Youth Speaks Amplifies the Narrative Power of a New Generation

By Giving List Staff   |   November 18, 2022
98% of surveyed Youth Speaks audience members reported feeling more connected to their community.

Co-founder of the only tech news website for Black millennials; head writer for Disney+’s upcoming superhero series starring a Black female; founding cast member of Hamilton. What do these three creatives driving new and diverse narratives into the American mainstream have in common? 

They are all Youth Speaks/Brave New Voices program participants. Youth Speaks is the San Francisco youth development cultural organization with the mission to develop and publicly present the young voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) through storytelling, poetry, and spoken word. 

Youth Speaks’ International Brave New Voices Festival is the only festival of its kind bringing together 500 young poets and the nation’s leading artists to convene in a different U.S. city for four days of arts education, performance, and civic engagement.

“We help young people discover their voices in a way that’s authentic so that they can apply them in powerful ways and bring youth culture and literacies into whatever spaces they’re in,” says Michelle ‘Mush’ Lee, Youth Speaks executive director and longtime Bay Area poet.

BIPOC youth, especially those who are most passionate and vocal, are left out of the literary canon in America, Lee says. For 25 years, Youth Speaks has worked to change that narrative by nurturing new generations of emerging artists who will use their talents to drive social change. 

Using its deep roots in the Bay Area’s arts and culture scene, Youth Speaks propels new and diverse youth voices into global conversations about the issues that are most urgent to them. 

Youth Speaks gained widespread acclaim with its popular annual Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam and the International Brave New Voices Festival, where teenagers share deeply personal, powerful, and emotional spoken word as they perform at sold-out, world-class venues. These events have been featured on HBO, spurred national public health campaigns, and have even activated policy change. 

And, after two and a half decades, they are beginning to see the fruits of their labor as successful alumni take their crafts into high-profile careers. One such example is Daveed Diggs, the Youth Speaks alumnus who went on to star in the blockbuster musical Hamilton, popularizing a non-white narrative that had woefully been missing in the founding story of the country.

Not only are Youth Speaks alumni transforming the essential role of culture and youth voice in American democracy, but as creative leaders, they are opening doors and expanding the tables of storytelling and decision-making to other young creatives of color to fully participate in defining a new cultural imperative, Lee says. 

“There’s nothing more tragic than the stories that are told about us without us,” said Lee. “That is why we matter.”


Youth Speaks

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Executive Director: Michelle “Mush” Lee


We create spaces that challenge youth to amplify their voices as creators of societal change.

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There could not be a better time for Youth Speaks to expand its vision, wisdom, and innovation to the evolving task of building power for the next generation. I have been blessed to see Youth Speaks work to inspire and catalyze young minds to bring truth, beauty, and wonder into a world in need. Times have changed, but the urgency of Youth Speaks’ mission has not.
Jeff Chang, Former VP of Narrative, Arts, and Culture at Race Forward, Author, and Cultural historian

Powering Up the Voices of Youth

Youth Speaks has been encouraging young people to use poetry, stories, art, and their voices to drive political change and justice for over 25 years. 

Their innovative program, Power Lab, will pair 20 young poets, writers, and culture-bearers with movement partners to continue to impact our culture in substantial ways. Youth Speaks needs only 40% of its seed fund, a remaining $2 million, to support its Power Lab artistic fellowships over two years and $250,000 to continue their mission of amplifying young voices. 

Key Supporters

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California Arts Council
Emily Leys and Gene Chung
Golden State Warriors
Hellman Foundation
Barbara and Amos Hostetter
Mission Economic
Development Agency
National Endowment for the Arts
Jenny Fan Raj and Nehal Raj
San Francisco Department
of Children,
Youth & Their Families
San Francisco Grants for the Arts
The Center for Cultural Power
The John D. and Catherine T.
MacArthur Foundation
The Morgan Plouffe Family
The Robert and Michelle
Philanthropic Fund
Universal Music Group,
Taskforce for Meaningful Change