The inaugural group --- comprised of more than a dozen students and staff moderators --- met, brainstormed, and discussed over weeks --- then cast a vote.
"They voted on the Spoken Word Poetry Competition as being the best way to engage our school around the topics of racism, inclusion, and celebrating differences," says Liat Benzacar, Student Wellness Officer at St. Michael's College School (SMCS), and one of the moderators of the school's Diversity, Anti-Racism, and Equity Student Engagement team formed this academic year.
"The students saw this as an opportunity to showcase a spectrum of voices and experiences (Grades 7-12) in a way that allowed for creative expression while considering ways to connect with and inspire one another in an online platform," she says. The overarching goal of the student engagement team, Benzacar adds, is to actively address racism wherever it occurs --- inside and outside the school building.
And so, with that, the first Spoken Word Poetry Competition at SMCS took flight.
Open to students in every grade, the contest invited submissions with specific criteria, namely: 200 to 250 words of original content illustrating creativity, care, and empathy, and void of profanity --- all delivered in 45 to 60 seconds. Entrants also had to provide their spoken word work in both written and video format.
"Entries were judged based on creativity and style, performance, and relevance to the chosen theme," says Benzacar.
The top three finishers were announced in June.
"As a group, we were collectively blown away by the range of entries, originality, and the personal touch of contestants (both in their own experience of and/or in bearing witness to inequity)," adds Benzacar. "Each contestant delicately and passionately painted clear images for their listeners that evoked a great deal of emotion… an awakening of their lived realities. If you ever doubted for a moment that our young people are impacted by and/or engaging with these topics meaningfully, all you need to do is have a read or listen."
Here, in their own words, are reflections from the first, second, and runner-up entrants of the first SMCS Spoken Word Poetry Competition:
LUKE REBELLO, Grade 7 - One of two runners-up
"I took part because I think that there should be people in this world who put out these important messages and I had a perfect opportunity to do exactly that so I did my poem!
I put my entry together by thinking about this racism issue, and I thought a lot about George Floyd and how he was unjustly killed, and it kind of formed the poem in my head, as I thought about these things.
I learned that there are always opportunities to say what you think about matters and what you think about when you see someone getting made fun of for their colour or culture. I also learned that it doesn't really matter about what's on the outside, what really matters is what is what's on the inside!
Thanks to those who ran this poem contest because it really gave me an opportunity to have my say against racism."
MWANYUMBA NG'ANG'A, Grade 12 - Second place
"This competition was the perfect opportunity for me to express my thoughts and feelings about social injustice in a creative form outside conventional social media. I also felt the issues of this contest directly affected my life and loved the opportunity to express my thoughts without social media's tethered performative activism.
I heard about this competition from my friend Joseph and started thinking about what exactly I wanted to say. Shortly after my encounter with Joseph, I lay in bed late in the night, unable to sleep, and felt this sudden, invigorating inspiration and flow almost knocking me off the bed. I grabbed my phone and started writing down my thoughts, and shortly after I had my first draft.
I learned about some of my classmates’ first-hand experiences in the face of social injustice."
PETER HAILE, Grade 12 - First place
"This contest allowed me to share my perspectives on what it's like to be a black man in today's culture. Coming from a low-income background and adjusting to a new setting like St. Mike's, it fuelled my desire to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by a black man attempting to succeed in life.
To tell you the truth, I was stumped for words. But I only spoke from the heart and from my own personal experiences. I sat for hours trying to come up with something to write about. Until I remembered all of the difficulties and obstacles I had as a black man was the whole idea of this contest.
I discovered that I can have a voice in a community where I previously felt out of place.
I wanted to be the one to create that change and bring hope to the youth who were told they couldn't be who they wanted to be due to their skin tone.
Throughout my years at school, as a House Captain and member of the African-Canadian Youth Group, I tried to create a culture of change within the school to represent people of colour more. I hope younger students of colour at St. Mike's become proud of their identity in a new environment and be who they set out to become! Hopefully, I left the mark I desired when entering the school --- as I leave such a great place."
Several SMCS Spoken Word Competition contestants will showcase their work during CLUB BLUENOTE, June 15 and 16, 2021.