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For these youths, hip hop
is a key to self-discovery
Picture: Mark HareMark Hare has been a local columnist for the Democrat and Chronicle since 1997. Before that, he was editorial page editor for the afternoon Times-Union, and before that deputy editorial page editor for the Democrat and Chronicle. He began his career there as a reporter in 1984. He is a native of Owego, Tioga County. He is a graduate of St. John Fisher College and the State University at Brockport. He was a high school teacher for six years before switching to journalism.

(September 10, 2006) � "I don't expect to change things for them," says Dale

 Davis. "I hope to give them a moment of grace."

Davis, of Fairport, teaches writing. For almost 30 years, she's been working with high-risk adolescents � in the county jail or children's detention center, or at St. Joseph's Villa, or alternative schools.

MAX SCHULTE staff photographer
Dale Davis of Fairport has taught writing for almost 30 years to high-risk adolescents.

She believes that writing is one of the tools we need to make a better life � not just to get a job, but to make sense of the world and our place in it.

She takes her students where they are. Her medium is hip hop � "the most powerful form of communication there is for young people," she says. Even street kids who can barely read or write can rhyme and can tell a story, she says.

The writing program, The Communication Project, is run by the New York State Literacy Center, which Davis co-founded in 1979, and is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.

Over the years, Davis' students have showcased their work on CDs and in small picture books. "They want a voice," she says. "They want people to listen."

Hip hop is not an end in itself, but the means to an end. There is a connection between violence and a shortage of language skills. Language helps us define our world and control it. Without it, we have chaos � which is fertile ground for violence.

"I'm not Kanye West," she tells them. "But he's not coming here. You'll have to work with an old white woman." And they do.

She encourages them to write rap lyrics, "but there are boundaries," which is part of the lesson. Davis wants them to write about life in Rochester, but they cannot celebrate guns or violence or sexual exploitation.

Their writing is true to their lives. It is not always uplifting. Here are a few examples.

From a song titled, "These are My Final Words:"

I do not fear

My age is twenty,

and I don't think I will ever know

when death is near.

And when I die

my spirit will be free as a bird.

You don't have to read this twice

because these are my final words.

This is from "Why I write:"

I write to relieve stress,

to take away the pain,

to not keep things in...

My mom and dad were on drugs

My mom and dad

never paid any attention to me...

Every night they brought me everything I wanted,

but the precious thing I needed

was their love.

Another explains in a letter why he wants to write:

"When I write I think about my dreams becoming reality ... So I write 'cause I know if I write about everything, how can the pain remain? It can't. It won't. 'Cause when I write, I shall never fall! I'll tell the world that I'm a winner no matter what!"

Writing is a tool; it's an opportunity. When they first start to put their words on paper, the lyrics are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. "I put them all in the computer; I fix all of them and return them," Davis says. "I don't correct the students."

But she wants them to learn the rules because proper grammar and spelling enable readers to understand them.

Writing is hope. "It's their first chance at reflective thinking," she says. "On the streets, it's hustle all the time. No time to think."

There are no guarantees of success for these students, just a chance. A chance they've never had before.