On a hot Wednesday evening in July, 500 young people filled the pews of Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University. They had come from all over the country to Atlanta. A few crossed international borders. Some were reconnecting; others were meeting for the first time.

But they weren’t there to pray; they were poets convening for the opening ceremony of the 18th annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. Presented by Youth Speaks, Brave New Voices is a poetry slam at its core, with teams from across the country competing for the crown. But the festival also offers young people an opportunity to dig deeply into issues that affect their day-to-day lives and share their experiences with peers.

“I am surrounded by over 500 poets whose energy is so electric, it can change the course of time,” recited poet Natalie Cook, 22, founder of Atlanta Word Works. Her poem, one of several that drew on the festival’s theme, The Fire This Time, welcomed attendees to her city by speaking about Atlanta’s historical importance in the civil rights movement.

“This is a magic city; there’s no need to burn it down for it to rise again,” Cook continued. “The truth burning on your tongue is the only fire you need.”

During a plenary conversation I conducted on behalf of the Off/Page Project, The Center for Investigative Reporting’s collaboration with Youth Speaks, DeRay McKesson, a leading civil rights activist, talked about the importance of encouraging young people to speak for themselves, empowering them with the support and language they need to document their lives.

“I think that so much of what we can do as people who create space for young people is allow them to tell stories and validate the act of storytelling and validate the story,” McKesson said.

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Those stories flowed after the interview with McKesson, as nearly a dozen students approached the mic to ask him questions and share their experiences with protest and civic action.

Eva Barrett, 19, of Cleveland spoke of how a police officer on horseback had trampled her foot during a Black Lives Matter protest and asked for advice on how to remain safe during demonstrations. Emma Wende, 15, of McKinney, Texas – who later performed a poem that referenced the pool party incident that put the small town in the national spotlight – asked about the accuracy of media coverage of the Baltimore uprising. And Keijiana Taylor, 15, who started a mentoring program for seventh- and eighth-grade students in Indianapolis, described the difficulties of explaining racism and state violence to those she mentors.

The opening ceremony was the first of many opportunities young people had at the event to discuss issues that not only mattered to them, but also affected their communities. During a series of town hall conversations hosted by the Off/Page Project, students discussed a palette of issues affecting young people, including poverty, state violence, education reform, food justice and gender identity.

Led by Future Corps – a team of Brave New Voices alumni who act as guides, facilitators and hosts during the festival – participants opened up about issues and possible solutions. Their stories were deeply personal.

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During a town hall session about gang and community violence, Joy Barnes, 18, of Baltimore explained how Eric Garner’s death last year affected her: “I cried so hard when Eric Garner died ’cause he looked just like my father. My father is from the same block in New York. … It could have been my father.”

Barnes built on that personal response, explaining why it is important to fight against apathy: “We need to really put names to these faces and really remember that even if it’s not you, it’s still you for real, because it could be.”

Outside the official events and conversations of Brave New Voices, I sought out young poets, with a whiteboard and dry-erase marker in hand, asking them about the issues that mattered most and what they wanted to see covered more in mainstream media. Their answers ranged from bullying to sexism and police brutality.

Brave New Voices attendees answer the question, "What's the most pressing issue in your community?" These responses come from Timah Nelson (clockwise from top left), 19; Brannon Tallant, 17; Nayo Jones, 20; and Kaitlin Johnson, 16.
Brave New Voices attendees answer the question, “What’s the most pressing issue in your community?” These responses come from Timah Nelson (clockwise from top left), 19; Brannon Tallant, 17; Nayo Jones, 20; and Kaitlin Johnson, 16. Credit: Niema Jordan/Reveal Credit: Niema Jordan/Reveal

And, of course, stories dominated the poems that hundreds of attendees had come to recite and hear during the poetry slams. In the galleries of Atlanta’s historic Castleberry Hill and on stages at the Fox Theatre and the Ferst Center for the Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology, participants spoke about a host of themes:

  • Atlanta Word Works performed a group poem using baseball to illustrate institutional racism in the U.S.
  • Breaking Ground Poets of Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, unleashed a series of poems about addiction and poverty.
  • Young female poets from all over the country shared stories of rape and rape culture.
  • Students of both sexes called out male privilege and patriarchy within romantic relationships and protest movements.
  • Urban Word NYC delivered a collaborative piece on youth solitary confinement, drawing from the suicide of Kalief Browder, a young man profiled in a story by The New Yorker that chronicled the three years he spent on Rikers Island as teenager without being convicted of a crime. (Off/Page also addressed the issue in April through a poem by Gabriel Cortez based on CIR’s reporting.)

This year, Philly Youth Poetry Movement took home the Brave New Voices title. During the final bout, the team members presented pieces dedicated to their unborn children about how to challenge racism and sexism. In one powerful group performance, the team members embodied a tree to talk about lynching. They ended on an upnote, with a piece about the joy of being black that served as a celebration of life, which began:

I’ve been watching Black bodies
Blend into the pavement for some time now
But I have not lost hope
For a certain happiness, despite the wreckage
I have not lost my ability to smile
amidst the warfare
I am still standing here
Doing my best to summon my spirits back each time
To realize my black, doesn’t belong seeded in dirt
But deserves to bloom.

It ended with a plea for young people to support each other. “We’ve been writing our absence so long, we forgot to speak presence,” the performers sang out. “As long as we got us, we gon’ be all right.”

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Niema Jordan is the program manager for the Off/Page Project, The Center for Investigative Reporting's collaboration with Youth Speaks. Her career has included working at Essence magazine, a stint as the assistant director of the Jewish Music Festival and teaching at Youth Radio. Her work has appeared in Ebony, Shareable and Oakland Local. Jordan graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor's in magazine journalism and African American studies, and she is currently working toward master’s degrees in documentary film and public health from the University of California, Berkeley. Jordan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office and Youth Speaks' San Francisco office.