I graduated from Michigan State University in May 2011 with a heart full of hope.
In my last semester at MSU, I delivered an original poem entitled “Legion” for the Wells Hall groundbreaking ceremony. I was thankful to receive an invitation to the spring sports banquet as a result of my recitation at Wells Hall. It seemed as if so many of my dreams were finally bearing fruit.
The MSU Slam Poetry Team, which I founded in the fall of 2007, grew from four poets who met at Biggby Coffee once a week to a family of over 30 poets, many of whom are sought out for performances in East Lansing, throughout Michigan, and across the country. As my senior year came to a close, I was elated to have been selected as the Most Outstanding Senior, via the Richard Lee Featherstone Prize. That feeling was equaled only by delivering a commencement speech to my fellow College of Arts and Letters graduates.
I was accepted to Pennsylvania State University’s English master’s program and enrolled the following fall. In my time at Penn State, I focused my course of study on African, Caribbean, and African American literature and culture. Outside of the English department, I studied intensive French in Penn State’s Summer Language Institute, as well as Kiswahili. I selected these two languages because of my interest in Africa’s educational, economic, and political structures.
At Penn State, I was able to expand my repertoire of teaching experience. As a lecturer for English 15: Rhetoric and Composition, I was tasked with supporting the development of students’ skillful articulation of ideas, generating syllabi, and evaluating students’ performance. These tasks, along with a bit of freshman orientation, were also a part of my involvement in LEAP (Learning Edge Academic Program), a summer semester program for rising Penn State University Park freshmen. LEAP students take two courses the summer after graduating high school and are paired with a mentor in order to ease their transition into life at Penn State University.
This spring, I enrolled in Agricultural, Economical, and Community Development in Africa (with PSU professor Dr. Janelle Larson), a course designed to educate students in preparation for a three-week stay in Nyeri, Kenya, at the Children and Youth Empowerment Center in the village of Thunguma.
The CYEC is an orphanage/community that houses nearly 200 youth who have been displaced for a host of reasons. The youth range in age from about five years of age up to their early 20s, with the majority of the youth concentrated in the younger range. The older youth have various business enterprises, including: haymaking, beekeeping, jewelry making (one youth makes jewelry from electronic waste!), painting, and so on. The younger youth work at the center (cleaning, cooking, building, etc.) in order to help maintain the center, and in exchange for small goods (extra shirts, a toy, etc.).
The first two weeks of my stay were spent facilitating Eco-Village Planning Workshops. The CYEC is hoping to expand to two additional sites, Lamuria and Othaya, in order to serve more youth. I brought together members of the local community to generate a plan for the sustainable development of these two areas, which are entirely undeveloped in terms of electricity, water, housing, and the like. We were able to set priorities (stop digging in the quarry to prevent erosion, create a fence for livestock and crops, and more).
I chose to extend my stay in Kenya to approximately two months, so that I might implement several art/education programs for the youth here. Thus far, I’ve been able to set up an art therapy program, and am in the process of developing a 15-week sports and arts program that teaches leadership through theater, poetry, music, and sports.
Another of my ongoing projects at the CYEC is connecting the youth with potential donors (The Zawadi Fund). This involves facilitating sessions in which the youth write a short letter about themselves and their life and create an original work of art for their potential sponsor. The youth are excited to share their stories with the outside world.
Though these children have heart-wrenching stories to tell (of abandonment, of abuse, of neglect), what endures is their joy, their appreciation for life. We live simply here at the CYEC. We live well. The youth treat one another as an extended family of brothers and sisters. What the children were refused by their parents, they create for one another, with the help of the amazing staff of volunteers here.
My current work in Kenya is helping me to prepare for yet another Kenyan adventure. I was recently awarded a Fulbright Award, which will allow me to travel to Nairobi to function as an English instructor in a university setting. My immersive Kiswahili and Kenyan cultural experiences this summer are helping to prepare me to teach in a new and exciting setting. During my next stay in Kenya, I plan to continue to support the CYEC and serve part time as a lecturer at Mt. Kenya University, where I was recently offered a teaching opportunity.
Throughout my post-MSU career, I have sustained my passion for poetry and spoken word. I participated regularly in The PSU MFA Reading Series, which brings together Penn State’s fiction, non-fiction, and poetry artists for a monthly celebration of the written word. Outside of the PSU community, I continue to participate in MSU Slam Team events. The Old School Voices Only Duel has become an annual event that continues to draw hundreds of audience members. The inaugural OSVOD was (at its time) the largest first-time MSU UAB event of its type, drawing several hundred people from the MSU and East Lansing communities as spectators and participants alike.
I continue to travel and perform my poetry throughout the country. Even with the rigors of graduate school, I’ve traveled to East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit, New York, and Washington, DC, multiple times for various poetry engagements. I recently returned to my hometown of Detroit in order to give a workshop and reading to the Detroit City Wide Poets, a group with whom I began my career as a performance artist.
And I was also able to return to my alma mater in order to record an original piece entitled “Schooled,” that focuses on the experiences of difference, alienation, community and fraternity that are part and parcel of undertaking an education at a large American university. The poem is inspired by my time at MSU as well as that of my friends and colleagues. I’ve learned that difference can be a tangible obstacle. Yet, on the other side of the fear of the unfamiliar, there are great things. I dedicate myself to celebrating what makes each of us different and using that difference as a tool to create, educate, and travel the world.
See more from William Lanford: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxLdmNTjld8