Leadership Through A Hip Hop Lens

What does the CUNY Peer Leaders Program have in common with Hip Hop culture? A few things, actually. As co-directors, Kaysi Holman, Lauren Melendez, Stefanie Sertich and myself, we have designed the program to be a platform for the students to think critically, build community, express themselves and of course, lead. While doing so, we learn from each other because we understand the value of experiential knowledge and with over 35 students there is a wealth of it. Many of the Leaders are marginalized youth like the creators of Hip Hop. These creators had something to say, whether it was written or verbal. In New York City during the early 1970s, these young adults used aerosol spray cans and the city as their canvas (graffiti or writing) or rhymes (rapping) to be seen and heard. Our Leaders use their blogs, podcasts, and our meet-ups.

Silver train with graffiti with words
A train that was tagged by writers, Lady Pink and Lady Heart

For our meet-ups, we, the directors, create prompts for the Leaders in small break-out group discussions. These groups are similar to the Hip Hop cyphers (ciphers) in which rappers or b-boys/b-girls show off their skills. When the break-out groups end, they share the thoughts and ideas that came up. Sometimes they come back and say, “We turned it into a venting session” or “We kind of went on a tangent” and start to discuss whatever the conversation was. In Hip Hop the practice of free-styling can be seen in the elements, whether it’s rapping, writing or breaking. Despite it not being the intended topic, we welcome it because we understand that they may happen and we provided the space to be organic. 

Breakdancer in grey hoodie, dark pants and red sneakers breaking on black and white linoleum tiles in a cypher
B-boy in a cypher doing a one-handed turtle then transitioning into the windmill. Notice the ages of those standing around.

As for us, the directors, we are the DJs of the culture. We mix, select and time the topics for our meet-ups. We have weekly meetings to create themes with particular sections to create an environment for the students to groove to. Our meet-up agenda is the flyer for the meet-up–so they know what to expect. Topics are faded in and out methodically. We would “scratch” or occasionally interject to point something out. This ultimately leads to the fifth element of Hip Hop, knowledge of self and community. For two hours every two weeks, we discuss social justice issues, wellness, academic success, and their final projects, but ultimately who they are and what leaderships looks like in different areas of their lives.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309