Editor’s note: This article is one of an occasional series on community artists in Milwaukee.
When Jendora Kelley says goodbye to students at Carmen High School of Science and Technology Northwest Campus at the end of the day, they take turns giving her hugs. Many of them call her “Mama Kelley” and tell her about their day.
Kelley, who is a spoken word poet, was previously in charge of discipline at Carmen High School, but now focuses on facilitating mediation, teaching culture and helping with conflict resolution as the community culture leader at the school.
“Culture is a way of life; it is teaching children and youth how to live,” said Kelley. She explained that students are unable to understand consequences if they do not know what is expected of them. Teaching students about culture helps them understand what is expected of them both in school and in the real world.
Kelley offers two programs at Carmen: M.U.D (Mothers Understanding Daughters) and MENtality, during which students engage in conversation with adults as a way to learn lessons through storytelling.
Kelley, who writes about inspiration, respect and her personal experiences, considers poetry a way to share stories and to connect with youth. She said that she also uses spoken word and public speaking to motivate and inspire people.
She was first introduced to poetry as a child but she didn’t consider herself an artist until she auditioned for “The Vagina Monologues” in 2014. That’s when she met Catina Cole, the founder of MPower Theater Group, a nonprofit acting troupe that focuses on social justice issues. Kelley is a member of the group and will perform in “Yetta Young’s Butterfly Confessions” in June.
Kelley has shared her poetry at open mic nights, but realized that she prefers to speak at gatherings centered on a cause. She said that the art of spoken word brings a “reflective state” to a gathering of people and can be an “exclamation point” at an event.
Samantha Collier, the founder of Team Teal 365, an organization that works to empower survivors of sexual assault, has known Kelley for about five years. Collier said she has heard Kelley recite poetry at a number of events.
“I think that her words are very healing,” said Collier. “She speaks for the voiceless; she has a very powerful stance and resilience, and the community needs to hear that every day.”
Collier added, “No matter what you go through there is light that shines in the midst of darkness. … I think she does a magnificent job showing the light that shines in herself and in other people.”
Annia Leonard, a youth programs training assistant at Planned Parenthood, heard Kelley speak at a recent march commemorating Bloody Sunday, the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
“Just looking around at people’s faces while she was talking you could really see that they were paying attention, really determined and more energized to fight for their rights and fight for justice,” said Leonard.
Kelley’s mother died three years ago and has become an important part of her motivation and inspiration. The youngest of five children, she said that she feels her mother’s presence and influence in her life more now than when she was alive.
“I have had the honor of turning the knowledge that I obtained from her into wisdom,” said Kelley.
She added that her mother was the original “Mama Kelley” and she considers it an honor having her students call her by that name.