Tish Jones and the Be Heard MN youth poetry slam series – Knight Foundation

Tish Jones and the Be Heard MN youth poetry slam series

Be Heard MN Logo.

Hosted by TruArtSpeaks, the Be Heard MN youth poetry slam series is a statewide competition for youth ages 13 to 19 that seeks to identify a team of six to represent Minnesota in the international Brave New Voices youth poetry slam festival in Atlanta, Georgia in the summer of 2015. Since January 16th and running through February 13th, there are five preliminary bouts open to any teens residing in Minnesota. There are semi-final rounds on March 6th and March 14th, where 12 finalists will emerge to compete in the finals on March 28th.

I recently sat down with Tish Jones to talk about the currently ongoing Be Heard MN youth poetry slam series, as well as her work as founder and executive director of TruArtSpeaks.


Tish Jones performing “Tracks.”

LW: Where did TruArtSpeaks come from, and is it at all in service of the artist Tish Jones?

Tish Jones: The work that I’m doing with TruArtSpeaks is about providing young people – and the larger Minnesota community – a platform for those folks to express themselves and engage with quality artistic experiences. It’s not a platform for Tish Jones. I really loved the philosophy and structure of both Brave New Voices and B-Girl Be, Intermedia Arts’ international celebration of women in hip hop. I was intrigued by the intentional blend of performance and educational space. There was a space for community dialogue, for workshops and for showcasing. TruArtSpeaks came out of an appreciation for those pedagogies and frameworks, along with a desire to create a space specific to young people in MN that was sustainable and equally impactful.”

LW: There’s education at the core of the Be Heard series, as well as most TruArtSpeaks programs. Would you say there’s more overt learning or incidental learning in service of the art practice? 

TJ: It’s both. There is a peer education and self-education that is incidental, but often inherent in being in community with fellow writers and critical thinkers, and there is also an overt education that takes place due to direct and guided instruction. We try to be intentional and build on the history of community-based arts education in the Twin Cities.

LW: Do you think the Be Heard series and other TruArtSpeaks programs and events can help reshape some young people’s relationship to education and learning?

TJ: I do. Hip hop and spoken word pedagogy are examples of culturally relevant pedagogy. Education within the realms of these art forms is about foregrounding the ways of knowing of the practitioners/people within the culture. With hip hop as a universal culture, that means that the participants in any given workshop are the experts. Their lexicon, vernacular, diction, etc. is the primary mode of communication. Furthermore, hip hop is greatly inclusive – there is an access point for a variety of young artists, be they dancers, muralists or poets.

LW: Are you having conversations with young people about how to be aware of whether or not opportunities to perform or be involved are authentic and not just someone’s shortcut to diversity?

TJ: We totally have those conversations. That’s part of artistic development, which is one of the facets of what we do when we’re working with young people. I have a mentor, Mahmoud El-Kati, and when I was about 14, he told me my job was to be the bridge between the streets and the scholars. That has stuck with me and framed the way that I engage with my community. It has also given me a new lens in regard to the insight that I impart with the youth that I am in relationship with.

I have those conversations and many more conversations about what it means to be an artist. If I’m in conversation with folks who are artists of color, what it means to be an artist of color in this community.

LW: Does it work the same way for you as an artist as it does as an educator?

TJ: Certainly. I’ve had mentors who have gifted me with knowledge based on their experience or knowledge based off the mentors that they’ve had, and I feel really thankful to be in this community because there are so many artists and elders that show up and support the events and maintain open lines of communication down the spectrum of age. Then there are those moments that you run into something that provides you with a future red flag.

What I appreciate about the Re-Verb open mic (every Thursday night at Golden Thyme café) is the dialogical aspect of the open mic. The open mic space, to me, is one of the best spaces for professional development for young artists in the Twin Cities, and for older artists in the Twin Cities. The open mic is diverse; all-ages, all ethnicities, etc.

It’s a dialogical space in that artists come to the open mic; it might be a poet, it might be a dancer, it might be an emcee, whatever, they do their thing and then nine times out of 10 they’ll ask for feedback. We’ve typically had known artists guest performing at the open mics, so there’s a lot of space to ask questions to these professionals about what their experience is in this field.

LW: Do you see a strong inclination in the Be Heard competitors to engage as activists or organizers, in addition to working on their writing and performance? 

TJ: Our organization has a social justice oriented mission, so, yes. If you look at our artist roster, it’s kind of hard to miss, in terms of the work that we’re doing as individuals. It’s not pushed that you have to be an activist and an organizer if you slam, but part of leading a workshop is bringing exemplar material from time to time, and we may be really intentional about that. The desire is to assist youth with the discovery and development of their voice as a critically thinking member of their respective communities – sometimes that leads to activism.

Another thing that happens during our open mic is a section called ‘current events.’ Part of being an effective educator is, if something comes up, being present and equipped enough to unpack it – and things come up.

LW: What’s new or significant about this year’s Be Heard competition? 

TJ: This year we’re not announcing the scores during the prelims or the semis, we’re only announcing the scores during the finals. We’re going to keep track of the scores but we want to privilege the poetry. It’s about the poetry and it’s about being in community and it’s about enjoying the poetry. The phrase that Brave New Voices uses and we prescribe to as well is, ‘It’s not about the point, it’s about the Poet.’

Maybe you don’t make it through Be Heard. But there’s an open mic you can come to every single Thursday, Flip the Script! is coming up, there’s a send-off event that’s going on, there are these free community workshops where you can continue to develop your craft, or we’re bringing a bunch of artists to UW-Madison to apply for scholarships. There are all these intersections and parts to what we’re doing, and there is space to plug in and stay connected.”

I know Be Heard is this glamorous thing but all this other stuff, the day-to-day stuff, is what really matters. We have significant relationships with our community of participants and supporters. We know these cats. They keep us human.

For details on the Be Heard MN youth poetry slam series, visit truartspeaks.com/2014/12/01/minnesota-youth-poets-it-is-time-to-be-heard. For details on the weekly Re-Verb open mic, visit truartspeaks.com/event/re-verb-open-mic. For details on the Flip the Script conference, visit truartspeaks.com/2015/01/16/flip-the-script-with-truartspeaks-at-this-one-day-conference-for-youth-artists.