Youth Speaks: the poetic changemakers

Photo courtesy of Youth Speaks

Sometimes stories are told in the privacy of a booth, like the StoryCorps booth in the Contemporary Jewish Museum. And sometimes they’re told on stage.

Jamaica Osorio is just one of the poets who performed at last year’s Brave New Voices spoken word tournament. The tournament began airing on HBO in 2009, but San Francisco’s Youth Speaks has been hosting the competition since 1998.

Youth Speaks is the country’s premier organization for teen poetry slams. It creates safe spaces for teenagers around the world to freely express themselves through on-stage poetry and spoken word. Topics range from bullying, to sex, to love, hope, drugs, and even abuse by family members. This weekend Youth Speaks is hosting 500 teens from around the country in the Brave New Voices International Poetry Slam Contest Finals. For a preview, KALW’s Hana Baba sat down with Youth Speaks founder and executive director James Kass.

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JAMES KASS: So poetry slam is a mock Olympic style competition, poetry competition. It was started in the mid-'80s in bars in Chicago by a guy named Marc Smith, a construction worker who loved poetry. But he hated how the poetry system had been taken over by the universities and by publishing houses. And he was like, “You know, I'm going to create something that democratizes the art form.” So anybody could be a poet and anybody could be a judge of poetry.

So we took that model, we changed it slightly. We didn't do it in bars obviously because it was for teenagers. And we pre-selected judges – we didn't just pull the judges from the crowd. But it was still based on the same principle: anyone could be a writer and anyone could be a judge of writing. So sort of the combination of my sort of politics and my desire for arts. I knew that there were young people writing in the Bay Area who just weren't getting access to mentoring and to being heard and to having opportunities for their voices to be developed. And when I started the program, you know I really honestly thought it would be something I would do part-time, with a few of my peers, after I graduated. Maybe we would have 50 kids in the program, and it would be something I could do while I went off and pursued my real career. We had 50 kids show up in the first month. And so right away, I was like okay, this is something I have to take really seriously.

HANA BABA:  You gave them a voice.

KASS: Well yeah, the voice. I think we gave them the space where their voice could be heard and could be developed.

BABA: When these kids create these powerful words, who has mostly been the intended audience? I mean are they writing for their peers or are they also sending messages to the adults?

KASS: I think it's both. I think it's a great question. Certainly as we've gone on, we're in our fifteenth year now, the young people have really begun to speaking to each other as change makers. You know, “Here is an issue that is in my life, that’s in the world I see around me; this is the way I think about it. I'm talking to you as my peer so that we can think about ways to make the world a better place.”

But it's also about, you know, shifting just the general perception of young people. Both among themselves, you know, shift the perception of how we think about each other but also shift the perception how adults think about us. And at Youth Speaks we come from the general premise that if we really shifted the way we as a nation think about teenagers then we won't tolerate all the intolerable stuff that we throw at the lives of teenagers. We won't tolerate the public school system crumbling around kids. We won't tolerate the juvenile justice system where they're building all these super jails. You know, there are much more high tech jails in California than there are high tech high schools. The kids see that. We won't tolerate the junk food that we throw at teenagers. We won't tolerate the sort of junk media that we throw at teenagers.

So it's really about shifting the culture to think about the minds, the voices, and the power of young people as being significant, as really being potential for change.

BABA: And I also want to share that I was listening to one performance. I think it was out of Philadelphia and you know the young lady sounded angry, angry. And it seems to me for many adults that's what they hear, when they hear teenagers kind of expressing themselves. You know they're so angry. Are most performances kind of like that?

KASS:  I would say that the performances really vary across the emotional board and the intellectual board. And some are very funny, and some are very light hearted, and they talk on all topics. But I don't want to run away from that anger for a number of reasons honestly. First off I'm angry. And I know a lot of people right now in the United States on all sides of the political dial. I mean the Tea Party is certainly angry. I think a lot of times that reaction from adults, as we don't want to see that stark reflection that kids are giving back to us about the society we created, like literally holding up a mirror. And young people are giving us back the most raw version of the society we created that they are a part of, that they're in. Kids don't develop in a vacuum obviously.

So I think that anger that a lot of young people do get into is really important, and it's an important step for them, and it's important for the adults to hear it. Now because organizationally we don't censor the young people, oftentimes their first, their sort of first exclamation is one that is more angry. And more reactive because it's like you open up a spigot and it comes flowing out. But as the young people write more and develop more, a lot of times their thought process gets a lot more evolved and more complicated. So there is that element of it.

But you know certainly I think back to the poem two years ago that two kids from Chicago did together that was about the incredibly high murder rate of young kids in Chicago, particularly young African American kids. It was two young African American boys. And this is something that they should have been furious about. Like, “I know 10 people personally who died that was in the poem. People all around the city of Chicago, who look just like me, who were my age were getting killed and nobody is doing anything about it.” It's something to be furious about. But their poem took that anger in a very different way. Both of these guys, these two 17-year-olds, one 17- and one 18-year-old African American dudes in the city of Chicago, taught to be really tough. Both on stage, broke down and were crying, tear running down their face.

Rafael Johnson, 17, Baker High School, died November 9, 2006. Fred McKon. Will they ever call your death beautiful? Your life....

KASS: You know that anger often times translates into a much deeper core emotion that it's kind of like the Malcolm X anger or Martin Luther King anger, where it's like behind it is a deep sadness. And that's there too.

I remember you when Guatemalan green matching your flag on your Independence Day. Your hair was a black puff of curls. In homeroom you always had homeys in the hallway waiting for you. We're still waiting. I couldn't sleep for a week when you washed up water logged in the Calumet River. Puffed and purple like violets before bloom.

KASS: Now you know to be fair there is also lots of joy in these poems and there is lots of celebration and there is lots of laughter. And I know I think that if you come to one of our shows and your first reaction is, “These kids are so angry,” just listen a little bit harder and try and see what it's really about.

Will they ever call your death beautiful? Your life a sacrifice? A love story to be jealous of? How many deaths will it take before this is considered genocide?

BABA: Now many people might say that I love that my child or niece or cousin has this talent and I support them fully, but will this one day pay the bills? So are you kind of mentoring them, teaching them to be practical about their career expectations? You know are they all aspiring authors and writers and is that all? Or are you telling them to study something else and to have a day job?

KASS: Well we certainly do have a mentorship programs and opportunities available for the young people who are pursuing their artistic careers. We do see a number of young people their careers really starting to take off. And I have no doubt that some of the young people we're working with are going to win Pulitzers or Obies down the road. There is no doubt about that in my mind.

BABA: But many won't.

KASS: But many won't, you are right. The vast majority of young people we are working with, it's not about that. Nowhere in our mission statement does it say we are trying to develop the next generation of artists. It says we are developing the next generation of leaders and we are much more interested in providing young people opportunities to grow up to be healthy, smart, thoughtful, caring, alive adults. And you know that to me is so much more important, and I believe what we do as a culture is we equate arts education to art product, but we don't necessarily do that with math. Like I didn't learn how to add in the third grade with the assumption that I was going to become a mathematician. It was just a basic skill that we all knew we needed in order to grow up, to be fully thoughtful human beings. Arts education is about the process of finding your voice, of understanding who you are, developing critical and creative thinking skills. That doesn't mean you have to become an artist. But it does mean you recognize that you are part of an active ecosystem that you are a part of. You are part of an active world that impacts you and that you impact and what does that look like? And how do you wish to impact the world?

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