Cathleen became so committed to her work at the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge in suburban Philadelphia, that the members of the mosque decided to trust her a little more than most visitors.
“I was given the key to the mosque,” Cathleen said, “because I used to get there early Sunday morning and they noticed I was waiting in the car.”
That’s pretty neat — especially for a nice Jewish woman.
Cathleen’s full name is Cathleen Cohen, director of We The Poets, a Philadelphia-based project that uses poetry, as taught by skilled possessors of the muse, to build bridges between religious and ethnic groups.
In the eight years of the project’s existence, it has worked with teenagers from Muslim, black, Latino, Jewish and Quaker backgrounds, teaching them to express their ideas, feelings, fears and hopes through one of the most creative and thought-providing media known to humans.
We The Poets is the largest project of the Arts & Spirituality Center in Philadelphia; 8 to 10 poets work in the program, some of whom are Jewish. Others she describes as “activist,” or “hip hop” poets.
Does the program work? Well, considering that Jewish and Muslim teams have met in workshops, built friendships and shared the pages of their own poetry anthologies, you could say so.
But one of its most noteworthy achievements came recently when four We The Poets teens along with Cohen and some of her associates, appeared at the Pennsylvania Regional Biennial Conference of the Union for Reform Judaism in Harrisburg, on Sunday, Nov. 23.They read their work and engaged the participants in a communication workshop of their own.
“I felt Cathy’s work was inspiring, and I really wanted to inspire our folks,” said Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the URJ Pennsylvania Council. “Too often, we say, ‘what can we do to make a difference?’ I wanted to bring WTP into our space to say this is not about geography or social economics; this is about people who by doing art can change lives.”
In the future, Elwell hopes to use poetry as means to improve communication between synagogue boards and staffs.
“And we’re thinking of this as a program in Jewish-Muslim dialogue,” she said. “It was no accident that one of the students [at the biennial] comes from a Muslim home.”
We The Poets isn’t a political group, and the teens rarely deal with political issues. In fact, skimming through the group’s most recent anthology, “You can Find Me,” one finds that the poets, ranging from first graders to seniors in high school, are addressing topics such as dreams, escapism, acceptance, inner beauty and self perception. The closest they came to politics was a poem about freedom of choice.
“Arts and Spirituality is not a political organization per se,” Cohen said, “so whatever children want to write about is fine, but we already [support] free speech, fairness and anti-violence.”
We The Poets got its start following the attacks of 9/11. Cohen, who previously did teacher- and student-training in Israel with Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze, wanted to do more to create intercultural connections.
“I had some contacts through [Philadelphia] Jewish Community Relations Council (her first sponsoring organization) and called them about my experience, and they were pretty welcoming,” she said. It wasn’t long before she began teaching in five different mosques around the city.
“We work with more now,” she said.
Cohen met with school directors and leaders of Islam community and talked with them about the importance of sharing information about their hopes and dreams with the broader community.”
It wasn’t a tough sale, she said, since there is as much of a poetry culture in the Islamic world as others.
The program began bringing together students with many backgrounds to write poetry, share ideas and demystify one another in the process.
“We just wanted people exposed to each other,” Cohen said.
One such arrangement brought students from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in well-heeled Bryn Mawr into the city where they met and worked with inner city students from University City High School. They met twice over a three-week period between Dec. 3 and 17 at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There was no sense of privilege versus non-privilege,” said Susan Weisgrau, an English teacher at Barrack (formerly known as Akiba Hebrew Academy). “Everyone was just writing poetry together … I just didn’t expect it to mesh so beautifully, so quickly.”
The two-session workshop was called Heartspeak, Weisgrau said, and it was well named. She recalled a 17-year-old Ghanian student who walked around the room shaking everyone’s hand, and a girl from Bangladesh, hooded and shy, who read her poetry quickly “but hers was so moving,” Weisgrau said. “She’s only been speaking English for a year, but her poetry was heartspeak.”
The two classes will begin meeting regularly in January, Weisgrau said.
Founded as Interfaith Youth Poetry Project, the program changed its name to We The Poets three years ago.
It has since been modeled in other cities.
“We inspired a program in Chicago called Poetry Pals,” Cohen said. “They do a lot of interfaith between Jewish and Muslims”
So far, there’s no model program in Pittsburgh, she added, “[but] we’d love to.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)