Earlier this year, I was introduced to a group called Youth Speaks through a BackerKit creator (Kobby Osei w/ Pirl) who is an active supporter of the organization. Youth Speaks is a national non-profit based in San Francisco that uses arts education, youth development practices, and civic engagement strategies to create spaces for young people to express their creativity. Excited by the guiding principles, I attended a couple of their poetry slams and was amazed at the powerful stories these young artists were sharing with audiences full of friends, family, and strangers.

Youth Speaks hosts several events throughout the year, but their flagship event is their Brave New Voices festival. I recently had the opportunity to learn more from Youth Speak’s Interim Executive Director Brandon Santiago who has been involved with the company for over a decade.

For those just learning about Youth Speaks, can you briefly explain what it is and how you got involved?

Youth Speaks has been the leading presenter of spoken word for the last 23 years. Alongside 130+ organizations across the country, Youth Speaks has pioneered the field of youth critical literacy arts with the ultimate aim of amplifying the voices and stories of young people around the globe. 

In terms of how I got involved, it was less of a decision and more divine intervention. I stumbled upon Youth Speaks as an 18 year-old high school dropout. My friend participated in a poetry slam and I came with him mostly out of curiosity. When I got there I experienced something up until that point in my life I never had: a room full of people listening to the stories of young people who looked and sounded like me. It changed my life. I started to come around and pick up chairs and put away boxes at events. I wasn’t sure how at the time, but I knew I wanted to be a part of creating spaces like that for others.

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Can you tell us how Brave New Voices began? Who typically participates in these events?

The Brave New Voices Festival will convene the most outstanding, outspoken, and historically underrepresented youth poets from around the world for 4 days of workshops, slams, showcases, community engagement, and civic participation events including town hall style discussions, film showcases, and more in Las Vegas, NV from July 17th-20th.

Brave New Voices currently features over 500 Teen Poetry Slam Champions and their mentors from over 50 parts of the country, and several cities around the world. The Festival reaches an audience of over 10,000 people throughout the week. These young writers are a diverse, creative, intelligent group of trendsetters, and community & cultural leaders. They come to Brave New Voices each year not only to compete but to attend world-class workshops led by renowned poets and writers, build community, and to hone their craft.

Brave New Voices cultivates the voices of young writers ages 13-24 nationwide. These voices, spoken with passion and intelligence, transcend boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, gender, orientation, language, geography, politics, and history. What unites them is their embrace of literacy: their ability to tell stories, to critically and creatively analyze their worlds and to present that information in a way that is accessible to large and diverse audiences. 

In your experience at Youth Speaks, what are some of the positive changes you’ve seen happen for underrepresented youth?

A core component of our work is to create spaces where young people can find, develop, present, and apply their voices as creators of social change. I have seen this cycle happen many times and in fact, experienced it first-hand as a program participant. Through that process, I have seen confidence and growth both within myself and the young people we work with. 

Personally, before Youth Speaks, I was afraid to raise my hand in class even when I had the right answer, and I was not a quiet kid by any means. Being in spaces where you not only learn that your voice matters, but that you have the power to share it the way you want to leads to a level of confidence that just isn’t taught through traditional education. The confidence that comes from Youth Speaks spaces breeds a growth mindset. Everyone has the ability and capacity to write poetry, it’s just a matter of access.brave new voicesI’m sure it’s impossible to choose just one, but was there a single youth that has stood out over the years?

When I was in my early 20’s I worked with a young person who was a part of SPOKES (our name for our youth advisory board). He was a literal genius. He had dropped out of high school, but he was always learning and reading and teaching me. I remember him breaking down the differences between indigenous ways of learning as opposed to western ways of learning. Unfortunately, he stopped coming around despite a lot of effort to keep him plugged in, and a few years later I saw him homeless. I remember asking myself “what could I have done better?” 

I realized a few things after talking to him; poetry slams, spoken word, after-school workshops, programs – they alone are never enough. Young people face unique and nuanced challenges that we as a society need to address on a systemic level. Until we realize as a culture that we are simply not doing enough for our young folks in schools, in communities, and at home – there will always be a young homie like this one. In fact, he could have and in some ways, should have been, (if not for some timely interventions), me. It’s a humbling thing to process but also something I have to consistently return to and reflect on.  

We’re experiencing a booming digital era where there are more opportunities to become an entrepreneur. How do you help prepare youth to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset?

Artists were the first entrepreneurs. Being an entrepreneur by nature means accumulating risk and working beyond personal comfort to create something. Artists are constantly living in the cycle of creation. One of the most important aspects of being an entrepreneur is being able to advocate for yourself and tell a story that will get folks to join you on your journey. There isn’t a better way to prepare for that than getting on a stage and busting a poem to a room full of people. 

How do you see Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices evolving over the next few years?

I think that Brave New Voices is just now, after 23 years, really beginning to come into its own. As a festival and a community, it has the potential to be the epicenter of youth voice and be the stage that amplifies the stories of our future leaders. Brave New Voices creates limitless possibilities by speaking large scale social change into existence through individual bodies. We will continue to create this truly unique space by providing multiple points of entry that can reach any young person at any stage of their young life through spoken word, film, theater, social media, and more. 

To learn more about Youth Speaks and help bring the magic of Brave New Voices to life, visit their main website and show your support.