Poetry has been Oliver W. Colbert’s constant companion. It’s journeyed with him from childhood through some turbulent teenage years, onto academic and professional achievement, and now as he brings his full self to work as Associate Director of Admissions and Diversity Initiatives at St. John’s Law.
Considering his earliest artistic influences, Colbert starts right at home. “Like in many Black households, my mom always had a quote or Bible scripture at the tip of her tongue,” he says, adding, “I think her quick-wittedness and precise wisdom stuck with me.” He also drew inspiration from the church and music. “In the predominantly Black Brooklyn community where I grew up, hip-hop and church both had the ability to make you feel closer to something bigger than you,” he shares. “I loved how the pastor would weave personal stories, parables, and scripture together in sermons to bring you to a place of spiritual elevation. In the same way, hip-hop artists would weave metaphors and similes into their verses to bring you to place of connectedness to the people around you.”
Over the years, Colbert kept putting words on paper, influenced by James Baldwin, Sean Carter, Toni Morrison, Yasiin Bey, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and other poets, writers, and luminaries. Poetry became an outlet for self-expression that he leaned on and into as he navigated life’s challenges, including getting kicked out of high school and being arrested as a teenager. “By way of my mother’s unwavering love and God’s grace, I was able to turn my life around and went on to earn both my bachelor’s and my master’s degree,” says Colbert. He also turned his experiences of adversity into opportunities to impact and uplift others through poetry.
Colbert’s own spoken word poetry performances began in college and continued on open mic stages around New York City. Then, in 2016, he was asked to lead a poetry workshop at Harford Community College in Maryland. “As I was brainstorming ways to structure the workshop, I had to reflect on what was at the core of my writing,” Colbert recalls. “It was my values: God. Family. Love. Justice. That led me to think about all the ways in which our values are developed, and how they change as we grow and experience more of life.” That was the start of his Values Are Dope workshops, which he has presented to hundreds of students at schools and organizations to date.
“This work allows me to connect the two worlds that I love, education and poetry,” Colbert explains. “Students in the workshop connect with their personal value systems. The discussions tend to get deep because we wrestle with topics like trust, loyalty, education, social justice, and other principles that a lot of young people care deeply about. Then I work with the students to create poetry pieces from our discussions and activities. I love helping them find what it is they care about most and then make art out of it.”
Behind his workshops and his poetry, Colbert notes, is a desire to forge authentic, human-to-human connections. As he sees it, that same connectivity is essential to his work in the Office of Admissions at St. John’s Law. “I want to be an example to students I interact with that you can be your full self in whatever role you find yourself in,” he says. “There’s always room to be you and to do what you love. Poetry is the gift that God gave me to demonstrate vulnerability in the spaces I occupy, so that’s what I try to do as a Law School professional and in all aspects of my life.”