ORLANDO, Fla. – When the City of Orlando Poet Laureate Shawn Welcome takes the mic, people listen.
The wordsmith has been using his words to reach others for decades and has now taken that talent to his post as the second Poet Laureate for the City Beautiful.
“It’s a great honor and privilege, I have a great opportunity to just amplify the presence, the appreciation, and the awareness of the poetry that we have in our community,” said Welcome. “And just to encourage those who may be interested or just thinking about what we can do with storytelling and literary arts around town. It’s just an opportunity to amplify all of those efforts and be the biggest cheerleader I can. And I’m just grateful to hold that space for a few years.”
He’s no stranger to performing in front of huge crowds, everything from Orlando City Soccer games to the opening of Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, or at Pulse Memorials.
Welcome is also well-known in the community for starting Orlando’s longest-running open mic night that he founded back in 2006, Diverse Word.
“It’s just a space for poets, artists, comedians, even rappers, singers to kind of get together and just celebrate creative expression,” said Welcome. “It’s presently held at Downtown Credo. It’s a coffee shop right there in North Orange Avenue. There’s other nights outside of that, that Tuesday night engagement, that facilitate poetry spoken word, and just gives artists an opportunity to have a platform to be heard. And for people who attend those spaces, to even hear themselves through artists that may not have words to express how they feel or their world perspective or anything like that.”
But it’s not the performances themselves that drive the UCF graduate and longtime Orlando resident.
“I love sharing stories of hope. That’s kind of just my MO, I always like to just be encouraging and, you know, the world could be a bleak, bleak place. And so I not only kind of reflect on my own self, but I do my best to, to uplift, as well,” said Welcome.
He’s taken that message into the community to show others how to use their own voices in positive ways. He’s worked with the Boys & Girls Club, Oak Ridge High School and even at the Orange County Jail.
“Me and some poetry friends visited 33rd Street jail off an invitation by the program director there at that time,” said Welcome. “And we pretty much just shared our poetry. And we had conversations with the youth offenders there. And I think it did a few things. One, it showed that we cared, you know, and also, we kind of spoke their language... I think it gave them an opportunity to see creative expression modeled. At the end of the 12 week course, we would have their parents or grandparents or family members come in, and basically created a show for them in the jail, and we call them up and they would perform. And it was an awesome experience, Marquis McKenzie was actually one of those students. He’s amazing. And we’re so so proud of him, and the growth that he’s had over the years and continues to do so. Kudos to Marquis.”
“What is it about that that can be cathartic or can be a good outlet for young people, for anyone?,” asked News 6 anchor Bridgett Ellison.
“Baked into spoken word and performance poetry is an element of power. And I think for young people who may feel like they’re not heard, or they’re not seen, you now offer a vehicle for them to be heard and seen,” said Welcome.
These days, Welcome takes that vehicle into local neighborhoods working for racial and economic equality in underserved neighborhoods with the Polis Institute.
“We play that we play a bridge between kind of larger organizations and community residents,” said Welcome. “It’s really a collective network of parents and families just connected with each other because we believe that strong families, build strong communities. And so it was a really good fit for me. We have a monthly reading club, where we partner with Orange County Library, and we invite families to come on. And they would, you know, give us some storytellers. And they would read and so my job is really just kind of facilitating these activities. We also do door-to-door work and find out what residents are interested in. Right now, we have a project on behalf of Legends Academy, where they’re doing their annual enrollment for the new school that they’re building. And we’ve hired residents in the neighborhood to make sure that everyone knows about it, and can you know, amplify enrollment, things like that.”
It’s a job Polis Institute’s Chris Ramos said Welcome was made for.
“Shawn has a gift that’s honestly at the heart of the work that we do all that we do,” said Ramos. “We specialize in community engagement and really making sure the community residents that we have the privilege to work alongside, don’t just feel heard, but actually feel like their opinions matter and are valued and listened to. And it’s something that Shawn does better than anyone.”
Welcome’s tenure with the city runs through 2024, and then, he’s got some big hopes for the future.
“I think the highest place that you can go is to do an inaugural poem for the President of the United States,’ said Welcome. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m just gonna keep running in my lane, continue to work on my personal and professional growth. And be kind to people and do my best to just have integrity, wherever I am, and just give 100% wherever I am.”