Five hundred young people representing over 50 teams from across the U.S. and five international locales (Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda, South Africa, Toronto, England) will participate in the 17th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival.
The four-day festival, held this year in the City of Brotherly Love, will host youth poets ages 13 to 19 at the University of Pennsylvania as well as community-based theaters, major performance venues, and public spaces across the city. This year, the event focuses on the theme of “possibility” as a means to empower young people through artistic expression and freedom of speech.
“The spirit of young people empowering themselves is infectious,” says BNV National Program Associate Danez Smith. “It keeps people coming back [to compete] and back to our communities to make change.”
Developing a new generation of leaders is an important cornerstone for the BNV mission. In addition to the slam competition, BNV participants will have the opportunity to engage in world-class workshops with renowned poets and writers, complete various youth development programs.
“[Philly Youth Poetry Movement] is a great program for youth and saves so many young people’s lives in the city,” says Imani Rothwell, 18, a Philly native whose team will compete in the slam competition this weekend. “You don’t hear a lot about the positive things; it’s such an accomplishment.”
Though the application process is open to all, teams are selected based on the local organization’s ability to make an impact in their area. According to Brave New Voices founder, James Kass, two important questions are asked when evaluating teams for participation: “What is [the organization’s] commitment to local young people in their community and what are their writing opportunities for kids in their area?”
Each year, BNV attracts more and more participating from all four corners of the globe. “There are very few places with such a diverse population of young people can come and share the stage, literally and metaphorically,” says Kass.
A few years back, the stage was even bigger when the multi-round slam competition became the of subject of an HBO series. Smith says the organization encourages students to recognize the significance of having platform.
“We are challenging young people to, when they have the opportunity to speak publicly that they take that opportunity seriously. If I only have 3 minutes to speak publicly, what do I have to say?”
Tiarha Mitchell, 19, also of Philadelphia, credits spoken word and competitions like PYPM and BVN with “making poetry fun” and helping her to explore ideas and emotions.
“I’m most drawn to [writing] personal poems because I feel like our entire lives as human beings, we are getting to know ourselves,” she says.
“What makes BNV and youth poetry in general special is the raw honesty of it,” Smith says. “They’re dedicated to not pulling any punches in their work and writing it in such a visceral way. That’s what makes it a special space.”