Phil Kaye was 17 years old and attending a student diversity conference when he went to a talent show that changed his life.
“I saw a kid my age get up and do a poem and I remember this lightbulb going off,” he said. “I was like, this is a possibility? This is something I’m allowed to do, to talk about my story with all the tools available to me, my body, my voice? I was super inspired.”
The spoken-word poet brought that passion to Stetson for Values Day, filling Lee Chapel with students, faculty and staff for his keynote address on Tuesday, Sept. 24.
The event began with a moving performance of “I Choose Love” by the Stetson Concert Choir, Women’s Chorale and Stetson Men.
Afterward, Kaye kept the audience riveted – and at times laughing – while he performed his poetry. In one of his silly poems, he adopted the persona of the Geico gecko and talked about the demands of being the world’s first animal superstar.
In others, he delved into serious topics, exploring his heritage with a Japanese mother and a Jewish father. In “Repetition,” he told of his parents’ divorce when he was a young boy, after which he developed a stutter. “Fate is a cruel and efficient tutor,” he said.
Such vulnerability on stage requires courage, he told the crowd. And he confided that he vacillates between “moments when I’m very confident in the work that I do and moments of totally crippling self-doubt.”
“So much of poetry and I think part of life is being able to recognize two things that may look like opposites and realize they are both true,” he said. “Our challenge today, among other things, is to push yourself toward nuance to see what are the dichotomies that you are holding, how they exist in your life personally.”
Kaye also is co-director of Project VOICE, which travels around the world working with schools and communities to share poetry and help folks to tell their own story.
First-year student Nathan Price had not heard of Kaye before Tuesday’s appearance but said he felt so inspired by the talk.
“For me, it was an awakening within myself as well because I like to write,” he said. “It was such an aha moment, like I could possibly do that. It’s such a creative outlet for me.”
Kaye also participated in a Q&A with students and others over lunch at the Stetson R.E.A.D. (Reflect, Engage and Affirm Diversity) for people who had read his new poetry book, “Date & Time.” The event was founded in 2013 by Rajni Shankar-Brown, PhD, associate professor and Jessie Ball duPont Chair of Social Justice Education, and facilitated with Lindsey Carelli, assistant director of Interfaith Initiatives.
Other events included workshops, a Global Citizenship Fair, Community Lunch and Arts Showcase. Values Day is an annual tradition of taking a day away from classes to explore the core values of personal growth, intellectual development and global citizenship.
“This year’s theme for Values Day is ‘Activism through the Arts,'” Savannah-Jane Griffin, coordinator for Values Day and executive director of Community Engagement and Inclusive Excellence, said at the opening session. “Throughout today, we would like you to reflect on what moves you. What moves you to action? So much so that you might write about it, you might talk about it, you might sing about it, sculpt it or perform it.”
Stetson President Wendy B. Libby, PhD., urged the community to make every day “Values Day” and help heal the divisiveness in the world today.
“I feel that I would be neglectful if I didn’t somehow connect what we’re doing here today with what is happening across the world today and in our country where it seems that we have gotten less good at talking to one another, less good at hearing other people,” she said, “… and learning how to come together instead of being locked in our narrow view of what is best for each of us instead of the collective whole.”
Kaye agreed, saying during his talk, “One of the reasons I love poetry is I think it creates room for empathy. It’s exactly what Dr. Libby was talking about this morning. I think we’re in a bit of a national empathy shortage at the moment.”