After less than two years in the DC SCORES program, Kayla has performed at many of DC’s top cultural institutions.
This story is part of the Voices of DC SCORES series exploring how young people in the District are speaking up for their communities through DC SCORES. Learn more about the series and how you can support our mission at the Voices of DC SCORES campaign page.
Kayla Nelson is only twelve years old, but can already pinpoint the moment she knows will become the foundation of her journey as a poet.
Last month, at the National Summer Learning Association’s annual summit, Kayla stepped up to the mic at the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. In a spotlight in front of an audience of hundreds, Kayla performed an original spoken word piece, representing a youth voice at a conference dedicated to children’s development.
“I’m a Black kid from DC performing at the Black history museum,” she recalls. “That was special. It was what I was supposed to do, where I was supposed to be. It was like an origin story.”
The performance is just the latest in a series of appearances the MacFarland Middle School student has made at some of DC’s premier cultural institutions. Through DC SCORES, Kayla has performed at Arena Stage, Audi Field, and The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and found a passion that has transformed her life.
She says, “I like how poetry makes me feel. It makes me so happy.”
Among her many public appearances this year, Kayla performed at half-time during a Washington Spirit game for the NWSL club’s Ward Night at Audi Field.
Discovering a Love of Poetry
Kayla’s poetic biography is all the more impressive considering that she only began writing last year, when she signed up for the DC SCORES team at MacFarland.
“I actually thought DC SCORES was just soccer,” she admits, “but then I found out I loved poetry and liked expressing myself.”
Kayla was selected by MacFarland to deliver the team’s individual poem at the 2022 DC SCORES Middle School Slam last November. She remembers the adrenaline in the room that night: “I was so nervous, but my team gave me so much support. Shout out to Coach Clemmons for encouraging us to leave it all on the stage!”
Her poem, “Political Decisions,” which advocated for youth representation in policy-making, impressed the slam judges so much that they named her as the recipient of the Shine Award for best individual performance.
Kayla won the Shine Award for Best Individual Performance at her very first DC SCORES poetry slam last year.
Afterward, Kayla was approached by Zarea Boyde, DC SCORES’ Program Coordinator for Writing, to join Youth W.O.R.D, an enhanced poetry program for DC SCORES poet-athletes with a particular passion for spoken word.
“I didn’t really know other people who were into poetry,” says Kayla, “so I thought, ‘I have to join!’”
“I Want to Help the Community”
Youth W.O.R.D. poet-athletes meet weekly with professional poets to work on original compositions, hone their stagecraft, and take advantage of workshops at numerous arts institutions across DC.
Participants, who range from 8 to 18 years old, also perform at DC SCORES’ annual poetry showcase, Our Words Our City. This year, Kayla was among 11 young people to share their work at the Arena Stage event alongside award-winning poet and DC SCORES board member Clint Smith.
Kayla says standing at the Our Words Our City mic was when she truly began to consider herself a poet. “It was my ‘I made it’ moment,” she says. “All artists have that, so it made me feel like an artist.”
Kayla opened and closed the event, delivering the night’s finale in the form of an original poem, “Memory,” an ode to Bruce Haliburton, her late grandfather, who grew up in Waco, Texas but became a much-loved preacher and community leader in DC. Though Kayla never met her grandfather, who died the year before she was born, she says he lives on in her family’s stories.
“My favorite thing to write about is my family,” says Kayla, whose mother and grandmother have never missed a performance. “My mom and grandma are always supporting me, they’re such an influential part of me being a poet,” she says.
Kayla says she can always rely on the support of her grandma and mom (pictured left), who have never missed one of her performances.
In addition to exploring her own family history, Kayla says that she is fascinated by how events in individuals’ or communities’ past can resonate through time. It is one of the reasons she is such a vocal proponent of engaging young people in the issues that impact them.
Right now, she is particularly concerned about how community violence is impacting DC’s youth. “You always have to be alert, because if you witness violence, that’s not something that’s going to go away,” she says.
DC SCORES allows Kayla to address these issues through poetry and service-learning projects, and she has no intention of letting go of this community work when she graduates from the program. “I definitely want to keep doing poetry when I grow up, and I want to have a good job, maybe a government job where I can work helping the community,” she says.
There is no doubt in her mind that, whatever her future holds, she will have the support she needs to pursue her ambitions. “From my family to my coach, to the DC SCORES staff, everyone has helped me a tremendous amount, a tremendous amount,” she says. “I really wanna thank them for that.”
Kayla celebrates with her peers and mentors in DC SCORES’ Youth W.O.R.D. program after Our Words Our City.