Children gain voice through literacy

Mighty Writers and the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement aim to improve literacy rates in the city.

Organizations across Philadelphia are helping youth combat the literacy crisis in new and refreshing ways. The Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement and Mighty Writers, among others, are giving youth across the city the opportunity to express themselves.

At the weekly Mighty Writers Sunday comic book workshop the organization makes its mission a reality.

Mighty Writers Executive Director Tim Whitaker is a journalist. His vision is to reach as many kids as possible through writing, within the economic challenges of the day.

“If kids can learn to write with clarity they can think with clarity,” Whitaker said.

Mighty Writers began in 2006 with an understanding that literacy rates are a national crisis. The program reaches out to youth between the ages of seven and 17.

“I want to be a cartoonist,” said Mukhtar Stones, 12, a Mighty Writers participant and Universal Institute Charter School student. “I like to draw cool characters, smart characters and funny characters.”

“I’ve been a part of the program for a long time,” Mukhtar added.

Whitaker said he hopes this program will leave a lasting impact on Philadelphia.

“I would like to see kids stay in school and become leaders in the city, creating the next generation of people who are able to give back to the city themselves,” Whitaker said.

PYPM has a similar mission. Committed to helping Philadelphia youth discover the power of their voices through spoken word and literacy expression, the organization was founded in 2006 and has since expanded.

At their weekly Saturday writing workshop the kids created a circle, as they eagerly volunteered to share their poems and receive feedback from their peers and Executive Director Greg Corbin. When it was time to share they did so, giving a dose of their reality.

“You have to learn how to advocate with yourself, and get out of your voice and find a different way of portraying this person,” Corbin said to a youth after they shared their poem in the center of the circle.

The workshop involves individual and group prompts, mentor conferencing, interactive activities through the use of games and icebreakers and workshopping. Children as young as five years old come to the program and learn how to express themselves through poetry.

The program allows kids to explore their identity, enhance literacy and critical thinking skills and become agents of social justice.

“We are interested in figuring out how we can expand the youth night we hold every month and continue to expand our poetry slam team,” PYPM Director of Education Cait Minor said.

This summer PYPM took a group to California for the Brand New Voices international competition.

“We won last year, and the [Mayor Michael Nutter] has been really instrumental in helping us,” Minor said.

Freshman Alana Gooden and junior Noel Scales are former PYPM participants. Scales was awarded the Brave New Voices award in 2007, at HBO’s slam competition in California.

Perry “Vision” DiVirgilio is PYPM’s artistic director and co-slam team coach. He began the workshop by calling the room full of energetic youth together for the next writing exercise of the day.

“[Corbin] called me at midnight and said to me there is nothing in this city for the youth,” DiVirgilio said. “This was at a busy point in my life. [Corbin’s] passion and burden to do something about the need inspired me to help birth the vision of the PYPM.”

These programs are leaving a lasting impact on the youth who participate as well those who volunteer.

Across the two Mighty Writers workshop locations, there are approximately 300 volunteers including college students, graduate students, journalists, as well as senior citizens who have chosen to invest their time in the cause.

“I really like that they have a space to express themselves through artwork,” volunteer Janelle Smith said. “Most kids are taught that they need to get a real job and they can’t make money through their artwork, however I would like the kids to understand that they can learn and grow from doing what they love to do.”

Priscilla Ward can be reached at

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