By Vanessa Serpas
Photos by Samantha Benedict
“It’s hard to erase the images of young bodies carpeting the concrete, screen-printing the streets with blood.”
Powerful spoken-word poetry lines such as this one by Stephanie Yun are being heard constantly in art venues, libraries, classrooms, and all throughout countries, states, and cities. They are words that come from a long-standing history of oral poetry.
Words with this much depth and authority have been coming from inspired youth in our society for decades. Young people nationwide have been empowering and supporting each other through their poetry with the guidance of motivating staff members from an organization that focuses on their poetic craft and provides a safe space to express their vulnerabilities through art.
Youth Speaks, founded in San Francisco in 1996 by James Kass is a national non-profit organization that provides workshops, mentoring, in-school poetry programs as well as out-of-school open mics and workshops for youth under the age of twenty-one. Within these programs teenagers are given the necessary tools, support and encouragement to speak about their lives and then perform their art before an audience.
Yun, a participant of Youth Speaks, has greatly benefited from the “support and love” she received since first coming to the organization. “This transformative process that [Youth Speaks] gives to youth is great and I want to provide that same opportunity I was given to other youth,” says Yun.
The kids, who have gone through the workshops and attended the open mics, have the opportunity to join in on the annual Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam. The month-long competition for teens in the Bay Area, between the ages of thirteen to nineteen provides the top six finalists with a trip to Chicago to perform on the infamous stage of Brave New Voices.
Brave New Voices is only one among the many programs run by Youth Speaks. BNV brings together young poets from all over the world, reflecting the diversity in experiences through their poetry. With international attention, this program has been taken from the stage to the television with the support of famous faces like Russell Simmons, Rosario Dawson and hip-hop legends, Common and Talib Kweli.
Kass founded Youth Speaks because he was disappointed “with the lack of diversity within [his] MFA program at San Francisco State.” He was working on his Masters degree in Creative Writing at the time. He knew he was passionate about his point of view, but soon discovered that the point of view of the youth was more important.
He began with a five-year plan and a hope for at least fifty kids to be interested in the program. What he got: fifty kids in the first month and the program grew to heights he never imagined.
“The diversity was amazing,” Kass said. Not only were the participants diverse in ethnicity, but they also varied in class, neighborhoods, age and gender. It has grown into the leading national poetry organization for youth with variations in programs to embrace all adolescents.
With a foundation of civic engagement, youth development and visionary activism the organization has developed numerous programs within Youth Speaks, as well as partner programs. Outside of the many in-school clubs, residencies and out-of-school open mics and workshops, the organization has developed various national projects that address pressing issues in society. They explore everything from environmental awareness to diabetes awareness, while embracing diverse forms of artistic expression, yet still under the umbrella of literary arts.
While Youth Speaks is open to all young people, the goal is to change the perception of the underprivileged youth and bring them, as their website mission states, “from the margins to the core.”
Embracing at-risk youth
Among the numerous successful programs is the in-school residency program offered for middle school and high school students for ten weeks of the school year. The residency program partners a trained Youth Speaks mentor with a teacher to develop curriculum around themes and topics already being discussed in the classroom. The students, with their mentor, develop a safe haven to perform their art freely without judgment. San Francisco’s current residency program is led by Chinaka Hodge, a participant turned mentor within Youth Speaks.
Hodge, a fourteen-year-old new to the district, joined the organization during Youth Speaks visit to her new stomping grounds – Berkeley High School. “Youth Speaks found me at the exact right moment and put a pen and paper in my hand when I was seriously contemplating holding a knife,” said Hodge, during a dark time in her life when she was tormented with self-destructive tendencies. Hodge has “been writing poems as a way out” ever since and continues perfecting her craft as a spoken-word performer.
Because of her opportunities at Youth Speaks, Hodge has traveled the world sharing her inspirational poetry and has received educational support in the pursuit of her degrees.
It is no wonder she is an ideal residency mentor to the students at Downtown High School, a project-based continuation school for students who have not faired well in a traditional high school setting. The teachers of Downtown High School are tasked with developing a thematic curriculum that requires students to create a final project at the end of the semester. For privacy reasons, students will only be referred to by their first name or nickname.
With the project theme in mind, Hodge sets the tone for the poetry experience for the next ten weeks with two rules for the skeptically inquisitive students. The first rule – the standard is yourself. It is vital to the students’ growth that they do not compare their own work to any other person. The second rule – there are no wrong answers. During the poetry class the students are given the freedom to write whatever comes to mind, therefore it is important they do not feel wrong in expressing their feelings.
One student, Jackie, seventeen, said, “I’m feelin’ this because usually teachers will say this is the topic and this is what you have to write about and there is a right or wrong answer, but here whatever you say can’t be wrong.”
As the program progresses, the demeanor of the students gradually changes. “Once you understand that she is here to help you and understand you it’s the biggest thing,” said Rashad, eighteen, another student in Hodge’s class.
Skepticism turns into trust and suddenly Hodge, once seen as an outsider, becomes “like a big sister,” said her seventeen-year-old student Gre’tu.
Throughout the ten weeks the students are guided through a path of self-discovery. As they are continuously encouraged to express themselves freely, they become more comfortable exposing vulnerability within their poetry. Their work begins to vary from stories of survival, love, loss, politics, dreams and emotional pains. The stories become more real because “a real story is the best story,” says seventeen-year-old ‘Moochie’ another pupil.
The hardships they experience becomes poetry that not only uplifts but also forces an audience to face the realization of the constant adversity at-risk teens are confronted with on a daily basis at such a young age.
The students who connect and find relief through their poetic expression become so enthralled in their work, that after much practice in the classroom, are ready to step up and perform on a larger scale.
The power in performance
Open mic performances in San Francisco are held at 826 Valencia, a pirate-supply store with an interior that exhibits the makings of a ship with exposed raw wood, columns and furniture to match. Every last Friday of the month, Youth Speaks sets up in the back of the store for the under 21 open mic, open to kids from all over the Bay Area.
Once the DJ is set up, he gradually begins to raise the volume of his mixes to signal the beginning of the open mic night slam as the audience begins to lower their voices to whispers that fade to silence.
The emcee, Jerome, eighteen, with his mic in hand, skips over to the stage hyping up the crowd of anxious, young, soon-to-perform participants and expectant adults with eager looks on their faces. With his charisma and humor, Jerome sets the tone for the night while the audience stares back with smiling faces as he introduces the first poet to the mic.
The crowd erupts with supportive clapping as the first poet makes their way to the stage immediately followed by silence. The poet arrives to the front of the mic, looks down and takes a deep breath. He then raises his head and looks upon the faces of anticipation and he begins.
By the end of the poem the audience is so moved that they can barely wait to cheer feverishly in support of the captivating piece of art he just shared. This is the scene for the rest of the night. Poet after poet stands center-stage, receiving enthusiastic applause and encouraging shout-outs.
The Youth Speaks Youth Advisory Board, a paid internship program that invites a group of thirty young people to be the face of Youth Speaks, hosts open mic nights. The young board members set up and run the event with mentor supervision.
The internship teaches leadership skills, which they seem to have gained throughout the program. “We’re not only speaking for ourselves but for other communities as well,” said Yun who sees the organization as a refuge “where people exchange stories and experiences” without judgment.
The benefit of access to resources for youth
The funding of non-profit organizations such as Youth Speaks is imperative, particularly for at-risk youth within the Bay Area. Many teens within the organization came into the program with a past filled with wrong decisions. Within Youth Speaks, mentors guided them down a different, positive path where they found new ways to express themselves.
Jerome, a participant of Youth Speaks said, “I used to bomb buildings with my graffiti. Youth Speaks redirected me from writing on walls to writing on paper.”
Tatyana, seventeen and a Downtown High School student said, “without poetry I was always getting into stuff and with it I’m always at home doing what I need to do and my mom likes it.”
Through Youth Speaks the students finally feel like they are being heard. Rashad said, “I always felt like I had something to say and nobody listened to me.” He now has access to a resource and the guidance to express his feelings and even has learned to process events in his life through his poetry. He has found that “you can write about an argument and look at it later, then you can know how to avoid the situation or work in the situation and it helps you feel better to know you have the power to do that.”
They feel the empowerment and confidence to accomplish their goals. When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, the first one to perk up, ready to answer was Jackie. She said, “I want to be a lawyer, a masseuse and a real estate agent.” The students around her snickered, something she’s used to, but according to her nothing will stop her. She will “get there by focusing and putting [her] goals before anything.” The authority and determination in her voice seems convincing enough to quiet the giggles of the other students.
When Kass went on this new venture to create Youth Speaks, he hoped to have a small forum for free expression for the youth in San Francisco. He never imagined that he would be the founder of an organization that not only inspires youth to speak up about pressing issues in society, but is the catalyst for a complete transformation in their lives.
“I can’t really see what my life would be without them, I’ve been with Youth Speaks almost fourteen years you know, half my life. It’s like family,” said Hodge.
Many kids within the program share this sentiment. Because this resource for support and expression has been provided to them, it has become the foundation on which they have built their life upon to become the empowered and inspirational leaders they are now.