It didn’t take me long to see the light in poet Donté Clark. I think it was the minute he bounced out of the terminal at the Akron Canton Airport, fresh off of an eight hour travel day from his hometown of Richmond, California. His eyes held such genuineness and love that I immediately felt the need to hug him as I welcomed him for his appearance at the Canton Film Festival. Our only communication had been by text just a few hours earlier, so hugging him may have seemed a little forward. If you had been a witness in the airport atrium that evening, you may have thought we had been friends forever. But Té is that kind of person, with such a love for people and and a genuine desire to connect, that it literally jumps out of his body and into the souls of those who are open to receiving his light.
But I was only beginning to recognize that when I welcomed him off of the plane and into the world of Canton, Ohio. While our only connection had been that day as we communicated about the logistics of his travel, I had actually reached out to him via email about a month earlier, after the first of what would be a series of incidents of violence in our city. In my email, I had explained the similarities I saw between Canton and Richmond as I previewed the documentary Romeo is Bleeding in preparation for its showing during the Film Fest. Directed by Jason Zeldes, the film follows Donte and his fellow members of RAW Talent, a spoken word and performing arts program filled with students who grew up in the streets of Richmond, a city with a history of violent crime and gang activity. Romeo Is Bleeding documents the journey of Té, Molly (his former teacher and mentor) and their students as Té takes on the role of rewriting William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet into a play the RAW Talent team will perform to reflect the issues of Richmond and try to send a message of love and peace. The film is beautifully made, as the history of Richmond’s violent reputation is interwoven with the real life drama that takes place over the course of writing the play and bringing it to life. If you ever get a chance to see Romeo Is Bleeding, don’t pass it up.
“You wrote me that email?” he said in the car as we drove down I-77, past The Strip, Belden Village Mall and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to get him checked into his hotel. “I didn’t have a chance to write you back, but it’s been weighing on me.”
It was not the response I expected. In all honesty, I kind of regretted the email after I hit “send”, thinking “Why would he care about what is happening with kids in a community 2,000 miles away?”
But Donte does care. And he demonstrated that over and over again during the 36 hours he spent in Canton.
He demonstrated it in the way he listened to and asked questions of the high school students I took him to meet, kids who are just learning to discover their own light. I asked the students to share with Té what they thought needed to happen to make Canton a better place for the next generation. I watched as he listened intently to each response, then spoke back to the kids so passionately, challenging them to be the change they thought was needed in the city.
He demonstrated it as we dropped by the celebration dinner for volunteers of the Our Minds Matter Urban Teen Summit, which had been held the previous Saturday. The Summit, an event of The Grace Initiative of CommQuest, focuses on helping urban teenagers and young adults to learn to talk about issues they are facing in their lives. Again, I asked each of the volunteers to introduce themselves to Donte and share what they thought needed to happen to make Canton a better place. Most of the volunteers are people who have grown up in the city. They were eager to share their concerns and their thoughts, probably because they aren’t asked for their opinions often enough. Again, Donte listened intently to each person, absorbing every word that was said and then passionately sharing his vision for creating change in his community.
In every situation, in every conversation, in every discussion about our city, Té radiated with genuineness and light.
And, as I watched, I began to worry about him.
Because light like that is vulnerable. It takes a great deal of energy to feel things so deeply and to give yourself over to people and communities in the way that Té does. He recognizes his ability to educate and inspire people and is working desperately to use his light to illuminate places of darkness around the country and around the world.
When we have people like that in the world, it is our duty to take care of them.
How? By making sure our own lights are burning at full force. And by returning energy to him through our own action.
If you were one of the kids or one of the adults who spent time with Té that day, or who attended the movie and the Q & A, hopefully you saw that light and felt that energy. So what will you do next? How will you put your light to work? What action will you take? How will you be the change you want to see?
Because Donte Clark needs you.
In one of the texts I received from Donte after his visit to Canton, he said, “Often times I forget or find hard times believing the light is still around me. I want to be a light. This trip has really enriched my life. I felt a source of power come over me in each discussion.”
Being in Canton mattered. His time with you mattered. You fed that light while he was here. And you can continue to feed that light as it makes an even bigger impact on the world.
Canton has not seen the last of Donte Clark.
There is a connection here and it’s up to us to feed it.
So the question is, what will we do next?