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    Mackenzie Berry, sitting alone at a table by the door, writes a poem in tiny scrawl in an open notebook, a little red plastic cup of water beside her. Me, a thirty-two year old working mother of two, bursts in harried and flummoxed, late as usual, while Berry, a seventeen-year-old high school student at DuPont Manual, arrived early, calm and peaceful, mature beyond her years, waiting patiently for me. I offer to buy her a coffee, but she politely declines.

    In the two hours when even my frazzled self lost track of time, I came to understand that Berry’s whole life has been sitting patiently—observing, analyzing, and waiting for the moment to act. Even in her short seventeen years, those moments of action have been powerful.

    She begins her story by starting  at what seems like the very beginning for most high school students—freshman year. In these four years, she has become an award-winning poet and the executive director for an organization that she founded, Young Poets of Louisville. YPL hosts writing workshops and poetry slams monthly for young writers.

     

    Image: Madilyn Hord
    It all started for Berry when a friend showed her a Youtube video of a young poet in Philadelphia named Kai Davis. Watching Davis perform her poem opened Berry’s eyes. She says, “I didn’t know what I was missing. I was so moved. I knew it would change my life.”

    As a seventh and eighth grader, Berry had already won poetry competitions for her print poems, but she never knew there was a social element to poetry. “I liked writing, and I didn’t know others like me, but I knew they were out there.” Learning about the world of slam poetry affirmed that belief. “Writing is so isolating, but I knew it could be a collective experience.”

    She says a drawback for some writers with slam is the performance aspect, and it was for Berry too. But she says, “I knew it would be valuable to get over my fears and get out of my comfort zone.”

    Looking to the future and instinctively knowing a skill will be valuable is one of Berry’s inherent talents. Kai Davis performed her poem at the Brave New Voices poetry competition, prompting Berry into a frenzy of research on the competition. “I just kept thinking, ‘how do I get here?’” She quickly learned that although there was a strong slam scene in Louisville, there were no options for young poets. “As soon as I found out there was no organization here, it was in the back of my mind to do it.”

    “I know that young people want to start things, and I felt an obligation on the behalf of my generation to prove it could be done.”

     

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    Image: Josh Jean-Marie

    Berry’s talent of cultivating resources and skills for a future goal set in motion from that moment. As a sophomore, she joined the Louisville Youth Philanthropy Council, a local organization that helps teenagers learn how to run a philanthropic organization.

    As a junior, she applied as a free agent for a young entrepreneurial organization called the Catapult Incubator at the University of Pennsylvania, where she flew multiple times over the course of one year to learn entrepreneurial skills. “I cleaned out my bank account to do it!” I questioned whether it was her bank account or her parents’, and she quickly corrected me, “No, definitely my bank account.”

    After each of these experiences, she was confident enough to approach the then executive director of LYPC, Ina Miller. She asked for help building YPL, an organization that had become more and more clear in her mind. Miller encouraged her to plan a poetry slam as a fundraiser. Miller sent her to a poetry slam at Sweet Peaches in the West End. There, Berry met Lance Newman and Maxwell Mitchell, the hosts of the slam, who quickly agreed to help Berry plan her own slam called Poetic Philanthropy.

    Berry made all of the promotional materials for that event, telling herself, “This is something I need to know how to do if I’m serious about this organization.” She knew she had to understand every aspect of running an organization, including graphic design. “There’s potential for creation in this world, and I need to understand those opportunities.”

     

    Image: Madilyn Hord

    After Poetic Philanthropy’s success, Berry had proven herself to enough people to support her fully. “I always feel like no one owes me anything, so I have to prove my worth.” She did just that when she happened to meet Tarsha Semakula of the Buttafly Center Inc., a local organization that supports female entrepreneurs, at a writing workshop.

    “I just introduced myself, asked for her contact information, and approached her later after doing my research. It’s important to build relationships before asking for anything.” It turns out, she didn’t have to do much asking. At the end of her first meeting with Semakula, she was offered fiscal sponsorship by the Buttafly Center. Semakula guided Berry in applying for nonprofit status, but Berry did the legwork, Googling business plans and articles of incorporation.

    Berry never shied away from the hard work, a trait that she says runs in her family. Her mother is a chaplain at Hosparus, who always told her stories about her patients, even encouraging her to meet with some of the patients on her own. “I thought their stories were magic,” a memory that clearly resonates with her today.

     

    Image: Michael Fitzer
    In addition to all of her work as a young entrepreneur and philanthropist, Berry strives to be a better poet as well, having attended workshops to grow in her craft. She’s been honored with acceptance to Governor’s School for the Arts, Kenyon Young Writers Workshop, Iowa Young Writers Workshop, and most recently, the First Wave Program at the University of Madison Wisconsin, where she has been given a full scholarship to attend. Now she’s faced with a typical high school senior decision with atypical circumstances—go for the full ride to study poetry full time or wait to hear back from the Ivy Leagues to see what they offer. The mom and teacher in me tells her not to worry, she’ll be fine.

    As for the future of YPL, Berry says she hopes to find the right executive director to finish what she started, an endeavor she doesn’t take lightly. “I want people to use poetry to better others. The person we choose has to believe that too.”

    We wrap our meeting, and I rush off to the next appointment on my calendar, leaving Mackenzie Berry sitting alone at the table again, where she pores over her notebook, recording just the right words for her poem and observing the comings and goings around her, ready to put those observations to good use somewhere down the road.

    Image: Josh Jean-Marie 

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