The teens of Movement 515 use art to handle adversity and encourage social change among their peers

Words by Mia Rush
Video by Geoff Daley and Turner Olson

It was 4 p.m. on Thursday. The handball court of the Des Moines Social Club was lined with folding chairs. Every seat was occupied, leaving only standing room in the corner by the door for those who arrived late. The room was dark, illuminated by a projector in the center.

A woman dressed in all black stood next to the screen. She explained that the lesson of the day would be about the literary device, anaphora, describing it as a deliberate repetition of a beginning phrase to effect.

White sheets of paper containing lyrics to Chance the Rapper’s “Interlude (That’s Love)” were passed around the room. The song, filled with anaphora, echoed around the room as the teens sung along and emphasized their favorite lines. Chance exemplifies the impact that can be made by one person writing songs about issues that affect youth.

The Movement

Run DSM was founded in 2012 by Emily Lang and Kristopher Rollins, both public school teachers in Des Moines, Iowa. Its name is a play on words of the rap group Run-DMC, and its mission is to use poetry, graffiti and dance to get students to express themselves and connect to the  larger community as they work to handle social adversity.

Movement 515, a writing workshop that stems from the Run DSM network of programs, is composed of students from the Des Moines metro. For some of the students, involvement in Movement 515 came at a time when they were lost and had nowhere to turn.

“Movement really helped me and guided me and gave me a safe place to be able to express myself,” said Parris Robinson, a member of Movement 515. “It helped me find a way to not be such an angry child and share my stories with everybody else through spoken word.”

For others, the experience with Movement has enhanced aspects of themselves they are most proud of, as they become more self confident, self-loving and active in a social climate where stigmas are placed on certain communities regardless of age, status and privilege.

“We’ve learned how to resist in an intelligent way rather than just saying, ‘No, I don’t like that,’” said Maddie Johnson, another member. “We’ve learned how to be smart about it and surprise people with the way that we handle adversity.”

Reclaiming Spaces

Over the decades, social, cultural and political movements have been essential to the way artists express themselves.

Such movements highlight the importance of stepping up, being loud about your passions and unafraid to confront the opposition. “We go against the grain sometimes, like you get on stage and you don’t know if people are going to like what you say,” said Elhondra Brazzle, a Movement 515 member. “Of course you, you’re writing for yourself, but also to heal other people.” Without art, healing and community building may never happen.

“It’s giving us this pathway to feel like we belong, to feel like we’re loved and something loves us back,” said Jalesha Johnson, another member.

Teen Summit

Each year, the students of the Urban Leadership Class, an offshoot of Run DSM and Movement 515, emphasize what it means to be an unapologetic youth. The Teen Summit is led by students in the Urban Leadership Class, and brings together over 100 teens from Des Moines metro schools as they learn about four social justice issues. This year’s topics were rape culture, “black girl magic,” self-love, and living under a Donald Trump administration.  

The aim of these town halls is to educate other teens on the issues, and then let them be free to express how they feel without a filter. “After you learn about all the issues that are affecting you (and other teens), you learn how to express yourself creatively and work yourself through that trauma,” Jalesha Johnson said.

“It’s like spitting in the face of the enemy because, you know, women are not supposed to be leaders…or disabled people like me are not supposed to be a leader to society,” Kevin Ha said. “Whoever it may be, we’re not the norm, and it feels so great to be able to resist by just being ourselves—by existing.”

It was 1 p.m. on Saturday. The performing arts hall of Drake University was packed. A man dressed in dark jeans and a suit jacket took the stage. He explained that young poets were going to spit what they had written addressing topics of sexual assault, race, politics, and self-image.  Every seat was occupied, leaving only standing room along the walls. The room was dark, illuminated by a projector on stage and a spotlight. The faint sound of Chance the Rapper’s “Interlude (That’s Love)” hummed around the room.