The amplified voices of seven poets in the Mills College Art Museum (MCAM) echoed themes of racial and mixed race experiences, gender roles and the body.
On March 8, the MCAM presented Youth Speaks, a Bay Area based group, in conjunction with Elena Dorfman’s photographs in the current exhibit.
Founded in 1996, Youth Speaks is an organization based in San Francisco that provides a space for youth writers, spoken word and youth development programs. According to their mission statement, Youth Speaks “exists to shift the perceptions of youth by combating illiteracy, isolation, alienation and silence, creating a global movement of brave new voices bringing the noise from the margins to the core.”
Currently, the MCAM hosts Diana Al-Hadid and Dorfman’s work. The photographs of teenagers affected by the Syrian conflict are from Dorfman’s time on assignment from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Gabriel Cortez, a lead artist at Youth Speaks and artist coordinator, said that the poets were curated around themes in Dorfman’s work.
Cortez also urged the audience to support the poets through making noise.
“We’re going to break through this invisible barrier between us,” Cortez said. “I encourage you to make the walls shake.”
Audience members murmured, cried, snapped and clapped, as Asia Bryant, Grace Fondow, Amy Mostafa, Jed Rodriguez, DeShara Suggs-Joe, Cortez and Mills senior Sarah O’Neal took to the microphone.
A friend introduced O’Neal to Youth Speaks, and she joined when she was a sophomore in high school.
“I’ve stepped into myself,” O’Neal said.
Each writer brought their own nuanced worlds to their reading. Bryant writes primarily about the intersections of being a Black woman.
“When does my body get to be more than a literary device for grief?” poet Asia Bryant asked.
Fondow spoke of her mixed race experience, while Rodriguez explored gender roles and the restrictions of the gender binary. Cortez reached into his family history and deftly touched on identity, his lighthearted tone belying the complex stories underneath. O’Neal pondered what a name means, as Mostafa wove dreams and possibilities into her poems, and Suggs-Joe tied the body into her pieces.
“How do I search for a body I was determined to lose?” Suggs-Joe asked in a poem. In another, she said, “You don’t have to hang to be hung.”
Mills student Amina Khribeche liked that the event was held in the art museum and appreciated the significance of many poems addressing what it means to be a woman, on International Women’s day.
“It takes a lot to be able to create,” Khribeche said. “It’s so impressive. People sometimes underestimate the power of words.”