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Youth Speaks: A Celebration of the Life and Work of MLK

Photography by Samantha H.


This year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, I had a somewhat different experience than usual. In addition to celebrating the life and work of Dr. King, I had the opportunity to the hear the voices of many young people “Bringing the Noise for Martin Luther King Jr.”at a spoken word poetry performance in San Francisco presented by the organization Youth Speaks for the first time.

The organization was founded in 1996 in San Francisco and has spent years committed to empowering young people from all different backgrounds to get on stage and speak out about issues important to them. Ultimately, the anticipation is that these voices will inspire and help make changes in society at large. Though primarily local, the organization has launched nationwide programs such as The Raise Up Project which aims to grapple with national issues in the public education system, and in particular, the dropout crisis.

This particular show has been hosted for the past 18 years on MLK Day. It started off at a small theatre in the Mission District with only 50 people and has gotten more popular each year; this year, it was hosted in the Nourse Auditorium in downtown San Francisco with a seating capacity of 1,700. It was completely sold-out.

The show itself was an incredibly moving experience. It featured a mix of different talents from people of all ages. The first performance—a spoken word chant and song– was cute, yet powerful and put on by the guest group, “Young, Gifted & Black.” The show then progressed into the telling of very personal and meaningful original poems that discussed pressing issues of today.

There was a lot of discussion about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and each speaker had a unique perspective and opinion. If all of the speakers were made to collaborate on a single work, I don’t think that there’s any chance they would be able to agree on one message that should be taken away from these issues, and I think that diversity of thought and experience was what made the show special.

The show started off with a video of Maya Angelou in which she closed with the words of Terence, a Roman playwright: “I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.” The idea of humanity being common to all remained an integral aspect of all of the performances. Additionally, the show incorporated lots of different pieces of Dr. King’s work throughout to portray the complexity of his philosophy that one often fails to capture with a simple, out-of-context quotation.

The conjoining of the voices of the past and the voices of made me view this national holiday in an exciting new way. There are so many reasons to be grateful for and celebrate the achievements of the past; however, there is no reason to forget how in many ways Dr. King’s dream of justice is still being worked towards today. We saw this concept embodied in the numerous protests that took place throughout the Bay Area on Monday, as people continued to advocate that “Black Lives Matter.”

Overall, I think the show put forth the ideal that as the youth of this nation, we hold a great power and responsibility to speak up, whether on stage, online, or through active protest. And with all the national and global issues of today, this is no small task.

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