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Free Verse

Napoleon Felipe Napoleon Felipe by Jennifer Taylor

NeON Arts, a program of the Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON), offers young people in seven New York City communities the chance to explore the arts and build relationships with peers and mentors through free projects in all five boroughs. Napoleon, a writer from the Bronx, describes how he first got involved in Free Verse, a poetry program based out of the South Bronx NeON, and the impact it has had on his life. Napoleon now serves as an apprentice instructor, leading poetry workshops for young people in Jamaica, Staten Island, and other sites across the city. He was recently accepted to study acting this summer with Mario Biagini at The Open Program in Tuscany, Italy.

Free Verse poets Sherese and George have also had the opportunity to serve as paid apprentices at the Jamaica and Staten Island NeON sites this past year through a program supported by the Mayor’s Grant for Cultural Impact through the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, leading writing workshops and performances and training younger poets. Learn more about Free Verse here.

“While attending GED classes at the South Bronx NeON, I met Dave Johnson, the founder of Free Verse. He was asking people to write one-line pieces that he believed he could make into poems. Initially I didn't want to do it, but after listening to him read poems aloud, I thought I’d give it a try. As the weeks went on, I looked forward to Thursdays at the Bronx NeON. This became my weekly time to write poetry, express my feelings, and work with people in public. The opportunity opened doors. I began to build trust with people who I thought wanted nothing to do with me. Eventually, this level of trust truly allowed me to give back to my community.

The arts engages people on multiple levels. You begin to recognize the needs and concerns of people from all walks of life. You find a place for yourself within the art form. You make connections. You learn to listen. You learn to communicate. You learn empathy. I wanted to help people to be their best selves. Writing poetry with Free Verse helped me work out my thoughts. Things I felt too hurt or ashamed to expose, I began to see as an asset and not a liability. If I shared, I could help others. And working with others has helped me conquer fears.

NeON Arts Free Verse Launch Party

Through Free Verse, I have greatly improved my public speaking skills. I have learned editing and revision skills. We publish our own literary magazine. Free Verse has given me many skills that I can use in the real world, including creative and concise writing and editing, networking and relationship-building, and entrepreneurship. I’ve worked with numerous members of our local community, teaching them poetry and assisting them in finding words to express their internal struggles.

Through Free Verse, I now work as a teaching artist in a Manhattan community center for visually-impaired senior citizens. I also recently had the opportunity to make my debut in Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall with Lemon Anderson of Def Poetry Jam as part of A Time Like This: Music for Change, a special concert showcasing the power of music and art to fight for change.”

Learn more about NeON Arts and find a free workshop near you at

Pictured: Sherese Francis, Napoleon Felipe (middle)

Photos by Jennifer Taylor, Richard Termine, and Fadi Kheir.

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NeON Arts is a program of the NYC Department of Probation in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

Funding for NeON Arts is provided by The Pinkerton Foundation and The Staten Island Foundation through grants to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. Public support is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the City of New York through the Department of Cultural Affairs, Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Alicka Ampry-Samuel, the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, and the NYC Young Men's Initiative.