by Beverly Aarons
What happens when you give a group of youth a microphone and a spotlight? A powerful night of poems, prose, and passionate expressions of hope, pain, loss, and love. On August 9th, Southwest Youth & Family Services hosted a night of poetry and storytelling presented by more than a dozen youth participants of the Young Writers Workshop (aka The Boot). But age did not constrain the creativity expressed by these youths. Their poems and stories covered almost every topic—police brutality, body image, suicide, loneliness, sports, there was even a ventriloquist type performance about a drug deal trap set by law enforcement. And the crowd loved it. The theatre at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center was packed with people—moms, dads, cousins, neighbors, friends, teachers, and random people from the community who have been coming to see The Boot youth writers express themselves for years. It was standing room only, even the stairs and aisles where used as seating.
This year is the 25th anniversary of The Boot, so the audience was in for a special treat. Not only were they listening to a group of phenomenal writers share their work, the The Boot founder Andrew Epstein came before the crowd and shared his own story and motivation behind creating this powerful platform for low-income and immigrant youth. And when Epstein spoke, drawing the audience into his own tale of how The Boot came into being, it was easy to see why this program was born and why it has lasted for over two decades.
“I was a privileged white man from D.C. who came here to work with people whose lives were so much different than mine,” Epstein said. “In order for me to try to understand what you were up against and the lives that you were leading, I felt strongly that I needed to be a student of my students as much as the teacher. And that’s the sentiment that produced ‘The Boot’ and the idea that we as adults needed to listen to you, and that you needed a space to tell it like it is.”
Epstein went on to share the memorable stories of launching boot and how he witnessed youth blossom as they were given a platform to share their experiences in the world. He also reminisced about one talented but extremely shy youth hiding out at the YMCA right before a performance in the 1990s because he had become paralyzed with stage fright. But the audience roared with laughter as he delivered the punch line—the stage shy youth was physically carried out of the YMCA and to the performance venue by his friends and fellow writers. There was no way they were going let him miss out on his opportunity to share his talent.
No shy writers were carried onto the stage that night but there were certainly a lot of emotions. As the writers read their work, some held back tears as they worked through difficult and very personal subjects. But the crowd sent cheers and finger snaps of encouragement. It seemed that many in the audience were more than just a little sympathetic because they too had been in that spotlight before and had shared their own tough stories. Writers like Puao Savusa who was a Boot writer in 2011 watched from the audience and shared her enthusiasm for the youth writers program.
“The Boot really gave me an outlet to express myself,” Savusa said. “I found through poetry that I could say things that I normally find hard to say on my own. But when I write those thoughts down on paper it makes a lot of sense and I think it has a bigger impact on everyone around me including myself.”
Savusa was grateful for The Boot and continues to use the skills she learned in the program to process her feelings and thoughts.
The Boot is a summer intensive writers workshop for youth 16 years old to 18 years old. Youth who are interested in participating in The Boot should contact Southwest Youth & Family Services.
Featured Photo: Courtesy photo