Coming up as a poet in the Denver Minor Disturbance Youth Poetry Slam, I remember constantly wrestling with what our roles as young artists had to do with social change and activism. Stepping to a mic with power, analysis and bravery, we could feel that we were channeling necessary energy. We were speaking raw truth and seeing the impact it could have on audiences– and on ourselves. We knew the slam was more than a game. It was more than pretty words strung together. We weren’t just cute youth poets who had a way with words— we were shifting perspectives and bearing witness to complexity and humanity. At slams, it’s a tradition to chant, “The point is not the points, the point is the poetry!” The point was the poetry but the point was also the people. The point was the transformation of hearts and minds through shared exploration of contradictions. And yet, despite all that, I remember constantly running up against a wall: was our art really activism itself? We wondered, “Sure, we’re all talking about changing the world but when are we gonna start doing the real work?” Yet, we didn’t realize that shifting culture through art is not a precursor or an accessory to the movement. It is movement work in its own right.
Youth Speaks Seattle is rooted in a legacy of fierce artistry and liberatory change work. Since its inception, YSS has been held by political artists whose work was deeply informed by and accountable to grassroots movements. Under the leadership of powerful cultural workers, it grew into fertile space for cultural strategy to thrive. But, what do I mean when I say “cultural strategy”? To define this term, I want to throw out some foundational concepts of culture and change taken from the Culture Group’s “Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy”. The Culture Group describes the relationship between culture and change with the metaphor of the ocean and a wave. Waves are processes shaped by many powerful and often invisible forces, such as “the gravitational pull of the moon, the speed of the wind, and tectonic shifts at the bottom of the ocean”. Like a wave, change is an ongoing process shaped by strong forces. Culture is the ocean that waves happen within. Culture is “vast and ever-changing” and comprises “the prevailing beliefs, values, and customs of a group; a group’s way of life”.
In order to achieve social change, culture must shift. In other words, “there can be no change without cultural change”. The Culture Group asserts that, “We change culture through culture”, making culture both the agent and the object of change. With this framework, art is a truly generative, inspired and courageous form of activism. As I realized as a youth poet, art transforms hearts, minds and communities. Through these shifts, there is the opportunity to build power and activate social change.
This intersection has long been honored by Youth Speaks Seattle’s legacy of cultural strategy. Building off this history, last year we piloted the inaugural Arts Liberation and Leadership Institute (ALLI). This 9-week intensive is centered on building skills around social justice, artistry and community organizing. For the fifteen Spokes youth leaders, ALLI begins their 8-month organizing commitment to Youth Speaks Seattle and the Arts Corps Teen Artist Program. With ALLI as a springboard, the Spokes go on to collaboratively run the Open Mic Series, Poetry Slam Series and Writing Circles, with the support of the Teen Artist Co-Coordinators (aka Donté Johnson and myself!).
After a successful pilot year, we are launching ALLI for the second year and we’re off to a fiery start. With a brilliant crew of 14 Spokes, 2 returning Legacy Spokes and 3 youth organizers from our community partner Totem Star, we wish to ask: Why is art a tool for social change? What are our roles as young artists and activists in social justice movements? To spark this conversation, we began by collectively defining two terms: “artist” and “activist”. In two groups, ALLI participants created word clouds on the huge chalkboards of our cozy classroom at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. The “artist” brainstorm included a swarm of different words: bold, outcast, free, accessible, connection, inspiration, awareness, reppin’, confidence—to name a few. The “activist” side was equally energized: society, caring, fists, riots, change, speak out loud, advocates. After raucous discussion by both groups, we reunited and had reps from each side of the room share back on how they defined these two different roles. We found sparks, tensions and similarities between the two definitions. As our conversation continued, we were able to find the natural ties and extraordinary potential of bringing artist and activist together in pursuit of revolutionary ideals.
From the chalkboard to the stage, Youth Speaks Seattle continues to be a hive of personal and political transformation. The audience of any poetry slam or open mic will witness amazing boldness and authentic emotional expression. With these performances, complex ideas are brought to life and made accessible to a broad audience. Visions for a more just world are made real when spoken aloud. Youth Speaks Seattle is a space where another world is made possible, against all odds. The page and the stage are where we get to imagine what changes we need to build a society that can hold all of us, with equity, love and freedom. Cultural work simultaneously brings us whispers and flashes of another world while we put in the work of building it. Art can help us access the world to come and weave movements that somehow are already living within it.
Teen Artist Program Co-Coordinator