Communication Currents

Promoting Civic Engagement Through Spoken Word Poetry

October 1, 2015
Instructional Communication

One of the goals of education has always been to prepare young people to engage civically, to play a role in the development and maintenance of communities around them. But this is harder said than done. Millennials today are entering adulthood with lower incomes and higher levels of debt and poverty than the two generations before them. Perhaps not surprisingly then, their rate of political participation is low. And while there certainly is evidence of “liking” issues of political importance on social media (commonly referred to as slacktivism), their engaged civic participation does not generally match their virtual behavior.

Perhaps a reason for this, beyond the statistical realities that millennials are largely disaffiliated with traditional political parties, is that cities no longer have clear public spheres devoted to discussion of important political issues. In the past, citizen orators were trained to speak persuasively regarding issues of import and then engaged the public in agoras followed by town halls to discuss and debate political matters. Today, we are faced with myriad social media outlets, but few exist where individuals purposely engage public audiences to raise awareness without broader political (election) or economic (advertising dollars) goals. 

Last year, in an effort to reinvigorate class discussion regarding the power and importance of civic oration, Danny and I began discussing the value of seeing today’s spoken word poets as contemporary citizen orators. Danny’s position as a spoken word poet motivated this research as we discussed and listened to a number of poets speak out about issues ranging from body image to police violence against black men and women. With the power of these contemporary citizen orators’ speech established, we looked for a way to bring it to the classroom.

We know that spoken word venues serve as public spheres of social and political engagement and validation, providing audience members and poets new ways of thinking about and interacting with the world. But in classes where the act of teaching spoken word is not a focus of the class, nor a skill in which students are necessarily interested in engaging, Danny and I worked to find ways to teach the power of spoken word without teaching the practice of spoken word. In other words, we aimed to pique students’ interest in listening to and critiquing spoken word as a way of engaging them in public issues to start larger conversations about political topics of importance. 

To do this, we taught students Quintilian’s “Good Man” theory of civic oration that says a citizen orator is a good person who is 1) free from vice, 2) a believer in what he advocates, 3) in a constant search for wisdom, 4) a servant of the people, and 5) willing to do what is necessary for the betterment of the people. Next, we connected the citizen orator theory to today’s spoken word poet, arguing that the poet manifests many of the characteristics that Quintilian hoped to develop in “the perfect orator.” In this exercise we had students watch the spoken word or slam poetry from events such as CUPSI (College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational) or performances shown by Button Poetry, a poetry performance organization that makes slam poetry easily viewable via YouTube. We then asked students how the concepts being discussed in the poetry helped enlighten, better, or serve the audience. In addition, we asked how the poet’s advocacy for what she believes helped engage the audience. Spoken word poets often share personal mistakes to promote greater understanding about a social issue. As such, we pushed students to “talk back” to Quintilian regarding his “free from vice” characteristic and asked them to make an argument regarding why a man or woman with a vice may be able to serve as a citizen orator in a greater capacity than one without vice. Asking students to draw on the common experience of making mistakes, living with the consequences, and becoming more human as a result generally promoted a very genuine and powerful discussion. In these discussions we tried to connect students directly with Quintilian’s theory while promoting practical questioning about theory as well as social and political issues of import.

After this discussion, we asked students if the poet’s work prompted thoughts about their own lives and beliefs about the topic. If so, after the students had shared, we explained that the poet had accomplished the role of a citizen orator. 

Today’s spoken word poet can promote engagement with and critique of speakers in our community, nation, and world. By exposing students to spoken word and slam poetry, there is the possibility of engaging them in political and social issues to which they have not found a prior connection. In fact, students routinely ask to discuss the material further, and others even become engaged in attending local spoken word events. For example, we received a student email last fall that said, "I just wanted to let you know that after hearing the poetry shared in class today [I was] inspired…. It was one of the most eye-opening things in my life and really hit home. I wanted to thank you for bringing this to me.” Spoken word poetry inspires students to think about political and social issues that have an impact on their generation and is a way we can promote engagement with speech in our classrooms.  

About the author (s)

Celeste C. Wells

Boston College

Assistant Professor

Danny DeLeon

Poet and performer