Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey

DES MOINES — In a world where many of us are still ignored, a group of talented high school poets in Des Moines turned to spoken word as a way to shatter the silence.

They take the stage in hopes to share the stories they’ve kept secret, or to shed light on those struggles their loved ones face. Influenced by different art forms and cultures, each of them brings a unique style; and through harnessing the power of spoken word, they find their own home and growth.

Youth Speaks is a 20-year-old organization that created Brave New Voices, an international poetry slam network for youth poets. The network connects more than 500 young poets around the world and gathers them once a year in a different U.S. city for four or five days of arts education, artistic expression, and civic engagement.

Des Moines’s RunDSM, an organization that connects over 1,500 kids to spoken word opportunities in the area, saw the opportunity Brave New Voices provided kids across the world. For the last seven years, Run DSM has diligently developed Des Moines’ very own Brave New Voices Slam team. This April, coaches Leah Waughtal-Magiera and Jalesha Janae Johnson announced this year’s team members.

It is no easy feat to earn a spot on this team; like any athletic team, you must train and try out. Leah explains that each new member went through months of development by attending weekly workshops in their school, weekly workshops in their community, and competing in school vs. school slams or performing in other large events.

After development, each potential member must fill out a “slam packet” which holds the students accountable to the team, the dates, and their grades in school. Once they’ve turned in the “slam packet,” they still have to try out, in both a semi-finals and a finals round, where the top six become the new Brave New Voices slam team.

The team meets three days a week for 13 weeks in preparation of the big competition. In that time, Jalesha says, “a personal goal I have is to help my poets think, write, and perform in ways they never have before.” Similarly, Leah asserts, “I don’t care about scores. I care if a young person comes home from the festival transformed and empowered.” For coaches and competitors, Brave New Voices is about more than winning, it’s about growing.

When the team members are asked what inspires them, they share an underlying sense of endless inspiration. For 16-year-old Kaleb Nichols, music is a major influence. “My writing truly stems from my love for many types of musical art forms whether it be poetry, rap, or R&B.”

Bri, 17, admits she is “inspired by everything around me—people, experiences—everything.”

Others hark to the heart of spoken word and the unique opportunity it gives performers. They say spoken word inspires them to own their own voice. “The fact that I grew up being told to talk less and listen inspires me to write,” says 17-year-old LaNeeta Burgs. “If I write my opinions and my feelings, I’m not silencing my own voice.”

“Every story nobody has shared is what inspires me to share mine.” adds 17-year-old Jocelyn.

These young artists have tapped into the power of poetry spoken on stage and unlocked its potential to amplify voices and people who have been silenced or overlooked.

Brave New Voices and RunDSM is providing a necessary platform for the people and the poets.  “My brother sacrificed his silence for so long, I speak for all that he’s done for me,” says 17 year old Andréa Pérez . He deserves my poetry to speak for him.”

“This is my home,” Jocelyn says. “The stage is where I feel most alive and healed.”

Jazzy Johnson, yet another students, sums up the complete power behind taking the stage. “Slam poetry matters because it makes me and others feel empowered. Slam poetry comes with life lessons, building connections, and knowledge.”

We are all looking for a place where we can stand for those we love and speak for ourselves. These brave, young poets are taking the stage by storm and proving that they have something to say. Are you listening?