Alumna inspiring Sacramento youth to find their voice with poetry
“What are some problems you see in the world that you would like to change?” asks Denisha Bland ’18, also known as Coco Blossom, in poetry workshops for Sacramento high school students.
A poet, mentor and educator, Bland empowers young adults throughout the region with spoken word and writing.
“There’s power in my voice so I’m speaking to empowered youth,” she said in a performance for students.
Bland is the associate director of UC Davis Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS), an outreach program founded in 2008 to create pathways for high-risk youth into higher education. She says she views spoken word poetry as the fuse to create change in the world and strives to share its power with others.
As a result, she is often on the go, driving from one school to the next to engage with students through spoken word poetry and writing workshops.
“I call it spoken word because my poetry comes from my soul, and I really don't follow the poetic devices or norms that one would,” she said. “It’s something these students relate to. We come in doing spoken word, we’re rapping and we’re rhyming. When we relate to them, we’re breaking traditional educational norms.”
Bland has worked more than 10 years in the program, dedicated to uplifting youth voices and enacting social change.
“SAYS is an innovative outreach program at UC Davis that strives to reach, teach and empower students to become warrior scholars as well as expose them to higher education,” she said. “We’re helping transform education and make school cool for students.”
Bland, who grew up in South Sacramento, knows firsthand how it feels for young students who may not see themselves going to college. That’s one reason why it’s so important for her to show them the way.
“Kids from communities that are impoverished or heavily impacted by street and gang violence, they don't always see themselves at UC Davis,” she said. “So when they see somebody who looks like them going to or graduated from UC Davis, I'm hoping that my youth can see me within themselves and follow my same path to higher education.”
When Bland first started working at SAYS she was attending community college in Sacramento. Her mentors in the program encouraged her to apply to UC Davis through TAG and inspired a path for Bland that she hadn’t thought was possible before.
“I didn't see myself at UC Davis, but once I changed my mindset about higher education, I applied, got accepted and graduated,” she said. “So now I’m just using my story to show kids who might not see themselves at UC Davis that they can be an Aggie.”
Bland graduated in 2018, earning a degree in African American and African Studies. During her time on campus she stayed connected to the performing arts, starting open-mic nights for students at the Mondavi Center and performing at Black Graduation ceremonies.
“Since graduating I've learned the power of having a top-tier institution degree,” she said. “Being able to navigate my world with my UC Davis degree has made navigating my career easier.”
Now Bland hopes to go back to her community and show students how to manage their own experiences and make it to higher education themselves.
“To be able to help kids that look like me, the kids that come from communities that I come from, to expose them to higher education? It’s a win-win.”
I’m just using my story to show kids who might not see themselves at UC Davis that they can be an Aggie.”
A lifelong love of poetry
Poetry has always played an important role in Bland’s life, from writing poems in journals in as a teenager and rapping with her brother.
“Being a poet has always been a part of me since I was a little girl,” she said. “It’s just me speaking the truth about where I come from, what I’m feeling, my views of the world and encouraging and empowering people through my words.”
Bland has performed spoken word and hosted open mics in many different settings around the region, such as the Fillmore Black History festival in San Francisco and the Sacramento Women’s March.
“My whole thing is to uplift the world by touching the hood first,” she said. “I want to be able to inspire and encourage people throughout my entire life all around the world, but my main focus right now is on empowering the community that I come from.”
While pursuing her goals, Bland is also working on a book, set to publish later this year, to share her story.
“If I can be the person that comes back and gives good soil to the concrete communities like where I come from, so we can see more beautiful roses blossoming out of the concrete, then I’m going to continue to do that.”