Growing up biracial in Baltimore, Derick Ebert said he's still trying to define his identity.
He uses his poetry to find his place.
In a city that grapples with racial divides — the police commissioner has decried 1950s-era racism and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has called on black men to step up — the mayor hopes Ebert can lead the way for others.
A 19-year-old University of Baltimore sophomore, Ebert will be recognized Wednesday as the city's first youth poet laureate, with a charge to help promote a citywide appreciation for literacy and art, and to inspire young people to become more engaged.
He's the first person — of any age — to hold the distinction in modern memory.
Ebert said he wants to use his position to examine social issues, masculinity and the challenge young people face with identity. He's keenly aware of the influence his position carries in a time when social conflicts are increasingly seen as black versus white after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and others.
"I am the first. I have to set the example for everyone else," he said. "I just want to write what I want to say. I want to do the best I can.
"This is me claiming who I am."
Rawlings-Blake said Ebert's "inspiring, personal and powerful voice speaks to the unique facets of the Baltimore experience."
"We spend a great deal of time focusing on how we can better support our most vulnerable youth, and I feel it is equally as important that we celebrate our young people who are making positive contributions to Baltimore City," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.
Over the course of the next year, Ebert will represent the city as he writes poetry and performs at events, including a Teach for America gala on Saturday. He was selected by a panel of librarians, artists, youths, community advocates and educators in a competition in late February hosted by the nonprofit Dew More Baltimore and the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Ebert won a cash prize of $1,500 — which he decided to split with the two runners-up — and the chance to have his poetry published in a book.
Kenneth Morrison, director of Dew More Baltimore, said designating a youth poet laureate will help elevate the voice of the city's young people as Baltimore sorts through social justice issues, and other divisive matters. He said Baltimore joins about a dozen major U.S. cities with such positions.
"The young people are always talking about subjects like this, but the city doesn't stop long enough to listen," Morrison said. "Creating this position gave the city something to grab on to, something that made sense. Here's the opportunity for people to finally start listening."
Dew More Baltimore, based in the city's Hampden neighborhood, was created about three years ago as a place to use art as a tool to build community engagement. Morrison said the nonprofit operates on about $120,000 in donations annually, and reaches more than 500 young people a year.
The group has nearly 30 clubs at middle and high schools, colleges, group homes, prisons and community centers, he said.
Using poetry to explore issues helps young people process their feelings, Morrison said. It also helps people understand different perspectives.
"In marginalized communities in Baltimore City, there's a lot of trauma and with the trauma, young people need tools to process what they're going through," Morrison said. "I want young people to have access to art to process it."
On Tuesday, Sebastian Ochoa Arguijo, a senior at Woodlawn High School, came to watch a poetry slam at the Pratt library on Cathedral Street. Sixteen youth poets, including Ebert, were competing for one of six spots to represent Baltimore in an international poetry competition.
Ochoa Arguijo, an 18-year-old Honduras native, said writing poems offers young people an alternative to violence by giving them an outlet to express themselves. He was one of the top performers in the competition to name the city's youth poet laureate.
Poetry is proof, Ochoa Arguijo said, that "there are not only bad things in this world, but there are also people trying to do good."
Ebert delivered a performance of his poem "Archaeologist," which delves into his relationship with his father, and the future he sees for himself.
I am an archaeologist, I just never leave my room / See, in there I find bits and pieces of things that match what I am missing.
As the son of a black woman and a white man, Ebert said, he struggled to be accepted at times in his life, particularly in middle school. A graduate of Baltimore City College who now lives in Joppa, he said he studied poets, such as E.E. Cummings and Emily Dickinson, in school, but it wasn't until about a year ago that he started to write his own.
He plans to read the poem "Pieces" at the mayor's ceremony Wednesday, what he called "an Ode to teachers that taught me."
Mrs. Taylor, you are the only wrecking ball / I get a satisfaction of seeing. / As you knock down borders / For children that only knew life, as a circumference.
Ebert said writing poetry has helped him cope with complex emotions and issues from breaking up with a girlfriend to the media coverage of the death of Martin, the Florida teen who was killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer. He said he wonders what pictures of him newspapers and television stations would use if he ever got into trouble — one where he appeared more white or more black.
"What is the value of a black man's life in America? If something was to happen to me, what category would they put me into?" Ebert said.
He said he will spend the next year choosing his words carefully, as he looks to help shape the dialogue in Baltimore.
"What comes next for every youth poet laureate will come from every success and failure I've had," Ebert said.
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