Finding Their Voice


Rachel never knew she had poetry inside of her. But once the words started flowing, Rachel even surprised herself.

Rachel joined others in MOKA’s Community Supports program for a nine-week poetry workshop offered through The Diatribe. The group met virtually each week to learn more about creative writing and the power of spoken word poetry.

The Diatribe is a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that facilitates poetry and performance workshops in area schools. The collaboration with MOKA was the first time The Diatribe offered these sessions to adults with disabilities.

The Diatribe encourages vulnerability, authenticity, and creativity. The group met weekly over the summer and explored topics related to identity, self-care, and mental health. They learned about different types of poetry, discussed the work of other poets, and tapped into their own creative talents.

Most importantly, they applied the techniques in their own poems and writing and bravely participated in something new. The workshop concluded in late July with a virtual showcase of their work that included MOKA employees, parents, and other invited guests.

Sitting in her living room, Rachel spoke her truth and shared her poetry during the virtual showcase. Rachel kept the poems to herself, so when she shared them, her mother Tami started to cry.

“When she read them, I sat here and my jaw dropped,” Tami says. “I cried and cried and cried listening. It was just amazing what she did, and I had no idea she had that in her to do. So, it was wonderful.”

After the workshop, Rachel found her voice and bravely performed her poetry at MOKA’s Heart & Soul event to a standing ovation. The confidence she gained led her to join an acting group through Autism Support of Kent County. She even landed the female lead for a play this spring.

“I never knew I had that much built up,” Rachel says. “My creativity, I never thought I could go that deep and just let it out through writing.”

The true reward is cultivating performers who then feel confident to express themselves and speak out in all sorts of ways, whether that’s sharing their personal story, speaking against injustices, or voicing concerns at public meetings, says Gleason Raphael, The Diatribe’s Director of Education. Gleason also hopes participants leave with a stronger sense of agency — the belief they have the power to change their life.

“It’s really about cultivating the idea of the power in your story and the power in your voice and that people are listening and people do want to hear what you have to say,” Gleason says. “And just giving people the confidence to say ‘oh, I can share this thing I wrote and I can also share my opinion on these other things as well.’”

The MOKA Foundation’s Empowerment Fund, combined with a fundraiser organized through social media, covered the cost of the program. The Empowerment Fund provides financial support to people in MOKA’s programs to support them in reaching personal goals.

The Empowerment Fund historically awards grants between $100-$750. Eligible requests have included classes, bus passes, memberships, technology, exercise, and transportation-related expenses. Donated funds used for The Diatribe collaboration totaled $1,908. A total of $3,000 was requested from the Empowerment Fund, equaling about $215 per person served.

MOKA connected with The Diatribe after an employee saw The Diatribe’s teaching artists perform in Grand Rapids and recognized the potential for collaboration. The idea received full support from Executive Director Tracey Hamlet. During the pandemic, The Diatribe created free downloadable content that was rooted in mental health and wellness, Gleason says.

“We realized during the pandemic that folks that were isolated, they were especially struggling with their mental health, and especially young people were, and so we really wanted to create content that gave people an outlet to speak on those kinds of issues and express themselves,” Gleason says.

The Diatribe’s teaching artists made a few adjustments with the virtual format, but Gleason says the collaboration was a success. The Diatribe’s teaching artists presented the curriculum in a similar way as in-person workshops. They all came together with participants for a welcome assembly to explain the workshop and share experiences.

“It was a really beautiful time where we were able to share our stories, and even though it was virtual, we could really sense that the folks who were attending virtually were really engaged, really excited,” Gleason says.

Each session included time to check in and share, followed by a video and a poem rooted in mental health. They spent time discussing the poem and its meaning, the poetic devices used, and their own struggles and stories related to mental health.

MOKA participants were given writing prompts each week to work on at the end of the session or on their own time. A couple of sessions were devoted to editing their poems and performance dynamics. Eight people completed the full nine-week workshop. A few people bravely shared their work during the virtual showcase.

“Some of them were comparing their mental health to mythical creatures, like anxiety being related to mermaids in the ocean and things like that,” Gleason says. “We really saw some beautiful insightful work that was really beautiful to hear.”

Rachel and Mei logged on from home, while other Community Support participants joined as part of their regular weekly activities.

Mei participates in MOKA’s telehealth sessions through Community Supports and always wanted to write poetry. She’s glad she signed up for The Diatribe workshop and learned how to use writing as an outlet for her feelings and anxieties. “When I feel sad, I can write about what I feel every day,” Mei says.

Gleason was impressed by their ability to latch on to imagery and metaphors and incorporate them into their poetry as well as the confidence they gained in sharing their stories.

“I think their willingness to share and to continue to share and to be super active in the conversations and to see them gain confidence each week and being proud of the work they created really stood out to me,” Gleason adds.

Rachel had never tried poetry and thought it would be something fun to pursue since she was mostly staying home due to COVID-19. “I never knew I could write that much and how to express it on paper,” she says.

Her mother, Tami, has watched Rachel blossom since the workshop. She’s made new friends and volunteers at Kids Food Basket. Tami credits her interest in the performing arts to The Diatribe.

“Since she did the poetry, she has gained a lot of self-confidence,” Tami says.  “She was in a play, back in November, which we never thought we would see her do — ever.”

The Diatribe’s programs do meet English Language Arts standards and cover poetic techniques, Gleason says. The teaching artists also provide a safe space to explore tough issues and have conversations related to mental health awareness, identity, grief, and loss.

Gleason hopes performers leave feeling more empowered and confident. They learn new ways to express their feelings and emotions and new tools for self-care, self-awareness, and self-advocacy.

“It’s more about feeling empowered by your story, by your voice, and by the things you’ve gone through and learning how to authentically express yourself and speak for yourself,” Gleason says. “And I think particularly with some of the people that use services at MOKA that can be really important. If sometimes they feel like they don’t have agency, that gives them the opportunity to speak for themselves using their words and the emotions that are behind them.”

As the Director of Education, Gleason also learned a few things from this new group of creative artists. The facilitators focused on making the content and discussions more accessible and inclusive while encouraging real vulnerability and human connection.

“I think we all were just captured by the stories, by the conversations that were shared, and by the openness to trying new things,” Gleason says. “And the vulnerability. That’s something that we talk about a lot as artists. I think we’re a vulnerable group, and we’re willing to be vulnerable.”

Story by Marla Miller. Photos by Lara Parent.