2005-2010: Justin Rogers

“Citywide Poets was pivotal in my social and professional life because it offered me a sense of direction and hope.”

When Writer-in-Residence Nandi Comer found me in 12th grade of high school, I was a very shy student trying to navigate where I fit in the world around me. I was still discovering life outside of my neighborhood, so an invite by Nandi to Citywide Poets was appealing to my creative side and my desire to learn new spaces. 

I didn’t have a thought-out ‘plan’ for my future beyond going to college, but I recall always wanting to be able to publish a book and was determined to make that happen. InsideOut was a path that opened that opportunity. [Ed: Justin published his chapbook Black, Matilda in 2019.]

Justin shares his path to empowerment at the Impact Squared Story Slam.

Poetry was a happy hobby at that point in my life. I call it a ‘happy hobby’ because it genuinely made me happy to work on, produce, and share. What took my writing to the next level was having a community of minds to share with. I could write on my own, but there was no one else to do it with. That made my attitude towards writing a lot less serious. It was just something that lived between my math notes. 

InsideOut gave a validating space for my writing and creative thoughts. Citywide Poets connected me with a community that I didn’t know existed. This was pivotal in my social and professional life because it offered me a sense of direction and hope. InsideOut continued to pop up in my life whether it was a Poetry Slam or helping move boxes through the office. There was always some activity happening and since this was a safe space I often wanted to be a part of.

Now I am the Citywide Poets Coordinator with InsideOut, and I have the experience and ability to make sure that our after-school program is catering to the needs of the teens we serve today. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I am able to creatively organize meaningful workshops and events while serving youth who remind me of myself at that age. 

This year and in the years to come, I simply want to keep up with the needs of our students. It’s one thing to understand that the pandemic has changed our world, but I want to make clear that it also has opened up a new world, and we have to learn how to fruitfully live in that world – not just operate within it. The youth of today are going to be the ones to lead the charge on establishing new norms, needs, and expectations. I want to continue offering an avenue for those ideas to begin. In doing that, I have been able to learn strategies for writing and daily life that I implement not only through the program but with myself and my own children. 

Justin Rogers & Executive Director Suma Karaman Rosen awarding the Citywide Poets Scholarship.

Even though I am not a big advocate for changing the past, if I could go back in time and be my own teacher to my high school self, I would have encouraged more confidence and appropriate boundaries regarding my labor and emotions. I would have made bolder decisions and ended harmful relationships earlier with those social-emotional skills. I would have been able to identify mental health concerns and developmental gaps much more effectively with those skills. I think those are skills all sixteen-year-olds need, no matter how mature. I think our program offers that in the way we ask students to be reflective, speak up, speak out, and always value themselves.

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LaShawn Smith-Wright, Citywide Poets alum, shares her experience of being taught and mentored by Justin Rogers:

“Justin was honestly a godsend. He made me not only a better writer but a better person. He helped me grow up and realize the power I had and how important I am. Justin taught me to treat myself like a poem: something that is uniquely designed and still in need of edits but can be great if I work on and nurture it. I don’t think Citywide Poets would be Citywide Poets without Justin. His whole heart can be seen in the program.” – LaShawn Smith-Wright