Youth Brings Poetry Slam Title Home to Richmond

News Feature, Taisa Grant

The City of Richmond was made proud on April 27 when one of it’s own, Nya Mcdowell, 15, was crowned the Bay Area’s 2012 Youth Speaks Grand Slam champion.

It all started in Richmond on Saturday, April 14, when the city played host to its very first Youth Speaks Poetry Slam in Richmond. The event was held in partnership with Making Waves, the RYSE Center, Youth Speaks, and East Bay Center for Performing Arts. Twenty-five youth ranging in age from 12 to 20 came from Richmond and surrounding cities to participate in the slam.

The judges for the slam were from local community groups such as Safe Return project, Building Blocks for Kids (BBK) and Digital Storytellers.

Three finalists from two rounds were to be chosen to go on to participate in the Youth Speaks semifinals, but in the end there were eight winners because of a three way tie for 3rd place.

The winners were D’Neise Robinson, Gio Fuarez, Ivori Holson, Yejide Porter, Deandre Evans, Imani Alcantara, Wanita Jones and Christina Letsinger. They were joined by Nya McDowell and Marje Kilpatrick, last year’s finalist. The winners were automatically guaranteed a spot in the semifinals that took place on April 21st at Berkley’s Brower Center.

At those semifinals in Berkeley, Kilpatrick, McDowell and Robinson moved onto the finals on April 27th at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, setting the stage for McDowell to wow the audience of 1,000 spectators with a performance that would bring down the house, and bring home a poetry slam title to Richmond.

McDowell received the only perfect score of the evening and nailed down the poetry crown for her recitation of “Dear Father,” an original poem about a young girl who was introduced to prostitution by her father. Mcdowell said she has seen many young women prostitutes in Richmond, and she wrote the poem to give their stories a voice.

She will now go on with four other youth poets, including Kilpatrick, to compete nationally this summer against teams from around the world.

Youth Speaks is an organization that creates safe spaces to empower the next generation of leaders, artists and activists, through written and oral literacy programs that are intended to shift negative perceptions of young people. Founded in 1996, Youth Speaks works with Bay Area young people to find, develop, publicly present and apply their voices as leaders for social change. Every summer, Youth Speaks also hosts an International Youth Poetry Slam called Brave New Voices.

The poetry slam was a big deal for Richmond, according to Molly Raynor, Raw Talent Co-Founder. She expressed how exciting it is that Youth Speaks identified Richmond as a place with a thriving poetry scene where they could host a slam. Raynor considers it a historical event, considering Richmond has been overlooked for so long. When the city is noticed, she said, it’s usually only for negative reasons. But now, she said, Richmond is on the map for Spoken Word poetry. Each year, more and more youth qualify for the slam, which speaks to the growing hunger for poetry in Richmond.

Judging by the audience reactions and participation through cheering, clapping, finger snapping and laughter, it was clear this event was long overdue. Poetry Slam Judge and Building Blocks for Kids affiliate Pamela Chavez described the event as beautiful. The youth, she said, have very important stories to tell, the kind that hit your heart.

“Youth speaking for themselves allows them to reframe how people look at (them),” said Chavez. “Youth can speak for themselves when it comes to redefining what it means to be young in the city of Richmond. As adults, we can be allies by providing space and listening.”

The auditorium was definitely filled with brave, new, raw voices, expressing the challenges young people face — especially those who suffer from poverty and all of the ills that come with it. The theme of change echoed off the walls of the East Bay Center Auditorium. The youth provided the audience plenty of food for thought, and everyone left with a little more awareness that youth in Richmond are making great waves that will wash these Richmond streets clean. They are not whispering, so trust you will hear them coming.

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