First Peoples Fund Brave New Voices participants return from international gathering energized

"More than any other group of young people participating at the Brave New Voices Festival this year, between Los Angeles and Cape Town, South Africa, the youth from First Peoples Fund's Dances with Words cohort infused their poetry with a deep sense of cultural heritage, and the modern realities of being a Native young person navigating life in their communities on Pine Ridge. Dances with Words left a lasting imprint on their peers across the country and beyond."
- Paula Smith Arrigoni, COO, Youth Speaks

If the First Peoples Fund Brave New Voices team from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Dances with Words, needed anymore encouragement that they were having an impact on people with their literary work at the 18th Annual Brave New Voices Festival, it became tangible for 17-year-old Marcus Ruff (Oglala Lakota) when members from other teams approached their group.

"People would come up and tell us we were their favorite team," he said, not for the fact that they were the only Native American team represented at the annual conference, but because they worked so hard to share openly and honestly about their lives.

"They never thought about the Native American perspective," said Ruff, who is one of five Oglala Lakota students who traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, earlier this month to participate in the international conference. "As Lakota, we were educating people about who we are."

The young people are part of the Brave New Voices cohort on Pine Ridge, organized by First Peoples Fund. An initiative under the national Youth Speaks organization, the work that is amplifying the voices of young people on the reservation is the result of conversations that first started nearly 10 years ago thanks to Roberta Uno, senior program officer at The Ford Foundation, who introduced First Peoples Fund to James Kass, Youth Speaks executive director.

Today, the Pine Ridge cohort is one of 13 from around the United States selected to participate in the program designed to give young people a platform for their voice in today's society. On Pine Ridge, the program is being used to guide a group of students ages 13 to 19 as they study and research books, poetry and oral history to learn more about their culture, the forms of literature and develop their own writing and speaking skills.

The students who attended the Georgia conference are from Allen, Hermosa, Pine Ridge, Oglala and Kyle, said First Peoples Fund Program Manager Brandie MacDonald, who brought the students to Atlanta with Mark Tilsen, an English teacher at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge. Meeting youth from around the world and hearing firsthand what issues they face was eye opening for them, she said.

"They were able to see that other young people have different challenges, but that they can stand in solidarity," she said. "They can be the voice for change in their community."

The team members participated in writing workshops, watched performances and competed in a poetry slam. Sixty teams participated this year, coming from as far as Africa and Ireland.

"It wasn't just the spoken word," Ruff said. "It was hip hop, theater and music. They encouraged us to explore new ways of literary creativity and use that as a tool to speak about issues."

MacDonald said one of the many highlights of the trip was listening to their conversations after the young people attended town hall meetings about issues such as poverty and justice. "They started talking about housing, and how do we build infrastructure in our communities," she said. "I started seeing them think critically and how they can be change makers."

She also watched them remain confident in high-pressure situations, including moments during the poetry competition.

"They didn't give up," MacDonald said. "Sometimes they were onstage and forgot a line and they were brave enough to stay up there, pause and then regroup. It shows the tenacity of these young people that they continue to fight to be culture bearers and storytellers.

"More than any other group of young people participating at the Brave New Voices Festival this year, between Los Angeles and Cape Town, South Africa, the youth from First Peoples Fund's Dances with Words cohort infused their poetry with a deep sense of cultural heritage, and the modern realities of being a Native young person navigating life in their communities on Pine Ridge," said Paula Smith Arrigoni, COO of Youth Speaks. "Dances with Words left a lasting imprint on their peers across the country and beyond."

This year, the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement won the top prize at the festival. It was the third time since 2006 that the group won the poetry slam.

Already eyeing next year's gathering in Washington, D.C., Ruff envisions an exciting time of meeting old friends and igniting important conversations during a politically charged climate—the 2016 presidential election will be just four months out.

Ruff said he is motivated to continue to share the Lakota story, and is refreshed after the trip.

"It's empowering youth to speak up about issues that affect them," he said. "It's not about the competition. It's just about being heard and telling your story and truth."