Forward Arts hosts open mic slam poetry nights, which give area youth a chance to share their voices. Photos by Chris Diaz.

Giving back: Forward Arts

You might have seen Forward Arts at the LSU Museum of Art. The literary art education and performance organization has partnered with the museum on several occasions, most recently for the museum’s Third Thursday reception, to showcase the talents of its young poets.

You might have also seen Forward Arts in the press, after a historic win at the 2017 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival, where the Baton Rouge delegates competed against 59 groups from across the United States and rapped and rhymed their way to the top of the Grand Slam Finals. For much of its existence, slam poetry has composed the most visible arm of the organization, but it is only half of the Forward Arts equation.

The Baton Rouge delegates of Forward Arts posed in the War Memorial Opera House ahead of competing in the Brave New Voices festival.

Originally called WordPlay Teen Writing Project, Forward Arts was founded in 2005 by Anna West as an extension of the Big Buddy Program. In an interview for National Writing Project, West says she was inspired to start the program because “no school administrator had much time to listen to my ideas about the value of a poetry project.” The name change came shortly after current executive director Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore and marketing director Donney Rose, both longtime and award-winning poets, took over, but the rebellious attitude stayed. Desirée Dallagiacomo, program and artistic director and teaching artist, calls the organization, and the work produced by members, “our counter culture.”

Forward Arts offers several programs that help teens and young adults develop spoken word and poetry skills. These include WordCrew: Youth Spoken Word Leadership Cohort, Freshhhh Heat Teen Open Mic & Poetry Slam, ALL CITY Teen Poetry Slam Festival and Baton Rouge Youth Poet Laureate Program.

The other half of Forward Arts is its extensive in-school literary and art workshop program. “We’re in our second year of contracting with East Baton Rouge schools,” says Dallagiacomo. With support from Skidmore and Rose and others, Dallagiacomo draws on her own background in poetry and spoken word performance to develop specialized literature workshops for Baton Rouge schools. Each workshop teaches basic principles of literature, such as imagery and metaphor, but Dallagiacomo says that it doesn’t stop there. “The word ‘workshops’ minimizes what we do. We create a lesson plan to fit the teacher’s… We tailor each class to the student population.” For every school that incorporates the program, Forward Arts will develop up to 20 workshops.

These workshops have been quite successful. At first only implemented in some local schools, Dallagiacomo is proud to announce that now “we’re in every public high school in the city.”  The workshop program is also deployed in several area middle schools as well as schools in West Baton Rouge.

Dallagiacomo attributes much of the program’s success to the students themselves. The workshops give students an outlet for dealing with social and economic issues in a healthy and constructive way. “Poetry is a safe space,” says Dallagiacomo. “It allows folks to say something that matters.”

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