“We’re Smart, Strong, and Brave”: Kimball Elementary Poet-Athletes Write History With DC SCORES

1-dcc8f8.png Members of the Kimball team are chronicling their experiences and putting their own stamp on history through DC SCORES.

Poet-athletes at Kimball Elementary School know how to make an entrance. Since joining the DC SCORES program in 2017, the Kimball team has walked onto the nonprofit’s poetry slam stage draped in capes, adorned with crowns, and brandishing protest posters to focus audiences’ attention on their poems.

From the mic, the Kimball Cheetahs have spoken out against gun violence, criticized harmful gender stereotypes, and expressed pride in their neighborhoods and communities.

Following their tradition of bold statements, the team’s latest slam performance lived up to expectations. In the middle of a series of poems about freedom, safety, and community healing at the 2023 DC SCORES Eastside Poetry Slam, Kimball poet-athletes dropped to one knee and raised a clenched fist in a symbolic assertion of Black power and liberation.

“It felt good,” says Zahmiya, a fifth-grader on the Kimball team, when she recalls the choreographed moment. “It’s a symbol of Black history…it showed that we are strong and brave and we can do what we put our minds to.”

The pose is reflective of the team’s focus on empowerment. Through DC SCORES, Kimball is committed to tackling big issues by building solidarity among young people in the Southeast communities served by the school. By coming together as a team, Kimball poet-athletes are making sure the history of their neighborhoods is not forgotten, and writing a new chapter of their own.

“Who Better To Tell Their Story?”

A lot around here is changing, but I have a feeling the change ain’t for me, You can try to erase the hoods in the city, but the fact remains, I AM D.C.! — From “I AM D.C. (The City’s New Princess)” a poem by Toria Leonard, a poet-athlete at Kimball Elementary School

2-2f133e.png Toria Leonard performs at the 2022 DC SCORES Eastside Poetry Slam.

Despite their young age, the team has already lived through numerous moments that will define the 21st century. In the last two years alone, Kimball poet-athletes have written poems addressing pandemic lockdowns, gentrification in the District, and the impact of the January 6 Capitol attack.

“Everything they experience, every poem they write, is history,” says Jerry Chamberlain, a DC SCORES coach and director of strategy and logistics at Kimball. “They are part of history, so their story will be told. And who better to tell their story than them?”

“It’s important for kids to write because people should know what’s happening to kids around the neighborhood,” says Juelz, a 5th-grade poet-athlete. His teammate, 4th-grader Toria, says poetry is a good way to get adults to listen. “Poems are good because sometimes kids can’t get their point across without adults thinking they’re sounding disrespectful,” she explains.

Since joining the DC SCORES team, Toria has used her poetry to challenge grown-ups in the District to do better by youth. In her 2023 solo poem “Reality Check,” she reflected on the increase in violence in D.C.’s neighborhoods. After demanding collective action, Toria focused her attention on the mostly adult audience.

“I peeled back all the packaging, so I guess I’m the one acting brand new / Maybe so, but I’m in 4th grade, wanna tell me your excuse?” she asked from the mic. “I hope you processed my reality check, even if just one ounce, / I put my money where my mouth is, but is your check gonna bounce?”

Recording their experiences through poetry is a responsibility that Kimball poet-athletes take seriously; they believe in the power of their words to make a change. For instance, when 5th-grader Quran shares poems about his ancestors’ experiences of slavery and their fight for freedom, he hopes his words will also draw attention to modern-day issues. “We talked about slavery in 2023 because some people are enslaved still to this day,” he explains.

Poetry can also be a way for poet-athletes to reclaim their history. “At school, there are only a few times when we talk about Black history and, most of the time, the conversation isn’t very positive,” says Rachel Nwosu, a DC SCORES coach and 3rd-grade math teacher. “They sort of look around at each other like, ‘Oh, this is ours?’ It’s heavy.”

She continues, “But with poetry, they get to look at Black history from a position of power. Poetry is that time for them to say whatever they need to say with total creative control.”

Inspiring History Makers

“Barack Obama, Dr. King, and Me, I am what my ancestors always dreamed of when they became free.” — From “Our History In Similes,” a group poem by Kimball Elementary School

5-e004b4.png The Kimball team accepts their second-place prize from representatives of the Washington Spirit and D.C. United at the 2023 DC SCORES Eastside Slam. Kimball team members pictured: Donovan Fields (back, far left), Jerry Chamberlain (back, second from left), Rachel Nwosu (back, far right), Nevaeh (front, far left), Quran (front, second from left), Toria (front, center), Juelz (front, second from right), Zahmiya (front, far right).

The act of performance itself can be empowering. Aliyah, a 3rd-grader, participated in her first DC SCORES slam in November. She recalls, “At first, it was scary, but once I started speaking, I wasn’t scared anymore. I saw other people [performing] and they didn’t run off the stage, so I ‘confidenced’ myself and went on. When I finally got my message across, I felt happy.”

Through DC SCORES, Kimball poet-athletes know they are not simply recording history, but making it. “We’re smart, strong, and brave,” says 5th-grader Nevaeh. She intends to make her mark on the world through sport. “I want people in the future to know that I’m very good at soccer,” she says.

Aliyah has similar aspirations, sharing that she wants to be a soccer player when she grows up. Hearing his students express these ambitions in a sport that has historically failed to develop young athletes of color in the United States is “groundbreaking,” says Chamberlain.

“As a native Washingtonian, I grew up only hearing about football and basketball, but DC SCORES has kicked down those barriers,” he says. “It’s opening up a larger potential for [poet-athletes’] futures, and the dreams and aspirations they can have.”

The exposure kids get to artistic performance has also unlocked new talents. Chamberlain first encountered the DC SCORES program in 2018 as a parent watching his daughter, London, perform at poetry slam.

“My jaw hit the floor,” he recalls. “I’d never seen that side of her, that control of the moment, control of the stage, control of the mic. I was like, ‘Oh, this is it right here.’”

Donovan Fields, a DC SCORES coach and behavior technician at Kimball, says this talent is innate, kids just need a program like DC SCORES to bring it out. “For the most part, all I’m doing as a coach is just writing down their thoughts and helping them put it down in words. That’s it,” he says. “I want to thank DC SCORES for the platform for their voices to be heard. It’s an opening, and people are listening.”

Giving youth these opportunities enables them to see themselves as change-makers, adds Chamberlain. “Growing up in D.C., we were heavily exposed to prominent, powerful, Black historical figures…but I don’t think we ever necessarily processed the fact that we can be [leaders], too,” he says. “Now, our kids are understanding that they are part of history.”

A Community Legacy

“Freedom to me is coming out of the shadows of a traumatic past, And pushing through the hardest times, because hard times never last.” — From “What Freedom Means To Me,” a group poem by Kimball Elementary School

3-383055.png Coach Donovan Fields instructs the Kimball girls’ team from the sidelines at Fall Frenzy, a DC SCORES soccer tournament and community festival.

Building this confidence is something the team does together. From the soccer field to the poetry stage and in the community, the team is a “family,” says Zahmiya.

Her best friend Nevaeh says her favorite moments are when she and Zahmiya get to work together. “What I loved most about DC SCORES was doing my little poem with Zahmiya. We was looking at each other, we was showing our emotions,” she recalls.

“My favorite DC SCORES memory is our first game because everybody tried, they put in their best work,” Zahmiya adds. “Nevaeh is really confident and she tells me to keep going, don’t stop.”

The Kimball team regularly places in the top four in DC SCORES’ elementary soccer league, but even defeats present an opportunity for better teamwork. “When we lost the championship game last year, I was kind of mad because I don’t like losing, but then we practiced more,” says Quran.

Surprisingly, the team’s 2023 championship loss is Fields’ best DC SCORES memory. “We hadn’t experienced any losses, then we lose the championship,” he recalls. “They’re upset, they’re crying, but it opened me up to putting love on them even more. It’s one of my favorite moments because it brought us all closer together.”

Win or lose, Juelz says being part of a team is the best thing about DC SCORES. “It’s just fun. Being with my team, they’re funny,” he says.

The close-knit team culture at Kimball has paid dividends over the last six years, creating a legacy of community-building in its Greenway neighborhood. Many of the students have older siblings or cousins who went through the program and continued as poet-athletes at Sousa Middle School, where DC SCORES also has a program.

It’s not uncommon for alumni and their families to return to Kimball to cheer the team on at gamedays or in the audience at poetry slam. “DC SCORES has helped create a legacy that is going to be here long after us,” says Nwosu. “It helps our students grow, and opens doors for them that probably wouldn’t be open otherwise.”

“It builds community and, more than ever right now, we need community,” Chamberlain adds. “We planted the seed years ago, and now we’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”

4-6a8f62.png Junior SCORES Kimball poet-athletes play soccer at a DC SCORES community event.

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