2008 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: English
Age: 39 | San Francisco, California
Founder of Youth Speaks
James Kass vividly recalls the day in November 1990 when he found himself standing among thousands, trying to find a way for our voices to be heard while protesting the Gulf War from Library Mall. It was at that catalytic moment, he says, that he vowed to help the next generation find its voice.
Kass now works with thousands of young people each year, urging them to think about writing and reading in a new way and to apply their voices as creators of social change. In 1996, he founded Youth Speaks, the leading nonprofit presenter of spoken-word performance, education and youth development programs in the nation.
Part of a growing spoken-word movement that recognizes the relationship between literacy, public performance and self-confidence, Youth Speaks produces poetry slams, festivals and workshops so that teenagers can get a chance to hear the perspectives of their peers. The organization also offers professional development for teachers and publishes workbooks, CDs and videos.
From his home in San Francisco, Kass has helped start Youth Speaks programs in New York, Seattle, Hawaii and Wisconsin in partnership with the UW, as well as dozens of partner programs nationwide. He also works with many organizations and foundations to engage young people, including HBOs Def Poetry and the Doris Duke Foundation. And he founded Brave New Voices, the international youth poetry slam festival that takes place in a different city each year, bringing together hundreds of teenage poets from across the globe.
A New York native, Kass waxes poetic about his moments of solitude along Madison's lakeshore. "I love the coast," he says. "But those lakes in Madison that surrounded us students, kept us close together even in our vastness those lakes. Those lakes."
In his own words
Its been interesting to answer this question, to think specifically about how the University of Wisconsin experience made an impact on my life. I think often about Madison, always fondly, but in a general way. I loved my classes, felt constantly challenged and inspired, and made a number of lifelong friendships with classmates and faculty alike. I also loved that I was able to explore a wide array of topics in my studies, and that while the faculty was tremendously engaged and engaging, I felt that my education was in my hands to direct. I studied creative writing mostly, but augmented that with classes in education, in Afro-American studies, American and world literature, filmmaking, women's studies, anthropology, and more.
This question, though, has made me more clearly see how UW truly impacted the work Ive done these last 12 years since my founding of Youth Speaks, an organization that has had a profound impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of youth across the country. I know I greatly enjoyed my time in Madison, took many incredible classes, met inspiring people, and learned to love the Midwest (having come from the east coast), but perhaps I had not fully realized how the integrated approach to education Wisconsin afforded has translated into my daily life, now some 16 years later (class of 91).
As an undergrad I was able to pursue my passion for education and literature, studying both creative writing and English alongside a number of classes in educational policy and pedagogy. Because of the progressive nature of the university, I was also able to deeply engage with compelling issues facing contemporary America, and because of the historic civic and politically engaged climate that so permeates Madison, with incredible speakers presented by the university one after the other, my education included a true understanding of citizenship locally, nationally, and globally which has greatly impacted me and my work. Not only was I able to hear from all of the presidential candidates during the 1988 election cycle, but I also was a part of many vigorous discussions around issues of welfare reform, educational policy, and recruitment and retention of students of color to Madison's campus. And, of course, I took advantage of the beauty of Madison, hiking and biking around the lakes, sitting on the Terrace, enjoying the sun and the snow and taking a class in tennis, playing intramural soccer, working out with the wrestling team and enjoying the basketball and football games (even pre-Barry Alvarez).
I was therefore able to get, what I call, a full education one that nurtured me intellectually, creatively, civically, physically and politically. I even met my wife there, on Mifflin Street, in my fourth (but not final) year. So yes, the University of Wisconsin was an incredible experience for me, one that I carry with me every day. I believe the university fostered a culture of trust and potential in its students, believing that we had the opportunity to change the world for the better. The University would help to facilitate that experience by providing a rigorous and sophisticated education, but would allow us, the students, to carve out our own path. It was that fully integrated education I was able to take advantage of at UW, alongside that culture of trust and belief in potential, I took with me to create Youth Speaks (which now has a chapter sponsored by UW Youth Speaks Wisconsin). Youth Speaks is also a fully integrated program that allows young people to develop their intellectual and creative voices, to enter them into public dialogue, to critically analyze themselves and their world, and to participate deeply in their own education all while engaging deeply in issues of contemporary life locally, nationally, and globally. Youth Speaks would not thrive the way it does without the inherent belief in the potential of youth, and the understanding that to trust teenagers is to love teenagers, is to give teenagers a different series of options than they normally enjoy. But Youth Speaks is also about new models and trying new things, which is why it has been so well received nationally. These are values that permeate throughout Madison's campus, and these are values that now permeate throughout the organization I created. I learned to take advantage of opportunities at UW, and have, in turn, given back by creating opportunities for those younger than I am to take advantage of as well.
Equally important was a catalytic moment that took place for me in 1990 in the center of campus, in the ramp up to the first Gulf War under then President George H.W. Bush. As I typically find myself on the left side of most political equations, and felt strongly that while Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was a criminal act, it was not necessarily one that called for a full-scale war on our part, I was one of the mass of thousands protesting the bombing and eventual invasion of Iraq.
On that late November day, cold but not awful, thousands upon thousands of us amassed outside of the library and listened to speaker after speaker rail against the administrations policies, particularly the hypocritical relationship with leaders of the middle east, and the clear tie to big oil. I believed and listened, and hoped upon hope that no innocents would die. I chanted, alongside everyone else, No Blood for Oil, because I believed that was part of the equation, and felt, like everyone else there, that as a generation, we were engaged and political and wanted to be a part of something important. We were sick of the Reagan/Bush era, and we wanted change. We wanted to move away from war, move away from profit over people, move toward more progressive policies. But then, seemingly all of the sudden, the chanting switched from No Blood for Oil to Hell No, We Wont Go. And I stopped cold in my tracks.
We were a group of mostly middle class college students, at a time of an all volunteer army, rallying against a war that we knew wouldn't take more than a few months. Yet there we were, chanting mimicry of our anti-war heroes of the Vietnam era. We weren't going anywhere, and I'm quite sure we all knew that. But we still chanted Hell No, We Wont Go. We didn't have any way to voice our own experience what growing up in the 80s meant, what the fall of the Soviet Union meant, what the full value of multiculturalism and hip-hop and educational reform and the war on drugs and growing economic inequity and the mix of pride in being a citizen of the sole super power with a critical worry about our own imperialism meant. So, instead, in a feckless and useless manner, we mimicked those we had grown up on, trying to bring the war home.
This is the memory that most sticks out for me when people ask me about the genesis of Youth Speaks. Standing in a large crowd on UW's campus, alone, part of a generation struggling to find its voice and therefore its ability to make an impact in the world. I vowed, then and there, that I would work to change that, to help us find our voice, and create pathways for those younger to create new models on their own. Youth Speaks has been part of my answer, at least to this point of my life. Without the UW experience, I would not have had the tools to carry my dream forth into reality (I founded Youth Speaks in 1996 in San Francisco), but also would not have had the tools to analyze the situation I found myself in, on a cold but not awful November day in 1990, standing among thousands, trying to find a way for our voices to be heard.