International Connections Fueling the Soul: A Conversation with Honey Bell-Bey

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Through professional and learning exchanges, CCWA facilitates professional meetings with international visitors and their local counterparts. As a result of the meetings, conversations, and experiences that they have here in Cleveland, the international visitors are often inspired to take action in their home communities. CCWA is proud to facilitate these transformative experiences and do our part in advancing peace, innovation and collaboration around the world.

Honey Bell-Bey is the founder of the Distinguished Gentlemen of Spoken Word, a performance troupe for young African-American men who study the art of poetry. She is the Cuyahoga County Poet Laureate and a 2020 fellowship recipient from the Academy of American Poets. She is also a Citizen Diplomat with CCWA’s International Visitor Programs, and hosts professional meetings with groups focused on arts, social justice, or youth development. As an avid proponent of fostering international connections, she has hosted many international visitors to share her art and insights on working with underserved youth – and to gain inspiration from the visitors’ art and experiences in return.

The international artists and youth education leaders that CCWA has connected with you and the Distinguished Gentlemen always come away inspired. What do these global connections mean to you?

I think it’s two-fold. Art is similar to love—it’s this international language that transcends culture and age and puts us all in the same frame of mind. When we get visits from international visitors, any stigma is neutralized. Young people in a high-risk environment are already marginalized and stigmatized. This exchange provides a continued opportunity for their voices to be heard on the international stage for who they are. They get to tell their own story without the stigma. We hear it so much in our country and we hear it abroad too: what we perceive the young African-American man to be. It’s important to tell your own story.

You are not only the leader of the Distinguished Gentlemen of Spoken Word, but also the county’s Poet Laureate and an educator for at-risk youth. How has interacting with international visitors shaped you from a professional standpoint?

Meeting international visitors is another opportunity to share who we are, to tell our own story. There’s nothing like teaching or sharing with people who want that circular learning process. It naturally waters that organic learning process—it’s never forced. I appreciate the international visitors’ appreciation for the arts and being able to share and glean from one another.

Over the years, visitors from over a dozen countries have connected with you and met the Distinguished Gentlemen. What are some memorable interactions with visitors that stand out?

You’ll see tears in the eyes of the participants and you will hear how moved they are by meeting the young men of Distinguished Gentlemen. I can remember one instance when I was leading a session and I connected with a youth worker from Africa. He proceeded to tell a story about what this experience meant to him. It’s the opportunity to share our passion and have those moments together.

Another example is when we had an art sharing session with an international group of artists.  There was some rap and then we had a breakdance session. Both groups were sharing their art forms and it was absolutely beautiful. And the students continued to talk about how we were all just vibing from each other’s art.  

The professional exchanges are a way to highlight what our city has to offer. What do you like to share about Cleveland when meeting international visitors?

One of the most beautiful things about Cleveland is that we are a melting pot. We have more arts programs and services than most cities of our size, there is such a plethora of art. If Cleveland can put aside the problems we have—that we can preach about for days—there is beauty in the culture. We really have some beautiful pieces in this city that I wouldn’t trade for any other places I’ve visited. And so much of that art is economically affordable or free to the community.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

Even though we’re in the midst of COVID-19 and other issues, I want to encourage parents and community members to not be afraid to get your passport. Despite current travel issues, get your passport now. You can’t be afraid of international travel especially if you are from a socially-economically disadvantaged community where international travel is not part of the norm.  Start the process and see the world. Don’t make your world so small—the world is a beautiful place to visit. There is nothing more invaluable than international experiences. And if you can’t take your kids to the world, it is important for the world to come to you, and experience this exchange of ideas and culture. We self-destruct as a human race if we don’t understand each other and engage in conversation.

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