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Philly kids want city to be known for more than flash mobs

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
Alana Gooden, left, with Safi Niara. Gooden, 19, credits Philadelphia's "slam" poetry program with saving her life.
Alana Gooden, left, with Safi Niara. Gooden, 19, credits Philadelphia's "slam" poetry program with saving her life.
  • Students from Philadelphia win National poetry contest in San Francisco
  • They prepared six days a week for the competition, where they performed before judges
  • Team wants to show city has teens who are doing positive things with lives
  • Philadelphia has had problems with flash mobs -- group attacks on people and property

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Gregory Corbin was standing in San Francisco when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called his cell phone.

Yes, the mayor.

Nutter was calling Corbin to congratulate him and his students for taking first place at the Brave New Voices poetry competition July 20-23 in San Francisco.

Corbin, a social studies teacher and spoken-word poet, founded Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement to provide a positive outlet for teens in his hometown.

Expressing loss, anger through 'slam' poetry

The four-day Brave New Voices festival and competition was created by Youth Speaks Inc. in 1998 after the inaugural Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam in San Francisco -- the first poetry competition (or slam) dedicated to youth in the nation's history.

Since then, Brave New Voices has grown to include youth from across the United States and Europe, making it the largest ongoing spoken word event in the world.

The Philadelphia team almost didn't make it past the first round. Dubbed the comeback kids by their mentors, they fought back from the bottom of each round, making it to the semifinals before sweeping the finals.

"That call was confirmation that what they did was bigger than them, it was a reflection on the city that needed something positive from its youth," said Corbin. "The mayor has been very good to PYPM and has been very supportive."

The mayor did more than make a phone call.

During the week leading up to the competition he invited the group to City Hall, where he had a surprise for them: $5,000 from the city, $5,000 from the Lomax Family Foundation and 20 round-trip airline tickets from Southwest.

When young people step up to do the right thing, adults must step up to support them, Nutter said.

"These young people, expressing themselves creatively and positively, should be an inspiration to our entire city," he said. "This sends a message to all young people in Philadelphia that if you work hard, if you are positive, and if you are supported then there is nothing that you cannot achieve."

Poets raise voices for change

Long hours of preparation

The close-knit group of Philadelphia teens spent weeks preparing for the competition, often practicing six days a week for sometimes up to six hours.

"It was their decision to put in this kind of work, it wasn't mandated by us," said Perry "Vision" Divirgilio, a performance coach and poetry movement mentor.

"We never had to push them because they didn't want to let anybody down."

Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, a 5-year-old nonprofit run entirely by volunteers, helps Philadelphia youth discover the power of their voices through spoken word and literary expression.

The students spend their Saturdays throughout the year attending free writing workshops. There are monthly "slams," regional performances and community service outings.

The team returned to Philadelphia with very little fanfare, and the students went right back to attending Saturday writing workshops.

Catching the attention of news outlets was the latest flash mob to plague the city in recent months. Flash mobs in the City of Brotherly Love aren't the singing and dancing kind uploaded to YouTube.

Instead, flash mobs in Philadelphia are violent eruptions in which mobs of teens run through the streets attacking people and damaging property.

Over the weekend, Philadelphia police arrested three juveniles and a 19-year-old on charges of assault, reckless endangerment and robbery after a rampaging mob struck the Center City area, causing minor injuries to two people, according to police.

"It's very frustrating. While that's going on we have kids who are waking up on Saturday to go to a writing workshop," Divirgilio said. "It's hard to keep telling my kids to keep doing well when the ones causing problems get the attention."

A safe outlet

Kai Davis is still in disbelief that her team won. She joined the team in January after meeting up with a friend at one of the group's Saturday writing workshops.

"Winning wasn't on my mind, it was doing the best that we could," said Davis, an incoming high school senior who performed the poem "Femininjas," a social critique on the harassment of women, at the finals alongside teammate Charmira Nelson. "I have fallen in love with spoken word and don't want to stop writing."

The group provides a safe place for personal growth for youth who might otherwise have gone unnoticed, she said, adding that it is disappointing to have flash mobs be the face of Philadelphia youth.

"Most of the people in PYPM don't have a structured family, but it hasn't made them worse people," she said. "They wouldn't be out shooting or getting in trouble, they'd be out there trying to survive."

Visiting San Francisco was the farthest Jamarr Hall has ever traveled from home. The group helped him find his voice, said Hall, a 19-year-old plumber's apprentice who graduated high school in June 2010. He joined the poetry group after hearing about it at an after-school poetry workshop hosted by his English class.

"It's a chance to show people what I can do on and off stage. I believe I have yet to reach my peak and I'm not stopping here," said Hall, whose mother died when he was 8. "We should be known for things other than playing sports or flash mobs."