On an unseasonably warm day in early December, Kai Davis opened her mailbox to find a fat envelope. It was the kind she thought could only contain good news.
Inside, Davis found a packet from the Leeway Foundation congratulating her on being one of 10 artists to win a $15,000 Transformation Award. The award recognizes women and trans artists in the Philadelphia area who have been creating art for social change for five years or more.
“I cried all the way up the stairs to my apartment, and I live in a four-story walk up,” said Davis, a 2016 Africology, African-American studies and English alumna.
Davis, a poet, author and editor at the Philadelphia-based Apiary Magazine, plans to use the grant to host a series of free poetry workshops for Black women and femmes — an umbrella term for feminine-identifying people — in the city.
Many of her poems explore the intersection of race, power, gender and sexuality and the effect it has on people’s identities and society as a whole.
Videos of Davis, a two-time international grand poetry slam champion, performing poems that are focused on her identity as a Black queer woman, like “F— I Look Like” and “Ain’t I a Woman?,” have tens of thousands of views online.
Davis shared the news of the grant in a video on Instagram, where she said, through tears, “For anyone who knows me…you know that this last year has been hard. I lost my father, I’ve been struggling trying to be a full-time artist, so this award means more than anything right now.”
Davis, a Philadelphia native, moved back in with her parents in August 2016 when her father became sick.
He died in January 2017 due to multiple organ failure. Davis was in the middle of rehearsals for “How to Take Space,” a poetry show she co-produced and directed with The Philly Pigeon, a poetry collective that runs some of the city’s largest adult poetry slam events.
“It had been the hardest year of my entire life, and at the end of it, I won this,” Davis said. “It felt like a wave of relief, like a big break that I really needed at the time.
She first learned about the Transformation Award through Jacob Winterstein, the co-founder and co-host of The Philly Pigeon, and she was later encouraged to apply by Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, an author who received a grant from the Leeway Foundation in 2012.
“I remember writing ‘Leeway’ on a sticky-note and taping it to my mirror, and it was there for months as a reminder that despite everything I was dealing with, ‘I need to do this, I need to do this, I need to do this,’” Davis said.
Even though she has been teaching poetry workshops for people of color and creating art for marginalized communities for several years, Davis initially felt like she hadn’t accomplished enough to apply for the grant.
“The criteria asks for people who have been creating social change for five or more years, and I had, but I still didn’t feel like I deserved to apply,” she said. “There were a lot of things related to elitism in the poetry industry that I was concerned about, like not having been formally published.”
She overcame her reservations and submitted the second round of applications last October, and waited two months to hear back from the foundation.
“As a Black queer woman who has done a significant amount of work to cultivate art in Philadelphia, it’s beyond time someone has recognized her contributions and given her a grant,” said Jamal Parker, a senior Africology and African-American studies major who succeeded Davis as the artistic director of Babel, Temple’s poetry collective. “She is exceptional on and off the stage, and has a gift for bringing people together.”
Parker was also Davis’ teammate when Babel won the 2016 College Union Poetry Slam Invitational, which is an annual international tournament where poetry teams compete.
Davis is also always thinking about ways art spaces can be more accessible.
She came up with the idea to do ticket giveaways for The Philly Pigeon shows, so people who can’t afford them could have the opportunity to attend the collective’s monthly shows. They prioritize people of color, financially insecure people, people with disabilities and LGBTQ people, Davis said.
“Poetry is something that a lot of marginalized people are interested in and practice or explore on their own,” Davis said. “But because of the elitism in the poetry world, in both the slam scene or page poetry, they don’t have a lot of access to poems that might change their life or ideas that might change how they move through the world.”
Davis said she’s grateful for her mentors at the Philly Youth Poetry Movement, a nonprofit that offers literary art education for teens, for giving her the opportunity to grow as a writer, performer and teacher, especially Cait Kay, who gave Davis her first opportunity to teach a poetry workshop in 2013.
While Kay was on maternity leave last year, Davis substituted for her classes at the Academy at Palumbo, a high school on Catherine Street near 11th, and had the opportunity to connect with students.
Davis wants to continue to give Black and brown kids “a reason to speak up, to read and to question.”
“My mentors were all able to see talent and understand that it needs to be fostered,” she said. “It’s really important that we create spaces for young people to tap into their potential, and give them the tools to do so, because it really makes a difference. I want to be able to provide that for people.”