ORLANDO, Florida. – When the City of Orlando’s Poet Laureate, Shawn Welcome, takes the microphone, people listen.
The wordsmith has been using his words to reach others for decades and has now taken that talent to his position as the City Beautiful’s second Poet Laureate.
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“It’s a great honor and privilege, I have a great opportunity to amplify the presence, appreciation and awareness of poetry that we have in our community,” Welcome said. “And just to encourage those who might be interested or just thinking about what we can do with storytelling and the literary arts in town. It’s just an opportunity to amplify all that effort and be the biggest cheerleader you can be. And I’m just grateful to keep this space for a few years.
He’s no stranger to performing in front of huge crowds, from Orlando City football games to the opening of Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts or the Pulse Memorials.
Welcome is also well known in the community for starting Orlando’s longest running open mic party which he founded in 2006, Diverse Word.
“It’s just a space for poets, artists, comedians, even rappers, singers to come together and celebrate creative expression,” Welcome said. “It is currently being held in downtown Credo. It’s a cafe right there on North Orange Avenue. There are other nights outside of this, this Tuesday night engagement, which facilitates spoken word poetry and just gives artists the opportunity to have a platform to be heard. And for people who frequent these spaces, even to hear themselves through artists who may not have words to express how they feel or their perspective on the world or something like that.
But it’s not the performances themselves that motivate the UCF grad and longtime Orlando resident.
“I love sharing stories of hope. That’s kinda fair my MO, I always like to be encouraging and, you know, the world could be a dark, dark place. And so not only am I kind of reflecting on myself, but I’m trying my best to uplift myself as well,” Welcome said.
He took this message out to the community to show others how to use their own voice in a positive way. He worked with the Boys & Girls Club, Oak Ridge High School and even at the Orange County Jail.
“I and some poetry friends visited the 33rd Street Jail at the invitation of the program director at the time,” Welcome said. “And we practically shared our poetry. And we had conversations with young offenders there. And I think that did a few things. First, it showed that we cared about them, you know, and also, we kind of spoke their language…I think it gave them the opportunity to see the creative expression modeled. At the end of the 12 week course, we would bring in their parents, grandparents or family members and basically put on a show for them in the prison, and we would call them and they would perform. And it was a great experience, Marquis McKenzie was actually one of those students. He is incredible. And we’re so proud of him, and the growth he’s had over the years and continues to do. Congratulations to Marquis.
“What can be cathartic or a good outlet for young people, for anyone?” asked News 6 presenter Bridgett Ellison.
“Incorporated into speech and performance, poetry is an element of power. And I think for young people who may feel like they’re not being heard or not being seen, now you’re giving them a vehicle to be heard and seen,” Welcome said.
These days, Welcome takes this vehicle to local neighborhoods working for racial and economic equality in underserved neighborhoods with the Polis Institute.
“We play that we play a bridge between the big organization types and the residents of the community,” Welcome said. “It’s really a collective network of parents and families just connected to each other because we believe that strong families build strong communities. And so it was really a good choice for me. We have a monthly book club, where we partner with the Orange County Library, and invite families to come. And they would give us, you know, storytellers. And they were reading and so my job is just to facilitate those activities. We also go door-to-door and find out what interests residents. Right now we have a project on behalf of Legends Academy, where they do their annual registration for the new school they’re building. And we’ve hired neighborhood residents to make sure everyone’s up to date, and can you tell, boost signups, things like that.
It’s a job Chris Ramos of the Polis Institute said Welcome was made for.
“Shawn has a gift that is honestly at the heart of the work we do, everything we do,” Ramos said. “We specialize in community engagement and truly ensure that the community residents we have the privilege of working with not only feel heard, but actually feel that their opinions matter, are valued and listened to. And that’s something Shawn does better than anyone.
Welcome’s tenure with the city extends until 2024, and then he has high hopes for the future.
“I think the best place you can go is to do an inaugural poem for the President of the United States,” Welcome said. “I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I’m just going to keep running my lane, keep working on my personal and professional growth. And be kind to people and do my best to have integrity, where wherever I am, and just give 100% wherever I am.
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