Bridges has been an artist in residence in Milwaukee Public Schools, community centers and churches for the past 18 years. Fondé, who’s named after Milwaukee’s Fond Du Lac Avenue, has also created public art projects with students at Fond Du Lac and North, as well as Mitchell Airport.
In 1995, one of his former teachers at Riverside High School called and asked if he would come in and do a poetry workshop for her class. This workshop became the beginning of a lifelong journey marked by a commitment to student literacy. This initial workshop, called Simply Sentences, showed high school sophomores, juniors and seniors how to create a poem. Fondé describes the process as “creating jewelry with words”: every sentence has the potential to be a little work of art.
Fast forward 2 years: Fondé was conducting one of his poetry workshops at Rufus King High School. The workshop ended with a student poetry reading at the Barnes and Noble store in the Bayshore mall. The students were performing in front of a live audience for the first time. Fondé remembers a young man who performed a poem about his brother and himself, their experiences in foster care, and his love for his brother. The poem brought the audience to tears. Fondé describes this experience as the moment when he realized how much he loved sharing the magic of poetry with kids.
Five years later, while working with 6-8th graders at Know Thyself, Fondé asked students to provide him with an inspirational message for a walk of inspiration project in Bronzeville. They responded with “stop the violence.” Fondé decided to take this message one step further and pointed out that the word violence is a negative word. He asked the group for a word describing the opposite of violence. Fondé was surprised when this exercise proved to be much harder than anticipated: the group did not possess the adequate vocabulary to complete the task. It was at that moment that the Healthy Words Project was born.
The Healthy Words Project is a series of workshops designed to provide kids and teenagers in urban settings with a positive vocabulary. Fondé begins the workshop by giving the students 7 initial healthy words to live by: inspire, desire, inquire, acquire, aspire, benefit and gratitude. The students are then given a worksheet with the alphabet, and are asked to write a healthy word for each letter of the alphabet. The younger kids do this exercise as a group, while the high schoolers are asked to complete the sheet individually. Each day, the students are also asked to give five healthy words that describe themselves. As the workshop progresses and the students learn more positive words, it is easier for them to complete the sheet and to describe themselves in positive terms. As a final project, they each cut a leaf out of a yellow book page, onto which they write a healthy word of their choosing. This leaf is added to a healthy words tree, which is displayed in the school or community center where the activity took place.
The Chipstone team first met Fondé while filming our Dave Project teaching videos. Fondé was working with Arts@Large leading Healthy Words workshops at Brown Street Academy. We instantly recognized that our projects were incredibly aligned. Fondé saw the impact present in Dave’s pot and story: Dave was someone who was technically described as property, instead of as a person, and who had influenced the world through his words. He provided us and Fondé with the opportunity to inspire learning by talking about the privilege of reading and writing–a privilege that 150 years ago was denied to slaves.
We decided to team up and continue Dave’s legacy by pairing his couplets and story with the Healthy Words Workshops. In conjunction with Sam’s Hope Literacy, Fondé will be travelling to 30 high schools and middle schools around Milwaukee, as well as 8 Boys and Girls Clubs telling Dave’s story. Chipstone has had a reproduction Dave pot made, which will travel with Fondé, providing students the opportunity to touch, feel and read Dave’s work. In addition, Fondé will be doing a 20 day residency program at 2 schools where he will conduct a combination of 3 of his favorite workshops with kindergartners, 1st graders, and 2nd graders: Simply Sentences (create poetry pieces for a celebration with the Milwaukee Bucks and Sam’s Hope Literacy), the Amazing Dream Project (creating dream boards with positive messages), and Healthy Words legacy trees. These will conclude with a poetry reading and an exhibit at the schools inspired by Dave.
Dave the potter has become the catalyst for this latest phase of inspiration around Milwaukee. He reveals the potential present when one receives a positive vocabulary. Through his pot and his story, Dave continues to influence subsequent generations, emphasizing the power of reading and writing.
Come and see Dave the Potter’s amazing pot in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s lower level through December 2013.