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Guest blog: Spoken word gives youth a voice

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Guest blog: Spoken word gives youth a voice

Written by Chanelle Ignant, Youth Participation Coordinator at KQED, and Rachel Roberson, who leads the Letters to the Next President project for KQED. Also check out the Celebrate Youth Voices event idea for Lights On Afterschool 2016.

Sign up for the upcoming Lights On Afterschool webinar "Engaging Youth Voice & Letters to the Next President" next Thursday, August 25 at 1 PM ET.

Youth tap a deep vein of self-expression with spoken word performance. Whether they are speaking out against injustice or asserting an opinion, spoken word helps young people make their voices heard. 

With the election fast approaching, spoken word is one of many ways youth can express their views on issues that mean most to them. Teens can then publish their views on national platforms like Letters to the Next President 2.0, which launched in August.

But it takes time, patience and an open mind on the part of a mentor to help make spoken word happen.

“You can’t start with your own assumptions or preconceptions about what young people are interested in, what they’re into, what their cultural orientation is based on their appearance or on any demographic data that you have,” says M.C. K~Swift, a senior poet mentor with Youth Speaks Bay Area.  “You have to start really with who they are, and find out who they are from them not from anyone else.”

Once mentors discover what youth are interested in, it’s time to write. And write. And write some more. M.C. K~Swift recommends building trust by asking questions and keeping an open mind.

“When I’m talking to young people I find myself saying, “I don’t know about that, can you tell me more,” M.C. K~Swift says.

Mentors who are writers themselves can provide guidance. But it’s hard to teach what you don’t know.

“If you don’t love writing you can’t convince anyone else to. So be honest with yourself. If you don’t practice writing then you can’t be a guide in that practice,” M.C. K~Swift says. He recommends bringing in a writing instructor, creative artist or expert within your organization, if needed. 

M.C. K~Swift recently led a spoken word workshop at The Mix, San Francisco Public Library’s innovative teen space. The month-long series drew group of 12 young people interested in exploring the spoken word format.

The Mix librarian Cathy Cormier was surprised by how the little things mattered in creating a welcoming, productive workshop. Making sure the group had spaces to write and also a space to perform was crucial, along with having plenty of snacks on hand.

“It was important to create an intimate and safe environment,” Cormier says. “It had to be a space where participants feel free to share their stories.”

For more insight into mentoring spoken word poetry, check out this hangout, which features both M.C. K~Swift and Cathy Cormier.

Mentoring spoken word tips to remember

  1. Be sure you have a flexible, comfortable space with places to write and a place to perform (Ex: Desks or tables that can be moved aside to make a performance space)
  2. Bring snacks!
  3. Encourage each young person to write about topics or issues that are important to them. Ask questions and keep assumptions in check.  
  4. Show examples, like these found on the Brave New Voices and YouthSpeaks YouTube channels.

Guide from your own writing practice. You don’t have to write spoken word to mentor youth as a writer. If writing isn’t your thing, collaborate with a writing instructor, creative artist or expert at your organization.

You can learn more about spoken word and Letters to the Next President on an upcoming Lights On Afterschool webinar "Engaging Youth Voice & Letters to the Next President" next Thursday, August 25 at 1 PM ET.

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