Ten years later, Writers Block Ink has made its mark

Music director Maya Sheppard performs with Writers Block in  New London in June 2013.
Buy Photo Tim Cook The Day Music director Maya Sheppard performs with Writers Block in New London in June 2013.

After 10 years of "igniting social change on the page and stage," the Writers Block Ink program is ready to celebrate.

On Thursday, its students and organizers will pay tribute to all those who have contributed to more than a decade of successful programming with a red carpet, awards-style show at Connecticut College.

Writers Block annually produces and performs about a dozen original shows that use hip-hop music and dance to engage young people in their social messages. Since its inception, more than 1,000 students have participated in the Writers Block program.

The first Morgan J. Penn Scholarships for Leadership in Social Change will be awarded at Thursday night's event to three students.

Penn, who died in 2011, was one of the founders of Writers Block Ink as a senior at New London High School. She came up with the name of the organization.

"Morgan was an eloquent poet who showed her passion for hip-hop, social change and lifelong learning through her work as an artist, performer, student and educator," says Clarissa Beyah-Taylor, president and founder of Writers Block Ink. "… From the age of 17 through the rest of her young adult life, Morgan was constantly and consistently engaged with youth, education and the arts."

The top award of $1,000 will go to Bishme Sheppard, a senior at Waterford High School, who joined Writers Block at age 10 as an actor and dancer. The youngest of seven, his sister Maya joined Writers Block at age 10 and is now music director at 21. His sister Attallah joined at age 14 and has been director for more than five productions.

Two $500 awards will be given to Chante Parker and Kylah Chadwick, both graduates of New London High Science & Technology Magnet School. Parker is a volunteer with Planned Parenthood and intends to return to New London after college to become a teacher. Chadwick hopes to combine her passion for using fashion to reflect self-esteem with social work focused on women and girls.

A.C.E. awards - given in celebration of arts, community and excellence - will go to Dr. Grace Jones, Dr. Karin Edwards, Ken Kitchings, Dr. John LaMattina, attorney Lonnie Braxton and Lottie Scott.

Community organizations receiving awards are the Garde Arts Center; the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center; FRESH New London; Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication; and New London Public Schools.

Guests include former Congressman Rob Simmons, state Rep. Ernie Hewitt, D-New London, Norwich Mayor Deb Hinchey and New London Mayor Justin Finizio.

Birth of Writers Block

Clarissa Beyah-Taylor is a glowing example of a Writers Block Ink success story. At 16, Beyah-Taylor lost her home to a fire. She attended three different high schools in her junior year, including Waterford. She ran away from home, married at age 18, and became a mother at 19.

A member of the 2000 Connecticut Poetry Slam Team, Beyah-Taylor finished her undergraduate degree while working full time, and received a master's degree in business administration from University of New Haven. She has been married for 20 years, has three children and is a communications executive at General Electric.

Beyah-Taylor says the seeds for Writers Block were planted 12 years ago while she was working with incarcerated juveniles through the statewide program Community Partners in Action.

"I used to be a performance poet and I would go into these facilities with a boom box and a blank piece of paper - literal cell blocks," she recalls. "What I discovered inside most of them were minority males between the ages of 12 and 16. They had a great capacity for lyrics and rapping and taking language and creating rhymes. But they didn't have the ability to pull that together grammatically. Their writing wasn't as advanced as it should be."

After taking a job as director of communications at Pfizer Inc. in New London, she volunteered to write a play with a group of students in the Garde's Institute for Creativity. Called "Warriors Don't Cry," it was based on a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals about integration in the 1950s.

Three of the writers, Penn, Shonrael Lanier and Adriane Jefferson, became founding members of Writers Block Ink. Along with 12 other students, they wrote a piece called "The Battle."

"It was the first original Writers Block play and we didn't have a place to put it on or an infrastructure. So the young women said, 'Let's find a way to form our own company,'" Beyah-Taylor recalls.

For its first three years, Writers Block was headquartered in her Gales Ferry home.

"We'd have dancers in the garage, writers at the kitchen counter and rappers in the basement," she says.

Writers Block next created a board of directors and began renting office space in downtown New London, across from the Garde on State Street.

"We evolved every few years from small office spaces to, four years ago, building our own space to increase the frequency of our performances," Beyah-Taylor says. "We converted an old laundromat into a small theater and, with the help of parents and community volunteers, built a dance floor and a humble stage. We just moved out of that space because we want to expand ... (we) have a whole search team looking for a bigger space."

"My home was destroyed by fire. I was a teenage mom," Beyah-Taylor says. "I know what it's like to be labeled for the color of your skin, gender, race. What's carried me through has been my ability to write and express myself through the arts. I wanted to make sure young people had an artistic outlet and safe place to go."

Writers Block is funded by donations, grants and the revenue generated by performances, she says.

"Having a stage allowed us to increase the frequency of performances, have 'a home away from home,' and increase revenue from $20,000 in 2003 to more than $100,000 by the end of 2013," she says.

"We started with one to three performances a year and had to spend all our money on renting. Every year we've increased revenue by growing our base of supporters and having an increase in performances to generate our own revenue as well." she says. "We shifted from paying for space to investing the money in paying young leaders. Instead of working at McDonalds, they're working at Writers Block, teaching and doing production work.

"We use hip-hop and art as a hook to engage youth," she explains. "Our business model is investing in young leaders and cycling them through from participants to program leaders."

The content of the productions always deals with social issues, Beyah-Taylor stresses.

"It's not 'Footloose' or 'Grease,' she says. "It's teen pregnancy, Darfur, Hurricane Katrina."

Never looking back

Founding student member Adriane Jefferson says that before she got involved in Writers Block, she was a 16-year-old girl who constantly disobeyed her parents, got into fights, and had run-ins with the police.

"Prior to my high school years, I was deemed a great writer but never actually had a consistent outlet laid out for me where I could work on my craft," she says. "In high school, I was really going through a hard time and it got to the point where I felt like I was not living up to my fullest potential and was headed towards a path of destruction. It was in one of my darkest hours that I found Clarissa Beyah-Taylor … I signed up for a writing class and never looked back. I was a part of Writers Block before it was even called Writers Block. I was a part of it when all we had was the vision."

Jefferson says she is certain that she wouldn't be where she is today - personally or professionally - if it weren't for Writers Block.

"The Writers Block was the first place where I realized that I wasn't just a dynamic writer but a person born for the stage," Jefferson says. "Once I got the performing fever, it was something that became a part of me just like the air I breathe.

"It was amazing because I was a person that people didn't feel would even go to college and here I was at Florida Memorial University in Miami learning music theory and music technology. Since my time (as an) undergrad, I went on to become a drama instructor within the Miami school district. I even became the creator and director of my own event called Rhyme Fest, which was created to bridge the gap between hip-hop, urban arts, and the South Florida community."

Jefferson owns an arts and entertainment consulting firm called Vegas Entertainment of Miami. She is also in graduate school at Savannah College of Art and Design and is studying arts administration.

"If I never met Clarissa and had never been a part of the Block, I am pretty sure the path of my life would have been different," she says. "Everything that I am creatively, and in a lot of ways professionally, has stemmed from The Writers Block. I am creative director for summer 2014 and was the creative director summer 2013. Giving back to an organization that has helped to shape me and working with kids that remind me of my 16-year-old self is nothing short of a blessing."

 

Camilla Ross of the Emerson Theater Collaborative works with Writers Block Ink students during an acting workshop.
Courtesy Writers Block Ink Camilla Ross of the Emerson Theater Collaborative works with Writers Block Ink students during an acting workshop.

IF YOU GO

What: The Writers Block Ink Arts Extravaganza and awards ceremony; business, semi-formal or formal attire is encouraged.

When: 6 to 9 p.m., Thursday

Where: Evans Hall, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London

Tickets: $10 students, $20 adults. All proceeds benefit Writers Block Ink. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online at www.writersblockink.org or picked up at Writers Block at 22 Masonic St., New London.

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