Gallery
Last but not least, after almost eight years as YWSTL's Executive Director Steve Handoyo has transitioned to our Board of Directors as Treasurer. Loretta Graham, Eula Wiggins, and Chelsea Trotter are passionate new Board members. And in the upcoming weeks, we'll be able to officially announce our new Operations Director!
As I go into my eighth year as YourWords STL's Program Director, I am surrounded by volunteers, teachers, staff, board members, and students whose stories will persist longer than many MTV hits. Steve's idea of starting a tutoring and writing organization answered my own insistent and urgent need to do more, in protest of the inequities I saw in my hometown. In the upcoming years, YWSTL will continue to amplify the voices of those who are marginalized, by race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, or abilities. This Giving Tuesday, please support our work by donating here.
Anna Ojascastro Guzon
Co-founder, Program Director