Terry Blackhawk teaches Detroit kids the power of poetry through the InsideOut Literary Arts Project

InsideOut Literary Arts Project started out as so many other well-intended projects do: as an idea that didn’t quite seem realistic enough to become reality. Until it did.

It is worth quoting InsideOut founder and director Terry Blackhawk at length here, when she explained the origins of InsideOut in an op-ed for Huffington Post Detroit:

Seventeen years ago, on an otherwise unremarkable summer afternoon, Hollywood filmmaker Bob Shaye changed my life. Shaye, a Detroit native and supporter of my foray into poetry activism with Detroit youth, sent me a letter suggesting that going citywide with my work would be a “supremely valuable cultural goal.” Since he was kind and insistent enough to put his vision in writing, I couldn’t help wondering: What if?

From that question, an amazing answer was born: InsideOut Literary Arts Project, today Detroit’s largest literary arts nonprofit. I presented Mr. Shaye’s Four Friends Foundation with a proposal, which was kindly accepted. Soon thereafter, students in classrooms in five schools chose “InsideOut” from a list of possible names that we, the adults who got the project going, had set our minds to.

I wish I had that original list now, a missing piece of the archive of this experiment based on the notion that poetry could have a remarkable impact on young people — on their souls, their skills, their sense of themselves. It all started on wings of whimsy and imagination — a general sense of gee — what if? — sparked by the energy of Detroit’s youth and lit by the generosity of a benefactor who saw in the work I was doing in my classroom a promise, a spark, something small that had the potential to grow.

Duly named and armed with a generous seed grant, InsideOut began in 1995 in five Detroit high schools. We have grown steadily, one hand over another on this ladder we are climbing, always sensing how easy it would be to slip, slide off, but adding schools, imagining new programs, deepening relationships with principals and teachers, evaluating the work (scientifically!) to show that we are not “just another feel good program,” winning awards (including one from the White House!) recruiting amazing poets to bring the joy and excitement of writing to kids and, finally — through publications and performances — bringing the truths of our youth out into the world. I can still see Monique, a 10th grader at the time, raising her hand after her class had voted to say, “This means we are bringing what is inside of us out into the world through our writing.”

InsideOut places professional writers and poets in Detroit schools to help children give voice to their often turbulent lives through poetry and writing. Since 1995, the organization has served tens of thousands of Detroit students grades K-12 in over 100 different schools. This year they are serving 27 different schools.

For Blackhawk, InsideOut began as a labor of love, and little has changed since it first launched nearly 20 years ago. She has retained the same level of passion and enthusiasm she had from the very beginning, excitedly recapping an experience she had earlier in the day when witnessing a group of third and fourth graders talking about poetry and reciting “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams.

“Here we are in a school with some of the most vulnerable children anywhere,” Blackhawk says. “Just to see how excited they were [about poetry]…they were with [the instructor] every step of the way; everyone’s hands were up and they were generating ideas.”

InsideOut works with a variety of schools, partner organizations, and artists to help inner city schoolchildren find their inner voices with which to express themselves and share their stories, which they then do at performances and events presented by InsideOut.

They have worked with noted local singer-songwriter Audra Kubat, who teaches kids how to write songs. They have presented an anti-bullying program at a school in Oak Park through a grant from Beaumont Hospital. They have partnered with D.C.-based Young Playwrights’ Theatre on a kind of cultural exchange program. They have held programs about diabetes and about the Civil Rights Movement. They have after-school programs, writers workshops, individual mentoring sessions, and public performances. They have also received national attention: InsideOut has twice been recognized by the White House, first in 2009, when First Lady Michelle Obama presented them with the Coming Up Taller award, and again in 2011, when InsideOut students participated in the White House’s Youth Poetry Conference.

At the core of InsideOut is the idea that the words are Inside the children to be brought Out into the community. Through InsideOut programs, children become more competent as writers and as individuals. Blackhawk also says that the kids love it – attendance goes up on poetry day.

“When I go into these classrooms, what the children have to say is so pure and inspiring. Our mission is to help children think broadly and act bravely,” says Blackhawk. “We help children say who they are [through their poetry, to realize their] self-efficacy and self-indentification.”

It hasn’t been easy – programs such as InsideOut are constantly vulnerable to budget cuts, which are ever-constant (especially in financially ravaged Detroit), and Blackhawk says fundraising has always been an issue. InsideOut operates as a vendor under contract with Detroit Public Schools, and the amount the school system can allot to the program decreases every year. They try to make up the difference with fundraising and corporate sponsorships, as well as grants from arts and philanthropic foundations including National Endowment for the Arts, the Skillman Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Knight Foundation.

With the organization going into its twentieth year next year, Blackhawk sees this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the work they do and bring more people into the fold. Blackhawk formed and ran the organization for years with no professional development  staff, just herself, and most of her energy went into programming. Now the InsideOut board is working on a capacity-building grant from the Community Foundation and with Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings to put together a fundraising plan to continually raise their profile.

“We’re getting more energized in terms of the board’s engagement and fundraising [efforts],” says Blackhawk. “Sustainability is such an important issue and this is the time, right now, to make it rock solid. What’s the most feasible way of accomplishing what we want to do? We have accomplished an awful lot on a very limited budget; we serve 5,000 kids [on not even] $200 per child.”

For a deeper look into InsideOut’s poetry programs, check out this Where Poetry Lives spot produced by PBS: