Willie Ney, a self-described “multicultural activist” on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in the 1990s, heard teens performing poetry and saw revolutionary potential.
Starting in 2003, Ney took an exploding, coast-to-coast movement of spoken word poetry and created the country’s first hip-hop academic program on a university campus. Ney is now executive director of the UW-Madison’s Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives, which oversees the First Wave Spoken Word and Urban Arts Learning Community.
Each year, First Wave accepts 15 students, gives each of them a full-ride scholarship, and crafts a curriculum to encourage their skills in poetry, political activism, music, dance and theater. Their success could prove what Ney predicted years ago.
“Whichever university takes a risk on these kids, the cutting-edge kids of the 21st century, they’ll revolutionize the institution,” Ney said. “This is the most exciting thing happening in high school. These kids are literary geniuses, so it correlates well to academics.