If We Continue To Cut Our Arts Programs We Won’t Have Students Like Youssef Kromah and Philly Youth Poet Laureate Husnaa Hashim

I write for my life

Louis Armstrong wrote “my only sin is my skin.” My only sin is my pen.

I wrote for my soul and for us all.

-Dr. Sonia Sanchez

We are only recently emerging from an age where schools cut the arts and, thus, crippled student expression and creativity, and shortsightedly undermined the academic achievement they claimed they pursued.

In my 25 years as an educator, I have never worked in a school that didn’t embrace the arts. Art supports students’ academic and personal development. It enables them to explore, create, and experience. I have also found that the arts provide voice and rhythm to the necessary resistance our students must be engaged in.

So, despite Pennsylvania’s draconian budget cuts to Black schools, we insist on including the arts in our curricula.

“Resistance Through the Arts” was one of our themes at John P. Turner and Anna H. Shaw Middle Schools. We helped our students use the arts to express and fortify themselves for the necessary work of dismantling oppressive institutions and, simultaneously, find the joy society wanted to deny them.

We have had students drop records and mics. Sing and write songs, dance and choreograph, build, draw, paint, and inspire. A former student is attending the University of Vermont (on a full academic scholarship) majoring in art so that she can come back to Philly and teach art.

One of my other former students, Youssef Kromah, an awardwinning poet, best-selling author, and social justice activist was featured as a spoken-word poet on Russell Simmon’s HBO series Brave New Voices and later  featured  on CNN’s Who’s Black in America, hosted by Soledad O’Brien. Youssef frequently returns to our schools and shares his words and experiences with our students.

And, most recently, one of our students had the tremendous honor of being selected as Philadelphia’s Youth Poet Laureate. Husnaa Hashim was a runner up for this award last year. As we challenge all of our students to do, “Fall down seven times, get up eight…” As she often does in life, Husnaa took another swing at this coveted award this year. John Timpane of Philly.com wrote a moving piece about Husnaa here:

“I’m writing about identity,” says Husnaa Hashim, “about being multiple things at once – a woman, a Muslim, an African American. Authenticity is very important to me: I am all the things I am, all of the time. I’m here in front of you in a really, really raw form.”

If that sounds like a poet talking, it is. If it sounds like a mature, older woman talking, one who has lived a long time and knows herself, her art, and the world, yes, Hashim is that, too – only she’s 17.

Hashim is Philadelphia’s 2017-18 youth poet laureate. Selected from 21 applicants, she received the award at a ceremony Thursday morning at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Current adult Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher said, “Her poetry is a wondrous mix of ferocity and vulnerability, in which an eloquence of language reflects an eloquence of the soul.”

Peter Crimmins, Newsworks, covered this event as well:

The selection committee chose her because of the strength of her poetry and her unique voice: her grandmother was a Black Panther, her mother grew up in Iran. Hashim is Muslim, wears a Hijab, speaks Farsi, and is active in Philadelphia’s performance poetry slams.

“She was a finalist last year. The committee has always been moved by her work,” said committee chair Beth Feldman Brandt. “Her writing is strong, and brings a point of view of a Muslim woman, out in the world, to her writing. It’s an important voice to have out in the world right now.”

Although I am not an artist, I adore the creative. I fondly remember sitting at the feet of people like Dr. Sonia Sanchez, who would visit our elementary school, Nidhamu Sasa, and read her revolutionary poetry. We were taught how to dance, drum, and draw as a part of our holistic education. Today, we strive to do the same for our students.

It is an honor to partner with my friend and activist Greg Corbin, who used to visit my previous school to speak with students and recite poetry to them. Today, he mentors and coaches a generation of fierce poets through his non-profit, Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement (Husnaa participated in many of their programs and competitions). When we dedicated our writing center to Dr. Sonia Sanchez, Greg and Baba Changa, one of my Nidhamu Sasa teachers, were right there to celebrate this community event.


Every revolution has a voice. Many forms of resistance use the arts to capture the determination, fury, and hope of generations. It is a vital part of a holistic education.

Students like Youssef, Husnaa, and many others are conscious and committed to the cause and to the culture. The art of our youth gives us hope for our city and, definitely, for our children.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.



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