Black Art-ivist

Once again the country has shown it’s behind and we are in another state of chaos. Youth from around town have been asking me “Donté what do I do as a new community organizer and artist in this time of deep pain” I wanted to say “Take the streets, block the roads, make them hear […]

Once again the country has shown it’s behind and we are in another state of chaos.
Youth from around town have been asking me “Donté what do I do as a new community organizer and artist in this time of deep pain”
I wanted to say “Take the streets, block the roads, make them hear us, let everybody know that we have been crying and afraid and ashamed for too long and its enough its BEEN enough”. But I couldn’t even answer back, I thought about the question so intentionally but I was like as an artist and activist living with depression and anxiety I don’t feel safe enough to be in the streets and protest even though I feel like I should be there and I had to meditate on what is my role in this movement? I had to remember that activism doesn’t look any one way. It takes multiple different approaches and actions and kinds of things that adds to a movement including taking care of the people in the movement which I feel like can be my role reminding folks to take care and to hold space for all the black folks who are actively hurting every day watching the full out attack on our people.
There are artistic video projects in the works, and more and more folks feeling the call to action. Figuring out the many ways we can be vocal about our needs, below is my first step into how I do activism:

 

 

A List Poem for the way my body reacts to the death of Black People

  1. Freeze, Eye lids fading, Eye lashes tickle eye brows in an attempt to feel anything besides melting

  2. Mouth and throat going Sahara as your eyes lose focus on tracking motion

  3. You feel the burn of a solar eclipse passing in your throat

  4. Freeze, and you do, the word seems to rattle in your head till the tinnitus  sounds just like the last phone call you made to your mother

  5. Freeze, and they did until they spilled,

    watch the blood pool in the dark of every unlit street

    visualize how they cleaned them off the floor

    read facebook till you cry

    read articles till you cry

    Pick corners for you to die

    I wear all black most days because I don’t know when I’m gonna go

    But Capricorns anticipate everything, so I wear my face like a veil, wear my skin like a red delicious dress at a funeral, the crisp bite into death as flames fuck my flesh into ash

  6. Count breaths,

    Like loose change

    in attempt, to regulate breathing

    Asthma, holding Fourth of July in your lungs

    Another Black body,

    Evaporating into social media rants and swept under consumerism and white supremacy

  7. Freeze, that’s what they screamed, trying to mask murder with lies,

    Tryna mask murder with mock justice and Christmas carols

    Freeze, because everyone knows it’s easier to hit a target when it don’t move

    You have read another article about a Black body turning sunset

    You feel the light fading from their mothers eyes, it feels like a heart coming to a halt

    You haven’t moved in hours as if you were obeying the law, as if they had already killed you

  8. You find comfort in knowing that if you were dead you wouldn’t have to watch them kill your family

  9. Your mouth begins to thaw, you feel the heat of carbon dioxide between your teeth, your teeth dance like a tambourine in full explosion you can barely make a sound but the only thing you say is

  10. If all lives matter, then why aren’t you dying-

    To save me.

-Donté Johnson, Teen Artist Program Co-Coordinator

Read More

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

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 […]

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

Read More

What’s Beyond Free Pizza?: Mentorship, Adultism and Building Equitable Intergenerational Movements

From Denver to Seattle, to whatever city Brave New Voices finds its annual home, I’ve always loved being one voice in a chorus of youth shouting, “Youth right now are the truth right now!” This short chant, cheered at nearly every Youth Speaks Seattle open mic and slam, still rings electric in my throat when […]

From Denver to Seattle, to whatever city Brave New Voices finds its annual home, I’ve always loved being one voice in a chorus of youth shouting, “Youth right now are the truth right now!” This short chant, cheered at nearly every Youth Speaks Seattle open mic and slam, still rings electric in my throat when I yell it. To honor the expansiveness and power of youth art and movement might mean allowing “the next generation to speak for itself”. As someone who gets to witness visionary art and organizing from the YSS Spokes on a regular basis, this possibility feels… possible (fancy that). Even more, it feels creative, productive and revolutionary.

1521878_198335440352438_1370592633_n
Arts Corps + Youth Speaks Spokes celebrating their graduation from the Arts Liberation and Leadership Institute (ALLI)

 

Yet, for many [adult-run] community organizations and spaces, adults struggle to envision how youth can take part in conversations about programs and services, even if they are the intended audience. Often, this is a result of ‘adultism’ (and how it interacts with racism, classism, ableism, sexism, homophobia and more), a term meaning the “prejudice and accompanying systematic discrimination against young people”. In an adult-defined world, youth don’t get much say in the systems they are forced to navigate, sometimes without support. Activist and youth worker Paul Kivel offers a more in-depth article about how adultism can play out: http://www.paulkivel.com/resources/articles/23-article/83-adultism

I’ve heard fellow youth organizers joke about how adults always say “Free Pizza!” as a way to entice youth to show up to programs that adults planned for them. While free pizza is definitely a legit reason to attend an event (this is not a request to stop offering free food – lets keep feeding youth), but why is that a main strategy for adults to engage youth? What would free pizza look like if we added youth collaboration and leadership to the menu?

I’m excited to live in a city where visionary youth-driven/led organizing has thrived. It’s been a tremendous learning experience to watch youth and adults negotiate how genuine youth leadership can take shape, beyond tokenization or lip service. From Seattle Young People’s Project and Queer Youth Space to YSS itself, there are some radical role models in town to push forward the conversation of youth-centric movements & orgs. (And of course, badass youth-driven orgs extend beyond Seattle, check out Fierce and Youth Speaks National, just to name a few…)

300_20064849091_7612_n
Ken Arkind, organizer and mentor for Denver Minor Disturbance

Coming up in the Denver Minor Disturbance Youth Poetry Slam, being a youth poet part of a larger youth movement was strengthened by amazing adult allies. Though I wasn’t using terms like ‘adultism’ and ‘ally’, I knew that my fierce mentors helped transform my agency and poetry by dedicating endless time and energy investing in youth poets. Slams were all ages and warmly intergenerational, with many bonds formed between youth and adults artists. Surely, many audience members thought, “Oh, those youth poets are so adorably angry!”, assuming our passion wasn’t to be taken seriously, seen as simply something we’d outgrow. But among the adult poets, we were given the chance to spit, share awe and even beat the grown ups. At the end of the day, the amount of magic that I felt my mentors possessed kept me coming back to them with trust and inspiration. They were the experts, the teachers, the wise elders that pushed me to find my own voice on the mic. Now, I see that they did not “have all the answers” but rather they asked me the right questions.

Now, as I begin to age out of my youth identity, I start to find myself on that other side of mentorship. What does it mean for me to grow into the role of a mentor? An adult ally to young folks? How can our communities be intergenerational and maintain a keen analysis of adultism and its intersecting oppressions? What does “youth-led” mean in practice? And where do adults and mentors fit in, with all of our varied experiences and identities? As a young person, I saw first hand exactly how transformative mentorship could be to young artists and activists. Accountable and intentional mentorship creates space for youth to work through thought processes, refine skills and gain support from adults. How do we bridge the gaps between youth leadership and adult support in sustainable, critical and genuine ways?

If you’ve got answers, half-answers, brainstorms, pushback, questions or resources, please drop me a line to continue the conversation, at shelby.handler@artscorps.org

 

Further Resources:

 

Read More

Poetry Slam 101

New to slam poetry or need a refresher? Shelby Handler, Youth Speaks Seattle co-coordinator, shares some thoughts on slam history and the slam experience as they gear up for the first Youth Speaks Seattle slam on December 20th (this Friday) at Harambee, 316 S. 3rd St., Renton, WA, 6:30 – 9:30 pm. (youth poets should […]

New to slam poetry or need a refresher? Shelby Handler, Youth Speaks Seattle co-coordinator, shares some thoughts on slam history and the slam experience as they gear up for the first Youth Speaks Seattle slam on December 20th (this Friday) at Harambee, 316 S. 3rd St., Renton, WA, 6:30 – 9:30 pm. (youth poets should sign up at 6 pm to slam)

Q. What are poetry slams and how did they develop?

A.  Poetry Slams are competitive poetry events where 5 randomly selected judges score poets on a scale from 0 to 10 (using decimals). Sounds weird, right? You might be wondering: why would we score poems that are often deeply personal, raw, dynamic, beautiful and honest?

YSS_slam_posterLARGER

And that is the trick of the slam: it’s a game. The game is the gimmick that gets folks in the seats, gets folks together, listening to poetry. Ha! It’s all a big trick. For Youth Speaks Seattle, the competition is fun and always full of LOVE! These poets are AMAZING, let’s be real, but they are also there to support one another and grow from being in community with other young poets. With that balance in mind, we like to chant at slams: The point is not the points, the point is the POETRY!
If you attend Friday’s slam, you’ll hear this spiel from the hosts, which the brief history slam recited at most events: Slam was invented in Chicago, in the 80s, by a construction worker named Marc Smith who was tired of going to boring poetry readings where the audience wasn’t engaged in the performance. Slam was a way of giving poetry back to the people and creating a conversation between poet & listener.

Q. What does a typical poetry slam look, sound and feel like?

A.  A typical slam with Youth Speaks Seattle feels like a cauldron of buzzing nervous energy, home, love, joy, talent, risk taking, spirit, history & hella youth power. If that makes any sense. They are often raucous events where the audience is snapping, stomping, yelling, MMMM-ing along with the poet to give them feedback & energy as they perform their heart out. They feel like a journey. Between so many fabulous poets and audiences that are right beside them as they go *there* with hilarity, sadness, truth & resistance. But to truly know the YSS magic: ATTEND A SLAM!

Q. What can people expect to experience if they attend the Youth Speaks Seattle poetry slam on Friday?

A. People can expect to be blown away, humbled, surprised, challenged, inspired, impressed, welcomed and strengthened by the voices of youth who can speak for themselves. These youth are not messing around. One thing you can expect is to hear the following chant: YOUTH RIGHT NOW ARE THE TRUTH RIGHT NOW! Cause that is what Youth Speaks is all about – honoring new generations of artists & change makers!

Want to know more? Check out this video of Seattle 2013 slam team member Hamda at the 2013 Youth Speaks Seattle Grand Slam.

Hamda 2013 video

Read More

Youth Speaks Seattle + Arts Corps is seeking our new generation of Spokes Leaders!

We’re launching our first Arts Liberation and Leadership Institute  and are looking for teen artists and activists, of all mediums, 14-19 years old, to take on a 9-month commitment of leadership.  Spokes will help us drive our teen programming, develop professional skills and organize our teen events: Open Mics, YSS Slam Series and after school […]

We’re launching our first Arts Liberation and Leadership Institute  and are looking for teen artists and activists, of all mediums, 14-19 years old, to take on a 9-month commitment of leadership.  Spokes will help us drive our teen programming, develop professional skills and organize our teen events: Open Mics, YSS Slam Series and after school clubs!

Please pass this on to any young folks who might be interested.

Complete the attached SPOKES application.  It’s due September 23th!

Read More

2012 Grand Slam Trailer

Don’t miss this epic event! Friday, April 13th 2012 at the Neptune Theater: 1303 NE 45th St, Seattle The top 5 poets from the Grand Slam will form the Youth Speaks Seattle Team. The team will travel to San Francisco in July to represent Seattle at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam, which […]

Don’t miss this epic event!
Friday, April 13th 2012 at the Neptune Theater: 1303 NE 45th St, Seattle

The top 5 poets from the Grand Slam will form the Youth Speaks Seattle Team. The team will travel to San Francisco in July to represent Seattle at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam, which convenes young poets from over seventy different cities to compete and perform.

Buy your tickets today!

Video by Chris Zweigle

Read More