“Here I am at 105 pounds and friendless. I want friends.” she said. “I want to love myself so badly, but it’s so hard.”
Performing in front of well-stocked bookshelves, young men and women spoke of gender equality and identity, xenophobia, depression, self-mutilation and suicide among other subjects.
The program, put on by a youth advisory board known as Spokes, gives anyone under 21 a chance to voice their concerns in a positive and judgment free environment, according to Youth Speaks Poet Mentor Tammy Vaitai.
“At a lot of places, whether it’s home or school, (the youth) don’t feel like they are being heard. That’s a big reason they’re here.” Vaitai continued.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015, roughly 13 percent of youth aged 12-17 had a “major depressive episode,” defined as “a period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure….”
The number of suicides in those aged 15-24, however, has tripled since 1960.
Youth Speaks’ open mics, and other similar platforms, give youth a chance to express their own narrative, said Jennifer Siegel, 20. “I think it makes it easier, it allows me to share in ways that I couldn’t otherwise if I was just talking.” Friday’s open mic was Jennifer’s first. She has written hundreds of pieces, often about “mental health and transition issues,” she said.
Many of the youth seated in 826 Valencia’s large performance space grouped together and spoke amongst themselves. Jennifer, however, sat alone, tapping her heel rhythmically against the floor—maintaining a tempo no musician could keep up with.
“I’m not really sure what to expect,” Jennifer continued. “I hope it’s good though.” Her name was called early. The room held an audience of about 35 at the time—mostly youth. They sent her up with applause at her back, a custom each performer was afforded.
“You may have heard the term ‘You lie like a rug,’” she said. “When I lie it’s different. I lie like a chandelier…” The room was silent as the piece unfolded, her voice steady. A chandelier “comes crashing down,” it lies on the ground, “broken and dangerous.” The applause that carried her back to her seat was louder than the first.
Rappers, songwriters and even a beatboxer who walked in on a whim, performed under black and white banners hanging from the open rafters. Participants could be accompanied by the resident DJ spinning tracks in-between performances.
826 Valencia, an organization that provides writing workshops and tutoring to children and young adults, provided the venue for the open mic. The room was—apart from the pirate themed knick-knacks—lined with books. “The Giving Tree” and Robert Louis Stevenson were both available.
“We’re looking to partner with organizations that share our values and our vision,” said Vaitai, who has been involved with the organization for ten years. Founded in 1996, Youth Speaks also works directly with schools to encourage students to find their voice in the classroom.
Talking about mental health issues is a vital step to treating symptoms that can surface when facing depression, including social withdrawal, trouble sleeping and substance abuse.
“That’s kind of what spoken word poetry is about,” said Koko Griffin, 18, a member of Spokes. “We speak about social justice issues and those heavy topics that seem emotional.” Griffin started as an intern and soon, with the encouragement of her friends, found herself behind the mic at 16.
Participants in the open mic were as diverse as the subjects covered, but all of them, according to Griffin, were “open minded, experienced and passionate.” Griffin said the events welcome everyone, but she hopes to see more “close-minded people, to expose them to what the youth are writing and the work that we’re doing.”