YOUTH SPEAKS: the power of language

(Evan Karp)

Youth Speaks is a multi-faceted organization that understands and believes that the power, insight, creativity, and passion of young people can change the world.

As we move more deeply into the 21st Century, oral poetry is helping to define the new American Voice.

Youth Speaks believes that having knowledge, practice, and confidence in the written and spoken language is essential to the self-empowerment of an individual. We fill a need for creative approaches to literary arts education and literacy development; we believe it is crucial to provide spaces where youth can undergo a process of personal growth and transformation in a program that enriches their educational, professional, artistic and leadership skills.

Yes, all of the above copy is from, where you will also see the following:

In addition to a wide variety of arts education, youth development, and presentation programs that serve thousands each year in the Bay Area, we house a repertory theater company (The Living Word Project) that commissions, produces and tours internationally-recognized new work of new aesthetics, host an annual gathering of young poets and poetry organizations from throughout the world (Brave New Voices), and have helped build a network of like-minded organizations throughout the country.

This is the kind of copy you expect from the leading nonprofit presenter of spoken word education in the country.

Yes! Finally, we are realizing that an active engagement in poetry (or what has been called poetry in the past) is crucial to the development of self-expression. Poetry is but a unique manifestation of language, usually (but not always) written to cultivate self. It is the most necessary school subject, yet is often taught (if taught at all) as an almost extraneous aspect of education, part of a cover-the-bases attitude to curriculum. Often, youth disillusioned with the education system seek alternative forms of authentic expression, shaking heads in disappointment and turning away from everything they consider “the system” (or that which presents the most necessary—an intimate relationship with language—as a superfluous aspect of development). They know better. They are not “troubled.”

I should say we. I dropped out of school twice, in large part because I felt very sincerely that I had more important things to learn. I knew how to write an essay: complete with thesis, argument, and conclusion; I was able to think analytically and to manage my time. But everyone seemed to be missing the point, or, worse, ignoring it, dancing around it.

But that’s exactly what I wanted to do… with language. To pinhole my essence with purposeful comma placements, lasso my self by talking in tighter and tight circles. I am excited about these sentences! That is what keeps me writing them. School didn’t allow this; it did not keep me writing sentences. I didn’t know where to go for inspiration. Instead of going to class, I stayed in my room and read Dostoevsky. My short stories from that time—my first efforts—sound as though they were written in 19th century Russia. I wrote them in spite of my teachers, as Faulkner said, so thirsty for voice I absorbed it—saturated—and started making a mess. There was nowhere to go.

Or, if there was, I wasn’t resourceful enough then to find it. My point is that it should have been prescribed for me; of all the classes we are forced to take, one that teaches us how to express ourselves—not relegated to the confines of syntax, but from the boundless, indomitable will of the heart—should be a staple in every classroom!

When I moved to the Bay Area two years ago I had long been out of school, spending the interval working 80+ hours per week to pay off loans for an education I had to provide myself. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do: I wanted to become involved in a literary community; I expected to get another job in the service industry. Early in my time covering literary events, I came across Meg Day at a reading. I remember she was introduced as a teacher at Youth Speaks, because when she was done performing I remember knowing that I had never experienced a verbal expression so powerful, and that my whole idea of poetry had been somehow altered. I knew that her students were lucky.

But I didn’t realize how lucky Meg was. I have spent these past two years attending literary events of every kind, have filmed over 2,500 author readings and can say with absolute certainty that Meg’s involvement with Youth Speaks has imbued her with a passion for and understanding of the mechanisms of communal expression in a way that one can not learn without teaching. She brings this to her writing. Her experience has made her who she is, given more depth to something that was already inside and very much alive in her. More depth? A more keen ability to express it. I asked her about Youth Speaks, and this is what she had to say:

I have definitely seen this change young folks’ lives. I’ve seen young folks grab onto this program and not let go. Some started coming because they were required to participate in a class and ended up finding the power of their own voice — or some began showing up because they thought it would help make them a dope MC — and then it ended up helping them stay in school or get clean or go to college as well. More than anything, it’s changed my life. I never would’ve started teaching high school full-time had it not been for Youth Speaks. I probably wouldn’t have gone back to school after my MFA, either. The young folks at Youth Speaks are extraordinary, if only because they actively volunteer to face their fears. To stare them in the face and write their bluff on paper. I am in awe of what it takes to be a young person today and stay alive. I mean that in so many ways. It is a hard time to be alive and young in this country. Somehow, Youth Speaks is making it easier. I feel fucking honored to have been a part of it for as long as I have.

Find Youth Speaks for yourself. See where it takes you.

Youth Speaks will perform as part of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on Tuesday, July 19th, 2011, from 12:30pm to 1:30pm, at the Esplanade between Mission and Howard, 3rd and 4th Streets [NOTE: this is a reschedule from June 28th, due to rain]. For more information. The event is free, and no tickets or reservations are needed.