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Kansas City Students Are Creating Art Inspired By KCUR's 'The Argument'

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Nikia Porter and Jaden Nelson were shy at first but their performances got a thumbs up from writer Nathan Louis Jackson.

There's no doubt that violence can have a profound impact on young people. But accessing feelings doesn't always come easy.

Toward that end, the Kansas City Public School District has created a special class at Central Academy of Excellence to give students an opportunity to create an artistic expression that might unlock hidden feelings about violence.

Academic coach Charlette Wafer selected 10 high school students to write poetry, music or dramatic pieces this semester inspired by KCUR's ongoing series The Argument, which explores motives behind Kansas City's spike in homicides in 2016. 

Derald Davis, assistant superintendent of the Kansas City Public School District, says he knows not every student will have a first-hand experience with violence.

"It doesn't have to be personal to them, but if they watch the news, they're exposed to violence," he says. "And in the Central community, at 32nd and Indiana, it's an act of denial to say most kids won't be touched somehow by violence."

Also central to the collaboration is Nathan Louis Jackson, who wrote the Netflix sensation Luke Cage, based on the black superhero from Marvel comics. He also was a writer on the controversial series about teen bullying and suicide, 13 Reasons Why.

The Kansas City, Kan., native also has aplay premiering at the Kansas City Repertory Theater next spring about gun violence.

At the first class in mid-September, Wafer already had had students wade into journaling. She's a strong believer that art is valuable in exploring confusing or traumatic events.  She says the opportunity to work with such an accomplished writer as Jackson is rare.

"I believe (this) will give them confidence," she said.  "Maybe to pursue a career in the arts or media. Ultimately, I hope this would lead the students to be an advocate for change in their community, the region and the world."

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Screen and stage writer Nathan Louis Jackson, right, and Central's Charlette Wafer lead the class.

Many of the teenagers seemed intimidated when they got up to perform for a handful of KCUR journalists — not to mention a rock star like Jackson (who happens to know Lin Manuel Miranda personally.)

Nikia Porter is a senior.  She stood up, proud in her ROTC uniform, and with the poise of an experienced actor belted out a poem she’d named Stitch Lip.  It was about how reluctant people are to snitch when they see a violent crime.

“Trying to preserve a life ... having the mindset you don’t fear nobody ... swearing you don’t have anything to prove ‘til your body becomes breakfast," she recited from her smart phone.

Khia Washington's a 10th grader who says she wants to write a short story or do something visual for the class.  She stood up and opened her notebook:  “Our generation is so corrupted, everyone is ending up dead.”

Washington says she loves theater; there’s no theater program at the school. 

Jaden Nelson is the football team’s first guard and kicker. He sang a verse from his song “I Promise To Love You Forever."

Right as he finished, a voice over the loudspeaker called all football players to the gym. Nelson got up and left. Turns out it was an emergency team meeting to talk about how to support a teammate whose mother had just been murdered. 

Reporting in real time.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
KCUR's Ron Jones, Peggy Lowe and Andrea Tudhope stop in front of Central Academy of Excellence before class begins.

It's can be hard to measure the impact of news reporting. Historically, journalists have measured it in concrete ways — a change in policy or law,  an investigation of an established institution.

But journalists are struggling with the definition of "impact."

Here at KCUR we're trying something new with this project. 

So where will it go?  We don't know.  At the very least we  hope learning some new skills will encourage the students to think differently about their stories.

And to realize their stories and experiences matter.

Oh yeah, the plan is for the students to perform their work somewhere in public sometime in December. Stay tuned.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. Reach her on Twitter @laurazig or email lauraz@kcur.org.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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