Youth Speaks' young poets roar

Erica McMath takes center stage at SF's top youth poetry slam
Photo by Samia Zaidi

“Poetry’s made a big difference in my life. It’s allowed me to express myself in ways that I never would have been able to,” says Erica McMath Sheppard, 17, one the winners of Sat/3’s Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam at the Warfield Theater.

Her victory was the culmination of many years of hard work. Erica started participating in the Youth Speaks program when she was 13, and competing in the yearly slam competition at 14 years old. On Saturday, before a sold out crowd at the Warfield, she spoke with a light borne of a difficult adolescence, one spent in the cold bureaucracy of Child Protective Services, but through which she has nonetheless thrived academically.

“You look at America in the 21st century, who is the voice? What does it look like?” Youth Speaks executive director James Kass founded the non-profit in 1996 to provide public school kids with access to arts education in a state where such programs are rapidly being downsized into nonexistence. He says that, although professional artists have emerged from Youth Speaks’ programs, what the YS assemblies, after school workshops, and guest speakers really want to accomplish is the development of teens’ creativity, and by extension, their ability to think critically about the problems of the day. “Some kids go into teaching, go into non profit work,” he says. “This is about developing leaders.”

It’s a mission that resonates. One need only consider last Saturday’s event at the Warfield. Rows of cheering fans, hanging on their every word -- would that this rapt attention were always present when youth spoke.

“It was an exciting experience,” says McMath-Sheppard, whose two poems focused on eating issues and the fallacies of Child Protective Services, whose care has shuffled her from homes in Potrero Hill, to the Tenderloin, to the Mission -- where she is legally required to move from the day she turns 18. “It was so inspiring to share that love from the stage, and get the hugs and kind words afterwards. It was amazing.”

McMath will join Youth Speaks winners Bryant Phan (Oakland, age 17), Hadeel Ramadan, (San Bruno, 19), Jasmine Williams (Daly City, 19), Dominic Nicholas (Oakland, 18), and Natasha Huey (Berkeley, 19) in representing the Bay area at the Brave New Voices Festival in Los Angeles on July 23rd.


“I don’t really title my poems,” says McMath. “I know a lot of poets do, I just don’t label them like that.” Below, her untitled slam winning case against Child Protective Services.

Yesterday I had a meeting with my social worker

Katie said, “Children and family services will only house you until you’re 18 if you have your high school diploma or GED.”

She asked when I turn 18. I said, “June 18 th.”

I asked when I had to leave. She said “June 18th”

On my 18 th birthday I could be homeless

the only exception to this rule is if I were to decide to drop out of high school, but if I was gonna drop out, it would’ve been in 9 th grade—not 65 days before I graduate.

I just found out I will be booted from my house

Happy birthday Ericka get the fuck out

Correction—Happy birthday number 35876-b

We need you to get your shit and leave immediately

and I was angry

and I am scared

because it’s hard to recognize your own potential when know one else wants to let the fire inside of you burn

she told me if I was to get pregnant additional services would be offered

I asked if this was her suggestion

She replied, “No, but I did want you to have this information though…”

On my 18 th birthday, I could be homeless

You do not become an adult because you turn 18

you just get to buy a pack of cigarettes to deal with this shit

Why cant CPS understand that I am still a child

Or I was never allowed to be

Because I was always too busy


paying bills

Being active at my little sister’s back to school night

And now finding a place to stay

This is the reason that three percent of foster youth go to college and only one of that three percent graduates

My last roommate was a prostitute

And as much as I wanted to giver her a speech about how precious her body was

I couldn’t

Because she was in the same position I am in now

She was a number

and I am number 35876-b

I am not as strong as I make myself out to be

I don’t learn how to magically do shit when I turn 18

I am disorganized

have time management issues

have a hard time code switching when I need to

I need help and this system refuses to help me

And you could believe that I can help my damn self ‘cause I been helping my dam self my entire life

But why doesn’t Katie acknowledge how important it is for me to go to college (slowly)

At 18 my number turns into what’s called inactive dependency


Lincoln freed the slaves

Katie is freeing me

This system was set up for


excuse me

numbers like me live off of welfare checks,

And taste crack instead of their degree

and lay on there black and make babies

Then we can be the black Brady bunch and live on food stamps

Or purposely go to jail after all it is three hots and a cot

How do u expect us to fly with broken wings

Numbers like me are notorious for failing

Because I am black

A women


Broke/lower class

don’t live with her mother and doesn’t know her father

And in this shady as child protective services system

But no protecting will be offered when I turn 18

I don’t want to be 35876-b

I just want Katie and the whole protective services system to notice me

Katie did you know that I will be the 1 st generation in my family to get my degree

Katie did you know that I go to two different schools one at day another by night just to guarantee that I will graduate on time

did you know that I am a poet

Katie did you know that I am a person

that my name is Erica Sheppard McMath not 35876-b

Katie I wish you where here to hear this but you don’t get paid on Saturdays (pause)

and please excuse my unpleasant attitude but on behalf of every other foster youth I need to tell you that abandonment is not a joyful feeling

I understand that to you this is just a 9-5

but for me this is my life that is being put on the line

we are in this system because we were abandon

once again I am being abandon

and I will be ok because I’ve always done what I have needed to do therefore I will survive Katie

but no thanks to you

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