Eight years ago I traveled to the Brave New Voices youth poetry festival and discovered a gathering of energized young people who reconfigured my ideas about what is possible. Every year since, in different cities, with different youth and new themes, somehow the core brilliance of this festival is never lost. It’s only one week out of a whole year: a brief confluence, a chaotic typhoon that sweeps up all the work we put into writing and development as peers and mentors. But every time I emerge changed, swept away by what the hundreds of youth gathered there manage to summon within themselves. When I say that it changed our lives, I mean it. I remember sitting on a dorm room floor with Rose, my co-coach, and the entire team, deciding what poems we would perform in the semi-finals bout first thing the next morning. And it was as if all the lip service to youth voice, empowerment, and teamwork suddenly meant something concrete. Rose said,
“Do you want to win? Or do you want to be remembered?”
They all knew. They knew better than we did. This was their festival, their space, and they had something to say.
As adults we talk a lot about how meaningless a slam competition is, how we don’t write and practice in order to prove ourselves better than the other teams. But until a group of young people really takes that seriously on their own terms, and decide to tell you as adults how much you’re messing up their space and that they’re taking it back, you don’t really get it. You can’t see how to transcend those banal structures until a group of young people shows you the way.
When I look back at the work we do to foster spaces supportive and safe enough for a young person to share the most personal of experiences through writing and through their own tears on-stage, I realize that we’re not just teaching a craft. We’re working with young people to create these spaces everywhere. Wherever they go in their lives, they carry that wisdom forever. They know how to fight for all their peers to speak what they, too, need to say. I have never been prouder of a team for leading the way and showing us all how it’s done. I know the world is in the most responsible hands. And I can’t wait to see what the young people will teach me this year.
Chris Zweigle is a Slam Team Coach and Arts Corps Board Member.