Stepping into Joseph Green’s office at Split This Rock’s headquarters in Dupont Circle, it’s obvious where his passions lie. His bookshelves are filled to spilling over with poetry books and his walls are covered in posters and photographs from Split This Rock’s many youth events.
Split This Rock is a non-profit organization that Green describes as functioning at, “the intersection between poetry and social justice.” That’s a place Green feels right at home. He heads up the youth programming arm of the organization, focusing on school programming and youth spoken word groups and competitions that perform on such prestigious local stages as the Harris Theatre at George Mason University, Arena Stage, and the Kennedy Center. Green shares his excitement and heart for Split This Rock and all they do, but also spoke about all the ways poetry fans and the poetry curious can get involved.
Brightest Young Things: What is Split This Rock all about?
Joseph Green: You could say that we use poetry as a vessel to get a message out about the world [as it is] and how we think the world can be. We invite as many artists and poets to the table as possible. It started ten years ago. This year is our tenth anniversary.
It started as a very simple idea. They wanted to do a festival that brought together poets who wrote about activist issues. They succeeded. It was born out of poets against the war, which if you back up to ten years ago was Bush 2 and starting another war. They were adamant about using their art to make a difference. The whole idea of speaking truth to power. That was the first festival and every two years now since then we’ve had another festival and they’ve steadily gotten bigger and bigger. We invite poets/activists from all over the world to come to D.C. and work with us and learn with us. We bring in featured readers and we have workshops. It’s a conference, basically. The name of the organization is the festival also. That’s one half of what we do.
BYT: And the other half is your domain?
JG: The other half of Split This Rock is the youth programming. That’s what I run. Six years ago, the DC Youth Slam Team (the team that represents DC in the Brave New Voices Competition, which happens every year in a different city) was looking for a home and Split This Rock was here. STR is poetry and social justice and DC Youth Slam Team is spoken word poetry and social justice, and it just seemed like a really smart match up. STR was smaller then and it was just a fiscally sponsored relationship and then it grew. The DC Youth Slam Team went from just young people who went to the competition to after-school creative writing clubs that lead to the Louder Than a Bomb competition every year. That grew when I came on, two years ago, to the Hyperbole (which is another festival that happens at George Mason University). We also do professional development, a graduated youth performance troupe, and in-school residencies with teaching artists.
BYT: What developments have you seen in the two years you’ve worked with STR?
JG: Before I started, I ran and co-founded a non-profit in Virginia called Poetry Now, that did what STR was doing in D.C. but in Virginia. When my predecessor at STR left, I came in and brought the two programs together. Now STR is over any after-school, poetry intensive club in the D.C. Metropolitan Area. It’s big!
BYT: What’s the age range of kids that you work with?
JG: Our main programming is for high school students, so 13-19, but we do workshops for any age. We spent time in elementary schools. We spend time in colleges. We’ve gone to corporate entities and done workshops for other non-profits at employee gatherings. The main focus though is the youth programs for the 13-19 age range. STR is a home for anyone who read and writes poetry and wants to make the world a better place.
BYT: How have you seen the energy, conversation change with the young people who do your programs post 2016 election?
JG: I want to be very careful with my response because sometimes our reactions can give the opposition more power than they deserve. As far as what we do, I’ll speak to the youth programming and then to the whole organization, our young people by their very nature are disenfranchised. They can’t vote but they are aware. They have to live by the rules of but they don’t have a say in. They have always been frustrated, but even more so now, because we thought we were going in a particular direction.
No one I know thought racism was dead or that Nazis no longer existed or that the alt-right wasn’t a thing. We just thought [those groups] have become so marginalized that there’s no way they could take such a mainstream position. And in such a mainstream office like the White House. But we do what we do. And what we do in this space is we get louder. We get organized. We try to provide for as many young people the opportunity to express their frustration, their anger, but more importantly their love and their passion and their hope, because when the opposition, a negative entity, gets ahold of the megaphone then you start hearing depressing and inaccurate narratives about yourself. [Those entities say] African Americans live in the worst neighborhoods and if you vote for me or let me in office, I can change that for you. [They say] Mexicans are rapists and are all criminals. When you work with such a diverse community as we do at STR, we know those narratives are incorrect. Everybody just wants an opportunity to tell their stories. So [with this last election] nothing changed, it just amped up.
We were always doing this. We were speaking truth to Obama and his administration. They were just more apt to sit and listen to it. The machine has always been the machine. There needs to be balance, it’s not about eradicating. There needs to be a balance and right now there’s an imbalance. We are fighting our best to bring it back and not just to give us voice but to give people who have opposition to our views voice. I think that’s another thing that’s changed. We’re more interested in having conversations across the aisle and using poetry and spoken word as a means for doing that. It’s our tool. Art is one of the best ways of telling a story. It’s super important right now. It is the food for our intellectual discourse right now.
BYT: How are you addressing the anxiety/needs of the adult participants?
JG: With the adult side of our programming, we started using poetry more to heal. So when something happened or a particular group of people feel like the ones other people are coming after this week, whether it be Muslims or immigrants or whatever, we have such a large library of poetry that speaks to these issues because people have been writing about them forever. When that happens we put those poems up. We have a thing called “Poem of the Week” [on our website] and we have the same social media everybody else has. It allows us to put out these affirming messages to our community using art. It’s a powerful way of doing things. We could say “we support you” or we could put a poem up from someone who has lived this experience. From that, not only do people who are going through it find solace and camaraderie, but those of us who are trying their best to support everyone [while not directly experiencing the situation], get to hear from the voice of someone going through it. This as opposed to what you’d get on the news, which is a pundit who may not be effected by that particular issue but for whatever reason have been chosen to be the mouthpiece for it.
BYT: Do you have any poets you would recommend people read right now? Who are the poets that excite you and engage people who may not believe poetry is “for them”?
JG: I’m going to try to pick from the Split This Rock family a bit. Danez Smith, they are an amazing poet and on our board. I’ve been following their work for a decade now and they have a beautiful way of speaking to race and race relations in America. Hanif Abdurraqib is another. Safia Elhillo, who’s been associated with our organization. She was on the DC Youth Slam Team, is one of our teaching artists and is also a magnificent poet that would be a great place for people who think they don’t like poetry to start. No only are her poems poignant but they’re beautiful.
BYT: Split This Rock has a festival coming up this year, yes?
JG: Yes! April 19-21. Every festival we bring in featured readers. We have three different baskets from which we pull our readers: people who are new to the scene and just starting to rattle, people who are at the height of their career, and the people who got us here. So this year we have reading: Elizabeth Acevedo, Ellen Bass, Kwame Dawes, Camille T. Dungy, Sonia Sanchez, Paul Tran, just to name a few. There are so many different, amazing poets coming here. The festival is here in D.C. and for more information, check out our website!
The last festival, which was my first festival, 700 people came. It’s three days of poetry, social justice, activism, panel discussions, and then these amazing poets closing each night with magnificent readings. Each of those readings is opened by a youth poet. You get all of it if you participate and if you live in D.C., there’s no reason why you shouldn’t come. We get spoiled in this city by all the culture, but a poetry festival with big name poets that embraces social justice is a really unique thing. It’s like you don’t have to know basketball to know Michael Jordan is a big name, but the poets we’re bringing in are the Michael Jordans of our poetry world. The fact they’ll be here for the cost of attending the festival, people really should take a chance on it.
BYT: Beyond just attending the festival, what are some other ways people can get involved and volunteer with Split This Rock?
JG: Sometimes we’re looking for festival volunteers, you can volunteer to run one of our writing workshops, you can attend one of our workshops. These are all free things you can do to put your presence and body here. We’re a small non-profit with three full time employees, so we’re always looking for people who can help with things like graphic design, web design, whatever your skill may be and you want to put it to use, we’re always entertaining conversations about that.
On my side, the youth programs side, if you’re experienced in writing, like an English teacher or a journalist who are also a poet, we’re always looking for people who can use their talent to engage young people on a volunteer basis. We have 30 schools in our network and only 10 teaching artists we can afford. If you can give one afternoon a week and are willing to go through our training, it would be a great skill to have anyway, we’re always looking for people. And if you would like to donate, please do! We also have events on the youth and adult side. We had the Hyperbole, the Louder Than a Bomb Competition. We are always looking for sponsors.
We have so many ways that you can continue doing what you do in your world but using your skills to help us. We need the community to show up, whether that’s donating or showing up to the events.