“Today I will be reciting my poem, ‘The Mind of a White Cop,'” said James LeVan, 16, as he introduced his work during the closing ceremony of the Teen Leadership Program at the Fatima Family Center in Cleveland. LeVan recited in a deep, law enforcement voice:
Oh no! 6 black kids doing the same handshake
I should probably call for backup
No, I could just shoot them and say it was “self-defense”
I’ll be in jail a night or two but I’ll be off eventually
It’s a nice feeling to know I can get away with anything
One by one, the remaining 32 participants walked to the front of the gym to recite poems and read essays they created over the summer. Fatima Center Director LaJean Ray smiled broadly from the sidelines.
The facility, nestled in Cleveland’s historic Hough neighborhood, has become an anchor institution over its 30 years. A new building, dedicated in 2000, was designed by renowned Cleveland architect Robert Madison. It contains gardens, kitchens, an early learning center, a youth summer camp, a game room, a library and a computer center. Fatima launches field trips and provides tutoring, parenting and GED classes. It also offers free clothing, health screenings and food.
This year, the summer teen leadership program added an Anisfield-Wolf component: a concentration on the work and life of poet Langston Hughes. The students, aged 14-18, followed a packed schedule: weekly trips to local colleges and visits to business and government offices, including a stop at the mayor’s and a chat with the chief of police. This was the only summer program in Cleveland to pay teens a $350 stipend, thanks to Ray’s collaboration with Youth Opportunities Unlimited.
Starting last winter, Summer Institute Director Apryl Buchanan worked with Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, to present a roster of guest faculty. Current and former Plain Dealer columnists Philip Morris and Margaret Bernstein discussed their careers as journalists and community activists while author Afi Odelila-Scruggs introduced “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and led the students in composing beats for Hughes’ work “Dream Boogie.” Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University, led a discussion of Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” and familiarized students with the common application used on many campuses..
I had the good fortune to serve as a speaker, discussing how I’ve used social media to build a career. As a writing exercise, I asked students to craft a few paragraphs on what they wanted their lives to look like in 10 years – in the voice of themselves a decade hence. Many described careers and families that inspired me. Students were curious, courteous and inviting, and it became clear that the Fatima summer institute was making headway. I felt right at home with these future leaders.
“They may not appreciate it yet,” Ray cautioned parents at the closing ceremony. “But they will. They’re good kids. They’ll understand later.”