Youth Speaks Amplifies the Narrative Power of a New Generation
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.
“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.”
Advancement Director: Kaylé Barnes
We create spaces that challenge youth to develop and amplify their voices as creators of societal change.
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When I was a young person, I needed a place where my voice was honored and reflected back to me, and where I could celebrate my experience, but also bring Oakland culture into new spaces where I deserve to belong. Without Youth Speaks, there’s no way I’d have the faculty with language, the confidence in myself to celebrate and dignify life with that language, and the support of the community it takes to be a world-class creative. I am proud to return to Youth Speaks as a board member at this exciting moment in the organization’s story.
Jenny Fan Raj and Nehal Raj
Walter & Elise Haas Fund
The Morgan Plouffe Family
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Families
San Francisco Grants for the Arts