BURLINGTON — For the first time, Vermont is sending a team to the annual Brave New Voices Festival, a national slam poetry conference and competition for youth. The team is sponsored by Young Writers Project, an educational nonprofit dedicated to helping youths find voice through writing, digital media, performance and publication.
The slam team is composed of Burlington and South Burlington High School students Balkisa Abdikadir, Hawa Adam, Lena Ginawi and Kiran Waqar. Under the moniker Muslim Girls Making Change – MGMC, for short – the four sophomores will represent Vermont on a national stage this July.
MGMC represents an effort by Abdikadir, Adam, Ginawi and Waqar, who are members of Vermont’s Muslim community, to use poetry and community action to challenge negative perceptions of Muslims.
The group was created, according to Abdikadir, “so that we could show the world out there the different side of Muslims. Not the ones they see in the media, but the real ones, the nice ones, the ones out there that do things for their community. The ones that want to make a change. Which is part of our religion.”
The team’s decision to use poetry to effect change stems from viewing videos of teens performing at the Brave New Voices national slam poetry competition. Hawa Adam recalls first discovering the videos.
“I watched all of them,” she says. When Adam then heard that Young Writers Project would be hosting a tryout for the Brave New Voices 2016 Festival, she called her teammates and they set to writing.
Abdikadir, Adam, Ginawi and Waqar, who choose to wear the hijab headscarf, say they have experienced prejudice firsthand. During a recent practice, Abdikadir recounted an experience from earlier that same day.
“A woman crossed the street when she saw me coming,” she said. “She didn’t want to walk near me.”
This experience and others like it find their way into MGMC’s performance poems. Themes in their works deal candidly with questions of identity, ranging from stereotyping of Muslims to what it means to be a first-generation American, especially in a state as predominantly white and ethnically homogenous as Vermont.
For Rajnii Eddins, a poet, teaching artist and community organizer who co-coaches the team weekly at Young Writers Project offices in Burlington, MGMC’s image and message are ahead of the curve for a state whose brand and leadership have yet to reflect demographic changes in its most populous regions.
“Vermont is such a homogeneous area and Burlington is considered diverse, but I would say that for Vermonters, it’s quite a boon, quite a feather in your cap, to affirm with sincerity and integrity our common humanity,” Eddins said. “Having a team of all first-generation American Muslim girls represent you, that’s a gift to you and a gift to them… it lifts us all up.”
Co-coach Denise Casey agrees.
“This is Vermont,” she said. “So, whatever idea you have of what Vermont is that does not match this–change it.”
Muslim Girls Making Change is the first group from Vermont to participate in the Brave New Voices Festival. The festival was founded in 1998 by Youth Speaks, an organization based in Oakland, California, and sees as many as 500 youths compete each year from 50 different cities. This year’s event will take place over the course of fours days in Washington, D.C.
Between now and the competition, Young Writers Project will assist MGMC in raising the nearly $4000 the team will need to participate in the competition. As part of the fundraising initiative, MGMC will perform in venues around Vermont, beginning with a set at Young Writers Project’s final Teen Open Mic of the season on April 20 in Burlington.