Anova using spoken word to give London teens a voice

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London poet Holly Painter (left) will be working with staff at Anova, including director of community programs Jane McGregor, on Poetry in Action, an initiative to use spoken word to increase knowledge and conversations around consent and sexual violence.

With the experiences of teenagers often being overlooked as typical high school drama, the staff at Anova is giving them an opportunity to share their voices through the use of spoken word poetry.

On July 11, Anova announced the creation of Poetry in Action, a project grounding spoken word poetry in issues of healthy relationships and consent.

With $30,000 in grant funding through the Ontario Arts Council (OAC)’s Creative Engagement Fund, Anova (formerly Sexual Assault Centre London and Women’s Community House) and local poet Holly Painter will use spoken word to increase knowledge and conversations around consent and sexual violence amongst local youth over the next two years.

Jane McGregor, Anova director of community programs, said Poetry in Action stems from the province’s sexual violence and harassment action plan, It’s Never Okay, which also lines up with the organization’s youth programming.

“We found the synergy (with spoken words) several years ago,” she said. “It’s a way of grounding the topic and having a private moment in writing, but you’re also able to flesh out an actual story through it. And of course, it’s catchy right now, the youth like it.”

For Painter — who is both director of the London Poetry Slam, as well as national director of Spoken Word Canada — her own experiences as the Safe Schools Artist in Residence at Thames Valley District School Board, not to mention countless community engagements, has provided her expertise in using spoken word poetry as a tool for education and advocacy to empower youth in creating change.

“I’m obviously biased, but I feel spoken word is a fantastic art form for this kind of thing. I think it mixes personal story with advocating for important causes,” Painter said. “It means not only students who’ve had these experiences can be involved. We’re encouraging them all to have a voice on these topics. Spoken word and advocating for those things go hand-in-hand in my world.”

The program involves reaching out to 125 students at six different schools, three of which would be rural schools.

Students would each have three sessions, including an initial introduction to spoken word and some capacity building with an Anova facilitator who would come in and speak about consent and rape culture.

The second session would be continuing those conversations and helping students create either a collaborative spoken word piece, or several spoken word pieces. The third session will see them working with a videographer to film a short video that would be shared on social media and potentially used within the school.

With over 40 years of experience in preventing and supporting survivors of sexual violence, Anova staff know the importance of having these conversations with youth as over half (58 percent) of Canadian sexual assault survivors are under the age of 18.

Sexual harassment is also prevalent as 36 percent of boys and 46 percent of girls in Grade 9 reported that they experience unwanted sexual comments, jokes and gestures.

McGregor said “about half of high school youth” are experiencing sexual violence in some capacity — either experiencing it or witnessing it.

“What does a healthy sexual relationship look like? Statistically speaking they’re sexually active within high school, so if you only do this in university, you’ve missed the point,” she said. “We want a normalization in the sense we can talk about healthy sex and the resources available when that’s not happening. Journeys are different for everyone, so this is a tool, a tool kids can use so their voice can be heard.”

McGregor said “the plan” is to launch Poetry in Action in classrooms this September, although she added there are still “some administrative steps” that are being worked on.