“During their research they found out students had to do well in math, science and writing,” Oliver said. “I said to them, ‘Let me develop a writing program.’”
For the past three summers they have operated a writing program that has been successful enough that the city has funded it to run year-round.
But the real measure of his work, Oliver said, are the students who return to update him on their successes.
Loni Rainey, an art teacher at Parkview Arts & Science Magnet in little Rock, attended Say it Loud! Readers and Writers poetry workshop when she was nine years old. She was reluctant because a diagnosis of dyslexia had made learning more difficult.
“I wanted to be a teacher but I was discouraged because I couldn’t comprehend what I was reading,” she recalled. “My mother made me, my older sister and younger brother join his poetry group. I was in third grade, but reading on a first grade level.’
In Oliver’s program, the group wrote poems and made an anthology of their work.
“Seeing my words and feelings on paper at that age helped me a lot,” said Rainey, who kept attending. When she was 15, Oliver took the group to Chicago to a Gwendolyn Brooks conference, she said.
“My mother, an avid reader, made me take six books to have Walter Mosley sign them. He signed them. Then he asked me if I had ever read any of his books and I said no. He said, ‘Next time I meet you I want you to have read my books.’”
Rainey went home and read five of the books, which surprised her and gave her a great sense of accomplishment.
“Mr. Oliver encouraged me and helped me have confidence…,” she said. “Without him, I wouldn’t be a teacher… Meeting actual writers and poets motivated me to try harder and not give up. Hearing these people I considered famous coach me and encourage me and let me know I am important really helped.”
Jose Hollaway, now band director at McClellan Magnet High School in Little Rock, is another graduate of one of Oliver’s programs.
“I am proud to be from a single parent household. My mom was always looking for something for me to be involved in that had black male role models,” Holloway said.
He was 11 and a trumpet player. He didn’t have a reading problem, but Say It Loud! opened up his world, he said.
“I gained exposure to the culture, learned to think positively. We took a lot of trips, saw a lot of stuff. We learned the importance of the arts and how to collaborate. It was so encouraging. Suddenly, it didn’t seem out of reach to go off to college or do things like that.”
Oliver’s work is featured in a new book published by The Poetry Foundation called Open the Door and now he gets calls from people all over the country who want him to start programs for them. “I explain I help communities and schools and other organizations develop programs themselves,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Little Rock, he hosts “Literary Nation Talk Radio” a live weekly broadcast with nationally known guests. He has also published, Turn the Page and You Don’t Stop: Sharing Successful Chapters in Our Lives with Youth, an anthology of noted writers testifying to how writing and reading has impacted their lives. On September 21, he will co-host the Congressional Black Caucus’s annual legislative conference’s author’s pavilion.
But Oliver is on a mission. “As this country shifts from factories to technological entrepreneurship, I want to help create the next generation of entrepreneurs,” he said. “I’m not just talking about writing poetry. If kids are not reading well, navigating their way through sophisticated documents, they won’t be successful in the 21st century.”