“I’ve never heard her speak in class before.”

That's what an Alcott High School teacher told Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago Literacy Specialist Kee Stein about one of her students, Alicia. This was a surprise to Stein because Alicia was part of the Alcott Boys & Girls Club poetry team and preparing to read her own poem in a room full of strangers at the Rooted & Radical Poetry Festival.

“She walked up to the mic and showed so much courage while reading an original poem about her experience with depression,” Stein said. “They have so much to say about the world and deserve access to this creative outlet for expression. This festival celebrates diversity and storytelling, it pays homage to hip-hop and historical wordsmiths, and provides young writers with the tools to enhance their language and craft their stories.”

Alicia was one of 10 new members to join BGCC’s poetry team, which last year only included top-20 finalist Jermaine. This year, five high school members of the Alcott Club and five middle school members of the Pedersen-McCormick Club presented at the Rooted & Radical Poetry Festival.

Stein said that many had little to no experience with public speaking, and a couple of teens were extremely nervous but insisted on pushing themselves out of their comfort zone.

“So many of our kids expressed excitement when they saw their cultures and gender identities represented in poems by other participants, as well as in their fellow Club members,” Stein said.

This year, Club member Jermaine was again named a finalist, which took place at the UIC Dorin Forum on April 22. He was also voted for the year’s Community Favorite Award and one of the All-Star Poet Awards.

And much to Stein’s surprise, she was also chosen to receive this year’s Coach of the Year Award.

“Kee motivates the kids to present their best work as individuals, but she also creates an environment in which the kids are encouraged to share and connect,” Kortnee Quiza, BGCC Arts Program Manager and fellow poetry coach said. “It’s amazing to witness the transformation of these first-time poets as they make their way to the front of the room and speak into that microphone. Kee has inspired a whole new generation of young poets at BGCC.

The five members from the Pedersen-McCormick Club were the youngest in the competition. Most of the Club members had never written a poem, let alone presented it on stage. All 11 poets wrote personal poems through sessions with Stein, and then performed them throughout the Rooted & Radical festival bouts in late March.

This festival is not the end for our poets. There are plans to continue the poetry program, and all the poets who are not graduating this year said they want to compete again at next year’s festival.

Stein and Quiza also have workshops planned with other partners in the city, including a writer’s workshop this month with the Lookingglass Theatre Company. 

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