LOS ANGELES—Kat Magill, founder and executive director of the organization Say Word, stumbled upon spoken word poetry at the age of 17.
She said she was shaking while reading from the paper in her hands in front of a paltry group of ten people. But those ten people introduced her to something she had never experienced before. They didn’t talk over her, didn’t tell her who she was, and didn’t reprimand her.
“It was the first time I was heard,” said Magill.
Magill has come a long way since then. After going on to win spoken word “slam” competitions and touring as a professional performance poet, she began working with youth who wanted to tell their own stories through poetry in the Los Angeles and Pomona areas. Soon, more and more youth began to come.
“That’s obviously how most things start, right?” she said. “Something changes your life, and you go, ‘Wow, this really changed my life. How do I give this to other people?'”
Say Word, which officially began in 2011, now helps 500 to 700 youth per year aged 15-24 develop their own personal narrative through spoken word poetry.
The organization provides English curriculum to schools, especially in underserved areas that lack arts education, as well as assists young poets in developing their artistic skills and creating their first poetry collection manuscript. College-aged youth can work for Say Word’s internship program, and the organization also attends the Brave New Voices International Poetry Festival every year, where it places within the top 20 teams in the world.
These youth have dealt with heavy issues such as social demands and expectations, community violence, heartbreak, and mental illness through touching, live performances. The results for these young participants have been dramatic.
Some lines spoken (and sometimes sung) through these impassioned voices on stage include:
“You are capable of doing much more than you give yourself credit for.”
“Incarcerated by a fear of failure, but there is nothing to be afraid of.
Fear is just a nightmare we held onto after we already woke up.”
“I really believe that the most healing and helpful thing that a person can possibly do is tell their story,” said Say Word participant Julia Horwitz at the age of 17 during a local TEDx Talk, where she talked about her struggle with anxiety.
Horwitz shared some of her poetry at a local open mic night one evening, but she didn’t realize she had actually entered a qualifying competition for Say Word’s slam team. She was accepted to the team.
“Say Word made me believe, for the first time, that I had the power to change my own heart and by extension, other hearts, and that has changed my life forever,” she said.
Horwitz became the Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate in 2015 and published her first book of 34 poems called Clutter in 2016. She now studies English and Literary Arts at Brown University.
Other Say Word participants say the experience has made them feel inspired, empowered, more comfortable with themselves, and as though they’ve become part of a family.
“The most important thing I learned from Say Word is how to be happy, that telling my story wasn’t something to be ashamed of. That changed everything for me,” said one anonymous participant.
Parents and teachers have also noticed positive changes in the youth, who have performed at the Kennedy Center for the Obama family, Politicon, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.
Ninety percent of participating students have had their English Composition grades increase by a full letter, and 100 percent of participating teachers have reported improvement in the students’ social skills, team work, and vocabulary.
Magill says the youth also increase their awareness and participation in social activism and addressing current issues.
“We really encourage our students and say, ‘Use your voice as a platform for those who can’t be heard,’ and they’re doing that,” said Magill.
Most of all, the students have built a community of support and artistic accountability while learning to value others’ differences.
Horwitz wrote in a poem called Broken Bell Jars:
doesn’t expose an absence of yours
doesn’t expose an absence of mine”
Magill says it’s surprising to think of all the positive effects she’s seen from spoken word. “It’s just poems,” she said. “But it’s never just poems.”
To participate, donate, or volunteer, visit saywordla.org.