George Lucas Educational Foundation

Spoken Word Poetry Empowers Students to Use Authentic Voices

High school student Shayanna develops her talents at Youth Speaks, a nonprofit that creates a safe space for young people to explore writing and performance skills in the service of bettering their communities.
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Spoken Word Poetry Empowers Students to Use Authentic Voices (Transcript)

Shayanna: Everyone does poetry. Everyone may not be bold enough or strong enough to be able to get up and perform in front of an audience, but I personally feel like that’s my job.

Shayanna: You guys ready?

Audience: Ready, yes.

Shayanna: Female MC, the words that I speak, they hit you, make you weak.

I feel like I want to get up there and perform what I have written so someone can know that they’re not going through this alone or so they won’t think that they’re the only person who has been through this problem.

Dr. Susie Lundy: All of these "Speaks" programs are really centered around our mission, which is to help young people find, develop and publicly present their voices.

James Kass: What I want to do today is walk a little bit through some history and sort of where we are with "Spokes" now. We really have two roles-- one is we are spokespeople for the organization to adults and to other young people and, two, we really feel like we’re the machine that keeps the organization running. So, like, without spokes a bicycle wheel couldn’t turn.

Dr. Susie Lundy: We have over twenty-three local Bay Area programs that reach into high schools, works with community partners, libraries, and we also have under-21 open mics.

Shayanna: Youth Speaks, that’s my poetry family. Like, I love them so much. I just feel like they help me improve as who I am and as a writer. Without Youth Speaks I feel like my life would be down a completely, totally different road. I would be doing a whole lot of different things, probably things I shouldn’t be doing.

Teacher: If I shout out something like, “Wisdom!” you’re gonna use the three other bodies to mold what you feel wisdom is. Does that make sense? Yes.

Dr. Susie Lundy: Shayanna comes once a month for daylong trainings where we do artistic development and we feature artists that will run artistic skill-building workshops with them.

Teacher: So with your group, your partner, your trio, you’re gonna come up with three words or two words that kind of go together.

Student: Diamond green nature-- bad envy or something. I don’t know.

Student: Bad envy-- wait, what was he saying?

Student: What was it again?

Student: Diamond green envious love.

Students: Diamond green envious love.

Dr. Susie Lundy: I feel like what we want young people to express is already inherently in them. It’s about creating the space where they can actually feel safe.

Shayanna: I would like to think of you more than just in a majestic way. Yellow [inaudible] name ring bells, hold the door, they want more, but where does my heart stand?

Whenever people say, “Wow, that’s, like, really powerful,” I’m just like, well, it’s just what I’ve been through and I’m just voicing it and letting it be heard.

When your lips met another chick’s I used to trip tears would drip and I would blame myself saying I wasn’t prepared for the throne...

Dr. Susie Lundy: Some students really just need to get their stories out. We often times end up hearing a lot of stories about domestic violence or homelessness-- things that in a school setting maybe is not given voice or is not a safe place to actually reveal.

Shayanna: Only safe, girls came wrapped up, I could do with better especially when [inaudible] around and boys being trying to holla’.

Audience: Whoo!

I like to make people think and I like to perform my pieces really fast because I feel like it challenges people, not only does it challenge them to capture the words but it challenges them to sit there and think about it.

I be like back, back, getting ready for the words of a true, hold on, wait, now let me break the news, I’m a female, true, in a direction new, but I heard it was better than most of you, they be thirsty, but they ain’t ready for what’s next, I was trying to make a meal out of fifteen--

Dr. Susie Lundy: One of our main strategies is to allow a student’s life to be their primary text and I think the institution of school really leans on external standards and that’s true for teachers-- they hold a lot of pressure in that way. The saying we use is “The standard is yourself.”

Shayanna: ‘Cause when they not be heard, it’s a done deal, maybe you could still do it for fun, still I’m the princess, gonna be the queen for real. Thank you. [Cheers and applause]

I feel like some people just write because they just feel like, “Oh, hey, everyone’s doing it,” or “a poem, that’s easy,” but then I feel like there are other people who are just like, “This is my life,” ‘cause that’s kind of what I feel that, like, poetry is my life and it’s, like, helped me a lot and a lot of my friends and I, we have this thing, “Poetry made me,” and I feel like it did make me into the person that I am.

But I would like to make this work if you’d agree to put all of our love first, meaning don’t ignore your emotions this time. I’m not here to judge you.

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography: Vanessa Carr
  • Additional Camera: Mario Furloni
  • Editor: Matthew Beighley
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Commissioning Producer: Zachary Fink

This video was co-produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television as a companion to the PBS special, Is School Enough?

Is School Enough? Video Series

Edutopia's new series profiles young people who are making their learning more authentic by taking it into their own hands, on their own time. This series is produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television, as a companion to an hour-long PBS special that is now available to watch.

More Resources on Poetry

Bay Area-based Youth Speaks is the leading nonprofit presenter of spoken word performance, education, and youth development programs in the country. Youth Speaks' mission is to create safe spaces to empower the next generation of leaders, self-defined artists, and visionary activists through written and oral literacies. Youth Speaks challenge young people to find, develop, publicly present, and apply their voices as creators of social change. Keep up to date with Youth Speaks on Twitter.

Visit the Is School Enough? series page to see more videos on informal learning.

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