Members of the local spoken-word scene gathered at Victory Gardens Theater Monday night to discuss an issue many say is plaguing their community: sexual violence.
According to the event’s organizer, poet Nikki Patin, at least five teaching artists and one spoken-word artist have been accused of sexual violence against students in the past ten years. None of the allegations were made public.
“In the spoken-word world you have people who are seen as celebrities—they have cultural currency and power, a good or bad word from them goes a long way,” Patin says. “The dynamic [of the sexual assaults] is between very young women and very powerful men; some have been fired, but as far as their cultural currency, it’s still intact.”
The group of 30 or so people discussed how to vet volunteers and teaching artists, how to implement consent workshops for youths—so they know when a mentor is crossing a line—and how to put a mandated reporting system in place for when these incidents happen.
Representatives from the local nonprofit Rape Victim Advocates were also on hand to counsel survivors, although none came forward.
Patin says that it’s been a decade since she reported a male teaching artist and professional poet who allegedly raped a 16-year-old female student. The teacher was fired, but remained in the poetry community, Patin says. Patin then found herself blacklisted. She said she wants to hold frequent town hall meetings to support others who haven’t spoken up for fear of meeting a similar fate.
A young poet who goes by the name Plus Sign described an experience similar to Patin’s; he said he tried to report incidents of sexual assault, only to be met with silence and alienation from members of his community.
“In the past couple years I spoke out about a predator in the community, and it ruined a bunch of my friendships that I had for years,” he said. “It’s the ironic thing of being poets, but maintaining public silence. In general it’s been a very scary and sad time.”
Billy Tuggle, cohost of the Rogers Park mike In One Ear, said he’s tried to create safe spaces and positive mentor/mentee relationships.
“Known sexual predators will be asked to not participate in our show,” he says. “As a mentor to a lot of poets who come up through YCA and Louder Than a Bomb, I feel like it’s my responsibility to look out for those youths.”
Patin added that she didn’t want these town hall meetings to turn into witch hunts; instead, she hopes to put in place a system that will prevent future assaults in the spoken-word community.
“Acknowledging out loud that this is happening in our community is the first step to fixing the problem,” she said.