Creative writing summer camp for Inland teens to focus on fighting racism


By Rachelle Cruz

Contributing columnist

“You don’t know that you’ve opened so many doors in my writing career. Yes, career. I plan on keeping it that way.”

Rachelle Cruz is the literary laureate for the Inlandia Institute. (Photo courtesy of Rachelle Cruz)

One of my students wrote this to me after our first creative writing summer institute in 2018.

I was flattered, but this student was whipsmart, confident and passionate about creative writing even before I worked with her. She simply needed a safe community in which to write and express herself. And that’s where Poetry Is Power: Teen Institute comes in.

Free summer writing and reading programs at the public library saved me as a teen, a daughter of Filipino immigrants and a latchkey kid with a journal from the discount bin at Borders bookstore.

I searched for free creative writing programs for teens in the Inland Empire but found none. In summer 2018, I founded Poetry Is Power: Teen Institute to serve young people in the Inland Empire, especially those from low-income families of color.

As an educator with no summer plans to teach, I wanted to give back what was given to me as a young person. I raised money on GoFundMe, an online crowdfunding platform, for school supplies, healthy meals for the young writers and printing fees for their anthologies. We held our first Poetry is Power program at Cellar Door Books in Riverside, shelves of books and supportive booksellers surrounding us.

Our writing institute was small but fierce. I’ll never forget the dads holding back tears as they watched their children perform their original work. I’ll never forget watching family members flip through the anthologies, seeing their students’ names and poems published in a book. A book!

In 2018, I was appointed the Inlandia literary laureate, a position that allows me to organize, curate, and provide community access to literature and literary programming in the Inland Empire region. I was excited to expand Poetry Is Power: Teen Institute with the support of Inlandia Institute, a literary non-profit organization based in Riverside,

In 2019, I added a mentorship component with junior faculty, who are current undergraduate and graduate students interested in learning and honing their skills as educators. These faculty members spent a week in professional development sessions, learning how to co-teach, collaborate and create meaningful lesson plans based on social justice, identity and self and community expression. These faculty members also developed lessons on performance and hybrid poetic forms like comics-poetry and more.

With the guidance of mentor and junior faculty members, our youth poets explored freewriting, concrete imagery, sensory detail, metaphor and simile. They wrote with sheer honesty and vulnerability about their great-grandmothers, the beauty of their eyes and living and surviving through multiple surgeries. They wrote from photographs and their memories. They experimented with the hybrid form, comics-poetry.

They read and performed in small, intimate groups, and in front of the entire crowd at our open mics. They bonded with their mentors, and they revised their poems to get to the heart of their work. The summer institute culminated in a public reading and a published anthology of their work.

Alongside Inlandia Institute, we had planned for another in-person teen institute this year. Then COVID-19 hit, and everything was either canceled or moved online. For the safety of our faculty and students, we are going to operate virtually, which will give us a chance to both serve young people in the Inland Empire and all over the country.

In late May, the unjust killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other African Americans in this country at the hands of police were brought to light. Black Lives Matter, once again, became a rallying cry of black Americans and their allies. State-sanctioned murder of black people in this country isn’t history; it’s an ongoing, almost daily, occurrence — recorded on video or not.

The cover of the 2019 anthology for the Poetry is Power teen workshop. (Photo courtesy of Rachelle Cruz)

As your literary laureate, I stand with Black Lives Matter. I published a statement of solidarity with black families, black youth, black queer folks, black poets, black writers and black artists. Many organizations and companies published these kinds of statements, but I am adamant about following this statement through with tangible action.

This summer, we will be adopting “This Book is Anti-Racist,” a workbook on race and anti-racism for young people, by Tiffany Jewell (with illustrations by Aurelia Durand) for both professional development and practical application with our youth participants. Each member of Poetry is Power, faculty and students, will receive a copy of “This Book is Anti-Racist.” I’m happy to report that the publisher is donating 100% of earnings made in June to Black Lives Matter and Color of Change, organizations dedicated to combating white supremacy and uplifting black lives.

This summer’s programming will be dedicated to cultivating conversations on how to take anti-racist actions and write poems that reflect these experiences. Poetry is Power has always reflected the voices of writers of color, and we will continue to do so this summer.

I think of what poet, educator, and founder of Poetry For the People, June Jordan, wrote: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

We are here. Our young people are here. It’s going to be a mighty summer, a mighty future.

Rachelle Cruz is the literary laureate for the Inlandia Institute and founder of Poetry Is Power: Teen Institute.


What: Young people, ages 12 to 17, can sign up at tinyurl.com/poetryispower.

When: Program dates are July 7, 9, 10 and July 14, 16, 17. Meeting time is 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sessions will be conducted with Zoom and Google Classroom.

Contributions: Contact Cruz, litlaureate@gmail.com. Donations will cover guest speaker fees, books and postage for sending books to youth poets.

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