Florida poet finds a ‘Sunshine State of life’ by empowering others
Poet Yuki Jackson spent many homeless nights in 2020 and 2021 inside a Tampa laundromat for warmth, and she watched as people gave her judgmental looks. It was a familiar feeling for her, this feeling of otherness.
“Night Wash” by Yuki Jackson
I spend the night inside
and outside a 24-hour laundromat,
watching the kind of customers
who do their laundry at 3:00am
avoid looking me in my eyes
me a woman wearing a hoodie,
pulling a large suitcase
with nowhere to go
do they know I am a teacher
and does that even matter
when I am without home
I keep walking back
for the warmth, the light, the wifi
and the sound of each cycle turning
She remembered the feeling back in Japan, where she was born to a native mother and a Black American father. Her dark skin made her feel like she didn’t belong, and it didn’t get much better when she moved to Florida. Here, she was “the Asian girl.”
“If you’re biracial, at least in my knowledge and experience, you always kind of feel like an alien,” said Jackson.
In spite of Jackson’s isolation, she eventually found a special connection with the children who visited the Norma and Joseph Robinson Partnership Library at Sulphur Springs, where she worked. Poverty, crime, single-parent households and low literacy rates are all issues that plague the Tampa neighborhood.
“If you’re marginalized or disenfranchised, that is sort of a side effect that you develop – that sense of otherness,” said Jackson. “As soon as I walked into that library, I felt like I would die for these children. It was just like an automatic instinct that kicked in that I’ve never experienced before.”
That was especially true when, over the span of one week in April of 2017, three shootings occurred outside the library – all committed by boys under the age of 14. While many would lose their sense of hope, Jackson’s purpose and optimism for the future of these children grew.
That was when she created The Battleground, an organization dedicated to reducing violence and improving literacy among youth in Sulphur Springs. Jackson speaks to the children in their own language, using poetry, hip-hop and martial arts as a way to empower them.
“It’s been a conversation I’ve had with the actual youth of the program, of what they want, what they envision, what they’re interested in,” said Jackson.
And while many may see Florida as the land of palm trees and theme parks, she has seen the dark side of the Sunshine State. Jackson has been homeless, and she has witnessed firsthand the violence that can happen here. But as a poet, she sees the Sunshine State more in a metaphorical sense.
“We can develop a state of life inside to where we are able to just enjoy what there is to enjoy, even when it seems like there is nothing to enjoy,” said Jackson.
This mindset also seems to have an effect on the kids taking part in The Battleground.
TJ Pearson, also known by his poetry name “Negasi,” was Jackson’s first student.
Pearson met her in 2016 when he was a struggling student at Chamberlain High School. At The Battleground, Jackson taught him the literary and reading comprehension skills that gave Pearson the confidence to break out of his antisocial shell and get back on track to graduate at the top of his class.
Now 21 years old, Pearson still keeps in touch with her, seeing Jackson as a mother figure. While he studies computer engineering at Hillsborough Community College, he continues his passion for poetry.
With Jackson’s encouragement, The Battleground lets kids like Pearson harness poetry and other creative gifts they don’t normally have the chance to use to escape from the struggles of their low-income community.
“Creativity is stagnant because people are thinking more about survival,” Pearson said. “She even deals with some of the most troublesome kids and turns them into little sweethearts.”
Many of the kids of Sulphur Springs have what some may consider a dark life, but Jackson sees that they have the sunshine inside of them, and she is determined to bring that out.
“We are known as the Sunshine State, and, you know, Florida being a very desirable place because of the sunshine,” Jackson said. “I see that as not just a climate, but also a sunshine state of life, where we are able to be that source of light, not only for ourselves in the darkest moments, but also for others.”
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