Students from Cody High School perform their original poem, "B is for Bankruptcy," at "Detroit Bankruptcy: One Year Later" on Dec. 9. Credit: Courtesy of WDET

In October, students at Cody High School in Detroit were given a special new assignment at their weekly poetry writing workshops with InsideOut Literary Arts Project: Write poetry about the city’s bankruptcy. 

For two sessions, 30 students at Cody worked with Sandra Svoboda, a reporter with local public radio station WDET, to get a crash course on Detroit’s Chapter 9 filing and the historic ruling that ended it a year ago. Inspired by 2013 workshops led by the Off/Page Project in Stockton, California – the largest American city to go bankrupt before Detroit – the students used facts and figures from Svoboda’s reporting to write their own take on the lingering effects of Detroit’s financial woes. This video from WDET offers a peek into the students’ process:

The writing workshops also came with a special opportunity: Six of the students were invited to perform their work at “Detroit Bankruptcy: One Year Later,” a forum hosted on Dec. 9 by the Detroit Journalism Cooperative at Wayne State University. The event was geared as a community discussion on the city’s post-bankruptcy progress, including conversations with local reporters, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

The evening ultimately was cut short by protesters in the audience before Duggan took the stage (read more about what happened at the event from WDET), but not before the students kicked off the evening with their group poem, “B is for Bankruptcy,” in front of the more than 200 attendees. Watch the students’ performance below and read their poem, annotated with the reporting that inspired it here.

 

After the performance, Off/Page caught up with Asia Harris, 16, who has worked with InsideOut since her freshman year. We discussed the workshop, her first time performing, and what it was like using journalism as the foundation for poetry. Responses are edited for length and clarity.

When you heard about the bankruptcy workshop, what was your first thought?

I was really excited because we were going to get to perform in front of the mayor and the governor. That was big. I was also excited to write about my city and to get the word out about bankruptcy.

Was it easy or difficult to write a piece based on journalism?

It was easy. Sandra gave us examples of what we could write about plus all of the numbers on how much debt we’re in and how much we had left to pay off. It really gave me some history about our city. The information was very new to me.

Had you written any poems before about the city’s bankruptcy?

Nope. I usually write about my feelings or things that are going on at home or at school.

How was writing the bankruptcy piece different than writing other types of poems?

Well, doing my own poem, I can have a lot of time to think about all of the things I was to put on the piece of paper. With bankruptcy, we didn’t have a lot of time to do it.

What did you think when the performance was all over?

I was amazed because we had got it done. Like, we worked on that for a week straight, back to back. I had missed one of the sessions because I couldn’t stay after school, and half of the people had learned how to read their lines off-script. So I had one day to learn it off-script and I did.

Do you think that you will use journalism in the future for more of your poetry?

Yeah, I feel more coming ahead that will elevate my mind more. I feel like that was just the beginning.

Niema Jordan is the program manager for the Off/Page Project, The Center for Investigative Reporting's collaboration with Youth Speaks. Her career has included working at Essence magazine, a stint as the assistant director of the Jewish Music Festival and teaching at Youth Radio. Her work has appeared in Ebony, Shareable and Oakland Local. Jordan graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor's in magazine journalism and African American studies, and she is currently working toward master’s degrees in documentary film and public health from the University of California, Berkeley. Jordan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office and Youth Speaks' San Francisco office.