Can a nonprofit startup revive slam poetry?
Can a nonprofit startup revive slam poetry?
Nonprofit founder and budding slam impresario Ron Livingston seems to think so. The energetic Camden native thinks that building a nationwide slam-poetry circuit is a perfect way to get Help Chip In, his fledgling marketing organization, off the ground. And he’s partnering with other nonprofits – not to boost his new venture, but to send recognition their way. So how does the 30-year-old Newark resident plan to pull it all off?
In its 90’s heyday, slam poetry was hailed as an energetic new forum for urban voices. But after Def Poetry Jam ended its five-year HBO run in 2007, it’s been hard to find slam on the cultural radar. But Livingston still remembers how slam functioned for him and the kids he grew up with: as a way to blow off steam and find rare moments of connection. “We used to stay up mad late, it used to come on at 1 o’clock in the morning on HBO,” he recalls. “We’d be 7 or 8 deep watching Def Poetry Jam and then we’d try to do our own slam poetry. I grew up in a group home, so it was like 12, 15, 17 of us sometimes.”
“Imagine Camden, New Jersey, you’re in a group home, it’s legitimately the craziest kids in Camden without a doubt. Community out of chaos for one or two hours until it all fell apart again, before there was a fight over who’s the best. You also heard from a lot of people how they really felt. Something that in everyday conversation you weren’t going to get.”
Despite persisting as a vital underground art form, with intimate links to communities of color, slam has seen scant recognition from the nonprofit sector. It’s a connection that makes perfect sense to Livingston, however. “Nobody in philanthropy is really looking at the poets, but those are the rabble-rousers, those are the people who push out words and get people to do actions,” he explains.
With Help Chip In, he’s trying to push even more. It’s Livingston’s cause-related marketing company, pairing small enterprises with nonprofit organizations to get businesses moving and raise funds and awareness for the charities. There’s an e-commerce component where merchants can post goods and services and pledge part of the purchase price to benefit local nonprofits. It’s a formula that can motivate consumers to open their wallets and let businesses get in front of the public for doing good.
Help Chip In is also an event promotion group that splits the door with worthy causes. Their first event was, you guessed it, a New York poetry slam on October 23rd. Tickets were priced to move at $10, and half the entry fee went to one of Livingston’s nonprofit partners. They’re more than just groups he picked out of a hat – they’re organizations he’s worked with in the past and that are close to his heart. “I wanted my very first event to be surrounded by people I know, trust, and care about,” he says.
I spoke with Livingston in the kitchen at the Centre for Social Innovation, the Manhattan social-enterprise hub where he volunteers. When we sat down in the Centre’s main room on a recent Tuesday afternoon, activity was buzzing around us as people grabbed coffee from the nearby kitchen and gathered to huddle around laptops. He sat at the center of the Centre, dispensing advice, jokes and handshakes as people passed by. It’s clear that he’s found a platform where he can reach out to a whole community of like-minded nonprofits. Two of those groups – Project Art and Drive Change – will benefit from Livingston’s upcoming event.
Project Art founder Adarsh Alphons was expelled from elementary school for drawing and now offers free art classes to NYC public-school students. “I was the main volunteer at the Center for Social Innovation when Adarsh walked in,” Livingston says. “I gave him his tour, he loved the space, we stayed friends, and the rest is pretty much history.”
As for Drive Change, Livingston’s friendship with founder Jordyn Lexton was a spark, but their mission – training and hiring formerly incarcerated youth to work on a locally-sourced food truck – fueled his desire to work with them. As he puts it, “I connected a lot with some of the people who work on the Drive Change trucks. Some of them are from Jersey – me and the guys from Drive Change have a lot of the same stories. We’re not necessarily from perfect homes.”
Even if they won’t be in NYC for the October 23rd slam, people who want to help Help Chip In won’t be missing out. They can go to helpchipin.com and sign up to bring a Help Chip In slam to their city, because Livingston is already looking to take his organization – and his slam nights – national. He says that if he can connect poetry with social purpose in New York, it’ll be a natural connection to make across the country. “I think that the same groups of people, the people who are grassroots activists, who are really going to do something, are the same people who go to poetry slams and are poets themselves. They’re people on the ground, they have an understanding of what it takes to make things happen.”