2009 Changemaker: Shá Cage and Teen Summit

Youth event links art, activism, leadership

Shá Cage. Photography by Uchefotography
Photography by Uchefotography

It was girl-powered leadership that revolutionized the annual Teen Summit, said organizer Shá Cage. This noted local poet, actor and spoken-word artist is also the artistic director of the Minnesota Spoken Word Association (MNSWA), which sponsors the annual one-day event in partnership with a number of organizations. For the first two years of the four-year-old Teen Summit, attendance had been between 35 and 50.

The event, which links art, activism and leadership, mixed it up a bit last year. Working with MNSWA’s Youth Liberation Poets Ensemble (a youth board), Cage made a concerted effort to attract girls. The result? There were 160 participants. And, Cage said, “Usually, we have about one-third female attendees. [In 2008] 80 percent of our participants were female.” Participants attend at no cost.

Cage particularly wanted to focus on young women because of her experience working on issues of domestic violence and abuse of girls. The goal of the day is to help participants see themselves as leaders and to link art and activism in the budding leaders’ consciousness.

The day consists of games, listening exercises, presentations and performance. There are frequent check-ins and small-group discussions. “We start with the art,” Cage said, explaining that a self-affirming performance by the Youth Liberation Poets gets participants going; it’s key that they see youth artist/activists in action.

One of the day’s exercises: having all participants declare their own beauty. Cage explained, “We asked, for example: ‘How many of you can say you are beautiful?'” With the help of Cage and other adult and youth mentors, all attendees were able to claim their beauty.

About the 2008 and 2009 Summits, Cage said, “I believe we helped the youth to think about the world … not just through a new lens but through multiple ones. We were incredibly successful in cross-pollinating communities-those from the metro inner city with those from rural areas who don’t ordinarily have a lot of access [to each other].

“We helped everyone remember that we are ALL living and breathing changemakers,” Cage continued. “We all possess the potential to be a leader. The real difference is made in the nitty-gritty work … allow[ing] them to sit in a circle and encourag[ing] them to lead and drive the conversation. [We] nurture them to go … beyond identifying what’s wrong in the world … to designing corrective strategies.

“We communicated that young voices matter … that strong young women are important and that young men and boys are also part of the conversation.” Partnerships are key in putting together the event and in pulling it off, Cage said. One key partner has been the girl-led positive body-image group, Girls in Motion-Minnesota. Partners mainly contribute in-kind; the major challenge is financial. There’s been lots of planning and interest; the only thing lacking for the 2010 Summit is the money. Cage hopes to make it happen.

Be the change!
Come to a MNSWA “Literally Speaking” evening, a one-hour workshop led by leading spoken word artists, followed by a one-hour open mic for participants. First Thursday of each month from 5-7 p.m., MNSWA Youth Zone/offices at 1224 Quincy St. N.E., Suite 140, Minneapolis. There is no charge.

Drop a check in the mail: Donations are needed to make the 2010 Teen Summit a reality. Checks less than $50 should be made out to MNSWA; over $50 to Springboard. Put Teen Summit on the memo line. Send to MNSWA at the address shown above.