Eugene Butler is a senior counselor for Seeds of Peace. He was the emcee and a workshop presenter at the second annual New England Youth Identity Summit, held on March 31 and April 1, 2017. He opened the Summit on Friday evening performing three of his own spoken word pieces linked here.
Prior to the Summit, Eugene was the guest speaker at an Upper School Assembly, in which he delivered a shortened version of his Summit workshop entitled: Bey-ism: A Dialogue on Social and Gender Equality through Beyoncé Lyrics. Recently Kiera Macwhinnie ‘17, USNOW staff writer, conducted the following interview with Eugene.
Where are you from?
I am from the inner city of Syracuse, New York. Syracuse is located in Upstate New York; it’s this small city sort of in the middle of nowhere.
Most of it is low middle class and low income citizens. The city is largely segregated by race and income, but I don’t think most people notice or care. The major focus on the minds of most people I know is more on economic stability and the violence that goes on in Syracuse. There is a heavy amount of gang violence in the city like many of America’s inner cities but there’s many reasons why these issues are so persistent. I would describe Syracuse as being a systematic plantation that reduces people of color and poor whites into cheap labor for large corporations like Walmart and fast food franchises like McDonalds, Carls Jr, etc. There are almost no feasible resources in the city to help correct the overwhelming dysfunction that has been systematically imposed onto the city by the government, big business, and the wear and tear of time. These sort of despairing conditions that many Americans are faced with, combined with a larger host of other issues pushes people into crime to live “sustainable”.
Where did you go to high school and college?
I went to Franklin Magnet school for elementary, which from what I can tell was or is one of the better schools in the city. I say that because the middle school and high school I went had the structure and dis-functionality of the prison system.
I went to Grant Middle school, an experience I reflected on in The Miseducation Of a Black Kid, the first poem I performed the night of the summit. We entered school through metal detectors, were taught in over packed and underfunded classrooms, and the school lunch was full of processed sugar and fat as I recall. It wasn’t all bad, just not what I or anyone else deserved.
For high school I went to the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central (ITC), it changed its name almost every year I was there. I decided to go ITC which was supposedly going to be going to be located in this newly renovated building in downtown Syracuse and that the classes would allow students to get an associate’s degree in culinary or another vocational course of their choosing. None of that happened. I am proud I was in the second graduating class of ITC, in a small brick building. Having to walk to the YMCA for gym or play ball in the shop room and all of the little quirks our small community was working with to make the best of things. I think it taught me to be imaginative but there was also a lot of time wasted in that school, and I don’t think it equipped me or anyone for college or higher education in general.
I went to Syracuse University. I was offered a scholarship because of my grades and also as my guidance counselor put it, I knew how to “switch-it-up” or “act white”,which I totally agreed with her. It’s unfortunate but I went into college undecided but quickly went into Information Technology and Management because it seemed like it would apply to many areas. Syracuse taught me a lot and gave me so many opportunities academically and socially. I would say not every professor was great and that 56,000 is way more than what higher education should ever be. I always say 220,000 dollars never taught me how to love myself. SU is a great academic institution but more than that it is a business first. My advice when going into higher education or private schooling is to always think of yourself as a customer first. It’ll make you a stronger and student and want to play a more active role in the quality of your education.
What made you decide to be a poet and a writer?
I don’t think I ever made the decision to be a poet or writer, I like to think so. I think that when I stare at a beautiful landscape or person, that my words and my feeling will just bleed onto the page but it rarely happens that way. I started to write and perform my freshman year because I thought I was falling in love with a boy(s) and because I wanted to speak truth to power. I remember a moment of watching the news of Trayvon Martin take over the news media, I remember looking out past the ivory tower that I was now in and apart of and past the bridge that separated it from the projects (the plantation) I grew up in. I remember looking out into the hall way and knowing I was one of three people of color in a predominately white/jewish dorm. I remember wanting to scream at the top of my lungs, my life has been a lie. For me that what poetry is and has acted as in the course of my life. a way of digging through my memories and experiences and unpacking it all, bare for everyone to see. I do it because we’re all more alike than what we would like to believe and it helps me remind myself of that.
What attracted you to Seeds of Peace?
I fell into to Seeds of Peace my sophomore year after taking a dialogue class on race and ethnicity. The facilitators because told me I was going and that I would be great for it. But for me, I wanted to make change. I had been been generally mad for about two years after the discovery that I was Black in America and unpacking what that truly meant and I want to create some sort of change in the world. I jumped in, feet first and the rest is history.
How have your experiences with Seeds of Peace and past experiences changed you?
Yes! It shaped so much of my life at this point. It’s become way more than just camp for me, it’s friends, family, being a mentor when I need to be a playful brother or sister when I need to be. The community that Seeds of Peace camp bring together have taught me how to love myself and others, how to be a leader, an artist, a friend, my whole self, really. It’s taught me how to be kind in conflict and that conflict isn’t always negative. That conflict is needed for change and growth. My experiences during my summer at camp have been full of love and challenges within myself and my community of peers. I wouldn’t change a minute of it because everything that we have gone through has made us stronger individually and as a community. There’s no easy answer to the question of how it changed me but I would say again, it let me be all of me.
How did you come up with Bey-ism and why do you think that is important for people, especially youth, to learn about it?
I came up with Bey-ism with my friend Shilpa Reddy at SOP. We had a night to figure out what we were going to do with our special activity and we combined social equality with Beyonce and it has grown from there. It’s nothing specific I think everyone needs to know in terms of the information I present in a session. I lead the session in both the domestic and international sessions of camp, and I hardly know anything about the specific communities and structures that my kids are coming from. So what Bey-ism does is allows for communication to happen and allows for my kids to put on the critical lenses and look at their own lives and deconstruct systems that they live in. Rather that be based on gender, race, or economics. I think that is what young people need to learn if we are to truly progress this world we live in. How can break these structures that are so fixed in our society and grow something new?
What do you plan on doing in the future to continue inspiring and empowering youth?
I am almost a year out of college. This year has been one of weird and one of tremendous growth in many areas in my life, not so much my pockets but we’re getting there. I hope to get into education, diversity leadership of some sorts. I think in whatever job title I have that I’ll essentially be doing what I’ve always done, which is expressing myself in such a way that opens up the creative space for others to express themselves.
Did you enjoy the New England Youth Identity Summit? What was your favorite part about NEYIS?
Yes I did! Being able to see so many of my kids (Seeds) across my three years at Seeds and see their growth. It reminded me of why I do what I do and why it’s probably a good idea to keep following my heart.