D.C. American Graduate event amplifies youth voices

Print More

The five winners of American Graduate’s Raise Up hip-hop and spoken-word competition performed their original poems on the stage of Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center during a star-studded celebration Sept. 28.

Sarah ONeal

Sarah O’Neal performs her poem at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Sept. 28 as one of five winners of the Raise Up spoken-word competition. (Photo: Joyce Boghosian)

The Raise Up competition aimed to include more young people in conversations about high-school dropout rates. It came about through a partnership between CPB’s American Graduate initiative and Youth Speaks, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that seeks to empower young people through writing and performing.

The contest was part of the American Graduate: Lets Make It Happen initiative, which focuses on helping communities reduce dropout rates. “One of the thing [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 also 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.”

The five winners — Jonathan Williams, 22, from Milwaukee; Jourdan Lee, 17, from New Orleans; Sarah O’Neal, 19, from Oakland; Nytesia Ross, 19, from Tyler, Texas; and Aaron Golden, 19, from Harper Woods, Mich. — were chosen from over 750 video submissions. At the ceremony, all five performed their poems and received $5,000 scholarships from the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation.

The event also featured a performance by the Get Lit Players of Los Angeles, who won the group contest. All three members received $2,500 scholarships.

The first half of the night was emceed by James Kass, the founder and executive director of Youth Speaks, and, in addition to the student winners, featured poems from D.C.-based hip hop artist and teacher Gabriel “Asheru” Benn and Jeff Duncan-Andrade, a high school teacher in East Oakland who has lectured about how to effectively teach in schools serving poor and working-class students.

At the event, Duncan-Andrade discussed the challenges these students face, pointing out that urban youth are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as soldiers returning from combat.

After the finalists were presented with their scholarships, Glynn Washington, host and e.p. of public radio’s Snap Judgment, took the stage to tell a story about being the only black student on his school bus when he moved to rural Michigan. Washington emceed the rest of the evening, which featured live accompaniment from the Snap Judgment band.

The performances in the second half of the show included a poem from Tonya Ingram, co-founder of New York University’s slam poetry team, and a performance by the Washington, D.C., youth poetry team.

Black Thought and Questlove of the hip-hop group the Roots closed out the show with a half-hour set that brought the crowd to its feet.

Officials at American Graduate and Youth Speaks both say they hope to see the contest continue in the future. “We hope this is the beginning of a permanent space for Youth Speaks in this conversation,” Kass said.

Watch a video of the performance.