Warning: This story contains brief descriptions of alleged rape and sexual assault.
Roger Bonair-Agard was intelligent, mischievous, and even adored. One of the most well-known slam poets of his generation, people enjoyed the Trinidadian artist’s sense of humor and his work delving into race, colonialism, and sexuality. But Itunu noticed that he was always the loudest person in the room–and frequently pushing the bounds of what was considered acceptable in a professional setting.
Since 2018, Itunu, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, had been working as a sound technician and program coordinator for Free Write Sound & Vision, a workforce development initiative that provides audio equipment and DJ services for events. Sound & Vision is a subsidiary of Free Write Arts & Literacy, a nonprofit that hosts workshops on creative writing, visual art, and audio recording for youth, with a focus on young people incarcerated at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
Bonair-Agard’s list of accomplishments is long: program director at Free Write; cofounder of the louderARTS Project in New York; two-time National Poetry Slam champion; performer on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam; author of multiple poetry collections, including Bury My Clothes, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2013. He’d previously worked at Young Chicago Authors (YCA) as a
“poet-in-residence,” a position created specially for him by the organization’s artistic director, Kevin Coval.
To many–enamored by his charisma and his knack for working with vulnerable youth–Bonair-Agard was a hero.
In August 2020, a woman came forward with allegations that Malcolm London, a renowned poet, rapper, and activist who came up through and previously worked at YCA, had raped her in 2018. Previously accused of assault in 2015, London had participated in a lengthy community accountability process initiated by the survivor and those affected in Black Youth Project 100, the activist organization that both were members of. The process–which took place over 15 months, in a public manner, with high-profile people–was seen as a model for how survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence can heal without involving the police or courts. London declined to speak for this story “out of respect for survivors, my own accountability and to avoid creating unnecessary harm to [the] community by participating,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Mariame Kaba, the grassroots organizer and abolitionist who served as facilitator for the transformative justice process, wrote in August 2020, “I am deeply disappointed and angry that Malcolm hasn’t taken accountability for his violent behavior and actually done the promised work to change it.”
When Itunu heard about the allegations, she started reading posts on Twitter that mentioned London. That’s when she came across a tweet referencing allegations of sexual abuse by Bonair-Agard.
“My heart dropped to the bottom of my feet,” Itunu said. She did not work closely with Bonair-Agard, but she had an intimate relationship with his family. She babysat the children he had with his partner, Mathilda de Dios, and was frequently in their home. In her two years at Free Write, Itunu had never been informed of any rape allegations against her colleague.
After combing through old web pages, she found a poem published on Bonair-Agard’s personal website on April 2, 2010, entitled “entreaty.” The poem describes, in first person, a man raping a woman. In this excerpt, Bonair-Agard wrote:
Father, when I was 18, I held a woman
down, in the front seat of my mother’s
Datsun, and when she finally relented,
I told myself it was because I wanted
her to stay. I pushed myself
into her and called myself a man
for certain. I did not think it rape
until almost 20 years later,
and while I am not alone
in this specific way of men
I wonder how the lie of your
returning again and again–how
the lie of my forever staying,
my body blooming chest and wrinkle
into your spitting image would have molded
me more a man, more capable
of the love I swear I feel
in my stomach but can never seem
to deliver to the women I call
“Once I read the poem, I thought, ‘I can’t deny this, I have to quit,'” Itunu said. She e-mailed her concerns and the poem to Ryan Keesling, founder and executive director of Free Write. Over the phone, she said Keesling defended Bonair-Agard, saying the alleged assault occurred in 2014 and that he’d undergone an accountability process with the person. A week later when he was picking up Free Write equipment from her, Keesling apologized. The poem, along with other revelations about Bonair-Agard, “showed me just how much of a fool I was for working with him and elevating him to a position of leadership within the organization,” he told me via e-mail. (Bonair-Agard has since removed the poem from his website.)
In October, Free Write launched an accountability process, which required hard conversations with and between staff about harm that occurred in the workplace. The first public statement, published by the staff on December 21, 2020, acknowledged Free Write’s “toxic organizational culture” that led to its continued employment of “known abuser” Bonair-Agard. In 2013, Bonair-Agard was accused of rape by a colleague at Young Chicago Authors, where he was employed until August that year.
In an e-mail, Bonair-Agard declined a request for comment for this story “out of respect for survivors’ healing, and my own ongoing process of accountability and healing.”
(Restorative justice facilitator McKensie Mack, in an interview with me, clarified that the requested accountability process is focused on Free Write as an organization–not on Bonair-Agard, who isn’t involved.)
The statement named Chelsea Ross, a former Free Write contractor, as someone who’d been demanding accountability for
Bonair-Agard since 2014. “I have strongly, loudly, aggressively resisted Ryan and Free Write’s protection of Roger since day one,” Ross, who is married to Keesling, told me. According to Ross, who said she never had control or input over personnel decisions, Free Write was never told how severe the allegations against Bonair-Agard were.
In a statement dated 2016 (written as a four-page open letter), Bonair-Agard framed allegations against himself as “sexual misconduct and coercion”–not rape–and that he was undergoing an accountability process with one of the two people. “There was only so much information available and it allowed Roger to craft his narrative,” Ross said.
Ross said she had encouraged Keesling to initiate the accountability process after three events occurred in 2020: Itunu’s discovery of the poem and her resignation; scrutiny over Bonair-Agard by a potential funder who had contacted board members with concerns; and Bonair-Agard’s attempt to hire Malcolm London as a teaching artist, without permission or notice by Keesling or the board.
“For six years, we chose not to stand in solidarity with survivors of harm and instead protected an abuser,” the staff wrote of
Bonair-Agard, whose employment was terminated in December, in the first public statement. “We told ourselves that the internal work we were doing to design policy and structures to account for the harm was ‘transformative’ when really it was insufficient and cowardly, with no public accountability offered to the community.”
On February 17, 2021, Free Write published an additional statement, which explained that Bonair-Agard’s experience with incarcerated youth and the built-in supervision at the juvenile detention center were the reasons why the organization chose to maintain his employment. As a result, there were people and organizations who refused to work with Free Write, or with Bonair-Agard at Free Write. “Having learned over time how serious the harm he caused was and how little accountability he had taken, I have since apologized to many of those colleagues for protecting and prioritizing him in those moments and in general,” Keesling wrote to me in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, Itunu was furious at the inadequacy of the statement. “I thought they were still repeating Roger’s lies,” she told me. Two days after the statement was released, she tweeted that Free Write did nothing to protect its employees from Bonair-Agard and was being cagey about the process since they did not share the statements on social media.
A week later, on February 24, a woman came forward. “When Free Write issued their statement regarding Roger Bonair-Agard, I felt myself sink deep into the hole of my own unlanguaging,” she wrote in a public statement shared by thousands on social media. “The statement that Free Write wrote is both about, and not about, me. It is deeply painful to see my body, my story, my life, so distorted and manipulated by others’ projections and misinformation.”
She alleged that she was raped by
Bonair-Agard when she was 23 years old and he was about 45 years old, while both were employed by Young Chicago Authors. According to her statement, they participated in two private, mediated conversations afterward, but she had to stop the process because he wouldn’t take responsibility. “He signed an agreement in front of me that he wasn’t going to talk about our process to people. That Roger used our private healing process to prove he was doing accountability ‘work’ to either YCA or Free Write or any other teaching organization is a further transgression of my being, body and psyche.”
In 2013, she began a campaign to get local and national poetry organizations, including YCA, to acknowledge the rape that Bonair-Agard had allegedly committed.
(Bonair-Agard was fired from YCA that year, amid multiple allegations of sexual abuse.) Many did not believe her, according to the statement, as they could not fathom he was capable of violent sexual abuse. She blames YCA and Free Write for not taking responsibility.
A day after her statement was published, YCA executive director Rebecca Hunter and artistic director Kevin Coval, who for years had been the face of the organization, released their own statement apologizing for past inaction and pledging “avenues of support for survivor-centered resources when harm occurs.” YCA leadership went on to state, “Although we severed professional ties with Roger
Bonair-Agard in 2013, informed partners and collaborators of this fact, and undertook an internal investigation into our own hiring and personnel policies, we acknowledge our response was not enough.”
But this statement–construed as defensive and vague–triggered a backlash from those familiar with Coval’s reputation. On March 3, Sam Van Cook, president and founder of Button Poetry, released a statement describing a 2015 meeting in which Coval “showed disinterest” and was “dismissive” when presented with concerns about Bonair-Agard’s inclusion in Coval’s 2015 The BreakBeat Poets anthology.
“I believe that Kevin Coval’s leadership at YCA is a clear and present danger to the thousands of young people served through YCA and [its slam poetry tournament] Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB),” Van Cook wrote.
The next day, the YCA board of directors announced that Hunter had resigned from her executive director role ahead of her previously announced departure in June 2021, and Coval’s employment “has been ended.”
“I accept accountability and responsibility for not doing enough,” Hunter told me the day after she left YCA. She had been executive director of the organization since 2011. “I respect 100 percent the request of the staff [for me to] resign.” Demetrius Amparan, previously YCA’s donor relations manager and director of publications and communications–and a YCA alum himself–was to be the organization’s interim executive director.
That same week, Chicago Public Schools suspended its partnership with YCA (CPS invited YCA teaching artists into classrooms) to investigate “whether any CPS students were affected or harmed by alleged misconduct in YCA programs, as well to ensure that any allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse were appropriately reported,” the CPS inspector general told the Sun-Times. Amparan told me that the CPS investigation had been triggered by “misinformation” printed in an earlier Sun-Times article and in a CPS e-mail that went to students and parents. He said both communications said a young person had been harmed when, to his knowledge, no youth have reported harm by a YCA staffer at either YCA or CPS. Chicago Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the investigation, but Amparan said YCA has fully cooperated and hopes the partnership will continue.
Meanwhile, Free Write’s board of directors voted to dissolve as an organization, effective March 31, as a result of its own accountability process. Keesling stepped down as executive director and agreed to continue with the process in a volunteer capacity. “Dissolution is not the end of Free Write’s accountability,” the staff statement read.
The terminations of Coval and Bonair-Agard were met with both relief and frustration that they did not occur earlier. This series of events has revived years-long conversations about restorative justice in abolitionist spaces where people do not want to call the police in response to sexual violence. Some, including survivors and whistleblowers, have felt their opposition to carceral solutions was twisted to exonerate and welcome abusers back into their communities. Many said the terminations do not fix underlying issues that contributed to a culture that sidelined and abused women, adultified youth, and catapulted some men into celebrity status.
I spoke to more than 40 people about their experiences in the Chicago poetry scene, including current and former employees, collaborators, board members, and students of Young Chicago Authors and Free Write Arts & Literacy; poets who have organized around justice for survivors and had their careers ruined from speaking out; and people who say they’ve experienced abuse by those in these organizations. Many sent me documents and e-mails to corroborate their experiences.
People felt more comfortable speaking to me about their experiences with YCA and in the poetry scene after Coval’s exit was announced. Even so, many still requested anonymity or agreed to only speak off the record because Coval has a reputation for silencing critics and wielding his power as a gatekeeper in art, music, and activist spaces. Coval did not respond to texts, phone calls, and e-mails asking for an interview.
“I’m afraid of him,” one ex-employee of YCA admitted. “I don’t work in youth poetry anymore because of him.”
Before Young Chicago Authors was a destination for spoken word and hip-hop, it was an intensive creative writing program. The organization was founded in 1991 by Robert “Bob” Boone, an educator who taught in Highland Park and Glencoe. Its main offering was the Saturday Writing Program, which recruited 20 high school sophomores a year into a three-year creative writing curriculum that rewarded them with college scholarships at the end. “We weren’t looking for young talented writers,” Boone said. “We wanted young people who wanted to write.”
YCA was housed at 2049 W. Division, on the second floor of a Wicker Park greystone. The splashy mural in YCA’s current space–the organization’s name written in a colorful graffiti style on a brick wall–was originally painted on the exterior of the apartment. Bedrooms of the two units were converted into offices, and the living rooms had couches arranged to seat up to 30 people. Local artwork lined the walls, and staffers used their own money to buy books for a shared library.
“[Kevin Coval] and I had gone to his aunt’s resale shop and we carried the furniture up ourselves,” said Anna West, an early employee who now works as executive director of the Baton Rouge youth nonprofit, Humanities Amped. It was cozy–“not unlike someone’s apartment when you’re in your 20s.”
In 1997, West had been teaching creative writing workshops at Neon Street, a drop-in shelter for homeless youth based in Uptown. At the end of her AmeriCorps VISTA program, she started working as a contracted teaching artist and program coordinator for YCA. Then, in a fateful event, West met Coval at the Guild Complex, a performing arts space in Wicker Park. West and Coval bonded over their shared interest in teaching young people and wanted to form a group that would study pedagogy to improve their practices. She convinced Boone to hire her and Coval as part-time staff to jumpstart the Writing Teachers Collective (WTC) through YCA in 1999. Though unorganized at times, it was exciting to build a creative community from the ground up, and staff at YCA considered each other family.
At one WTC meeting, Peter Kahn, a teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School, floated the idea of a poetry slam. Poetry slams were on the rise, the most well known–and one of the first in the country–being Marc Smith’s Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill. The proposal was met with some hesitation, as few in the group were in the slam poetry scene, but they moved forward with the idea under YCA in 2000.
The Chicago Youth Poetry Slam differed from its counterparts. Rather than competing as just individuals, the slam was partially structured to accommodate teams who would represent their schools and perform as a group. To West, who came up with the idea, this would foster a “writing culture” in schools and position the slam as a “place of exchange” for students. “As organizers, we were thinking, ‘How do we build a movement and not just a program?'” West said.
The first tournament, which hosted eight teams and culminated at the Guild Complex, was “riveting,” West said. During finals night, “the room was packed. We were definitely over fire code. It was wall to wall, standing room only.” The slam grew exponentially–16 teams the next year, 32 the year after. It soon became the nation’s largest youth poetry slam.
In 2001, after two tournaments, the Chicago Youth Poetry Slam was renamed Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) after a lyric in a Public Enemy song. At the time, Black and Brown youth were being targeted by anti-gang loitering laws sparked by tough-on-crime fervor and 9/11, and the name change was meant to be empowering.
“As an English teacher for 23 years, you say the word ‘poetry’ and two-thirds of your class just crumbles, like they want nothing to do with it,” said Nora Flanagan, who coached LTAB teams from 2002 to 2017. But this style of poetry was different. “It was from artists they respected and admired and trusted and felt more authentic to them than a Norton poetry anthology from 150 years ago. I have never seen anything engage students with poetry more than Louder Than A Bomb.”
Spoken word poetry was deeply personal, too. Students, many of whom lived in disinvested neighborhoods across the city, often reckoned with heavy topics, such as gun violence and poverty, in their performances. Being on the slam team required vulnerability from its participants, but it also allowed teens to find community in their schools and across the city.
“Young folks seemed to be romanticized as opposed to engaged critically. There’s this age-old trope in the arts community where young folks–Black folks in particular–are paraded as new talent but very little is done to support them, in terms of mental and physical health or emotional well-being. I saw YCA, at that time, continuing that trend.” –David Stovall, UIC professor and former YCA board member tweet this
“The cultural practices within the poetry slam become a way for many people to meet the needs that are not being met in their own biological families,” writes Javon Johnson in his 2017 book, Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities.
In 2010, LTAB entered the national spotlight with the release of Louder Than A Bomb, a documentary that followed teenagers from four Chicago-area high schools as they competed in the 2008 slam. Roger Ebert named it one of the ten best documentaries of 2011.
As artistic director, Kevin Coval had become the face of YCA by the time the documentary was filmed. To West, Coval’s narration in the film “became this kind of public super-memory overriding so much of what came before that.” YCA was in the middle of an identity crisis, caught between a maturing slam poetry focus and the ideals of the original Saturday Writing Program. West said that Coval considered leaving YCA and taking LTAB with him.
Meanwhile the organization grew unevenly and experienced financial precarity and high turnover in leadership, particularly between 2004 and 2011. “I remember their accounting being literally, like, a shoebox of receipts,” said Nikki Patin, who started at YCA as a teaching artist in 2001. “Largely, because you had a bunch of early- to mid-20-somethings trying to pull off and organize this amazing and wonderful programming, but without a lot of the administrative know-how.”
Early YCA employees describe a toxic, misogynistic culture that rewarded male talent, sidelined young women, and blurred the lines between student and teacher.
Author and University of Chicago Poet for the People Practitioner Fellow Tara Betts worked at YCA early in her poetry career. While teaching at the Saturday Writing Program, coaching LTAB teams, and running other YCA programs, Betts lived with Anna West for two years, in walking distance from the original YCA office on Division. “We were young teaching artists functioning as a makeshift family,” she said. But before Betts left in 2004, she noticed a disturbing trend. “People were starting to party more with kids and hang out with them like they were adults.”
In the early 2000s, it was discovered that a 30-year-old male teaching artist at YCA was sending inappropriate e-mails to a 17-year-old female student. “The student’s mother came to YCA and said, ‘Why is my child getting these messages? Are you going to do something?'” Betts recalled. The teaching artist was fired.
Soon after, a schoolteacher approached YCA and said one of their students, who attended YCA programs, had been raped by a teaching artist on the YCA premises a year prior. In response, YCA fired the teaching artist.
Betts still felt that the story was “swept under the rug” because the employee had been a friend of Coval’s. West, who had become the organization’s de facto executive director, noticed the same behavior. “Kevin always maintained that because [the survivor] didn’t press charges, ‘it was her word against his,'” West wrote in an e-mail to YCA executive director Rebecca Hunter in 2013.
In 2005, a teenage student came to Patin and told her that a teaching artist had an inappropriate relationship with her. Patin suggested to YCA leadership that they contact the organization Rape Victim Advocates (now known as Resilience) for trainings or consultations around consent and mandated reporting, but nothing came out of that. “To not be able to protect [my student] or help them do anything was really difficult for me,” said Patin, who left YCA to work at RVA because of this incident.
West said that she and avery r. young, with assistance from Betts, drafted the organization’s first “safe space” agreement, which outlined rules and expectations for teaching artists. For example, teaching artists were not to smoke or drink alcohol during YCA programs and events or make sexually suggestive jokes. West and Krista Franklin also came up with a writing and collage project to accompany the new policy.
As this was happening, Patin and Betts were struggling with an organizational culture that resisted change. Soon there was an exodus of about ten teaching artists, particularly women.
“I feel a lot of regret about how we handled things in 2004,” West told me. “Kevin and Bob [Boone] wanted to treat what happened as an isolated incident, avoid legal repercussions, and not open any further dialogue about it. I felt extremely uneasy, but struggled to name my discomfort.” Boone felt that YCA acted decisively when it became known that a teaching artist was sending inappropriate e-mails to a student–“that was the only time that happened,” he told me–and he wasn’t familiar with the staff’s work around safe spaces. “We were very responsible as far as how we treated kids and each other. I don’t remember anything like that.”?
As Betts became more vocal about her concerns about the line between student and teacher, “all of a sudden, there was no room for me to teach a class, like, ‘Oh we didn’t have room to put you on the schedule.’ But then Kevin’s friends are on the schedule.” Reluctantly, she left YCA and moved away from the city in 2004. “I felt like I needed to leave if I was ever going to get an opportunity as a writer.” When she returned to Chicago in 2015, people were surprised to hear she’d worked at YCA. By that time, she had been erased from the organization’s history.
Betts remembered catching flak at YCA for saying that the organization should be invested in kids graduating high school and getting into college. “I told Kevin, ‘We are doing a disservice to young people if we think they can be a rock star poet and make a living from that. You can’t stay in that phase forever.'”
YCA occupied a special place in the youth arts world because of how welcoming and progressive–even radical–it was. Young people’s creativity and ambitions were taken seriously by adults. But this organizational ethos may have also contributed to their adultification.
That’s one of the reasons why David Stovall, a professor of Black studies and criminology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, left YCA’s board of directors in 2014. “Young folks seemed to be romanticized as opposed to engaged critically,” Stovall said. “There’s this age-old trope in the arts community where young folks–Black folks in particular–are paraded as new talent but very little is done to support them, in terms of mental and physical health or emotional well-being. I saw YCA, at that time, continuing that trend. ”
University of Chicago professor and poet Eve Ewing, who attended YCA programs from 2001 to 2005 as a youth, said she’s spent a lot of time thinking about predatory behavior in youth poetry organizations. One possible reason, she told me, is that “in the name of youth empowerment, often these spaces have much blurrier boundaries between adults and young people than you might find in an organization like a school.”
“When adults aren’t responsible about establishing clear boundaries–boundaries that are not ageist or disempowering, but that make the space safer–there are people who take advantage of that.”
From the age of 13 through college, Melissa–whose real name has been concealed for fear of retaliation–attended a poetry boot camp every summer. Coval and
Bonair-Agard were its most high-profile instructors, and she came to respect
Bonair-Agard as a personal mentor.
Bonair-Agard was known to be a womanizer–charming and sexually forward–but some question if his move from New York in 2009 was an escape from allegations of sexual misconduct. Rebecca Hunter told me she received statements in 2013 from women who said they’d been sexually harmed by
Bonair-Agard in New York.
“His tone with me and his female students was always flirtatious, but I never took it seriously,” Melissa said. “It felt like his way of treating us as artistic peers.”
But according to Melissa, that flirtation escalated. Years later, she said that one night, he pressured her into drinking while she was underage (he was more than twice her age) and into engaging in sexual activity in his home. “I told him very clearly I wasn’t interested and he didn’t even pause in his advances. I felt completely trapped.”
Distraught, Melissa kept her experience secret for years. In 2013, she learned that a woman had been allegedly raped by
Bonair-Agard, so Melissa started speaking publicly about him to friends and family, and on social media. “I felt that by naming him and how he had acted toward me, I was sticking up for the women who were not comfortable coming forward, and protecting future women and girls who he might target.”
When she told people about her experience, she said no one seemed surprised. “It was an open secret then, too. It really made me feel that I had been hung out to dry,” she said. “It became clear that he was using his youth poetry workshops, and up-and-coming poets in general, as a sex and dating pool.”
In August 2013, Melissa told YCA about that traumatic night with Bonair-Agard, and she provided Coval with an “exhaustive” document of her interactions with Bonair-Agard. That same month, Rebecca Hunter said she received Melissa’s statement and statements from two other people with allegations of sexual violence and harassment against Bonair-Agard. YCA fired Bonair-Agard, who was employed as a poet-in-residence, that August. Melissa later spoke with a third-party investigator YCA brought in to investigate the matter.
“As far as I know, at one point Roger and Kevin were putting around the story that everything between us was fully consensual, and I just regretted it later,” said Melissa.
The high of performing at Louder Than A Bomb is like no other. For Kush Thompson, then a student at Orr Academy High School on the west side, the feeling was intoxicating. “I remember vividly after one bout, Kevin Coval came up to me, and he said, ‘If you want to do this for the rest of your life, I can help you,'” Thompson said.
In the early 2010s, YCA was not so much a program as an entire ecosystem. It was common for alums of LTAB and WordPlay, the weekly open mike, to become YCA teaching artists and then full-time staff. Thompson worked as a teaching artist from 2015 to 2018 and, for the most part, looks back on her time at YCA fondly. If not for an itch to move to New Orleans, “I never really had to leave,” she said. “I had an entire trajectory set up with YCA–maybe even a lifelong career.”
But to some, that same dynamic was suffocating. “It’s really hard to work as a poet in this city without being associated with YCA,” said a former employee, who asked to be anonymous. “When you’re outside of it, it feels like a monopolizing organization.”
Another employee described a specific cycle of harm that occurred in the organization. “They start out as a student, then they become an assistant or intern for Kevin or Roger, they become an employee of YCA, they have some sort of conflict with Kevin after he’s given them access to meetings or gigs or published their chapbooks, and once [that happens], that’s when he becomes very difficult to work with and starts retaliating. I’ve seen that play out with many different people.”
By 2013, Kevin Coval was one of the only YCA employees who had been there since the early 2000s. He had been a major part of the organization’s growth, but he was also a common denominator in why some employees did not feel comfortable reporting incidents of inappropriate or illegal behavior by or toward staff. Coval had favorite students and staff members–most of whom were Black men, according to one staffer–and those relationships came first.
“When adults aren’t responsible about establishing clear boundaries–boundaries that are not ageist or disempowering, but that make the space safer–there are people who take advantage of that.” –Eve Ewing, poet and YCA alum tweet this
Across the country, poets were mulling over the same dynamics of power and exploitation in their respective communities. Whisper campaigns were common as a way to warn people of abusers without involving law enforcement. That’s why the 2013 National Poetry Slam, in Boston that August, became something of a #MeToo moment.
The Slam Masters meeting, typically a rote discussion over administrative matters, was “notorious,” said one person familiar with what happened. Lasting more than six hours, it broke the seal on many people’s anger and frustration over survivors expected to perform alongside alleged sexual predators in the scene.
Rebecca Hunter, YCA’s executive director until recently, said that the 2013 National Poetry Slam was when she first heard about allegations against Bonair-Agard. After a “safe spaces” council was convened at the National Poetry Slam, Hunter was informed by the council that Bonair-Agard’s name was on a list of alleged sexual predators.
Hunter told me that after the National Poetry Slam, she received separate statements from three women with allegations against Bonair-Agard. “For two of the survivors, the sexual violence occurred in the context of the larger poetry scene but not specifically at a YCA program. For one of the survivors, they came forward and said they were experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.”
“Once I had gathered information, YCA, at the request of the board, did an internal investigation looking for issues of negligence, connecting with two of the survivors who participated, connecting with Roger. It was very clear at the end of that investigation that YCA needed to sever ties with Roger,” Hunter said. Bonair-Agard was not allowed in YCA spaces that August, and his contract with YCA was not renewed in September.
This was not the first time Bonair-Agard had faced allegations within an organization, said Hunter. In 2012, Volume, an Ann Arbor-based poetry workshop, stopped working with
Bonair-Agard after hearing allegations of sexual misconduct.
In February 2014, a group of poets sent a list of demands to YCA leadership. While YCA had fired and banned Bonair-Agard, no public statement was issued and both students and collaborators were confused by what had happened. “This is not meant as a plea to demonize Roger,” the poets wrote. ” Rather, we feel it is a teaching moment for YCA to hold needed conversations about accountability, sexual violence, and creating safer spaces.”
The group asked for a public statement on sexual violence; a public event in coordination with a local organization that works with survivors of rape and assault; and counseling services to be made available to anyone attending a YCA program. In an e-mailed response, Hunter said that YCA was engaged in a “legal framework” with its lawyers and the board of directors and had begun a restorative justice circle process with staff.
Hunter told me that she also notified organizational partners that YCA was no longer working with Bonair-Agard. She explained, “At the advice of the Board of Directors the first communication to partners and stakeholders did not share details, but stated we had been made aware of allegations of sexual harm and had severed ties with Roger.” Hunter went on to say that YCA did share certain details in later years.
But employees did not think this was enough. They were critical of YCA’s decision not to go public and felt that the two restorative justice circles convened were treated like one-off fixes rather than an opportunity to change organizational culture and policies. “I fell short on meaningfully addressing those lists of demands,” Hunter told me.
It was also unclear why Free Write continued to allow Bonair-Agard to work with youth at the juvenile detention center, leading some to believe that YCA had not shared the rape allegations with all of its partners. Hunter told me, “I had reached out to Free Write to let them know that YCA was not working with Roger [and he] was not welcome in our programmatic spaces. For whatever reason, they continued to employ Roger until December 2020. I let them know that while we were at the juvenile detention center that Roger could not be in any of the programmatic spaces that YCA was running programs.” Free Write said it became aware in spring 2014 of “sexual and psychological harm” Bonair-Agard reportedly inflicted on a colleague and justified keeping him because the organization valued his experience working with incarcerated youth.
Many felt Coval, who was friends with
Bonair-Agard and had recruited him into YCA, was dismissive of attempts to change the organization. “Someone asked if YCA could have an HR person, and [Coval’s] response was ‘go find them,'” said a former employee. (YCA has never employed a full-time human resources staffer and has instead relied on HR consultants.)
“Roger was removed from teaching workshops, but we knew that Kevin knew about it for a while before actually taking action,” another former employee claimed. They said that a teaching artist was allowed to stay at the organization for two years after allegedly assaulting a colleague, and that they themself had been assaulted by a YCA contractor, who continued to work with the organization.
“I’ve known Kevin since I was a kid and I’ve known Rebecca since I was in college,” the former employee continued. “Even though I still have some love for them because of the history between us, I still feel like they did not go about this the right way. They prioritized the institution over the people the institution was supposed to serve.”
Poets campaigned to have Bonair-Agard publicly banned from performance spaces–a move supported by one of his survivors, according to a September 2013 e-mail sent to Coval and local performance venues. In the e-mail, the group of ten poets wrote, “Women in the community need to feel safe attending poetry events without fear that Roger will be there.”
The response from venues was mixed. Some immediately banned Bonair-Agard, while others, particularly friends of Bonair-Agard, objected to the idea of a ban because it represented, to them, a punitive form of justice. According to one poet, who requested anonymity, Bonair-Agard and his friends floated “vague threats” of a defamation lawsuit in the months after.
Many venues that acquiesced to the demand were nonetheless resentful of the poets. One poet was called a bully by their former mentor. “The backlash from this experience traumatized me,” the poet, who also warned people about Bonair-Agard over social media, told me.
They became a pariah overnight. Peers blocked them online and ignored them in public. One person claimed that “even if the allegations were true, my public statement was equally, if not moreso, harmful [to] an act of sexual violence,” according to the poet. “This singular event effectively ended my career as a performer, teacher, and community organizer.”
Meanwhile, Bonair-Agard was still showing up to fundraisers, posing in photos in the VIP sections of events, booking gigs across the country, and attending the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill. Though he was officially banned from many spaces, he still had enough friends in high places.
“This story is not special. It fits every archetype of every scenario like it. A powerful man made invincible by the web of powerful people around him.” –Chelsea Ross, former Free Write contractor tweet this
The next year, in 2015, YCA alum and former teaching artist Malcolm London was accused of sexual assault and underwent a 15-month community accountability process. London was considered by many to be Coval’s favorite mentee–he even lived in Coval’s spare bedroom for some time. He was also mentored by Bonair-Agard.
“I was already sickened by [allegations against Bonair-Agard], but now we’re breeding generations of people that harm people,” said Patin.
“This is the first anthology of poems by and for the hip-hop generation. And it’s about time,” Kevin Coval writes in the introduction to The BreakBeat Poets. “The BreakBeat Poets blow up bullshit distinctions between high and low, academic and popular, rap and poetry, page and stage.”
Raised in Northbrook, Coval was always drawn to art–particularly Black art. In interviews, he cites Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, and the underground hip-hop collective Molemen as early influences. “I definitely wanted to be a Black Panther when I was a kid, and my mom was like, ‘My man, can you please look in the mirror?'” Coval, who is white, told Newsy in 2017.
For a young suburbanite who chafed against authority, Chicago felt like the promised land. “There was an open mike damn near every night [in Wicker Park],” Coval told me in 2019. I met him while covering his poetry collection, Everything Must Go. He cut his teeth performing with the Guild Complex and teaching hip-hop/poetry workshops at alternative high schools. His poetry is reflective, searching, and often mission-driven, delving into topics like racial justice, gentrification, and his relationship with Judaism. In the foreword to Coval’s A People’s History of Chicago, Chance the Rapper calls him his “artistic father.”
In person, Coval is warm and charismatic. The 46-year-old pairs beanies and snapback hats with bomber jackets and collared shirts–buttoned all the way to the top–straddling the line between professional and urban cool.
Though he published work independently, he saw himself as a facilitator first. “My work as a writer, and my work as an organizer and educator, is to create spaces where people can tell stories,” he said in 2019. But it became clear to many, as Coval received more attention, that he had become a celebrity, a self-styled kingmaker, and a gatekeeper.
When Louder Than A Bomb became a national sensation, “there were times when the media came around and they would explicitly ask for him, as if Anna West or anybody else didn’t exist,” said Tara Betts, who was also an LTAB cofounder. “You don’t pull off the largest teen poetry festival in the country as one person.”
In 2005, Coval visited West in her hometown of Baton Rouge, where she moved after leaving her post as program director of YCA. He stayed at her house and they attended an event together, and the host read Coval’s provided bio, “which said ‘Kevin Coval is the founder of Louder Than A Bomb,'” West recalled, laughing. Coval apologized when confronted, “but it just kept happening.”
West expressed these frustrations to Rebecca Hunter and Coval in a long e-mail in 2014, calling her erasure from the LTAB origin story “revisionist history.” “When I read that ‘Kevin had a vision to give youth a platform,’ it’s absurd to me. Kevin had plenty of visions, but those 2001 visions were born out in dialogue . . . with me, specifically,” West wrote in the e-mail. “It makes me wonder what this means for my own career, as I am in a stage right now in this PhD program where I’m expected to apply for awards and fellowships, etc., and there is this bizarre disconnect between what I claim to have done and what I am publicly credited for. I don’t need to be listed in the top line of your history, but just get this one right.”
In response, Hunter thanked her for the “thoughtful and honest” e-mail and offered to speak on the phone. Afterward, West’s name was added to the organizational history on the website. Coval never responded to the e-mail.
“I feel like Chicago really wants to have that narrative of a white male savior at the head of an organization that works with young people in the inner city,” Betts speculated. “He’s packaged himself in a way that’s very slick and urbane. If you find old pictures of Kevin, he doesn’t look anything like he does now. It’s a very cultivated image.”
“He was a real chameleon,” said a Chicago writer who knows him socially. “He could be just street enough for C-suite corpo execs who needed their cultural event to be cool enough but not too Black. And he knew that. He could effortlessly switch out between all these things. You would watch him try to figure out what was the lingua franca or references or people they had in common, so he could ingratiate himself really quickly.”
“I think Kevin is capable of code-switching and that is something that could be read as appropriative,” said West. “I don’t think Kevin has thought critically about how he has centered himself and what his whiteness has meant for how people gravitate toward him as a person who creates access to white liberals who are all too eager to hear the stories of Black and Brown youth.”
This cultural capital translated to lucrative side hustles. Coval cohosted his own podcast through WGN Radio, The CornerStore; was the lead editor of the BreakBeat Poets series from Haymarket Books; and has been an executive creative director at the advertising agency Momentum Worldwide since February 2020, according to his LinkedIn. He’s written and edited ten books. He’s consulted for Apple, the Chicago Cubs, and the Chicago Fire. He booked as many as 100 speaking engagements a year–gigs that, per industry standard, likely earned him between $2,000 to $5,000 per event. In his professional bio, he says he’s shared a stage with Nelson Mandela and the rap group Migos.
He was even part of a 2018 marketing campaign for Bonobos, a menswear brand. In a branded video, Coval dispenses wisdom about growing up: “I work with hundreds and thousands of young people. What I have the opportunity–the privilege–to tell them all the time is that, ‘you’re dope.'”
In recent years, Coval was only in the YCA office once a week. Despite this, it was understood that he had the ultimate decision-making power, even if staff had already reached consensus.
“I always felt working with Kevin was dependent on how he felt about you at certain moments,” said Nate Marshall, a poet who worked as YCA’s director of national programs from 2015 to 2018 and co-edited The BreakBeat Poets. Marshall’s mentor-mentee relationship with Coval stretches back to his teen years, when he was still writing poetry in his childhood bedroom. Marshall was one of the teens featured in the 2010 Louder Than A Bomb documentary.
While working on the first BreakBeat Poets anthology, “there is a summer where I have distinct memories of having separate editorial meetings with Kevin and then having the same identical meetings with Quraysh [Ali Lansana, our co-editor],” Marshall recalled. “If Kevin was displeased, he didn’t want to listen to them, even when the project necessitated communication.”
Other former employees corroborated this and told me that Coval stopped answering their calls and e-mails and wouldn’t come to meetings they scheduled.
Marshall said his relationship with Coval was tested in 2017 when Chicago magazine published “What the White Boy Wants,” an ambivalent profile of Coval that interrogates his status in a predominantly Black creative scene. Asked about these racial dynamics, Coval told reporter Matt Pollock, “White people have the most difficulty with understanding how I am. It has always been an issue. I think in communities of color, I’ve been received very well because of how I approach the space.”
Marshall, who agreed to an interview with Chicago as a favor to Coval, recalled being asked questions about Coval’s leadership as a white man. Pollock also wanted to know who Coval’s peers were, as his recommended sources for the story were either “significantly younger or significantly older,” Marshall said.
After the interview, Marshall casually described the interaction to Coval, who later reprimanded him for “even attempting to answer those questions.” In the final story, Marshall’s quotes were inoffensive (“[Coval] always had an eye not just for the kids who are talented but who are really on fire for the work”), but their relationship never recovered.
“Once that became cold and I recognized how hard it was to actually work there when you didn’t have the check mark of Kevin, [I realized] there’s nowhere for me to go in this organization,” said Marshall, who eventually left to pursue a career in academia.
“If I raised legitimate concerns, I’d be laughed at,” said another former YCA employee. “I definitely felt bullied by him. Showing up to work was toxic for me. He can be quite a mean person, in a way that makes you feel small and dumb in a very high school-triggering kind of way.”
The employee also believed Coval was callous about the allegations around
Bonair-Agard. They noted that Bonair-Agard and a woman who accused him of sexual violence both appear in The BreakBeat Poets–and “even after Kevin knew, he had them both attend the book release party.”
For most–if not everyone–I spoke to, justice does not look like a conviction.
“Many people in the poetry community, myself included, don’t believe in police as a way to address harm,” said Eve Ewing. “But we also need to spend time learning about and building other forms of healing and accountability, because if we do nothing at all, it leaves space for people to take advantage of that and to be hurtful again and again.”
To replace police and prisons, poets have sought community-based solutions like restorative justice circles and long-term accountability processes that require open conversations, tangible goals, and, sometimes, public vulnerability. But what happens when abusers and enablers use this process to their advantage?
The former YCA employee who accused
Bonair-Agard of rape said in her statement that he had gaslit her during their private mediation sessions and then used his participation as evidence that he was improving himself.
According to a letter dated 2016,
Bonair-Agard said he was only aware of two specific allegations against him and that his journey has included therapy, “hundreds of hours of discussion . . . in the field of sexual trauma repair,” and restorative justice circles with one of the survivors. Multiple people told me that Bonair-Agard tended to use language to distance himself from alleged transgressions, like saying his body was a “locus” for harm.
Around the same time, Free Write’s associate director, Mathilda de Dios, led an initiative to “internally address the sexual harm caused at YCA by Roger in 2014 as well as any future instances of harm that may be caused by any Free Write staff member,” according to the December 21 accountability statement (her name was removed from the current version). I was told that this process was fraught from the beginning, as Bonair-Agard and de Dios are now romantic partners and have a child together. (It’s unclear whether they started dating before, during, or after the accountability process, but by 2018, they were together.)
Bonair-Agard declined my request for comment, as did most of the members of his 12-person personal accountability team, which included former colleagues, bandmates, and poet friends based in Chicago, New York, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Free Write is still working through its accountability process. Of the accountability process led by McKensie Mack, Keesling said, “They have offered support to survivors of Free Write’s harm and have worked with us on understanding that accountability is not a single moment in time but a series of moments that lead to changes in behavior, sincere apology, and reparations for harm caused.” As part of the process, the team met each week and completed individual tasks between October and May, and Keesling spent about ten hours per week contributing to projects that came out of the meetings. They plan to release training materials and updated policies “with a particular focus on Free Write’s failures, mistakes, and limitations.”
Keesling told me that the board, program staff, accountability team, himself, and “some survivors of Free Write’s harm” felt the organization’s dissolution was the “best way forward.” At a logistical level, Free Write will no longer exist as a 501c3 nonprofit organization and will return to its original status as “a program with a fiscal agent,” which is how it operated from 2000 to 2016.
Itunu, the sound technician who resigned upon discovering Bonair-Agard’s poem, believed dissolution was the right decision. From her perspective, Keesling and Free Write were “inseparable” and, as executive director, he hadn’t empowered any of his directors to eventually step into his role. Keesling said he had wanted someone to take his job, but succession planning had been difficult. “I think you’d need to ask [the program directors] directly whether they felt prepared to trade their daily work as educators working with young people for the drudgery of soliciting funds, doing back office work, and other nonprofit executive-level tedium,” he said.
Nikki Patin, who in 2014 started Surviving the Mic–which hosts writing workshops and open mikes in a trauma-informed setting, and shares resources on sexual harm and performance–said the decision was cowardly. “I have worked in that program and saw uniquely how they showed up in that detention space . . . They’re dissolving it because they don’t want to do the work that it would take [to fix the organization].”
Young Chicago Authors has also undergone its own evolution. Former YCA employees, collaborators, and alums I spoke to were optimistic about YCA’s direction under Demetrius Amparan, who became the organization’s official executive director on July 20. YCA recently completed its 90-day “Safe Space” plan, which included public town halls, mandatory staff trainings, workshops on consent and rape culture, new HR policies and guidelines, and hiring an in-house therapist for YCA program attendees. Amparan told me that they were also looking to add “community background checks”–essentially, asking other national arts organizations about the reputations of job applicants–to the hiring process. “If you would’ve done that at any point in time,” Amparan explained, “you would’ve seen Roger Bonair-Agard’s name pop up.”
One of the most visible changes was the rechristening of Louder Than A Bomb, which was canceled this past spring, as the Rooted & Radical Youth Poetry Festival. The first festival was held virtually last month. According to the announcement, “this newly imagined festival rethinks scoring and judging to empower participants and get back to the heart of creating a community for young people to share their stories in a non-competitive environment.”
This change gets at the heart of a concern that many coaches had–that “we might be commodifying students’ pain,” said Nora Flanagan, who coached LTAB teams. “We are asking students to share, sometimes, the hardest thing they’ve ever lived through, in front of an audience, and then we’re giving it a score. That felt terrible.”
Except for photos of graffitied walls on his Instagram, Kevin Coval hasn’t posted a lot online since March, much less made public apologies or statements. At the same time as his firing, he was dropped from his position as editor of Haymarket’s BreakBeat Poets series, which will no longer release new titles. Haymarket also announced it will no longer print or sell Bonair-Agard’s book, Bury My Clothes. Coval’s books are still in print.
A sympathetic column from the Tribune‘s Rick Kogan, a longtime friend and mentor of Coval’s, revealed that Coval had hired an attorney to explore a wrongful termination lawsuit in the days after his firing. I have not been able to independently confirm if a lawsuit was filed. But a former employee told me, behind the scenes, Coval has denied wrongdoing and has been lashing out at people critical of him.
Over months of reporting, I was struck by the disconnect between the progressive image that YCA projected and the reality that many faced while working or attending programs there. Many people who spoke critically of YCA told me they didn’t want instances of alleged abuse to overshadow the essential creative and educational work that YCA was doing to support Black and Brown youth. But at the same time, Coval has enjoyed near-universal praise in the industry and in the media.
A former employee said that even close friends were afraid to speak critically of Coval to each other. “There was a heavy silence for years that has only recently begun to crack,” they told me.
“On several occasions,” Chelsea Ross, formerly of Free Write, said, “I have heard people dismiss the claims against Roger because he’s ‘special.’ This story is not special. It fits every archetype of every scenario like it. A powerful man made invincible by the web of powerful people around him.”
The people I spoke to who were harmed by Coval and Bonair-Agard want them to sink into obscurity. “No pity tour, no performative apologies,” I was told. “Just cede the space.” But Melissa said she’s not holding her breath.
Many survivors, whistleblowers, and those who have labored in toxic work environments have left the arts scene or left the city entirely. It could take years to uncover the extent to which abusers and enablers–those who
ostensibly valued the spoken word–used their own words to silence so many. v
This reporting was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.