As we look back at Ashanti Files' tenure as the second poet laureate of Urbana, we see a year jam-packed with creative community engagement at a time when it was needed most. Between 2021 and 2022, Files, participated in over 50 local events, including her own sponsored programs, guest presentations, and visits to nearly all Urbana schools. Her workshops and performances focused on the healing power of poetry and truth-telling as sacred practice. How important it is that no matter who you are, your story needs to be heard. Cemented in this belief, she shared her love of spoken word with youth groups, festival audiences, and in venues throughout Urbana and Champaign County.
Files is first and foremost a spoken word artist—a sharp departure from long histories of Poet Laureate positions going to those who focus primarily on the written word. For Files, poetry is to be performed, syntax and rhyme are peppered with quick wit, metaphor, and power. Poetry is a call to action, a medication for ailments, and an essential form of expression.
As a registered mental health nurse and a Black woman in America, Ashanti’s laureateship sprang forth concurrent with the global COVID-19 pandemic and national outcry in response to the police killing of George Floyd, a reflection of the enduring problem of state violence against Black people in America. It should come as no surprise that these issues—health, racism, trauma, healing, and resilience—were at the center of her work.
Smile Politely caught up with Files to get her thoughts on her time spent as City of Urbana Poet Laureate, and what's up next for her.
Smile Politely: You've had an incredible tenure. Knee-deep in a pandemic, you were able to accomplish so very much. What are some of the highlights of your experience as the City of Urbana Poet Laureate?
Ashanti Files: My tenure was a whirlwind of activity with workshops and speaking engagements. There are three experiences that come to mind. One would be speaking at the University of Illinois, my alma mater, as part of the Writing for Rest and Restoration Series. I never imagined that I would return to my university as a featured speaker and was deeply humbled to have been invited to do so.
The second would be the Teen Writer’s Retreat that I hosted alongside Urbana Arts and Culture and the Urbana Park District at the Anita Purves Nature Center. It was a joy to facilitate reflection and writing for so many young people against the backdrop of Busey Woods.
My favorite event was The Laureate’s Showcase where I was able to uplift the voices of other local poets who, like myself, capture and perform the spoken word so beautifully.
SP: Was there a civic engagement event that felt especially impactful to you? What was it?
Files: Working alongside Sheldon Turner, Sam Smith, and others to facilitate the Peace Pole Project as part of the City’s Growing Community Public Arts Initiative. This project gathered a group of young men of color to discuss and illustrate the impact of violence in the neighborhood as well as the desire for it to cease through art and writing. Working with young men and having the ability to hear their truths was profound for me. I typically work with young women and this event opened my eyes to the need for more community members to work with young men as well. Their thirst for knowledge and need for compassion runs deep.
SP: You took on a lot during an unprecedented time in our history. What did you find to be the most challenging about serving as Poet Laureate?
Files: To be honest the most challenging part of serving as Poet Laureate was to stop and take care of myself. 2021 was my year of “yes!” and I did not turn down a single offer to host a workshop or event. This became challenging when there were multiple events in one week, however the strength of my family got me through. My middle daughter reminded me to take time for myself, even if it was just sitting in the garden. COVID-19 made the world stop and realize that everyone needs mental health support and services. Everyone was forced to stop and question both who they were and where did they want to be in this world. Believe it or not, this was the perfect time for me to emerge and foster identity recognition among members of my community. The concept of virtual programming worked in my favor as I was able to reach more people safely, which was imperative considering that I work in healthcare.
SP: Is there a moment that comes to mind that really cemented the power of this work?
Files: That moment is when I was selected to facilitate a discussion on spoken word among community art educators nationally. I believe so strongly in impacting the lives of young people around me and to be selected to teach others how to do so and show them the result of my efforts deeply humbled me. I hope that more intellectuals come to recognize the inherent power in spoken word poetry and its ability to transform lives.
SP: We could talk for days about the impact you’ve had and your tremendous reach into the community. How has the experience of serving as Poet Laureate changed you or impacted your life? What’s next for you?
Files: This is a big question and one that is answered interspersed with tears. I applied to be Poet Laureate because I thought it was cool, but in my heart felt it was totally out of my reach. In my mind I thought, who would select me, a poet with few publications, no ties to a university, a mom, a wife, a nurse. A poet only in my heart and not on the shelves of libraries. It felt impossible. I was truly transformed about halfway into my tenure because that’s when I finally accepted that I am a poet and I am worthy of recognition. So often as a woman of color, when good things happen, we still have a tiny thread of doubt that it was deserved. I deserved this! I earned it with every child I mentored, every woman I encouraged, and every word that came from my mouth. It was never lost upon me that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I gave it my very all. I was immensely blessed to have been sought out by so many people who came from different cultures and walks of life, all wanting the same thing-peace, reflection, and to know who they were. I measure my impact in the ability to encourage others to purse their passions and dreams; and that is tremendous.
I am not sure what comes next. I was offered a position combining writing and wellness in Phoenix, Arizona and am headed back to big city life. I was selected to compete in their statewide poetry slam which came as a surprise despite my aforementioned revelations! Being Poet Laureate has taught me to stop limiting myself, to be flexible, and to dare to reach for things that felt out of reach. I am developing a plan to facilitate my youth program, Writers of Oya, both in Urbana and Phoenix, encouraging previous students to now teach the curriculum under guidance from a community mentor. I am continuing to work with HV Neighborhood Transformation in Urbana assisting with grant writing and programming. My plan is to continue to write, maybe win a fellowship or two, and live my life with this newfound love of self and service to others.
SP: How will you remember this time?
Files: I will remember this time as one of self-discovery, service to my community, and a blessing on my life. I am nervous about not having an event to plan or workshop to support however I am certain I will find my way and make an impact wherever God takes me.
If you haven't yet experienced Ashanti Files work, check out her collection of poetry, Woven: Perspectives of a Black Woman and her two creative writing workbooks, Awaken and Awaken2.
Tonight, the Urbana Arts and Culture Program will host a virtual celebration of outgoing Poet Laureate, Ashanti Files, featuring brief remarks from the Urbana Arts and Culture Program and Commission, some words from Ashanti Files herself, and an opportunity for testimonies and well-wishes as she closes out her tenure as City Poet Laureate.