Team Ann Arbor

Team Ann Arbor

About the Team

Ann Arbor, the quintessential college town, is set on the banks of the Huron River in the idyllic rolling hills and valleys of Central Michigan. Despite the town's charming nature, true stories of kidnapping, abandonment and sexual identity surface during writing sessions. Personal, academic and at times humorous, the Ann Arbor team's performance style is more "on the page" and less "slam." However, the writing these poets produce under the guidance of mentor Jeff Kass is both brilliant and nuanced.

The University of Michigan plays a central role in the lives of these teenagers, facilitating an environment that nurtures the arts and self-expression. Coach Jeff Kass is also a part of the world of academia, teaching creative writing at a local high school and leading poetry workshops at The Neutral Zone, a safe space for youth and the location of Ann Arbor's team workshops. The workshops are where these writers formulate ideas about what they want to say to the world outside of their Middle American community. Brave New Voices will provide them with a stage to reach a new audience.

About the Coach

Jeff Kass, a Yale graduate and former champion poet, is a creative writing teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. He describes their community as coursing with the lifeblood of the University of Michigan and cultural renaissance, but also a place where economic disparity can lead to classroom tension. "There are 2,800 students [in Pioneer] and you've got some kids who are coming from a homeless shelter and don't always know where their next meal is going to come from," he says. "And then you've got kids who are driving $60,000 SUVs, they've got two or three cell phones and iPods, and they're wearing $1,000 worth of clothes on their body. These kids are sitting next to each other in the classroom."

The Contenders

Ben Alfaro
Carolyn Blessing
Fiona Chamness
Aimee Le
Marshall Thomas
Anthony Zick

Ben Alfaro

This Middle American high school senior spits about being caught between the expectations and realities of manhood, family and justice. In eighth grade, his first poem was about the genocide in Darfur. But his signature poem "Young, Gifted & Fat" was inspired after he listened to Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted & Black." Ben embraced the idea of taking the negativity around a social identity and making it something to be proud of and something to respect.

Ben has a unique take on his experience as a child of the new millennium. "When September 11th happened, I was in the sixth grade," he says. "It took me a long time to digest what it really meant. I remember being scared and watching every single station playing the same ten-second clip." He adds, "As I grew up and understood the situation more, I'm more scared of getting beaten up by a cop coming home from school than I am from being blown up in a building. The realities of what fear is for me as a teenager in America are so different from fears of being just an American."

At the Ann Arbor regionals, Ben exposed the story of his broken home and the promise of his future. He's worked with his team to portray the manhood ritual of high school sports. Then at Brave New Voices, Ben and Team Ann Arbor unite to bring their hearts and truth to the BNV stages.

Carolyn Blessing

On the Ann Arbor Slam stage, Carolyn performed poignantly about the death of her grandmother and the value of getting to know people across social divides. She is an accomplished dancer and a community activist in the groups Peace Jam and Students Educating Each other about Diversity (SEED). Giving back is important to Carolyn. "I do consider myself privileged and I have a lot of guilt about that," she says. "There's a whole concept of white guilt. If you sit on top of privilege and do nothing, it's wasted. But if you use privilege to benefit other people, then that's what matters."

As for her entree into spoken word and poetry slams, Carolyn says, "I've been writing since I was little. But I [never] really developed this poetry part of me until this year, taking Jeff Kass's creative writing class. Incidents in my life that have changed me definitely come out in my writing [because] it's how I express myself."

Carolyn is one of the most vocal proponents of social change in her school community. With the support of her team and coach, she is bringing her perspective as a young woman in America to the Brave New Voices festival in Washington, DC.

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