Des Moines organzation aims to improve literacy

December 5, 2013 6:14 AMComments Off

Story by Avery Gregurich

It sounds like the basis of a feel-good movie.

Two energetic and impassioned young educators come together to create a non-profit organization that aims to promote literacy and leadership in the youth of underrepresented communities.

For teachers Kristopher Rollins and Emily Lang, though, this is not the product of a Hollywood script.

It is reality.

The duo has collaborated to found the Des Moines-based non-profit RunDSM. RunDSM aims to improve literacy in students and create youth leaders through its five distinct programs.

One program is Movement 515, a weekly creative writing workshop held at North High School that combines the act of writing with performance. Another is the DSM Teen Slam, an annual spoken-word poetry contest featuring students from across Des Moines’ public school system.

The two educators also teach three classes under the RunDSM umbrella.

Minorities on the Move is a two-week summer course in which minority students share their personal experiences. The course moves to different locations in Des Moines and holds attached classes at Drake University.

Urban Leadership 101 is taught at Des Moines’ Central Campus. The course aims to educate students about becoming social activists and leaders in urban communities. It is open to all high-school students in Des Moines Public Schools.

Hip-Hop: Rhetoric and Rhyme is a course taught to eigth grade students at Warren G. Harding Middle School. By exploring the history of human experience through a social justice lens, the course informs students of the link between past and present.Starting Out

The genesis of RunDSM can be traced back to a spoken-word poetry reading called Share The Mic that the two organized at The Ritual Café three years ago. That night, students read pieces written by others to a “packed house,” Lang said.

This event got the proverbial ball in motion, but after attending the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival in San Francisco that summer, the two were entirely convinced.

“It really sparked a fire in us,” Rollins said. “We thought that we have got to get our kids involved in this.”

The two saw the festival as a platform for people to look beyond the stereotypes surrounding today’s youth.

“There’s so much of a negative stigma with our youth today that they don’t care or they’re apathetic or education isn’t for them,” Rollins said. “You go to that festival and you see quite the opposite.”

“The following summer, we took a team of kids just to witness,” Lang said. “Last summer, we took the first team from Iowa to ever compete in this festival.”

The student poets that made up the team came from the Movement 515 creative writing workshop and the first annual DSM Teen Slam.

The three classes the two orchestrate together have all been created out of the glaring need the two saw for more modern approaches for students to express understanding.

“We are trying to remix traditional means for students to showcase comprehension and understanding,” Rollins said.

“We look at everything through a social justice lens and teach our kids to question everything that they read,” Lang said.

This means that no subject matter is off limits in their classes.

“We blur the traditional line between teacher and student,” Lang said. “You have to be able to have these kids see you as a real person and be comfortable enough to come to you.”

“We don’t hide anything from them, and we don’t sugarcoat anything,” Rollins added.

This honest relationship has allowed for their students to express their real opinions freely, sometimes for the first time in their academic careers.

“They have solutions that they know will work in their communities, but they are often the last people that ever get asked,” Lang said.

Looking forward

RunDSM has a busy holiday season planned, with next year looking like a landmark year for the non-profit organization.

As part of the East Village Holiday Promenade, Domestica has printed 8×10 prints featuring student poetry.

These prints are being sold for $5 apiece with the proceeds going towards the travel expense for the group’s trip to the 2014 Brave New Voices festival.

On December 9, RunDSM has partnered with Drake University and the “I Have A Dream” Foundation to bring the film “American Promise” to the Fleur Cinema. The film will have two free showings, with a panel discussion between youth and community members occure in between.

On Dec. 11, East High School will host a Movement 515 show at 7 p.m. Admission will be $5.

The New Year will also bring a new event into the RunDSM canon.

The first annual two-day Teen Summit will be held on Jan. 24 and 25.

“It’s going to be like a mini Brave New Voices,” Lang said. “175 students from across the district are going to come together and have conversations about social issues.”

The festival will have a youth and community panel and will also hold workshops in spoken word poetry, graffiti, street art and break dancing. The festival will conclude with a large performance consisting of the various aspects of the Summit.

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