Springing into Radical Recommitment, in honor of May 1st

20150501_153042Spring is always known as a time of rebirth and rejuvenation, as winter thaws and flowers begin unfurl from the ground. This season of rejuvenation offers a ripe moment for collective recommitment to building a more just world. This abundance is always palpable on the first day of May, a long celebrated annual day of public protest. May 1st, also known as May Day, is International Worker’s Day. Originally chosen to commemorate the Haymarket affair, an 1886 labor demonstration by Chicago workers, who were striking for an eight-hour workday and against the killing of workers by police when the peaceful turned violent with a dynamite bomb. This moment in labor history is honored each year as May 1st, where people march to continue a legacy of workers’ resistance. In more recent years, May Day has also been designated as a day to lift up immigrants’ struggles and movements towards ending deportations and creating justice for undocumented folks.

Each year in Seattle, there is a huge march by El Comité and the May 1st Action Coalition. This inspirational day of public protest is not just a one-off day of action. It represents dedicated and transformative long haul organizing around multiple and intersecting issues, led by communities of color. As apart of the Seattle Youth Coalition, Youth Speaks Seattle seeks to be apart of the ongoing movement along with other youth-driven organizations. It is essential that young folks are in leadership in these liberatory struggles. Youth Speaks Seattle leaders marched with other young artists and activists. The diverse demands chanted by crowds represented the power of May Day to bring together multiple and intersecting issues of economic, climate and racial justice. In the crowd, a #BlackLivesMatter contingent carried a huge sign that read “Stop Fucking Killing Us”. They moved with dignity and power through the streets, followed by organizers from the Model Minority Mutiny Contingent, Youth and Student Coalition, Womxn of Color and Families Contingent and many more. Signs boldly connected climate justice, indigenous sovereignty, API solidarity with BlackLivesMatter, the #Not1More deportation movement, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, ending Israeli apartheid and more. The streets spoke to the power of frontline leadership and allies joining together to agitate, mourn, rejoice and vision onwards.

20150501_152150As a way to continue the education, transformation and mobilization of May Day, Youth Speaks hosted our second-ever Liberation Open Mic. This special edition of our monthly open mic is an opportunity to lift up the revolutionary potential of art to shift culture. Shifting culture can mean so many different things. Our open mics provide fertile ground to change hearts & minds, to gather energy in community and speak truth to power. The Liberation Open Mic offered youth and adult allies space to share and create with another. In the warm Spring air, we held the open mic outside where poets, rappers and musicians shared truth and showcased their work. We had a feature from three cultural workers and comrades at Anakbayan Seattle (a Youth and Student org working towards national democracy & liberation in the Philippines), Nikki Caintic, Richard Arcelo and Enrico Abadesco. As the full moon rose above Beacon Hill, we cyphered and laughed and sung together. The night ended with a joyful and spontaneous musical collaboration between Anakbayan and YSS artists. From the march to the mic, the radical legacy of May 1st continued with the voices of youth at the forefront. May we continue our collective work towards a more just world, with the budding Spring energy at our backs!



Resources for Recommitment 20150428_173920

Some organizations to learn about & support

El Comité: https://www.facebook.com/pages/El-Comité/

Anakbayan Seattle: https://www.facebook.com/anakbayan.seattle

Women of Color for Systemic Change: https://www.facebook.com/WOCFSC

Got Green?: https://gotgreenseattle.org/


– Shelby

Teen Artist Program Coordinator


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Free Writes and the Work of Magic

If I had to estimate, I’d say that I’ve yelled “Youth Speaks Seattle” in over a hundred middle and high school classrooms all over the greater Seattle area. In my year and a half of YSS outreach, I couldn’t approximate how many lunchroom spiels I’ve attempted or how many times I’ve performed my poems in LA classes or how many posters I’ve stapled to hallway bulletin boards. Throughout my journeys, I’m  honored to get to facilitate workshops with many rooms of brilliant young folks. To open up a creative and supportive writing space, I usually ground the room in a shared definition of a “free write”. I ask the room to shout out their ideas: write what you feel like!, whatever is in your brain!, write freely!

Building off the concepts already in the room, I usually add some key guidelines, like: Don’t judge yourself as you write. Let whatever is in your brain hit the page and don’t worry about it sounding good or poetic or cool or whatever! No pressure. This is just a place to experiment, play, get some ideas out in the air. I always share Youth Speaks Seattle’s only free write “rule” which is: keep your pen/pencil/writing utensil moving for the enPaperstripstire free write time. Even if you’re just writing, “I hate this” over and over, you never know where your pen might take you. I believe that free writes give us the potential to surprise ourselves with ourselves.

With a collective definition of free write to draw from, we then move into constructing some constraints, prompts or guidelines to get a free write sparked. Write whatever you feel like! is exciting but also the scariest freedom possible. A blank page with no starting point is intimidating to even the most prolific poet. While it’s important to push ourselves to write without self-judgment, a container can be helpful for stream of consciousness to take shape in. That in mind, I design curriculum with many variations on constraints. My challenges to students often include starting lines or required images or words.

As I develop curriculum, I always return to the idea that writing is the work of magic. To cultivate that magic, a workshop must serve as a powerful ritual. Ritual involves trusting the unknown and making space for it in our writing practice. In the classroom, this manifests as having each group of students generate unique constraints for our workshop. For example, I’ve asked students to write a specific shade or color in the corner of their paper. Once the room is filled with lime greens, ripe watermelon reds, indigos and eggshells, I ask each student to rip the color out and pass it to their neighbor. I encourage everyone to believe that this is the color that they are meant to write with today. The randomness of receiving a color is a form of magic, all part of our shared ritual. And once students share, it feels that magic led them to create the exact free write they were meant to, bursting with color and inspiration.

Similarly, I’ve asked students to write 5 words on slips of paper that describe their identity, before we throw them all into the center of the room and draw back out 5 words, randomized in a flurry of paper. These identity words go on to spark complex and courageous free writes. In another workshop, I challenge students to write a letter to a person or thing in their life. To determine who or what we need to write to most in this particular moment, we often do a ritual spinning of our notebook and random pointing on a brainstormed list of important items or people.

Through these acts of divination, I’ve witnessed youth read authentic, fiery and heartbreaking poems. I’m continually in awe of how free writes give way to such raw vulnerability. They make a place for all of us to trust the magic inside of us and dive head first into the unknown. Constraints, like ritual, give us a shape to land in. Once we go there, the piece may even seem to write itself. When I witness the power of young poets speaking truth, it’s a collective discovery of what they needed to say all along.


– Shelby

Teen Artist Program Co-Coordinator


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Another World is Possible: Visioning Cultural Strategy with Youth Speaks Seattle

ALLI groupComing 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.

ALLI groupYouth 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”.

Tai and Ivan ALLIIn 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!).

ALLI ArtistAfter 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.


– Shelby

Teen Artist Program Co-Coordinator

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Days of Awe and the Season of Recommitment

YS_SpokesI’m pretty sure that Seattle doesn’t want to admit that summer is over. It seems like we are all reluctantly clutching rain jackets and umbrellas, peering out bus windows to see if we can guess what season the afternoon weather will resemble. Fall is a strange transition. Sometimes it feels like equal parts renewal and rot, a beginning and an ending in one breath. The trees are letting go of their leaves. Students are trudging through them to begin the school year. The cycle begins again and our sunset times slide earlier and earlier. As I dive into my second year as an AmeriCorps at Arts Corps and Youth Speaks Seattle, it feels like the perfect season for reflection and recommitment. Indeed, on the Jewish Calendar, we are smack dab in the middle of a time called the Days of Awe. This period of introspection stretches from Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). As part of a personal recommitment to my Jewish tradition, I’ve been welcoming in 5775 with ritual, community and apples and honey.

The Days of Awe, with their sweetness and reflection, feel like prime time to set intentions for my second year as Teen Artist Program Co-Coordinator. This is the season to ask: what lessons, tensions and celebrations do I have from the previous year? What were our sweetest successes? Where do we have room to grow? The highlights aren’t hard to remember – last year was hectic but bursting with growth and excitement. We continued the YSS legacy with the fierce All-City Poetry Slam Series and ongoing open mics and writing circles. In addition, we expanded the historic Spokes Leadership board by launching the first ever Arts Liberation and Leadership Institute (ALLI). Twelve youth artists went through this 10-week institute focusing on community organizing, artistry and social justice.  With ALLI as their foundation, these twelve Spokes helped to organize, facilitate and outreach for Youth Speaks Seattle and Teen Artist Program events from December to May. By May, we began preparing with YSS slam team for Brave New Voices (BNV), the International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. From May to July, the 5-poet team wrote, practiced, collaborated and built a loving slam fam, before jetting off to Philly for BNV in mid-July. Co-coaching the team with YSS alum, mentor and badass Troy Osaki, I got to end my first term of service with this amazing adventure.

YS_Grand_Slam Reflecting on the year, I’m truly in awe of the transformation I witnessed in individual poets and artists. Shy and reluctant poets began to hit the mic with vulnerability and raw power. New organizers took to the streets and the hallways to outreach for Youth Speaks Seattle and Arts Corps. Some folks started the year scared to speak in public and ended it facilitating an entire workshop on songwriting. Talented performers cultivated their skills as teaching artists and finished the year booking their own teaching gigs. I’m excited to see how these individual growths can mirror our organizational visions for a more just future.

As I return this Fall, I wish to use my reflection as a springboard for recommitment. This past weekend, I attended a Jewish ritual called tashlich. Traditionally, tashlich is a Rosh Hashannah practice where Jews symbolically cast our sins away by throwing bread crumbs or pebbles into a body of water. At this particular tashlich, organized by the Jewish Voice for Peace, our casting away was politicized around recommitment to movements for justice. Rather than simply throwing away our “sins”, we were asked to transform their energy into working in the new year towards collective liberation. Rooted in this practice of looking back as a way to move forward, I come to the new year with intention and dedication. I wish to begin this year as my whole self, trusting that we have the time and space to spark another bountiful year at Youth Speaks Seattle and Arts Corps. L’Shanah Tovah and Onwards!


– Shelby

Teen Artist Program Co-Coordinator




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