NEWARK, NJ - It was a little difficult for Darren Miller to get started with his poem, so he rocked back and forth on his feet a bit.
“I really don’t talk too much about the things that I've been through because I'm still here,” said Miller as he stood in front of a crowd at the Newark Community Street Team headquarters on 400 Hawthorne Ave. “I'm still going through it."
Miller, 34, was stabbed in Newark about a decade ago, so he walks with a limp now. His good friend was gunned down too. And he wrote the poem he was about to perform after being incarcerated.
He paused. Then closed his eyes. And began to sing, rather than speak like all the other poets before him had done.
“A wonderful change has come over me,” he let out in warm vibrato, before spitting off into a fast-paced rap. “God started puttin' on his hard hat and started constructin'. And now I'm filled with that fire that's about to blow like a volcano eruption.”
Miller was asked by the Newark Community Street Team to participate in the poetry slam, where survivors on Wednesday told their stories of sexual assault, homicide and discrimination through spoken word.
The Street Team walks kids to school to offer safe passage and intervenes at hospitals to dissuade retribution in the aftermath of violence. The organization also offers weekly therapy for community members each Thursday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. its headquarters in the South Ward.
Now, the group is beginning to host poetry slams as it starts a local chapter of the Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. Starting a chapter gives the Street Team technical assistance to advocate for policies that help people impacted by crime.
“We want to be able to heal the City of Newark,” said Street Team Program Manager Solomon Middleton-Williams, who also works as a state chapter coordinator for the Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.
Newark Community Street Team Director Aqeela Sherrills helped start the overarching Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice while he lived in California.
Sherrills is no stranger to violence or trauma either. He grew up in the projects in California and his oldest son, Terrell, in 2003 was killed.
“My son was loved,” Sherills said. “There's a conditioned response when you grow up in the culture. This whole, 'eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth' game. That's essentially all left us all blind and toothless.”
Miller, whose stage name is “BlockWryter,” eventually became a member of the Newark Community Street Team. He’s been working with the organization, which was started by Mayor Ras Baraka, for about a year now.
He offered a bit of hope to the crowd at the poetry slam too.
"A lot of times, you have to be that thing that you need in this world," Miller said. "If you need healing, you gotta be healing. If you need love, you gotta be love. Sometimes you don't really have it to give it, but you've gotta challenge yourself to give it."