A Conversation with Emily Lang + Kristopher Rollins (of RunDSM)

When I first met Emily Lang and Kristopher Rollins, I felt that instantaneous magnetism you sometimes feel when meeting new people. I talked with them for less than two minutes, but I had to know more about them. Their passion for impacting the next generation was both intriguing and palpable. 

Their organization uses spoken word and beat poetry to empower local youth and give them a platform to share their life stories. 

The couple (new parents to Baby Ruby!) met in inner-city Des Moines at the middle school that they were both teaching at. It began innocently enough - sharing supplements with each other between classes - but the amount of time they spent together made it clear that something more than goodwill kept them close. It was a common goal - and a common love - for their students.

Tell me how you guys found your way to Des Moines?

Kristopher: I went to Indiana University to study history and because of the racial inequalities I’d grown up seeing in rural Indiana, I choose a specific focus on African American History. From there I went to the University of Alabama and received my Masters in Curriculum and Instruction - focusing specifically on creating a hip-hop curriculum that I could use to discuss social issues with my students.

When I got to Des Moines, I worked at a school for residential delinquent males from all across the country. While there, I was able to teach the hip-hop course that I created while at University of Alabama. When the principal at that time moved schools, he asked me to come join him to be a part of his staff here.

Emily: Originally, I went to Simpson College to study theater. After a year, I realized I didn’t want to pursue it and I was kind of lost. Then I came to Des Moines, transferred to Drake, and majored in English and Secondary Education - with a specific focus in rhetoric. Shortly after graduating, I began working for the Des Moines Public School System. 

Tell me about Movement 515 and how it came about.

Emily: Movement 515 is a weekly spoken word, writing, and performance workshop. We developed it after attending Brave New Voices about four years ago. 

When we got out there, it wasn’t just spoken word that we learned about, it was a way of life. It completely challenged the way Kristopher and I thought about education, our classrooms, and our students. It was about giving students the power to control their stories and to control the narrative of their lives. 

Kristopher: Ultimately, we've been able to provide a platform for youth to feel like they can speak and be heard. People will discuss youth and their futures, but it often seems that youth are excluded from those very conversations. So what we’ve tried to do is give them their voice back and it’s just caught on like wildfire. It’s a movement for youth  by youth. And that's why its caught on.

Emily: When we first received our grant to facilitate these programs, the first people we went to were the kids. We sat down and told them this is the amount of money we have. What do you want to spend it on; who do you want to come in and speak? We’ve been able to grow because we listen to them about where they want this movement to go. 

Kristopher: Movement 515 was built to battle this misconception that the students at our schools were illiterate and apathetic. Emily and I both felt very differently about that label that had been placed on them. If you don’t have the relationship with them, they’re not going to be open. 

How has having a child changed your perspective on life (especially concerning education and the Arts?) Also, do you feel that your level of involvement with students prepared you (in some way) to become parents? 

I’ve always loved our youth, but the minute Ruby was born, I started seeing them as their small selves, imagining everything they had gone through that led to us meeting and working with them. It made me love them even more, and really love their parents even more for the sacrifices they have made to give them a good education. 

I definitely think working with youth helped prepare us for parenthood, as it forces you to meet your child where they are and begin each day with a new, fresh attitude.

Recently, I was reading an article about you guys and one of your students said this, "They’re not friends or teachers, but mentors.” Do you guys view yourselves as teachers or mentors?

Emily: I think both! I think a mentor is someone is who going to continually walk with them throughout their life. We have very high expectations for them and if we didn’t have those expectations, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs. But we also understand that they're young people and so we help them rise to those expectations. 

Kristopher: I think you can do a better job as a facilitator if you have a relationship with them because you’re human first. One of the things that have allowed us to build really strong relationships is that we’re open about how we’ve messed up in our own lives. If they make a mistake that I’ve also made, it’s easy for me to say, “I made that mistake, too. But look me at now. I’m o-k!”

Emily: It’s about giving them that space and that power to speak. Most kids just want attention and if they’re not getting that attention at home or in school, they’re going to act out. If we can give them a way to positively express what they’re dealing with in their lives, they’re more likely to be successful. Studies have shown that if a young person has just one supportive adult in their life, they’re more likely to be successful. We’re both just try to be another supportive adult that they can come to in their life. We're strong believers in that principle.

Thanks again to Emily and Kristopher for taking the time to talk with me over this past week. I'm inspired by your lives and your advocacy. Until every voice is heard!