SF State Graduate Uses Hip-Hop to Teach Bay Area Youth
May 4, 2005 3:16 PM
On the very first day of camp at Project Avary (Alternative Ventures for At-Risk Youth), two kids started fighting as soon as they stepped inside their cabin. So counselor-mentor-musician Sanjev DeSilva suggested the first remedy that came to mind.
“I told them they should have a freestyle (rap) battle,” said DeSilva, a recent SF State graduate who has worked at Avary for four years and started Hip-Hop Word - a spoken word class for the children.
“No cursing, no sexuality, no family talk, and from there they just went at it,” he said.
The two campers spent the rest of the session together peacefully.
A hip-hop battle is not the traditional conflict resolution method, and DeSilva doesn’t appear to be your traditional teacher, especially as he steps down from the stage after a show in Jack Adams Hall, with his long, flowing dreadlocks and baggy silver jeans. But at Project Avary, tradition is often what the staff is trying to change.
The United States has a 70 percent recidivism rate. Seven out of ten children with an incarcerated parent will eventually be incarcerated themselves. Increased violence and aggression as well as lowered self-esteem are also traits commonly identified amongst such youth.
“You gotta be hard to an extent, and you have to be spiritually and mentally tough or they’ll walk right over you,” DeSilva said of the children. “You learn as much from them as they do from you.”
The camp grew out of a discussion between Chaplain Earl Smith of San Quentin State Prison and Danny Rifkin, the former tour manager for the Grateful Dead. Rifkin, the camp’s founder and executive director, remembers Smith saying “that in all his work with inmates and their families, it was the children who most often failed to get much needed attention.”
“He told me, ‘if you want to help these men, help their kids,’” Rifkin recalled.
Starting in the summer of 1999 with a one-week session and 32 children, Project Avary has grown quickly and now works with more than 130 children and their families.
“It’s a place where you meet new people and it keeps you going - you’re never left alone there,” said 15-year-old Rakee Matlock, who has gone to camp and other Avary programs for four years.
The program now offers four summer-camp sessions, leadership retreats, monthly Adventure Days - where children are taken to museums, hiking and other educational places - and the newly created Mentoring Program.
Last fall, Project Avary also initiated its first week of Family Camp, where whole households are able to camp out together at the site.
Rifkin said that the Mentoring Program is the latest attempt to offer children year-round support.
The program allows mentors to share their interests and experiences with children, while still trying to implement the values set forth by Avary. The focus areas are social skills, creative arts, environmental education, nutrition and physical fitness and life skills.
According to Rifkin, DeSilva and his methods serve as a great example of that incorporation.
DeSilva teaches the history and elements of hip-hop and said he wanted the kids to “start seeing hip-hop as their cultural expression, instead of just radio and videos.”
His workshops have led to kids producing graffiti-themed murals and doing performances at the summer camp. He rewards them with books and CDs, including his own album “Ras Ceylon: The Collegraduate Lessons: 1999-2004,” that he released after graduating from SF State in International Relations/Third World Development and Ethnic Studies.
Matlock participated in DeSilva’s class last summer and still keeps his lyrics stored in a journal he started at camp.
Diversity in thought, religion, ethnicity and approach are all important to the Avary staff. Rifkin said “people of color are encouraged to apply” for the mentoring positions, as many of the children involved are categorized as ethnic minorities.
DeSilva had worked with youth in the East Bay at Step Up, and also works now at East Oakland’s Sequoia Elementary School. He heard about Project Avary through a friend on campus, but according to Adam Calmenson, there are plenty of other ways to get the word on where to go and work for a good cause.
Calmenson is the administrative coordinator at SF State’s Community Involvement Center, which he says has a registry of 200-300 non-profit agencies and helps match roughly 1,000 students per semester up with an organization that suits them.
“We steer them towards general areas based on their interests and on what population they want to serve,” said Calmenson.
According to Calmenson, between 100 and 120 students per semester also utilize the service learning courses, which offer training for the first three weeks of every semester, then award between three and six academic units to volunteering students.
DeSilva’s motivation has always been more personal.
“People of conscious inspired me when I was young,” said DeSilva, “and now it’s my duty to pass on lessons of spirituality, knowledge of self and hip-hop culture.”
For more information, go to http://www.projectavary.org, http://www.myspace.com/rasceylon/ or http://cic.sfsu.edu.
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