Spoken-word contest gives students the stage to discuss the dropout crisis

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American Graduate and Youth Speaks, a nonprofit that focuses on empowering youth through creativity, hope to include more young people in conversations about high-school dropout rates with Raise Up, a hip-hop and spoken-word contest that will culminate with a performance this month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and a radio special.

The organizations paired up this spring to encourage teens to submit original raps and poems related to the high school dropout crisis. By June 30, Raise Up had received over 750 video submissions, many filmed with webcams and smartphones. Twelve finalists were chosen for the contest’s next round. From those, five entrants will be selected to perform their poems at the Kennedy Center Sept. 28 as part of a live show focusing on the dropout problem.

CPB enlisted Youth Speaks, a San Franciscobased nonprofit that seeks to empower young people through writing and performing, to use its contacts in communities around the country to solicit entries and recruit celebrity judges. Youth Speaks will also work with the Association of Independents in Radio to produce a two-part radio series featuring the finalists’ poems to be distributed to public radio stations nationwide.

The contest is part of CPB’s American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen initiative, which seeks to help communities reduce dropout rates. “One of the things [American Graduate] wants to do is make sure that they’re bringing in perspectives from everybody involved,” said Erika Pulley-Hayes, v.p. of radio for CPB. “This contest was a great way to bring in the youth voice.”

Listening to young people is a big part of Youth Speaks’ mission. High-school students have a lot of insights to offer but are rarely asked to contribute, said Brandon Santiago, a former high-school dropout who finished school after participating in Youth Speaks and who now leads workshops for the organization.

“A lot of times young folks are already thinking about these things, and there isn’t a space for them to share their thoughts,” he said. “They’re in schools every day, they see the complexities and nuances of how the system is failing better than everybody else.”

Students who submitted videos to the contest talked about a wide variety of shortcomings. Some cited low expectations or disrespect from their teachers, while others discussed racial biases and funding shortages.

James Kass, founder and executive director of Youth Speaks, said that spokenword poetry is a powerful tool for his organization and the American Graduate competition because many students are familiar with the form, allowing for a diverse range of young people to express themselves in their own way.

“It’s critical that the kids can be entered into the narrative in their own terms,” he said. “Young people are often used as sound bites to drive a certain narrative, but when you help them find the power of their own voice, you can inspire them.”

This summer, two rounds of voting by the public and a panel of celebrity judges including Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons and actress Rosario Dawson  winnowed the contestants to 12 semifinalists from 11 states. In one video in the running, Jonathan Williams from Madison, Wis., talks about going from being a highschool freshman with a zero grade-point average to a University of Wisconsin student with a full scholarship. In another, Sarah O’Neal of California discusses discrimination against students of color in the school system.

What does it say about the achievement gap when the kids who make it to college are told to never look back? To view their communities as challenges they overcame, constantly being celebrated for making it out, as if leaving is the only solution?” O’Neal asks in her poem ”Survival.”

Representatives of Youth Speaks and American Graduate say they hope to see their partnership continue beyond this month’s Kennedy Center performance. “We hope this is the beginning of a permanent space for Youth Speaks in this conversation, Kass said.