Eighteen-year-old Unique Hughley (top row, second from left) of Kansas City, Mo., wrote a poem inspired by a demonstration in Ferguson on Aug. 16. Credit: sangerrmimi/Instagram

The fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown has extended well beyond the borders of Ferguson, Missouri. The events unfolding in the wake of Brown’s shooting have sparked debate on a litany of issues that affect communities across the country: from racism and poverty to increasingly militarized law enforcement agencies.

And as a black college-bound teenager, Brown has a story that is sadly familiar to many young people of color – another life cut short by violence.

One of those young people is 18-year-old Unique Hughley of Kansas City, Missouri, who wrote a poem inspired by a demonstration in Ferguson on Aug. 16. Here’s what he wrote in response to what he witnessed with dozens of others on Ferguson’s streets:

We watch acts of peace
get chopped into pieces by axes
and we act as if the world
spins on an axis of silence,
our peaceful protest turn to violence.
They censor our peace,
put sensors by our feet
they prepare for war,
they wanna rip us apart
take part in our destruction
spilled blood becomes an art,
their canvas will be the STL arch.
Police cars parked inside of parks
waiting for the child to become too old to slide
and decide to reside at the age of 18
then he becomes victim of the Utopian lies
then we cry
way before the tear gas.

Hughley’s line “they prepare for warparticularly resonates with findings from The Center for Investigative Reporting’s examination of how local police forces have become more militarized. In 2011, CIR revealed how $34 billion in federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security helped law enforcement agencies purchase an array of war-ready gear. And as CIR highlighted in 2012, local police also have procured heaps of free military surplus through a Defense Department program. Facial recognition and high-tech surveillance are on the rise, too.

Drawing these connections between art and journalism while providing a platform for young people to investigative issues that affect their communities is at the core of the Off/Page Project, CIR’s collaboration with Youth Speaks. Hughley’s poem is a prime example of how we want to approach issues like those raised in Ferguson, providing a lens through which young people can discuss themes that are critical to their well-being and frequently go underreported.

Hashtags like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown have been powerful in creating a social media sounding board for young people of color. Now, Off/Page wants to dive even deeper into the issues at play in Ferguson and how they relate to your experiences, in your community, in your own words.

We’re looking for original poetry from young people that reflects how the events in Ferguson resonate with them. Whether you’re on the ground in Missouri or following the events online from afar, we want to hear what you have to say. Here’s how you can participate:

  1. Write an original poem inspired by the following prompts: How do the events in Ferguson, Missouri, compare to what you experience in your own community? What does it mean to feel safe in your community?
  2. Upload either the text of your poem or a YouTube video link of your performance your poem through the form below.
  3. Encourage friends to do the same through social media. Be sure to tag us:@OffPageProject.

All submissions are encouraged to cite sourced materials related to community demographics, crime statistics, data on police militarization and shootings, and other facts that convey how Ferguson compares with your area. Here’s a brief list of resources and articles curated by CIR that can help you tell your story:

We’ll gather submissions and publish selections through the Off/Page Project and share them through social media to spark more conversation. If you have questions on the prompts or submission process, email me at jvadi@cironline.org.

José Vadi is the project director of the Off/Page Project, a collaboration between The Center for Investigative Reporting and Youth Speaks. Since the age of 19, José has served as a poet mentor for Youth Speaks, the nation’s leading literary nonprofit. A two-time National Poetry Slam champion, José has coached several college and youth slam poetry teams to national competitions, including the 2008 and 2010 Bay Area Youth Speaks teams featured in the HBO documentary series, Brave New Voices. He was the recipient of the San Francisco Foundation’s Shenson Performing Arts Award for his debut play, A Eulogy for Threeproduced at Intersection for the Arts under the curation of Marc Bamuthi-Joseph’s Living Word Festival. Since 2010, José has served as the editor and curriculum developer of The Bigger Picture, an anti-diabetes multimedia campaign sponsored by UC San Francisco’s Center for Vulnerable Populations.