Flint’s Kayla Shannon takes silver at national NAACP youth competition

Artist and poet Kayla Shannon stands smiling in front of large blue letters spelling out Flint.
Flint’s spoken-word artist Kayla Shannon was one of two local teens to medal in the national ACT-SO competition at the NAACP’s annual convention. Photo: Cristina Wright

For Kayla Shannon — one of two Flint-area students to medal this summer at the NAACP’s national ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics) competition in San Antonio, Texas — spoken-word poetry is more than an artistic outlet. It is a platform for justice.

“Some people find spoken word to be weird, awkward, aggressive,” said Shannon, whose best-known work, “Kryptonite,” calls attention to Flint’s water crisis and the impact it has had on residents’ health and trust in those who govern them. “But for me, it’s a way to push back, to take injustice to a higher place, where it can’t be ignored.”

Now a 17-year-old high school junior, Shannon has had the good fortune to perform her works in Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco as a member of Raise It Up! Youth Arts & Awareness. Founded by Natasha Jackson-Thomas and Lyndava Williams, Raise It Up! uses arts activities and dialogue to address issues critical to Flint’s young people.

“I’ve been writing poetry since I was 8 or 9 years old,” said Shannon, who plans to major in sociology or political science in college. But poetry, like nothing else, she said, has been a way to express “that side of the world that saddens me.” In joining Raise It Up!, she was able to explore and learn more about injustice in the U.S. and around the world. And she came to realize that, through her poetry, she had a platform to make other people aware of oppression.

It was through the contacts made while performing with Raise It Up! that she learned about the national ACT-SO competition.

“I got a call from Whitney White around 5 or 6 p.m.,” said Shannon. “I had met her while performing in Detroit, and she was in Flint as a judge for the local ACT-SO competition. She asked me if I would be able to compete, because she thought I had a good chance to be selected in the Poetry-Performance category.”

Kayla Shannon.
Photo: Cristina Wright

With just 10 minutes to get to the competition, Shannon used the short drive to the venue to figure out what she would perform.

“I knew my Flint piece — ‘Kryptonite’ — by heart. So, I decided to use it,” Shannon said.  “When the competition was over, I really didn’t remember much except the judges said they would call me. About two weeks later, they did — and said I took the gold medal for poetry.”

Shannon, along with Ashton Edwards, a young dancer with the Flint Institute of Music’s School of Performing Arts, qualified for the national competition.

“Kayla was an eleventh-hour walk-in, but she absolutely blew the judges away,” said Ella Greene-Moton, who joined the local branch of the NAACP as ACT-SO Chair almost 20 years ago.

Flint is one of more than 200 communities throughout the United States to offer ACT-SO, an achievement program designed to recruit, stimulate, and encourage academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students. Past ACT-SO winners include such notables as Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Jada Pinkett-Smith. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has granted $300,000 in multi-year support for ACT-SO’s national and Flint-based programming.

“In Flint, ACT-SO starts in middle school with the Explorer Program, where the students choose a category that interests them,” said Greene-Moton. “With the help of adult mentors, students start working towards their presentations, so they’re ready to compete by 9th grade.”

But even more than the chance to perform, it’s the friendships and mutual support among ACT-SO participants that add the greatest value to the program, continued Greene-Moton. With the help of the Mott grant, she is working to strengthen ACT-SO in Flint and include culinary arts as both a category for competition and preparation for a potential career.

As finalists, Shannon’s and Edward’s travel and lodging expenses were covered by the Flint Branch of the NAACP.  Although she planned to perform Kryptonite, Shannon was forced to make some last-minute adjustments to shorten her work to three minutes.

“I had two days to get it together — and I practiced constantly. I managed to trim the time, but I was still nervous. My goal was to take a bronze medal. But with so many people competing — there were 49 in the Poetry-Performance category — it was the most nerve-wracking performance I’ve ever done.”

Her practice paid off. Shannon surpassed her goal, earning a silver medal, which came with a $1,000 college scholarship and an iPad©. Edwards also placed in the Dance-Ballet category, receiving a bronze medal.

While it was an immense honor to win, the friendship and support she received while participating in the national ACT-SO competition was equally rewarding, said Shannon.

“To be able to compete with all these talented people of color — well, it was great, it was amazing,” she said.  “I met so many people, made so many contacts and received so much encouragement — it was a real boost to my confidence as a performer. I barely remember receiving my award, but I will remember all the people who gave me hope.”