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Spoken Art Pedagogies: Youth, Critical Literacy and a Cultural Movement in the Making


Spoken Art Pedagogies: Youth, Critical Literacy & a Cultural Movement in the Making is an ethnography of political arts activism centering on spoken word, authored by youth between the ages of 13 and early 20s in the San Francisco Bay Area. I take special interest in community organizing around spoken word's relevance for youth, illuminating a popular education approach that invests in young people's voices, knowledge, and histories. Spoken word is a form of radical youth development that connects young people to social movement work and, inherently, a cultural intervention to youth violence. Based on fieldwork between 2007 and 2010, I historicize and explore spoken word as a cultural, multiracial site of politics and pedagogy in order to expose and substantiate the social possibilities that emerge from this specific framework, location, and application of critical literacy.

Community-organized spaces resulting from spoken word activism - ranging from after-school writing workshops, school residencies, and school clubs, to teen poetry slams, youth open mic, and hip hop theater - work to change the social and historical conditions of young people towards more deeply democratic opportunities and social futures. Social transformation of this scale stems from civic engagement inspired through arts-based literacy and pedagogy, as well as the sustained, intentional community arts activism and U.S.-based and transnational networks that are constitutive of the cultural movement of spoken word. By emphasizing spoken word organizing in the Bay Area, I reveal a local case, articulation, and trajectory of this movement. Spoken word is a cultural movement because of how its practices and communities shift discourse significantly and deeply for young people, including those whom educational and social institutions historically have failed to reach and serve. Evidence of spoken word as a movement can be exemplified by the international youth poetry slam festival known as Brave New Voices, which provides a window into, and represents a culmination of, at least 50 other local spoken word-based, youth literary arts programs or community efforts that have been established or are emerging outside of the Bay Area. At the heart of this movement work are safe, uncensored spaces for dialogue to occur by and among youth, whose praxis of authorship and craft of narrative take root in the struggles, triumphs, pleasures, and pains of their everyday lives - giving new expressions to "the personal is political." As a result of these spaces, young people not only demonstrate and cultivate aesthetic maturity and social responsibility in their writing and performance. They also witness and exercise the transgressive power and discursive potential of words and collective uplift through the use and interaction of their own voices. What spoken word pedagogy brings into view is the efflorescence of a new generation of writers, arts activists, critical educators, community organizers, and social and political leaders. In short, spoken word pedagogy is the persistent, deliberate, and ongoing arts activism and community organizing of this cultural movement presently in the making.

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