Phoenix Rysing

Johnae Callins, 16, was supposed to turn in a monologue to her creative writing teacher on Monday, September 9th. She’s a member of RAW Talent, an afterschool creative writing program co-founded by Molly Raynor and Donte Clark. But the eleventh grader never finished the piece. She was interrupted the day before it was due by a text from her mother. “Derrick’s gone,” it read.

Callins sat and stared at the text message, unbelieving.

“What you mean Derrick gone?” said Callins. “He ain’t gone – I just seen him!”

Although the two were not related by blood, Callins considered 21 year-old Derrick Wilson family. Wilson’s uncle was her godfather and the two spent a lot of time together growing up. Callins called him “cuz.”

According to the Richmond Police Department, Wilson was shot in the streets of the Iron Triangle neighborhood on September 7th. He died the following day.

Strangely enough, Wilson’s death came two weeks into “Phoenix Rysing,” a bi-weekly intensive writing workshop, specifically created by RAW Talent and the California Shakespeare Theater to address the trauma of losing loved ones to violence.

“RAW Talent has always served as a space where young people can process their trauma through creative expression, but we had never explicitly discussed the impact of grief or explored specific methods of healing before,” said co-founder, Raynor.

Callins’ recent trauma is a test of the program – can something as seemingly insubstantial as spoken word poetry counteract the hard reality of bullets and death?

The night after hearing of Wilson’s death, Callins woke up at 4 am, shell-shocked. “I wasn’t even thinking, my mind was just blank.”

“I’m just looking at myself like damn… do I matter to the world? Cause he mattered to me. He mattered a whole lot to the world – so am I next to go? How can somebody that was so loved and is so thought about go like that?” Callins asked. “I’m going to school. Honor roll. Am I finna get killed?”

With long black wavy locks and a calm, collected demeanor, Callins comes across as wiser than her years. Like all the young poets at RAW Talent, she is no stranger to violence. She lost a cousin, a friend, and an uncle to gun violence before Wilson was killed in early September in Richmond.

When RAW Talent staff were presented with the idea for Phoenix Rysing by the California Shakespeare Theater who wanted to collaborate around the theme of their upcoming play, they were worried students would be scared to come to a workshop where they would have to face their pain head on. “But, on the contrary, 10-15 young people have showed up consistently, eager to talk about their feelings and practice healing through writing,” said Raynor.

Still, it’s not always easy. At one workshop, RAW Talent staff member William Hartfield asked students to close their eyes and visualize a peaceful place where they could let go of all the stresses of their daily life. But when asked to share their experience, several participants had trouble.

Callins admitted she didn’t want to close her eyes.

Another workshop participant, Jamaya Walker, said, “I literally blocked everything out… I don’t cry anymore. I don’t like to remember. I make myself sick when I cry, cause when I cry I get flashbacks.”

“The most common thing they have said when asked why they came is: ‘I make myself numb to the pain because it’s too hard to face it, but I’m worried that I’ll never heal if I don’t let myself feel,’” said Raynor. “I think it takes a huge amount of self-awareness and bravery to do the emotional work they are committed to doing.”

On September 20th, the Phoenix Rysing workshop culminated in a performance dedicated to Dimarea Young, a member of the class who had been killed.

At the performance, one student read with icy conviction about her failure of a mother, a pair of students read tag-team about an absent, alcoholic father, and another read about the PTSD caused by constantly living in fear of being shot. Callins showed up late, after the speakers and camera crew left. She read to the last stragglers in the room.

Broken hearted. Cold hearted. Broken bodies. Cold bodies.
I lost count of the citizens from this society that lost other blood to the cracked up concrete,
While the bullets sank deeper into where they were hit.
Kaiser paramedics take eternity and they end up covering them with a white sheet.
Bloody brown skin simmering over white meat.
Richmond, tell me, why do you hate all my people?

While there’s no way to know for sure how Callins is coping, she credits RAW Talent with giving her a space to process and keeping her sane. “I feel like I have a family here at RAW Talent,” she said. “Everything I can’t say, I can write. And then that’s when it comes out.”

“While there are many people in the Richmond community working hard to end this cycle, the mindset of revenge is deeply entrenched,” said Raynor. “To forgive, in my opinion, is the most powerful healing thing we can do,” she told students at the workshop.

Callins is still working on the monologue that Wilson’s killing interrupted, and since RAW Talent rolled these workshops into their permanent schedule, she’ll have the time.

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I met Red at a Burger King in Richmond, California across the street from the welfare office, Friday September 7th. Red is 20 years old, was born at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, but grew up all over the East Bay: Oakland, Richmond, and Antioch. He is the middle child – with a younger brother in school and an older brother hustling in the streets like him. He also has two half brothers, they have different fathers. His mother was incarcerated when he was growing up, but he doesn’t know why. Him and his brother went to visit her once, he recalls, when he was “too young to know what feelings were.” His father was out of the picture. He hasn’t seen him in years. When he did see him it was a brief encounter, Red says, he saw him in traffic, in the streets.

Red was raised mostly by his auntie, who made sure he ate and had clothes on his back, but didn’t really care if he went to school or not. As a kid, he says he didn’t have any role models or dreams for what he wanted to be when he got older. He dropped out of high school after freshman year and insists it wouldn’t have mattered if he stayed in school or not, because all he needed to make it in the streets was the ability to count his money and read. He says beyond that, the teachers don’t really teach anything – they just go to school to get their paycheck. He doesn’t regret dropping out.

They had him in and out of juvenile hall and on an ankle monitor for getting caught stealing – once it was breaking into a car. He cut off the ankle monitor to hustle some more and make money and got caught again. Red told me he got out of jail last Thursday – and that he was in for parole violation – for not reporting back to his P.O. He has to report to his P.O. for several years – occasionally take a urine test.

When he dropped out Red’s life consisted of “chasing money, females, getting’ high, that’s it.” The worst part of this life he says is that you can put your trust in somebody and they might cross you in the long run and hurt your feelings, do something scandalous, or kill you. But all his friends are doing the same thing he is – living the street life.

On a good day, Red told me he dreams of making money as a Hip-Hop artist and wants to put out an album soon. On a bad day, he told me “I don’t know what my dreams is no more. Me and my family keep getting into it so, I don’t know. I really never had my family anyway, I always had the streets as my family.” Everyone on the street seems to know Red, as he spends much of his time outside Bart stations throughout the Bay, selling half-price Bart tickets, grass, pills, and liquor. At heart, he is a sweet young man; he looks out for his family and his boys. He even asks me to text him when I get home so he knows I’m safe. And doesn’t talk about it much, but Red converted to Islam two years ago.

Maybe 3-4 nights a week he stays at his mom’s, but he tries to avoid staying there because he doesn’t always get along with her. Other nights he’ll stay up all night partying, or in the streets, sometimes he’ll sleep in a friends car, or in a hotel. He says that maybe he’ll consider going back to school to get his diploma, but he’s not sure.