It was an unusual discussion for a poetry workshop.
As a teaching artist and filmmaker for UN/NGO agencies, I often conduct creative workshops for young poets and artists in NYC on issues related to global development.
It was a summer day in 2010. The particular workshop I was running was a very special one. I had been contacted by a casting director I had worked with about curating a poem/song for a Pepsi Challenge commercial with the young poets at Urban Word NYC. There were eight of us sitting around the workshop table, and I pulled out an article for their writing prompt. It was focused on a news article about a woman who died in childbirth in Sierra Leone. The final song would be used for my MDGFive.com artist platform.
Sean B, a 16 year old poet who was new to my workshops, said, "this sounds like my family's story."
Coming from East New York - from the "hood" - his statement confused me and I had no idea how his New York born-and-raised family could relate to the tragedy of maternal health in Sierra Leone.
"When my moms was pregnant with my brother Rashad," he said, "she was shot in the stomach and nearly died."
The room got unusually quiet. We started asking him more questions and the conversation about a health issue on the Motherland became a deeper conversation about gun violence among women in America. After the discussion, I created a prompt for the poets to write to and they came up with the brlliant poem/song "Life for a Life" that was professionally recorded in a music studio. It aired on MTV.
I share this story because artists and storytellers - who are also women and mothers - are important but often unseen actors in the peace and security movement. We digest stories of pain and loss and tragedy and transform them into often times beautiful and emotional pieces of art. Traveling extensively to shoot short films on issues including women and DDR in South Sudan for UN Women, traumatic fistula in DR Congo for UNFPA, the impact of war on young women in Liberia, Lebanon, Colombia and Northern Uganda for UNFPA and the Women's Refugee Commission and many others, I can tell you that violence against women cuts through almost all of the films I have made. So with my camera and my storytelling skills, I have bore witness - sometimes hours of tearful recounting of trauma - to both an incredible amount of pain from families affected by violence. Thankfully, I have also seen first hand the incredible resiliency so many people around the world - including many young people - who use it to promote a more peaceful planet.
A few years, I met up with Sean B from East New York after not seeing or hearing from her for several years. As a young, talented poet and activist, his life was equally as busy as mine. So, when I saw him at a restaurant we met at before a film screening, I was so excited to see his huge smile. We caught up briefly. I then asked if he wouldn't mind if I shared the story of his brother who was in his mother's womb when she was nine months pregnant with him.
There was an awkward silence.
I thought maybe I didn't have the full story - maybe his brother suffered physical or mental consequences of that incident.
"You didn't hear?" he asked. "He was shot and killed in a Brooklyn playground last year."
While normally not one to cry publicly, my eyes streamed with tears. We talked about how his brother's life began and ended with a bullet.
He gave me a chap book of poems he wrote dedicated to his brother. We and our mutual friend Bekah produced a song together. My favorite line is "Our hearts are made to endure a heart made of oil."
You can listen to his interview and the song here: https://youtu.be/a8x1phSRgzM