“When I share my joy, I multiply my happiness. When I share my pain, I divide my sadness. When I embrace the two, I become whole. We become whole.” – DaVerse Lounge
With that mantra at the core of his work at DaVerse Lounge, Will Richey, the creator of the under-21 spoken word and interactive art event, reflects on the program’s development and how it has mirrored his personal story of finding his voice as he prepares for DaVerse Lounge’s 12th season.
Richey, the son of a white man and a Puerto Rican woman, never intended this program to become a career. Instead, it grew out of his personal discovery of his roots.
Growing up in Baton Rouge, Richey was mainly influenced by his father’s dreams of basketball for him while his mother was quieter about her colorful, artistic background.
Richey moved to Dallas to attend University of Dallas, majoring in education and minoring in Spanish while playing basketball. After college, he traveled, learned about poetry performance, and began to learn more about his Puerto Rican heritage.
In 2003, he taught, but that didn’t satisfy his artistic longings to find his voice and help others find theirs. In 2004, he started Artist’s Night Out and in 2005, Dallas Theater Center invited Richey to direct a SummerStage program of poetry performance for about 100 teenagers.
Now, DaVerse Lounge is a program of Big Thought and calls Life in Deep Ellum home. 700 youth attend each DaVerse Lounge, many hoping to share what they have written in free workshops Richey has developed for students of all ages and backgrounds.
Richey is amazed at the surprising career he has carved out for himself. “DaVerse Lounge is the most colorful part of my soul, nourishing the community that is as diverse as it is collective. This career is an extraordinary opportunity to embrace people and provide a safe space for people to speak their experiences out loud,” Richey said.
Richey’s connection to the kids is palpable. “Will has this uncanny ability to see the kids completely. He embraces the darkness in life, but he can also see the light in the kids,” Allison Caldwell, a program specialist with DaVerse Lounge, said.
Shianne Patrick, an associate program specialist with DaVerse Lounge, appreciates Richey’s instant connection with the students. “He is passionate, young at heart, honest, and has a warm, welcoming spirit. He respects everyone and he encourages everyone to respect each other. He’s just a cool guy,” Patrick said.
Both Caldwell and Patrick recognize Richey’s ability to create a safe space for the students to talk to Richey and to each other.
Alejandro Perez, Jr., a DaVerse Lounge mentor who has been working with Richey for a decade, easily identifies the key to Richey’s connection to teenagers. “He genuinely intends to make an authentic connection. Kids recognize insincerity and Will is always sincere,” he said.
Richey makes that connection with students at the workshops, but he doesn’t approach it in an overly formal manner. “When I go into a workshop, I don’t know a stranger. I look them in the eyes, smile, shake hands and we work on teaching kids to do the same thing. Spirits are uplifted before we talk about writing. We work to get them intrigued with writing. We don’t even talk about poetry. Poetry is stigmatized. Poetry is from dead people. The spoken word is alive,” Richey explained.
He and his team use a series of prompts and exercises to get the students’ creative juices flowing. Richey creates a low risk, high success atmosphere to develop a rapport. As he works with students from different backgrounds, he notices a distinct difference. “Inner city kids are starving for a voice. Suburban kids are taught not to have a voice,” Richey said.
Richey prioritizes teaching emotional intelligence. Patrick hopes teaching emotional literacy will prevent at-risk youth from making negative choices by teaching them multiple ways to express themselves and what they need. “Emotional literacy is the ability to navigate your feelings and be empathetic,” Patrick explained.
Richey explains emotional literacy is about respecting and forgiving others, despite their varying backgrounds. Caldwell recognizes the important role DaVerse Lounge plays in developing emotional literacy. “You have to learn it and practice it. The event that is DaVerse Lounge is the emotional celebration, but the workshop is the practice,” Caldwell said.
Initially, Richey focused on the spoken work at DaVerse Lounge. He knew reading their own work to an audience would challenge the extroverts and empower the introverts.
Season after season, Richey has learned the power of the audience. “As I’ve become more confident in my own skin, I have learned more about listening and the power of listening. Not everyone can read, but everyone can receive. The youth get to listen and travel on this journey of experiences together,” he said.
When Big Thought began busing in students, the event evolved into something more than an open mic night. DaVerse Lounge now includes interactive art such as chalk art, henna, scribes, painting and most importantly, the band. That band is led by Perez and according to Richey, DaVerse Lounge would not be as powerful as it is without Perez’s involvement.
He and Perez met at an open mike night and connected on a cultural level; Perez is also half Puerto Rican. As much as they have in common, they are also very different. Richey is half white, Perez is half black. Richey graduated from a liberal arts college, Perez has an associate’s degree. Richey is 6’2 and towers over 5’6 Perez. “I think of DaVerse Lounge as a bridge between North and South Dallas. Our friendship, our brotherhood is an embodiment of that joining of North and South Dallas,” Richey said.
That bond plays a critical role in DaVerse Lounge during particularly emotional moments. “One of the students shared a piece about a traumatic event and began crying at the end. Will put his arm around him and the band began to play one of their call and response songs, ‘Love’. Will pulled people on stage and they embraced him. He felt accepted for the first time,” Caldwell remembered.
Cathartic breakthroughs like that are not uncommon at DaVerse Lounge, but the relationship between Perez and Richey make those moments genuine. “We can intuitively look at each other and signal how to handle an emotional situation. We’ve worked everywhere together – middle schools, the Nasher, cultural centers. We are known for working with each other.”
When he first started working with DaVerse Lounge, Perez was excited to see the culture brewing in his neighborhood, but recently DaVerse Lounge has played a special role in Perez’s life as he watched his own children read at the event. “DaVerse Lounge is about active engagement with the mission to empower people to express themselves,” Perez said.
As he anticipates the first DaVerse Lounge of the 2016-2017 season on Oct. 7, Richey realizes he has never been happier in his life. He and his wife recently welcomed their third child and he finds fulfillment in having a voice in the community.
He hopes DaVerse Lounge will grow into even more of a catalyst for social healing. Besides continuing to organically reach middle school and high school students, he would like to see the program reach adults like artists and teachers.
He and Perez have done seminars for corporate events and exploring adults’ reactions is fascinating to him. Richey’s greatest hope is for a continuity of spirit. “I want DaVerse Lounge to be a model of grace and mercy and communication, a place for written and oral expression, creative thinking and creative analysis. DaVerse Lounge will always be about acceptance and unconditional communication,” he said with passion and determination.
DaVerse Lounge begins its 12th season on Oct. 7 with subsequent dates on Nov. 11, Dec. 9, Feb. 3, March 3, and April 7. All of these events are at Life in Deep Ellum, 2308 Taylor Street, Dallas, Texas 75226.
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Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.