His words are lively and personal and as he speaks the raucous room is hushed. Preteens and teens from the Boys & Girls Club listen closely as Charles Davis ’18 performs an original poem about his childhood. The silence continues for a beat when the poem ends. A girl runs her hands over her arms to warm away the goose bumps.
Davis knows the power of poetry. He’s tapped in.
“Poetry is more than just reciting words or understanding how to use literary devices,” Davis says. “Poetry is life. I write about anything and everything that happens to me, both the good and the bad. Poetry is in me, and I’m thinking about it always.”
Throughout the day, bits and pieces of the things he hears, sees and experiences become fodder for future poems. “Ooh, that’s a poem,” he often says to himself, and then his mind is off and running.
Davis has brought his enthusiasm for poetry to Earlham and the Richmond community. He leads a Poetry Club at the local BGC where about 12 students join Davis to read, analyze, study and write poetry. At Earlham, he initiated a weekly gathering of poets titled The Poetry Power Hour. The group seeks to become an officially recognized campus club.
Earlham students have many opportunities for service and leadership outside the classroom. Students provide more that 25,000 hours of service in the local community. On campus, there are dozens of student clubs and organizations, with more starting all the time. These provide countless opportunities to put their ideas into practice and hone their leadership skills. These are key components of EPIC (Earlham Program for an Integrated Curriculum), a college-wide initiative to help students shape their various learning opportunities into a coherent and cohesive whole. The ultimate goal of EPIC is to help students prepare to apply their knowledge, talents, leadership skills and passion for the social good into rewarding and meaningful lives and careers.
For Davis, poetry became an art form that allowed him to express life’s difficulties with pen, paper and word play.
“The Illinois foster care system is a place I have called home all of my life,” he says. “I never knew my father, and my grandmother was given custody of me at birth. At nine years old I was taken away from my grandmother and placed in foster care.
“The mission of the Department of Children and Family Services is to ensure that after 12 months children return home to the arms of their parents.”
Davis, however, spent more than 120 months in the system.
“This experience, along with my high school, Urban Prep Academies Bronzeville Campus, has molded me into the man I am today.”
Growing up, Davis lived in neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago and watched “the streets get ahold” of his friends, who eventually landed in jail. People expected nothing more from Davis.
“You’re a foster child, and the streets are going to get you,” they told him repeatedly.
“I knew in spite of my situation I had to change my life from the path everyone thought I would end up on,” he says.
He found poetry thanks to his fourth grade English class. Davis recalls that the poems and poetry immediately interested him.
“It was almost like a calling,” he says. He has since written hundreds of poems.
“The poems I wrote in fourth through sixth grade are really bad,” he laughs. “I kept at it, and I’ve improved. By high school, I began to use poetry as a performance art. I use a lot of metaphors. I am not particularly good at telling stories, but my word play is nice. I can get someone’s attention, and when I perform, it is 10 times better. The performance of poetry is everything.”
The Poetry Club at the BGC is partly inspired by the Young Chicago Authors, a program Davis participated in throughout high school.
Davis, an English major and Bonner Scholar, says poetry helped give him important insights about life and people.
“For me growing up in Chicago, poetry was another way of life,” he says. “It was a tool that helped me cope with life. It gives you a voice you don’t otherwise have.
“My favorite poets are Black Ice and Shihan to poets from Def Jam poetry, but there are a lot of local Chicago poets that I look up to that are fantastic. I’m always going to open mics, competitions and watching a lot of performances on YouTube. There’s always a poet or a performance that influences me to work harder.”
Davis is considering law school after Earlham. The friends he watched fall prey to the streets are his inspiration. He recalls their inability to afford effective lawyers after being arrested. Instead they were assigned “overworked and underpaid public defenders.”
His dream of helping others through the legal system already has a foothold. At the summer 2012 National Bar Association’s Crump Law Camp at Howard University Davis participated in a mock trial competition. He won fourth place and was awarded a $5,000 scholarship to John Marshall Law School.
While at Earlham, Davis hopes the weekly campus gathering expands to host and compete at open mic competitions at other colleges and universities. He’ll also keep sharing a love and appreciation of poetry with the kids in Richmond. His heart is with youth, especially those who are in difficult situations.
“I love every day at the Boys & Girls Club,” he says. “I understand that children need mentors and role models. That’s another part of my calling in life. I think Tupac said it best, ‘I don’t want to be a role model; I want to be a real model.’”