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SAYS provides speaking platform for area youth

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Young poets from all over the world gathered in Los Angeles this year to compete at the Brave New Voices event. Among them were members of the arts-based literacy program SAYS (Sacramento Area Youth Speaks), who placed fifth in the youth poetry event – an international spoken-word contest televised on HBO.

After observing both the peril and potential of the educational system, former Bay Area high school teacher Vajra Watson founded SAYS in partnership with the UC Davis School of Education, and the Twin Rivers, Sacramento City and Elk Grove UnifiedSchool districts, the Sacramento Office of Youth Development and the Sierra Health Foundation in January 2009.

SAYS and Watson now advocate for young people to seek insight into their lives through engaging literacy programs.

“We tell those who go perform at the international poetry slam that they are now ambassadors of Sacramento,” Watson said.

With only five people attending its first meeting, SAYS has seen tremendous growth since its founding, evidenced by the 900 students and poet-mentors who attended SAYS’ second annual all-day Summit and Spoken Word Poetry SLAM this year.

SAYS hosts SLAM poetry nights on school campuses and in community centers to spread the message of its program, which involves using voices for social change, Watson said.

“We believe that if (students) have the investment, and it’s relevant, then they’ll stay,” she said.

Winners of these regional open-mic poetry nights are then asked to perform and compete at SAYS’ annual Summit and Poetry SLAM, which is held at the UC Davis Mondavi Center.

Six Sacramento area finalists were selected from the summit’s SLAM finale to represent SAYS at the international Brave New Voices competition in Los Angeles this year, which was hosted by rapper/actor Common and actress/model Rosario Dawson.

Some 500 young people from more than 50 cities in the United States and abroad competed at what Brave New Voices organizers claim is the largest ongoing spoken-word event in the world.

Poet-mentors work with these young people in classroom and after-school program settings. SAYS has 15 part-time staffers between the ages of 18 and 50. They are primarily people of color who approach the educational system from a nontraditional background, Watson said.

SAYS poet-mentor Stephen Dimal has worked in Martin Luther King Jr., Grant and Woodland high school classrooms and after-school programs since August. After graduating from UC Davis with a major in psychology, Dimal said he wanted to do something purposeful that would help improve the educational system.

“SAYS itself is very life-changing and revolutionary in the sense that it’s trying to bring something completely different to the school system that hasn’t been there,” Dimal said.

Watson said poet-mentors are primarily poets from the community and, as is the case with Dimal, from UC Davis undergraduate programs. However, some poet-mentor educators are graduates from other colleges and universities.

After receiving the CPEC Award, a nearly $1 million grant intended to bolster a teacher’s ability to provide relevant and engaging literary curriculum in the Twin Rivers Unified School District (North Sacramento), SAYS now has the funding to reach a wider range of students, Watson said.

“Primarily, we’ve been in urban areas, but now it’s exciting to work in different demographics,” Watson said.

Watson encourages students to approach school and education with the same survivalist fervor that they carry with them on the streets.

“We use the phrase, ‘School’s my hustle,’” she said.

SAYS subcontracts with school districts and uses fundraisers to keep the program’s offerings free to students.

By creating an in-class residency program in 15 schools in the Sacramento region, SAYS’ poet-mentors partner with teachers to enhance existing lesson plans so that they will better engage and connect with students, Dimal said.

“We really want to work with the student who the teacher sees as not engaging,” Dimal said. “We cater the lesson plan to that student.”

Dimal said SAYS doesn’t go into a classroom asking, “Who are your troubled students?” Instead, SAYS staffers observe which students may be struggling or getting kicked out of class and attempt to find ways to get that student more involved.

“We want that kid that you don’t think can learn,” Watson said. “We want your rough and tough.”

According to Watson, SAYS’ programs reached out to about 10,000 students last year.

“We are cognizant to make a program that involves disenfranchised youth,” Watson said. “However, every young person needs platforms for their voice to be heard. Whether that student is rich, poor or middle class; whether that student is from an urban, suburban or rural neighborhood, youth need outlets to authentically express their insights and ideals.”

SAYS holds an under-21 open-mic night on the first Friday of every month from 7 – 9 p.m. at Sol Collective.

UC Davis will host SAYS Summit and SLAM 2011 on May 13, 2011. This year’s theme is “Know Your Writes.”


SAYS Summit and Poetry Slam 2010 (School Is My Hustle) from MVMT on Vimeo.

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