Profile of James Kass

Editors | Jan/Feb 2009 issue
At the first poetry slam he organized for Bay area teenagers in 1996, James Kass was nervous, wondering if the group could put on a good show. But when the kids started performing, his doubts disappeared. “We had practiced,” Kass says. “But then they got up to the mic and they killed it.” From that moment he realized poetry was something young people connected to and he started building up his poetry program, Youth Speaks. “[The kids] were hungry for a community, hungry to be heard,” he says. A graduate student in literature at San Francisco State at the time, Kass was disturbed by the narrow range of the students who were being groomed to be cultural leaders. The kids at that first poetry slam, he says, “were much more honest, much more passionate and much more aggressive in their approach to writing than anybody in my grad school was. They were taking it so seriously.”
Now the San Francisco-based Youth Speaks teaches poetry to 45,000 teens in the Bay Area and reaches 250,000 youth nationwide through associated programs in other states. It aims to help youth grow in confidence and claim their place in society. The program offers after-school workshops, poet mentoring, in-school residencies with professional poets, and regular public performances. It also places youth on stage in as many national venues as possible. In 2006 and 2007, kids from Youth Speaks opened up Robert Redford’s Sundance Summit, a gathering of mayors discussing ways to address climate change. In 2008, teams of kids from across the country competed in a national slam competition called Brave New Voices, which will be the subject of an upcoming HBO special. As part of the event, a number of kids performed at the Kennedy Center.
Kass says this kind of experience has proved invaluable for many kids who learned that if they can use their voice to perform a poem on stage, they can find the confidence to speak up in class or present themselves well in the workplace. He wants to see young people develop opinions about the world they live in and be bold enough to enter public dialogue on issues that matter to them. He hopes they see that “it’s ok to be smart, it’s ok to show that you think about things. And it’s ok to step up and lead when you believe in something.”
An experience in college showed Kass how important it was for young people to respond to societal issues with authenticity. In the early 1990s, he joined a huge Gulf War protest on the University of Wisconsin Madison Campus. The crowd chanted, “No Blood for Oil” which seemed like the right message to Kass. But when they shifted to an old refrain from the 1960s, “Hell no, we won’t go.” he was disconcerted. “I knew this wasn’t real,” he says. “We were a bunch of middle class kids. There was no draft. We as a generation hadn’t found our tongues.” A few years later, when he started Youth Speaks, it was a way of “helping young people have their own words that make sense in this time, in this moment.”
Kass says the youth he works with don’t have to be prompted to express their strong opinions. At a recent fundraiser in San Francisco, a high school student from inner city Oakland, Bryant Phan, took the mic and alternately shouted, growled and whispered into the microphone lines he had written about the election of Barack Obama. Kass watched Phan perform and admitted he’s often surprised by what comes out of the students’ mouths when they walk on stage. But as Phan’s words echoed through the hall, the audience was rapt. “And for the first time in my life/Hope walks behind me/Breathes on the back of my neck/Sending chills down my spine.”
 

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