Youth Speaks, a trailblazer in the art of spoken word and youth development, recently hosted its 20th anniversary Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. Since the inaugural festival in 1997, the annual event has been held in various cities across the nation with Washington D.C., Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago laying claim to the last several years.

After 20 years of touring the country, the slam returned to its roots by heading back to San Francisco, an ode to where the organization was founded. Initially created by Youth Speaks after the inaugural poetry slam in the Bay area, Brave New Voices (BNV) has gradually become one of the largest and most diverse youth-centered spoken word events across the globe, strengthening its position as a prominent staple of Youth Speaks' programming.

Each year, hundreds of poets representing over 50 cities and organizations worldwide have made their way to the festival in order to share their two cents about critical topics including social justice, police brutality, immigration, sexual inequality and much more. Additionally, the reach of the movement has known no limits as youth participants have stemmed from locations such as Canada, Africa, the Polynesian Islands and Europe.

This year, the festival’s theme, “Alive now, to see the river rupture,” came from a poem written by a Brave New Voices’ alumni, Hieu Minh Nguyen. The theme served as a call to action to poets by capturing the turbulent time we are living in, one that consistently seems to be on the verge of rupture. As a result, the theme hones in on the fact that it's the young people who find themselves at the center of the most critical conversations of our time.

Rebekkah Leigh LaBlue/@RelaBlue

On the festival's first night, opening ceremonies featured pieces performed by poets including G Yamazawa (pictured above), Hieu Minh Nguyen, Terisa Siagatonu and Aleah Bradshaw. Held over four days and across three Bay Area cities (Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco), the festival organized writing workshops, art-based educator trainings, town halls and a slew of other performances.

In an effort to further cultivate the gifted minds of the youthful participants, experienced poets and alumni of the Brave New Voices movement, such as Danez Smith, served as mentors for young poets wishing to sharpen their craft, while also participating in the slam.

Daniel Schaefer/@OutlierImagery

Since Smith's initial exposure to Brave New Voices back in 2005, Danez has served as a volunteer, artist, teacher, competition director, and even festival director for the 2014 edition. Reminiscing on the impact of the festival, Smith finds the event's power in what it has the possibility to do—encouraging poets to embrace their art, own their stage and incite change.

With the notion that each poet leaves the festival with their own takeaways, Smith cited how the gathering emphasizes the belief that you can be bigger than where you come from, and creates the opportunity to embrace inclusiveness and friendly competition. Also, Smith looked at this year's festival as the chance for young people to come together and figure out what platforms they can bring to light, believing that the next generation has the power to speak for itself.

Daniel Schaefer/@OutlierImagery

Smith, alongside other LQBTQI spoken word poets, including Vernon Keeve III, Kirya Traber, and Yosimar Reyes, performed in one of the weekend's events titled Queeriosity, a performance session that served as a safe space for queer youth and allies who are reshaping the types of conversation surrounding sexuality, identity and community.

Smith, an accomplished poet and poz writer who often tackles topics including race, class, sexuality, faith and social justice in their pieces, credits BNV for much of the success they have achieved thus far stating, "I would not be the poet I am today, able to think about the world in the way I think about it, if I did not come to BNV.”

Similar to Smith, rising senior at Atlanta's Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Ever Taylor, has found great value in the purpose that Brave New Voices stands for.

Taylor, who goes by the poetic alias Jaha Bela, recalls being introduced to BNV in middle school through her english teacher who showed Taylor and her peers clips of open mics and slams, like BNV, in an effort to introduce them to youthful artists driven to speak out through the art of language. At the age of 14, she was further introduced to BNV and the poetry scene in her local city of Atlanta after attending the Brave New Voices Institute. Since that start, she has gone on to perform during the festival's opening ceremony in 2015, as well as compete on Team Atlanta (through Atlanta Word Works) in 2016 and 2017.

Daniel Schaefer/@OutlierImagery

Recognizing the 20th anniversary of the festival, Taylor was humbled at the chance to be around poets who she has looked up to her entire poetic career, since a majority of the festival was led by BNV alumni. Building off the mantra "the point is not the points; it's the poetry," she's internalized how the purpose of the event caters more to personal growth and team bonding, over the stress of competition. She had gotten to the grand slam finals with Team Atlanta for the past three consecutive years (2014-2016), a feat which typically adds pressure to the environment, causing young artists to fear their talents will not be good enough for the judges' scores. However, she admired how the four teams in this year's finals uplifted one another during the last evening in an effort to build trust and camaraderie.

Taylor stated, "My team spent an entire summer learning my views, scars, and voice just so we could help each other grow, heal and become free with one another through poems. The festival is built off of discovering who we are and spitting our truth in a community of people building life-long friendships and families."

Each year, Taylor has grown to appreciate BNV's workshops and events, such as Queeriosity, as such spaces have been some of the first times where she felt there was a place where all of her identities would be fully accepted and celebrated. Through these welcoming environments, Ever has sought to make her art reflect all aspects of her existence as her poems tackle topics about community (geographically and socially), global activism, appropriation, poverty and identity—many times focusing on the intersectionality of being a queer black woman.

With the premise that BNV intentionally embraces the younger generation's ability to change the world as a result of their expressions, Taylor stressed, "The youth is literally the future. There should not have to be any other reason to take us and our voices seriously. A leader without a voice worth following has the power to make a disastrous world for all of us, so listen to us."

The festival's line-up of activities all led up to the Grand Slam Finals, held at the historic San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, and hosted by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a renowned spoken word artist named as one of America's Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences by Smithsonian Magazine. Amongst final teams stemming from Baton Rouge, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, it was the team from Baton Rouge who earned the victory after their insightful and comedic performance titled, "Ode to Soulja Boy."

Desirae Lee/@Kalei_Des_Scope

“Over the past two decades, it’s been incredible to watch Youth Speaks grow from a room of 30 poets, to a global festival with over 600 participants. In today’s tumultuous political climate, there is an increased urgency for these voices to be heard,” said Youth Speaks Founder and Executive Director James Kass. “While many Americans are currently searching for greatness in the past, these future leaders are creating greatness for the future and the Brave New Voices festival is a platform for them to speak their truth and solidify the space they will inhabit years from now.”

Throughout the years, Brave New Voices has ignited the flame within the creative minds of thousands of participants, many who have gone on to be thought leaders, activists and change agents in their cities and abroad. With the impending passing of the torch from the current generation to the next, let's hope that the next 20 years prove to be even more influential than the last.

To see more videos from this year's festival, visit the Youth Speaks YouTube page.