CEEAS | Words Unlocked
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Words Unlocked

Poetry Winners 2017
Words Unlocked Anthologies
The Podcast Project

Words Unlocked

We believe it is critical that students in secure settings have the chance to explore literature and unlock their creative talents in writing. So, in April 2013, as a part of National Poetry Month, we launched Words Unlocked, a month-long poetry initiative for students held in juvenile justice facilities. The response was terrific: Over 500 students held in 30-plus youth facilities around the country participated. Chelsea Clinton and R. Dwayne Betts (among others) served as judges in the final round of a national poetry competition, and the winning poems were published online.


When we ran Words Unlocked for a second time in April 2014, hundreds of students once again shared their stories and their writing talent. In 2014 we introduced the theme “Boundaries” to the initiative and had two new poets, Josh Lefkowitz and Joaquin Zihuatanejo, join Chelsea Clinton as judges. During those first two years, Words Unlocked was supported by several local and national nonprofits that encourage creative writing and poetry, including Young Chicago Artists and InsideOut Writers.


Aaron Martin, the winning poet from Words Unlocked 2014, was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition on June 8, 2014. Click here to listen to the story.


For Words Unlocked 2015 our lead judge was poet, novelist, and memoirist Jimmy Santiago Baca! He was joined by Dwayne Betts, Josh Lefkowitz and Victoria Sammartino. The theme for 2015 was Transformation. Words Unlocked 2015 was a resounding success. More than 1,300 students submitted poems, the most ever.


In 2016, we once again had over 1,000 students submit poems. In addition, at two sites we collaborated to help students and staff produce podcasts featuring student poems and interviews.  Click here to visit the Words Unlocked Podcast page.  In addition, a number of student poems were featured on NPR’s All Things Considered with Michel Martin.


For 2017, the Words Unlocked theme was Authenticity. Students from across the country once again shared their stories through poetry.  In 2017, our reviewing artists included past judges Jimmy Santiago Baca and E. Dwayne Betts, as well as new reviewing artist and New Orleans resident, Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa. The 2017 Podcast Project features poems and interviews with students from a small detention center in Palmer, Alaska and students from New Orleans, Louisiana.

This year’s theme is Multiformity! Multiformity is the quality of existing in many different forms and speaks to the complexity of human being. We exist through the eyes of ourselves and others – as sons, daughters, inmates, scholars, friends, artists, detainees, fathers, mothers, and much more. Through Words Unlocked we hope to encourage young people held in locked facilities to voice their truths about being shaped along the way and seeking harmony in multiformity. Click to receive Words Unlocked Updates.


All materials for the initiative are available at our Words Unlocked website, which will house a robust set of tools available for public use: daily lesson plans and teacher-ready classroom materials. Check back often, as we will continue adding material! Please share the website with anyone who might help get these materials to teachers working with incarcerated youth. We hope to have thousands of students kicking off Words Unlocked 2018 on Monday, April 2nd.

If you are interested in learning more about Words Unlocked, please email Christy Sampson-Kelly.


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