On the Horizon: Reflecting on the Importance of Youth Poetry

Sun Park Phoenix


On the Horizon is a spoken word poetry program that was at the center of Voice of Purpose’s work with youth in schools and in communities for many years. It is a prime example of the power of our Purpose Rooted Arts Education pedagogy, which lives at the heart of all of our work in Community Arts.

On the Horizon challenged students to take a look within themselves, and ground in authenticity and honesty. They were guided to consider and reflect on their identities, as well as the social constructs that impacted and influenced their lives.

We spoke about the intersectionality of identity, and gave students space to voice how racism, sexism, homophobia, mental health (among many other things) showed up in their personal lives. We unpacked power, privilege, and oppression, and how these dynamics played out, both in society and in their lived experiences.

Students were encouraged to dive deep and identify things they haven’t had the opportunity to express, and “Take a Stand”. We did this through an exercise and technique we call the “ICT”, which stands for Identify, Connect, and Take a Stand. 

ICT is a powerful tool for helping artists and educators guide their students to make a connection between the Personal and the Systemic. With the spirit of resilience and reclamation of power at the core, this tool helped to open up doors and pathways for healing and Integration.

Integrity, as it relates to artistic technique, is another core component of our pedagogy. Students were taught about the spirit and legacy of spoken word, as we honored this form in its power of providing a platform for vulnerable voices. Students were taught not only poetic techniques, but also about the roots of Spoken Word Poetry in acknowledging and honoring the important history of Black Art and Culture. 

Each student was assigned to write a poem that spoke to their own personal experiences, and present it to their class. Many students chose to write poems about their relationships with their parents, oppression, and social pressures. Some wrote about their struggles with mental health and depression, and bravely gave voice to their fears, vulnerabilities, insecurities, and other matters that were close to their hearts. 

They were witnessed and held in a container of safety that was intentionally built and created over the course of several sessions. 

On many occasions, our classrooms were filled with tears – soon to be followed by hugs, cheers, and an outpouring of support from students toward their peers. They celebrated one another for their vulnerability, and for courageously taking the risk of allowing their real selves to be seen without a mask. 

Many of the students cited the On the Horizon program, or as many of them called it the ‘Spoken Word Unit’, as the highlight of their school year.

The success of this program can be attributed to the integrity and power of Purpose Rooted Arts Education (PRAE), the pedagogical framework that we use for program design and delivery. A part of its success can also be attributed to the power of effective partnership between artist-educators, school teachers, and community-based organizations.

Over the years, Voice of Purpose has partnered with many schools, non-profits, educators, and community arts administrators to deliver our On the Horizon program. One of the strongest partnerships we formed was with UTS, a private school in Toronto, Canada, which is featured in the video presented here. 

Over the course of 5 years, we partnered with the 10th grade English department at UTS to revamp their entire poetry unit to be replaced with our program. 

We developed rubrics and benchmarks, and the students poems were counted toward their final grades. We ran 8 sessions with each of the grade 10 classes at the school, as well as integrated office hours for each of the 100+ students to receive personalized support and feedback for their work. 

This program offering at UTS helped to establish a new foundation for poetic arts at the school. In this way we were able to install a practical solution for addressing the Euro-centric dominance of their curriculum, to integrate an art form that provides a more diverse lens on literary art. The unit still lives on at the school today.

Thousands of students have been touched by the On the Horizon program; we’re proud to say that it has spread over many schools and school districts, from grades 7 up to grade 12. 

Although Voice of Purpose no longer offers direct programming to youth, it is a beautiful moment in our history, and a legacy that we will always cherish as an organization. 

We continue to draw from the lessons we learned in this process, which are integrated into our training and professional development programs for artist-educators, and in our consulting work with Community Arts Organizations.


[Video created by Sheldon Shaw of Potential films]