The first time I saw Shayna “Simba” Castano, her shine stole the light from the room. I watched her win the Women of the World poetry slam qualifier with strong pieces about social justice issues. Nearly two years have passed, and she has since represented Central Florida on a national stage. In addition to being a mother, wife, and local writer, 23-year-old Castano is now an 8th-grade teacher, and founder of the grassroots non-profit, Exodus United. “We started about a year ago,” she tells me as we air-dry. We both got caught in the city’s daily downpour. “We work with at-risk youth—homeless, juvenile, low income. Exodus United educates them on social issue topics.”
We sip our caffeine in a crowded coffee shop. It’s a little after five and she’s dressed in her work clothes. Today was Meet the Teacher Day. It’s been a long one, but Castano is still electric with energy. “I think it’s important to understand that it’s not always about you,” she explains. “You can either be an entertainer or an activist. So, I choose to be an activist. Don’t just talk about it, be about it.” Castano lives by example. After class on Wednesdays, she teaches at the
Covenant House. The Covenant House is a haven for homeless youth of Orlando.
“Our first main program is called Poetry and Pedagogy,” she says. “We actually combine social issues with creative writing. We go in and we might do an hour and a half workshop. We introduce a social issue topic, and then we complement with creative writing.It gives substance and helps them to become cognizant of what’s going on in society.”
Recently, she tasked her Wednesday night class to pick a topic for themselves. “They have to research it and prepare a 5-10 minute presentation.” Castano values the unique perspectives of her students and wants to learn from them as much as they want to learn from her. In typical poet fashion, she explains this idea with a metaphor. “Let’s think of a social justice issue as a [commute to] school. One person might have taken four busses to get there, one might’ve walked, one person might’ve got dropped off, somebody might take an uber.” They all wind up in the same place, but through unique experience.
Castano is excited to see how her students deliver their thoughts. Some will share their ideas in the workshop, before sharing them again on the stage. Her Covenant House students have a slot in Exodus United’s quarterly showcase, Merging Artists: The Movement. The Fall Edition will take place on the evening of October 22nd and will highlight “youth and varying artists of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and socioeconomic status.” At this event, Exodus United plans to release their new poetry album. Through a sponsorship by Real Feel Recording, they recorded an EP called “The Making of an Exodus”. This album features poetry and song from the youth of the Covenant House.
Exodus United is making plans for expansion. Their vision is to create sustainable programs that will turn today’s at-risk youth into tomorrow’s global leaders, and it begins with Poetry and Pedagogy. “It’s not just about poetry—it’s an arts and education program. I started it off with poetry because that’s what I know. I want to stick to one program and build it up before I introduce a second one.”
Those interested in helping Castano further the movement, please contact [email protected] or visit exodusunited.org for more information.
Follow them on Facebook & Instagram at @ExodusUnitedInc.
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