Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dream Keepers Dreaming

On Monday night, I brought a fun exercise for the Dream Keepers. I gave them a version of the Best Possible Self exercise found in several psychology studies (Laura King, Sonja Lyubomirsky, et. al.): "Imagine yourself a year from now. You have worked hard. Everything has gone as well as possible. Tell me what your life looks like. What have you accomplished? What do you do with your days? What is new in your life?" This was not a new exercise to the group. We had done a variation of this more than a year ago.

The Dream Keepers looked like I'd asked them to eat brussels sprouts. Or write a novel in 30 days. Actually, when I shared with them my wild and crazy dream that we'd write a book together, they embraced it.
"No problem!" one shouted.
"Even if it's long? Like 200 pages?" I asked.
They shrugged, undaunted by the idea.

BUT THIS! Imagine their best possible future selves? Too hard, they whined.

I tried again. I invited the Dream Keepers to create a list of the 50 or 100 things they wanted to do before they died. They asked, "So what do you want on the list?" I told them that I wanted them to put down what THEY wanted to do with their own lives—not what I wanted for them. I gave them a few ideas, "Write about where you want to travel, where you might go to college, what kind of degrees you will earn, what kind of family you want, who you want to connect to, how you might help the community. Stuff like that." They wiggled, got up and walked around, danced a bit to the music I'd brought, and talked about random worries. But then the Dream Keepers wrote long lists of dreams.

Next year, we will work more on writing down dreams and learning how to set goals. I think this is a valuable and essential skill for life--because (as some wise person once said) we have to dream it before we can do it.

Here's the magic in this dreaming exercise. As the Dream Keepers wrote, they shared their ideas with each other. That sharing reminded the rest of us of our own dreams. Me, too. Natalie wrote that she wanted to make a movie. Ahh yes! Me, too! I recorded my desire to become a better swimmer. Maya added it to her list as well.

The Dream Keepers gave me permission to share their lists with you. I hope the lists will dare you to dream, too!

Dream on! Rochelle

Maya's list
Travel to Spain, Travel to Hawaii, have twins, become a medical pathologist, become a millionaire, meet Usher, meet Chris Brown, see my grandkids get married, live until I die, meet the President, be in a movie, go to college, graduate from college, write a book, go scuba diving, swim with fish, learn how to swim, learn how to ice skate, ...

Elisha's list
Go to paris, go to Africa, have a baby in Africa, adopt a baby, go to Disneyland, meet Corbin Bleu, meet Chris Brown, meet lloyd, open a day care, be in a broadway play, be a choreographer, have long hair, lose weight, go sky diving, ...

Natalie's list
Have 10 children, have 6 college degrees, be married to the man of my dreams, travel to Africa, meet Alicia Keyes, have 20 bestselling CDs, act in at least 15 movies, date Chris Brown, lose weight and keep it off, date Tyson, become a vegetarian, have 30 bestselling novels, adopt 6 children, sponsor 20 children, adopt children, become a millionaire, love all my enemies, be an example of love and peace, create a prayer, go to China, go to Europe, direct a film, choreograph, find a cure for AIDS, find a cure for cancer, become the first Black female president, write a play, spoil my mother, be a minister at a church, send my children to college, ...

Word Play

A few weeks ago, I read Sanford Lyne's book, Writing Poetry from the Inside Out. He encourages word play--taking groups of four words and playing with them until you have a poem. I gave the Dream Keepers lists of words, they chose their word groups, and we went to work. Here is what they came up with:

by Maya Montgomery

In my life, I see darkness
and sunlight. When I see
sunlight I see beauty,
bees, and birds. When I
see darkness I see drunkenness,
Death, and loneliness.

Listen Up
by Elisha Branch

Even though we are all God's child
Young boys and girls are going wild.
No one is a star of fame
And we are all filled with shame.
Wise Buddha try to fill heads with knowledge
and make them imagine going to college.
Teaching the boys to be together, to grieve,
all they want to say is that their favorite player is thirty-three.
Trying to teach girls how to get up quick,
all they can say is that they'll survive on WIC.
Learn to stand up when you fall
and stop when your back is against the wall.
Listen up and you'll know the best.
Learn this now, then take a rest.

Before and After
by Natalie Branch

Before I met Christ
I was in such a fright
I didn't know what to do
besides sing the blues.
I dreamed I was a happy mermaid
splashing through the wave
but I realized I could never be happy
not in all my days.
I don't know why I'm so sad
or why I'm so mad.
I guess it's because every night I'm alone
I don't have anyone to love or
those that love me.
I am an adult child crying beside the trees.
When I found Christ
I was in such delight
I never knew I could love
or that someone could love me back.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Holding Truth

The Dream Keepers have been reading short stories from the book Who Am I Without Him? by Sharon G. Flake. The books came to us as a gift from Venice Williams, the executive director of Seedfolks Youth Ministry. (THANK YOU!)

Last night, the girls chose titles from the book as a starting point for their writing. Story titles such as, "So I Ain't No Good Girl" and "The Ugly One" allowed the girls to create some edgy rants (my term to describe a spoken-word poem). With the permission of the girls, I've published three of the poems below. I wish you could have heard these poems spoken aloud. They rocked.

Gentle readers, be warned. None of these poems are pretty or nice. I think the girls meant to shock. I like that. As their writing teacher, I want them to be honest. I want their words to reflect what THEY experience, think, and envision. I do not want to censor or shape their ideas—spoken or written—so that their work will be more palatable. When writers have the freedom to write what they want, they are more creative and, according to psychologists, more likely to reap the benefits (increased health and self agency).

When I asked the girls if the poems were true, they laughed at me. I deserved it! If someone had the gall to ask if one of my stories was true, I would laugh, too. All writing holds truth. Perhaps this is one of the best gifts the Dream Keepers offer. In writing and sharing their work, they hold truth for us to learn from. Enjoy!

Don't Be Disrespecting Me
by Elisha Branch

I have crusty lips and crooked teeth
but don't be disrespecting me.
I have scarred legs and chubby feet
but don't be disrespecting me.
I have big thighs and ashy knees
but don't be disrespecting me.
You can talk, say what you please
but don't be disrespecting me.
Go ahead and talk. I'll ignore you three
but don't be disrespecting me.
Don't look if you don't like what you see
but don't be disrespecting me.
I look like I do; that's how it's gonna be
but don't be disrespecting me.
I am who I am; you be who you be
but don't be disrespecting me.
I am Elisha, and that's who I want to be
so don't be disrespecting me!

I Ain't No Good Girl
by Natalie Branch

"I ain't no good girl!"
I don't always go to school.
I don't always follow all the rules.
"I ain't no good girl!"
I've been to jail before.
I curse and scream even more.
"I ain't no good girl!"
I argue, fuss, and fight.
I sneak out of the house at night.
'Cause I ain't no good girl!
I sneak.
I peek.
I cheat.
I beat.
Because I ain't no good girl!

The Ugly One
by Natale Branch

I don't go to school dances.
I don't have any romances.
Because I'm the ugly one.
People don't like me.
They beat and tease me.
Because I'm the ugly one.
They call me rude names.
My face shows shame.
Because I'm the ugly one.
I scream and shout
With a pillow over my mouth.
Because I'm the ugly one.
I laugh.
I cry.
I sometimes want to die.
Because I'm the ugly one.

Introducing the Newest Dream Keepers

Greetings Dream Keeper fans!

We have been busy writing these past months. The Dream Keepers spent a month working on their essays for a local Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay contest. I'll post those essays in January, once the judging is complete. We've also added three new dreamers. Here are the I AM poems of two of our new members.

I AM by Rachel Coney
I am a beautiful child of God
I have a nice smile.
I am short.
I am pretty.
I am goofy.
I am funny.
I am happy.
I am Rachel Coney.

I AM by Maya Montgomery
I am kind.
I am sweet
I am smart.
I am friendly.
I am tall.
I am skinny.
I am light brown.
I am athletic.
I am a daughter.
I am a sister.
I am an auntie.
I am a neice.
I am Maya Noel Montgomery.

Our third new member, Rebecca Coney, has not had time to write her I AM poem. She did participate in an exciting but difficult writing exercise last week. I have been reading the book, Writing Poetry from the inside out by Sanford Lyne. He encourages writers to use clusters of words as a starting point for poetry play. The girls found the exercise interesting but challenging.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hope and the Hood

Two weeks ago, I shared with the Dream Keepers a poem written by a friend of mine called, "To be Old, Gifted, and White." The writer spoke about his experiences living and protesting in Milwaukee. From this poem, the Dream Keepers chose to write on the theme, "Our Hood." This week the Dream Keepers chose their theme from a line from Nikki Giovanni's poem HOWL: "Call down the stars to write the truth." The Dream Keepers live in one of the worst neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Their writing speaks this truth. Reader be warned: this truth is gritty, real, and frightening.

My Hood
by Brittene Harden
My hood, my block—you see a lot of things.
You can't even go outside without worrying about getting raped or shot at, getting told, "you got a body," or "I can't wait to do this to you." You can't help but think everything that goes wrong is in your hood. You feel sorry for the crack addicts on the street when you really should feel sorry for your self.
My hood, my block—a lot of things.

Our Neighborhood
by Natalie Branch
Do you want to know where I come from?
Where I come from, you need a blade just to walk down the street.
Where I come from, fathers are raping their own daughters.
Where I come from, there's a group of robbers, sex offenders, and peeping toms living right next door.
You wanna know where I come from?
Where I come from you have to prove how tough you are.
Where I come from you can't play with someone without it becoming real.
Where I come from, there are shoot outs.
You don't wanna know where I come from.

The Truth
by Natalie Branch
Truth is, I don't like where I come from.
Truth is, I feel like a dirty bum.
Truth is, I live in deep poverty.
Truth is, I don't even have a clean sheet.
Truth is, I smoke weed to think I'm cool.
Truth is, I hardly ever go to school.
Truth is, I really started to change my ways.
Truth is, I go to church almost every day.
Truth is, I won't go back to my old ways.
Truth is, I'm looking to brighter days.
Truth is, I'm free.

About All I Can Do
by Elisha Branch
All I can do is speak the truth
that is about all I can do.
Make everyone equal, like me and you
that is about all I can do.
Spreading the peace, me loving you
that is about all I can do.

My Vision for Hope in My Neighborhood
by Maya Montgomery
My vision for hope in my neighborhood is not to hear gun shots every night.
I also don't want to see boys on the corner 24/7.
If these things happen, less people will get hurt.
Also, we will be able to play outside.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

To Be Young, Gifted and Black

Last night the Dream Keepers and I met for the second time this fall. As usual, our time together begins slowly. We would rather talk and eat than write. Giggles abound. I'm tempted to be more teacher than facilitator. Both are necessary--but I sense that the young women work better for the facilitator.

Last night we read together the poem, HOWL by Nikki Giovanni from her new book of poems, Acolyte. The poem is dedicated to singer Nina Simone, who write a song called To Be Young, Gifted and Black inspired by a play of the same name written by Lorraine Hansberry. After reading the poem, the two young women decided to write on this theme. Here is their work. As usual, it is moving to me and I hope for you.

Young, Gifted, and Black
by Natalie Branch

I am young, smart, and African American. I know that may seem like a little, but it's saying a lot more than you know.

To people like my sister, being young means not having your own voice and always having to prove yourself. To me, being young means adventure, new ideas, and a chance to learn all that you can.

To people like my brother, being smart means you know everything, you can go to school and not pay attention because it's review. To me being smart is a stepping stone to success and it is the path to get me closer to my destiny and God.

To people like the kids on my block, being African American means to be tough, to be a thug, to despise homosexuals, to be in and out of jail, to make sure no one disrespects you in front of your friends. To me, being African American means you have a chance to make a name for yourself like many of our ancestors did in the past. To me it means to take advantage of the opportunity life has thrown at us. To me, it means not always taking the easy way out. It means to take pride in what I do and do it well.

I feel that as a culture we as a whole have disappoionted our ancestors. I am pretty sure that they did not fight as hard as they did for us so that we would just give up and throw our lives away.

The Benefits of Being Young, Gifted and Black
by Elisha Branch

The benefits of being young, gifted and black
is that you can get up even when you're flat.
The benefits of being young, gifted and black
is that you say what you feel and don't take it back.
The benefits of being young, gifted and black
is that if you do make mistakes and are not afraid to look back
The benefits of being young, gifted and black
is you can accomplish all goals stack by stack
The benefits of being young, gifted and black
is that you care for all dogs and cats.
The benefits of being young, gifted and black
is that you don't let your problems to cause you to lack
The benefits of being young, gifted and black
is that you're wonderful and that's a fact!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Introducing the Dream Keepers

We met Thursday night with the Seedfolks Summer Reading Circle. We're reading amazing books. Last week it was Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes. This week we started Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan. After we read, the Seedfolks director, Venice Williams, invited the young people to do some writing exercises. I will share the first one here, as a way of introducing these fine young women. Watch for more writing in the coming weeks!

I am
full-figured shape
round face
chocolate colored
dark ebony eyes
I am
I am
college bound
I am
I am
African American and Indian
and shy
I am
and intelligent
I am
a god mother
an eleventh grader’
a peacemaker
and a Christian
I am
I am
I am
I am
I am
I am
ball headed
I am a girl
I am
I am
I am
And as I read these,
I am

Blessings to all, Rochelle

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Being Together

We met again last Thursday and attended the Seedfolks reading circle. Afterwards, I brought the teens to my house for ice cream and writing. Both times we've tried to write. But no one (including me) showed any interest in putting pen to paper.

The first week we had too much to talk about. One of the teens, a young man, kept saying, "Pastor Rochelle, your house is so peaceful. I've never been in a house like this. It's just so peaceful." We ended up talking about what peace looks and feels like to him—and the writing got pushed aside. Last week, we cleared away the empty dishes and took out the journals. After just minutes, one of the teens said, "It's too quiet here. I can't think." I laughed. Two teens noticing that my house was quiet—something I rarely appreciate—with different ideas about what that meant. But for both teens, the house and the ice cream and the company made it dificult to write!

So right now we are a "not writing" writing group—and that's okay. We're talking about books. The young people tell stories about their lives. They quote songs, introducing me to singers I'd never find on my own. I ask many questions about what this or that means. Last week I leaned about Yung Berg, what it means to them for someone to "act white", and something about fashion. I wonder if this is also dream keeping—encouraging and supporting these young people in talking about who they are, what they think and why they think it. I hope so. Because it is also so much fun!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pursuing Peace

I structure the Dream Keeper's writing time around themes. In January, the young people read many of Langston Hughes's poems about dreams. Then, they wrote about their own dreams for the future. They read these poems for the church's celebration of Black History Month.

In the spring we wrote about ending violence in our lives and in our communities. Natalie created this moving devotion during one of our writing afternoons. I think it is a powerful story about how we can choose to change the way we act and react, even in the midst of violence. It also reminds me of how God is at work for good in our lives.

A New Life
by Natalie Branch

Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Romans 14:19

I don’t pursue violence, but it wasn’t always like that. When I was younger, if I didn’t like the way someone looked at me, I would gather my clique so we could fight. If your outfit looked better than mine, I would fight you. I spent the early years of my life trying to prove to everyone how tough I was.

Not anymore! Now I think before I speak. Now I give to those in need. Why? One night, God used a bad situation to teach me a better way. I was good that night, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t disrespect anyone that night, but that didn’t matter. That night, on my way to a friend’s house, I got jumped by a group of men. I didn’t know these men, but that didn’t matter. I went home to get all my people together so we could jump those men back. But when I saw myself in the mirror, I changed my mind. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t see myself. God showed me the girls and boys that I had beaten up. So instead of pursuing revenge, I prayed that God would change my life around.

Ever since that day, I attend church four days a week. I volunteer at day care centers and nursing homes. But most importantly, I don’t fight. All I can do is thank God.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Role Models

“You can't do a fine thing without having seen fine examples.” - William Morris Hunt

I've been thinking about the need for the Dream Keepers and other young people to have role models. When we meet someone who has done what we want to do, we see that our dreams are possible. When that person has overcome obstacles to reach a dream, we are encouraged to press on. It's especially important for teens who live in challenging situations to see people who have experienced difficulty and still succeeded. It empowers them to believe in themselves and their own ability to move forward.

Last night I took three of the Dream Keepers to the first Summer Reading Circle meeting. This week's book was, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. (Talk about a role model!) Afterwards, we had ice cream and cookies at my house. I showed them the Web site and the blog. One of the young woman said, "Pastor Rochelle, we're going to be famous!"

I'd love nothing more. Wouldn't it be something if these young women and men could be famous role models for other teens?I'm inspired by their interest in reading, their willingness to put their lives on paper and share it with me and other people, and their ability to engage with popular culture. They push me to engage with my own world--and theirs. I'd love for them and their writing to inspire other young people to vision a wild and amazing life for themselves.

Friday, June 1, 2007


Last Monday, I took the Dream Keepers and my five-year-old daughter to a picnic. On the way, we started talking about our summer writing plans. I introduced the idea of joining the Seedfolks Summer Reading Circles and then writing afterwards. (Seedfolks is a ministry located here in Milwaukee.) The girls loved that idea. But, they wondered--what could they read now, before school got out? One of them suggested The Diary of Anne Frank. We had read about the diary when we read Freedom Writers.

On the way home from the picnic, we stopped at the bookstore and I picked up a copy of Anne's diary and also a copy of Zlata's diary. I wish you could have seen the look on the girls' faces when they received their books! Today I go pick up the other copies. I think they will be pleased. I can't wait to read the books again as well! Hopefully our next post will be from them--their reflections on the writing!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Introducing Dream Keepers

In 2004, I began attending a church in the heart of my city. During my first visit, I had a vision: I would teach writing to the young people in this place. I dismissed the thought. I’m too busy. It’s too hard. They wouldn’t be interested. But the visions persisted. Each time I sat in the pew, the dream would come. Finally, I accepted this vision as a calling. I shared the dream with others, but I didn’t believe it would come true. Then a friend asked, “What can you do right now to make this happen?”

In the fall of 2006, I embarked on a writing journey with four young women from the church. We have named ourselves “Dream Keepers,” after a poem by Langston Hughes. Hughes believed that writers were the dream keepers of the community. We are! In addition, recent studies suggest that people who write down their deepest thoughts, feelings, and dreams are healthier, happier, and have better success achieving their goals.

Every Saturday I meet with four or five young women. We talk and write. Mostly we journal about our lives. Sometimes I give them writing exercises or themes to work with.

In the winter we wrote about our dreams. Each of the girls read one of their poems for a Black Hostory Month celebration.

This past spring we have been writing about violence. The girls live in one of the most violent neighborhoods in this city. They witness violence on a daily basis. In one of my own drives through the neighborhood, I saw a man being beaten by four other men wielding baseball bats.

Here is a poem by one of the young people about violence. It's unedited and very honest.

I Could Live Without It
by Elisha Branch

All the hatred and vain
I could live without it
All the violence and pain
I could live without it
All the killings and slaughters
I could live without it
All the motherless daughters
I could live without it
All the shootings and drugs
I could live without it
All the jealousy and mugs
I could live without it
All the terror and gangs
I could live without it
All the cursing and slang
I could live without it
All blocks filled with silence
I could live without it
All the cities conquered by violence
I definitely could live without it
A lot of peace and prayer
I could live with that
A lot of celebration everywhere.
I could live with that.