How Hamilton Youth Poets are Creating an Open Dialogue in our City

By Cassandra D’Ambrosio

Imagine a space where you walk into a room and you lose all fears and insecurities.

Where you are known by none, but accepted by all. Where your self-consciousness is lifted. A space where music is playing and everyone is dancing like no one is watching.

A space free of judgement, racism, sexism, homophobic or anti-group language.

This is a space the Hamilton Youth Poets have created in Hamilton.

A space where you want to be.

A space we want Hamilton to be.

Hamilton Youth Poets (HYP) is an arts organization that engages Hamilton youth in the act of telling their stories through spoken word. The group is led and organized by Artistic Director Nea Reid and supported by Core Teaching Artists who are workshop leaders, mentors, and poets themselves. The local youth that participate in the programming range from middle school through to post-secondary, varying in skill levels, and across all Wards in the city. HYP has seen a rising success of community engagement, regularly reaching capacity and engaging over 3,600 local youth in 2017 so far.

The organization hosts a variety of youth-led workshops and programs that take place at The Spice Factory, as well as smaller art venues across the city. Every four weeks they host a slam, where youth compete by reading their poetry on stage in front of a captive local audience. Before the slam begins, the youth have the chance to be mentored by some of the country’s most successful, well-established poets.

I discovered HYP about three years ago when I was completing my Multimedia thesis in my final year at McMaster. We were to research a traditional form of multimedia and execute it on a topic we desired. I chose to explore the way of the documentarian and took a deep dive into slam poetry, particularly as it relates to personal identity.

What I found was that there is a rich spoken word and slam culture in our city. HYP has developed a perfect platform for youth to have civil discourse, idea exchange and debate in an open space. And ultimately, it has helped to create confident youth who feel empowered to speak their minds freely and openly about issues taking place across the world and in their own world.

“We believe in putting the art, culture, and tools of the telling of stories into the hands of youth citizens,” says Reid. “When our young people can tell and re-tell their histories in context of public platforms, they are able to imagine and re-imagine their individual and collective identities and become culturally grounded in their own experiences.”

Beyond the in-house and off-site programming, HYP has successfully organized and implemented artist residencies in schools across the city. Each year, eight middle schools and 16 high schools participate in Young Poetics, an initiative that gives students the opportunity to think critically and practice hyper-literacy by writing about world topics and city issues.

“We encourage youth to talk about where they are from, what it’s like to grow up in their neighbourhoods, who their neighbours are,” Reid continues. “Basically, to tell the story that’s right at the tip of their nose. That’s the story that’s happening to them and the one they can be honest about. These are the stories that people don’t necessarily understand [that] young people are observing or are prolific about.”

Reid says she is proud to know HYP’s efforts are decreasing high school dropout rates, while increasing literacy and positive mental health. Simply by being encouraged to be active participants in their city, youth are developing transferable skills that make them adept at being leaders in their communities, and providing the confidence to take on the next stages in their lives.

I have recently learned that the five Core Teaching Artists I profiled in my documentary are now off doing amazing things in our city. They have all graduated from post-secondary as well as the HYP Core program, and are now pursuing careers in Human Resources; recording and producing their own EPs; completing their Master’s in Medicine; leading the McMaster Students Union.

I concluded in my documentary that Hamilton is very fortunate to have HYP. By establishing this concrete foundation for youth to tell stories about their lived experiences, the result is a renewed sense of love, understanding, and empathy for our diverse community – ultimately creating a more inclusive, vibrant city.

I was so moved to watch youth connect in our city, with each other, and with themselves. Their performances – raw, but crafted so brilliantly – are the expressions of youth from all walks of life here in Hamilton. You will feel an energy and passion in the room like no other. Their words will send chills down your spine. If you’ve ever attended a HYP slam, or get a chance to do so in the future, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

To view my documentary please visit http://bit.ly/hypslam