"I am overjoyed to return home and build off of a deep history of celebrating young people and their voices as harbingers of hope and catalysts for change."


It is a privilege to introduce myself as Youth Speaks’ new Executive Director. I am overjoyed to return home and build off of a deep history of celebrating young people and their voices as harbingers of hope and catalysts for change.

This journey is a personal one for me.

I joined the Youth Speaks community as a staff mentor in 2003, leading spoken word and creative writing workshops for young people in Bay Area public schools. I came to Youth Speaks then because it was the most revolutionary organization I had ever known. As a young educator, I taught and wrote about that which I most longed to understand: Identity. Power. Imagination.

Identity

I am a child of South Korean immigrants. I am descended from ancestors with delicate relationships to sound, story, and survival. I am a San Francisco native born inside the belly of the Hip Hop generation. I am a mother and a storyteller. As a young girl, my 할머니 (grandmother) didn’t buy Tums or Alka Seltzer when I had a stomach ache, my 할머니 gave me acupuncture with a sewing needle in the living room of her Tenderloin apartment. We didn’t buy hamburgers and french fries—we ate lotus root and rice. Like so many of the young writers at Youth Speaks, I, too, have felt neither culturally here nor there. I, too, have felt the loneliness and isolation of being told to exist silently inside the stories of others, and I also know the glory of finding my voice.


Power

Anyone who has ever been touched by the power of Youth Speaks when it is at its best has experienced life as primary text: our belief that a writer’s journey to their story is just as valuable as the story itself. Youth Speaks has always thoughtfully challenged the mythical center of the social and cultural order to celebrate voices, texts, and narratives deliberately excluded from the larger American Story. As the world around, and within us, continues to change, I am proud to return to find Youth Speaks still deeply rooted in the same luminary principles and pedagogy that ignited the hearts and minds of young people when I first joined its staff 18 years ago.

"We are living in a monumental moment full of complexity, and the contradictions of the world are laid bare for all to see. My vision is to place how young people choose to reconcile these contradictions over the next decade at the center of shaping the future of Youth Speaks."

Imagination

I write this letter at a time when young people across the country are picking up their pens to declare that they are more than the stories that have been written about them without them. I write this letter at a time when Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are targets of racialized violence across the country. But I also write this letter at a time when cross-cultural solidarity movements among youth and their allies are accelerating, and show no signs of slowing down. I write at a time when exclusionary, hate-based policies against transgender and gender-expansive children are being drafted; and when the preciousness of those same lives is also powerfully defended by courageous BIPOC leaders in the highest seats of government. We are living in a monumental moment full of complexity, and the contradictions of the world are laid bare for all to see. My vision is to place how young people choose to reconcile these contradictions over the next decade at the center of shaping the future of Youth Speaks.

Youth Speaks will continue to do what we’ve always strived to do—be a resilient space for young people and their allies to explore voice, enact radical love, and engage in transformative art that pushes against silos of silence and systems of suffering. We will continue to expand on our organization-wide restorative justice work started by our incredible outgoing Executive Director, Cristy Johnson-Limon. We’ll lean into the power and care of our ever-growing network of supporters, alumni, educators, youth, and community advocates to find the strength within, and together, to harness the power of culture and story to overcome the immense social, political, cultural, and spiritual challenges before us.

In the next few months, I’ll be fully engaged working with our young people, staff, outgoing Executive Director, interim co-Executive Directors and Board of Directors to launch a number of exciting milestones that I can’t wait to share with you soon.

For now, know that I believe in the power of stories to constellate a brighter future in our lives. Indeed, it is by the grace of having been able to tell, and re-tell my own story that I am able to write to you from this new seat, where I am honored to serve from and will do my best to thrive in.

People, pedagogy, purpose. Youth Speaks has an abundance of all three. As I take on this new role, I couldn’t ask for a better foundation.

Let’s build the next chapter and story together.

Ever Forward,

Michelle Mush Lee
Executive Director
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