The Power of Youth, Their Voices & Community

The Koures Youth Symposium, held February 20-24, 2008, brought some 25 young people and 20 adults to Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA to create poetry, dance and song around Native American and African stories interpreted by mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade. Meade created the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation of Seattle, WA (which sponsored the symposium) some 20 years ago to address the growing issues of uncertainty and chaos in the world with the creative power of story, poetry, song, dance, rituals, and intense & meaningful dialogue. It’s how we bring together the broken pieces of community with authenticity and imagination.

The participants included homeless youth from Seattle; Black and Latino gang members from Los Angeles; white students from rural Wisconsin; Mexika (Aztec) singers & dancers, poets and activists from the Bay Area, and others. The staff included psychologists, an African drummer & dance teacher, poets, and Chi Gong practitioners. I served as teacher/poet with Michael Meade, who based this event on his own study of ancient stories and their connection to modern times. Meade has been doing these kinds of events around the country for several years under the aegis of “Voices of Youth, Voices of Community,” which I’ve been privileged to help as a poet in Boyle Heights/East LA and other communities.

Essentially, young people in various stages of trouble and transformation were helped in creating their own unique verse, in their own voices (with some assistance in shaping and editing their work) for four days in the woods. They also learned African dance from Duncan Allard, a practitioner in the Shona tribal traditions of Zimbabwe, various songs from indigenous Africa and Mexico, and aspects of stage presence.

A few of the young people were quite active in poetry, even performance and Hip Hop. But most had never written poems before. Most had never had to connect words with feelings, with ideas, with pain, with joy, with community. By the fifth day we had the whole group make a public presentation at the Brava Theater in the Mission district of San Francisco. Some 200 people showed up to hear original poems – all were truly amazing – Meade’s stories; Mexika, African & Brazilian songs; and an incredible warrior dance from Zimbabwe. I also read a poem and did what we call a “harangue” on the power of language shaping for healing as well as personal and social development.

It was a movingly powerful event that at one point had everyone in the audience on their feet.

This symposium started me on a new round of trips that will also have me in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan by the end of March. The exhaustive work at Koures also turned out energizing, carrying me through a number of talks in schools, prisons, juvenile lock ups, universities, conferences, and other venues.

For one, I didn’t leave Northern California following the Brava Theater presentation. I ended up in the Sacramento area to do two workshops/talks at the New Folsom Prison (Maximum Security B and A yards). I was supposed to address a long-standing writers’ group out of C Yard, who knew about my work and were expecting my visit. But several stabbings in that yard over the previous two weeks had them locked down. I ended up in B Yard, another Max yard, which had no writers’ group. Still some 40 men showed up to hear me read poetry and talk. In the end the men requested to have their own writers’ group, which I hope does happen. I also talked to a smaller group of prisoners in A Yard before returning back to the Bay Area. As always in the talks/readings in prisons, we had a wonderful time dealing with some vital issues.

Through Intersections for the Arts and Writers Corps, I ended up in a juvenile lock up just south of San Francisco addressing several young men—another powerful time with young people that most of our society has written off. I also took part in an event at Intersection for the Arts in the Mission that included readings by youth in the Writers Corps program. The next day I was at the Mission Public Library where I read and spoke to a standing-room only group. Then the following day I went to the Alameda County Juvenile Hall (now totally renovated into an electronics prison-liked institution) and the San Francisco County Juvenile Guidance Center in a maximum unit. Again, I have to thank Amy Cheney of the Right to Read program and all the staff and teachers who arranged for this. The young people were respectful and attentive, and they were also sharp and incisive in their questions and remarks. They do not deserve to be written off, regardless of what they’ve done. Punishment as the essential form of “rehabilitation” in juvenile facilities and prisons has only made resentment and rage the main response from the youth and prisoners instead of redemption. Yes, we need consequences, but a major aspect of these should be helping these young men and women with their own healing, including linking to vital internal and external sources for change, passion, and positive contributions to community.

In spite of the inane punishment-driven institutions we send our most troubled men and women, as I said, there are heroic people in those institutions trying to make some important impact with little to work with. I’m honored they think of me from time to time to help in this work.

I'd like to end this with a poem from one of the Koures Youth Symposium participants, Rose Conley, who wrote this during the five days of our deliberations. It's called "A True Story About Poetry":

A homeless man in London sat on the ground and on the ground he spread a blanket and on the blanket he spread brightly colored envelopes. Walking by, I asked him what they were. “Poems,” he said in English. “How much?” I asked in American. He shrugged across the Atlantic and I trickled down a few pound coins on to his blanket, made my selection, and turned back towards the West End. As I walked, I read. The poem was called, “I Bring You Oranges.”

Eight years later, I found myself in a room full of strangers, spreading out my blanket. Looking around, everyone had their blanket spread out, and we browsed, dropping pound coins and making our selections. My blanket was the emptiest, and I didn’t have much to share, and the other people had piles of envelopes stacked like strata in front of them and they had brought their lives and their letters and their drumbeats and their heartbeats and their mouths and their necks. I didn’t have much, so I brought them oranges, and I fed them oranges while they fed me their poems.

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