Why Are These Funders Giving Millions for Youth Slam Poetry?

If you've ever been to a poetry slam, which are everywhere these days, you know it takes gumption to get up on stage and do your thing, and all the more so if you're a teenager. These are venues where young people bare their souls and, along the way, can truly find their voice. 

The empowering nature of slamming, and the ways that empowerment can translate into other spheres of life, explain why a group of funders are putting up some $10 million over the next seven years to support nonprofits that work with teenagers in writing and performance.

The money will flow through Youth Speaks and its Brave New Voices Network Initiative (BNV), and go to 25 local nonprofits that support poetry events, festivals and slams. They will also use some of the money to develop a robust website with online training and other resources for capacity-building for poetry events, as well as an annual conference.

Two anonymous donors from the Bay Area backed the launching of the BNV Network Initiative and are providing much of the funding. The Ford and Surdna foundations, which have long championed Youth Speaks, are also putting up funds. 

In typical fashion, Ford has its eye on the bigger picture, watching where things might lead (which is how Ford thinks). Senior Program Officer Roberta Uno of the Ford Foundation says of the initiative, “Ford is proud to support this work, and we hope that this type of initiative will create a model for supporting the entire arts and youth field in the future. Given that the Ford Foundation’s mission is to ensure that people have a voice in the decisions that impact them, the BNV Network Initiative is a smart project for us to get behind.”

James Kass, founder of Youth Speaks, is happy to have the money. “Ensuring young people are heard and mentored by well-equipped adults and organizations is essential. Small organizations can be highly effective, yet stretched thin and lacking meaningful resources,” says Kass.

The Surdna Foundation is helping Youth Speaks out as part of its "Thriving Cultures" program, part of which supports teens' artistic and cultural advancement. The underlying belief of the program is that young people need arts and culture in order to fully develop and achieve the most from their lives. They seek to connect young adults with both "artistically rigorous" and "culturally relevant" programs that equip them with life-enhancing skills and preparation to be leaders in their communities.  

The fact that youth poetry slamming is pulling down such big money from top foundations is not all that surprising, given how the heat has been rising around this area for years. And, no, I'm not talking about the long lines of people waiting to see these events, or how even HBO has taken note. I'm talking about the growing appreciation of slamming by educators and others who work with kids. 

As an article in Edutopia commented recently, slam poetry is having almost magical effects on some low-income urban students

...transforming these students from reluctant, shy, or diffident learners into passionate artists. It is helping teachers not just teach writing but also build confidence. And, with the help of videoconferencing, it is connecting students across the country, inspiring them to compete at a high level and envision a future beyond school.

You can see why funders interested in any number of areas including education, poverty, youth development, or, um, poetry, might put money behind slamming. 

One note of caution: As far as we can see, there are no controlled studies that verify the benefits of slamming.