In life, it’s not guaranteed that our purpose will match our passion, or that we will impact the lives of so many in a positive way. When there is a vacancy for change, the person to fill it may come in an unconventional form. John Paul Taylor of Real Life Poets is a walking testimony that you don't have to be in a classroom to be a teacher or wear a cape to be deemed a hero.
Almost ten years ago, poet John Paul Taylor decided to put his background in education and his passion for spoken word together and created Real Life Poets, Inc., a 501c3 non-profit community service and mentoring organization focusing on mentoring youth, to bring about change to the Birmingham, AL community.
What started as a way to share resources such as canned goods and clothes with the East Lake community of Birmingham, and to steer youth away from the trouble that awaited in the streets, grew into a way for low-income youth and foster children to learn good literacy and communication skills through poetry, hip-hop and the arts. “We realized that what we were doing was bigger than the microphone and went about the necessary steps to create the non-profit to do more work within the school system and really make effective system changes,” said Taylor.
To some of the community officials, his teaching mechanisms are unconventional, but they’re effective. It’s the game of reverse psychology to benefit the students, they can learn to read and write without feeling ashamed or embarrassed. “ It’s like okay, you like hip hop so we’re going to teach you how to read using these poems and lyrics and you’ll remember it when you get home and want to return for more,” Taylor continued.
Throughout this decade-long journey, as with any organization, there have been areas of plight. Taylor explains, “When we first started we didn’t have any background in the non-profit sector, and we thought we’d just get all of these grants for funding but no, it doesn’t work that way. It’s not that easy.” But that afforded them the opportunity to do the grassroots groundwork, hone their skills and really tailor something special for the demographic they were trying to appeal to.
But with areas of plight eventually comes moments of success. Taylor had something in common with the students that he helps; he too, was once a child of the foster care system. He’s lived their truth and by knowing triggers and what they will and won’t respond to, is able to use that as a catalyst for creating these programs and workshops and has ultimately made his organization successful.
More than anything Taylor wants to create and store the lack of research and data in Jefferson County that directly relates to the issues of literacy, mental health and mass incarceration and streamline the work they’re doing to create an alternative system that is specifically beneficial to African-Americans in the deep south. Taylor stated, “ According to the Birmingham literacy council, there are 92,000 illiterate adults in the city right now. That means that there were once 92,000 illiterate children and I’m trying to break that cycle, give the community a voice and create the research along the way.”
Since it’s inception, Real Life Poets has grown tremendously and offers several literacy-induced programs including creative writing, culinary, media and visual arts and sign language and a competing teen slam poetry team. They’ve also partnered with a New York City organization, to create Real Global Poets, where they work with students in Kenya for a poetry exchange program. Through these varied arts, students are not only learning but can immerse themselves in the safe haven where they are comfortable and can be their authentic selves.
Want to learn more? John Paul and the Real Life Poets, Inc. team will be presenting their final pitch to a panel of A3C judges on Friday, Oct. 7, to address the social issues at hand and the chance to garner nationwide exposure, funding and business development training.