Helping young performance poets find their voice

The kids will be better than alright during the Youth Speaks Spring Block Party on Monday, April 9, at Richard Hugo House. Young adults will read from their own works, as well as share the stage with workshop instructors. The performances, which begin at 8 p.m., will wrap up a day of events and workshops for the participants.

Richard Hugo House Programs Director Alix Wilber is excited about Youth Speaks.

"They pack the place when they do anything here," she said. "Bad things do not happen when Youth Speaks performs here. They do wonderful work."

Wilber said that Youth Speaks brings together a diverse group of young people that might not normally mix.

"It's a wonderful way for kids to meet others who aren't like them," she added.

One of those kids who joined Youth Speaks now leads the organization as its program director. Angela Dy (pronounced Dee) signed up as a talented youth participant. She stayed on with the group after receiving her creative writing degree from the University of Washington. Dy has committed herself to the success of Youth Speaks.

Over the last year, her team at Youth Speaks broadened the group's profile with presentations, outreach and fundraising. The organization even received an unsolicited $5,000 grant from the Gates Foundation for their work.

The organization's mission is "to build and maintain avenues for youth voice through the written and spoken word."

Youth Speaks focuses on three avenues for youth writers: a monthly open mic series at Café Allegro in the University District; a weekly writing curriculum; and an in-school workshop, where the group goes into schools and organizations with youth or adult mentors to lead workshops for youth outside the organization. There is also the annual youth poetry slam. At the beginning of the year, the group selects a team to participate at the National Poetry Festival.

"I would say the youngest is 16 or 17, and the oldest youth is 20," Dy said. "The organization targets its activities at teenagers. We don't have many younger teens in there now, but we definitely could."

She added that younger teens might be able to find Youth Speaks through their MySpace site, or by having contact with the group at school.

"The MySpace stuff is generally through word-of-mouth, a lot of times they hear about us because we're at their school doing a workshop, and then we try to do some outreach at the same time we do our workshops," Dy said.

Dy volunteers her services, as does everyone working for the organization. Her education director, Aaron Counts, plans curriculum and writes grants. Another volunteer, Matt Gano, a local performance artist, assists with their writing workshops.

"In the past year we were given a Starbucks grant of $15,000 for the 2006-2007 school year," she said. "We use the money to pay our workshop leaders, the people who go out and do workshops in the community. We also try to give our youth advisory board members a stipend for being involved in the organization. This was the first year we were able to pay anybody, so it's been good."

In addition to the recent fundraising successes, Dy believes her organization's goal has been to reach youth with the open mics and writing circles.

"I think it's really important for young people to have a safe space to speak their work and to have their work publicized," she said. "I think the open mics are very important for that, but if they're not doing the writing then what work will they be speaking? For the youth outside of the organization, the youth we're still trying to reach, I think it's those individual workshops where we take our ideas and our suggestions about writing and the role that writing can play in a teen's life."

Youth Speaks has brought their programs across the city, as well as conducting outreach in Bellingham and Tacoma. The group will venture to Yakima in May to present a program there for an anti-tobacco group.

The original chapter of Youth Speaks formed in San Francisco in 1996, and then another chapter opened in New York City in 1999. The Seattle chapter began in 2002.

"I had been involved with the National Youth Poetry Festival which Youth Speaks in (San Francisco) produces. I had seen the festival, and I had seen the national movement and said I want to bring a Youth Speaks to Seattle," Dy said.

Youth Speaks now assists a core of 10 youth, but Dy would like to see at least 20 in the program.

With performance as a focus, Dy said the group will videotape performances, since the group hasn't published any work. She values the need to record the live performances.

"We were running grassroots, on no money for so long," she said. "I never imagined even owning a video camera and thinking about the documentation of it. It's important, especially since we don't have a lot of stuff written."

The group is currently seeking volunteers to assist with program services and outreach as mentors. To participate as a mentor or a youth member, contact the organization at

You may also find them through their Web page at
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