Professor uses hip-hop to help Wilbur Cross students

Donald Sawyer hip-hop class
Quinnipiac professor Donald Sawyer and Wilbur Cross students Gerald Conyers and Michael Rivera listen to a rap song during a recent "Crossroads Collective" program meeting.

April 15, 2014 - Donald Sawyer, assistant professor of sociology, is using hip-hop to help at-risk youth at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven express themselves.

Sawyer developed the "Crossroads Collective" program about a year ago. He meets with about 25 Wilbur Cross students every Thursday from 9-10:15 a.m. 

"Last year, the high school was concerned about a population of black and Latino males who were not graduating, not attending school and who were overly-represented in the discipline process," Sawyer said. "We tried to come up with a way to re-engage these students."

That approach was hip-hop.

"We are allowing the students to talk and write about their pain, faith, hopes and dreams and using hip-hop as their medium of expression," Sawyer said. "We're connecting their culture with the school space. A lot of these kids come from single-family households in some of the toughest parts of New Haven. They didn't have an outlet for the things they were going through."

In a recent class, Sawyer and the high school students discussed everything from the Iran-Contra affair to producing a video denouncing gun violence in New Haven.

"This school year, I lost my cousin and two of my friends," Wilbur Cross junior and aspiring rapper Segun Washington said. "I've gotten the best grades I have all throughout high school. I have something to work for. It's something that motivated me to get off the streets. I figure life can be taken at any time, so I have to work hard to get out of here." 

Sawyer encourages the high school students to express themselves through music, rap verses and poetry. He said students in the program have flourished, with some graduating last spring.

"We have discussions about different topics, like college or exams," Sawyer said. "It's a space where urban culture is valued and you can be yourself without being judged. There is no, 'Take that hat off! Why are your headphones on? Pull your pants up!' It's a safe space where they are welcome and can feel comfortable talking about what they are dealing with."