August 20, 2018KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsWriting

The International Congress of Youth Voices: An Interview with Jamesha Caldwell

Earlier this month, young writers and activists convened in San Francisco for the inaugural International Congress of Youth Voices. Among those student delegates was 18-year-old “Baltimore-bred poet and storyteller” Jamesha Caldwell. I caught up with Jamesha to ask her some questions about the Congress. Our conversation is below.

DM: The first weekend in August, you were a delegate at The International Congress of Youth Voices. You joined young writers and activists from around the world in an attempt to “amplify [your] ideas and energy and to unite young people for a weekend of collaboration.” What are some of the ideas and concerns that motivate you in your writing and activism, and how did you have the opportunity to express those ideas at the Congress?

JC: In my writing and growing activism, I’ve found myself either aiming to advocate for and/or depict the narratives of the unseen and unheard. Whether that’s through highlighting the plight of being a Black woman within society who has become a causality in the face of movements, to advocating for the decriminalization of Black and Brown youth. I truly aim to not only present stories that reflect the conditions and power of the unseen and unheard, but also allocate for solutions that can be brought to these communities.

During the Congress, fellow delegates and I were able to participate in an open mic at the historical City Lights Bookstore where we had the opportunity to share our motivations, concerns, and work through our art. Delegates and I have also presented at opportunities to share moments on stage with some of the guest speakers about the work and research that we’ve been doing within our respective communities. And last but not least, we were also able to collectively take all of our various ideas and concerns and formulate a ‘By the Youth, For the Youth’ manifesto! (Check it out here!)

DM: In meeting students from around the world, did you identify overlapping concerns that you shared? Were there any issues that you had the opportunity to think about in a new way based on the perspectives of your fellow delegates?

JC: During many of the discussions between the delegates and I at the Congress, it came as a huge surprise to me when I noticed that some of the very same political and social issues (ranging from gun violence, allocating for adequate and equitable opportunities academically and economically, women’s rights, etcetera) that my peers and I had been combating, had been such a global phenomenon. Within many of those conversations, the subtle revelations of overlapping plights had truly validated the context that anti-blackness, misogyny, and classism had been an extensive and global epidemic. In the very midst of these same discussions that I often found solace with my peers, I began to become critical of my own activism and role within my own communities based on the work of other delegates who had been combating the same issues as I. With this, I noticed that my activism had been very safe and grounded with momentary and/or obtainable goals, whereas my fellow delegates had been willing to risk their lives and safety for the freedom of all, which has inspired me in an unfathomable way.

DM: This Congress has a focus on activism in general, but also on the power of writing in particular. We know each other through our mutual participation in Writers in Baltimore Schools, so I’ve had the pleasure of reading your writing and discuss writing with you. What did this experience give you in terms of your writing? Did you gain new writing techniques, new ways to make your voice heard, or inspiration from published writers?

JC: Being in the space of the Congress has inspired me to further seek opportunities for publishment, create my own future platforms to showcase Black culture and art, and truly believe in my ability and talent as a writer!

DM: Were there particular speakers or fellow delegates who excited and inspired you, and why?

JC: From the Congress, speakers such as Alia Malek, Yalie Kamara, and Inder Comar were extremely impactful and inspiring to me. Lessons of identity, ancestry, and poetry shared by Yalie Kamara has inspired me to investigate and study my own lineage so that I can further understand myself but also those who’ve trailed long before me. Other speakers such as Alia Malek and Inder Comar who’ve detailed how they were able to combat systems of injustice through careers in law while also simultaneously being writers and advocates for change has especially inspired me to feel confident in my ability to invoke change through not only my writing but also my future career in neurocriminology.

DM: To use the old slogan “Nothing about us without us,” what insights could you give the organizers of this Congress (or others organizing events for young writers and activists) that could make a future iteration of The International Congress of Youth Voices or other such events the most beneficial to the young people involved? This could include aspects of the weekend you thought were highlights, and it could include constructive criticism.

JC: In conclusion, my thoughts regarding the entirety of the Congress were absolutely amazing and I am extremely fortunate to be invited to such a wonderful space. I was able to experience and learn from brilliant young minds from around the world, network, and be in an overall safe space! In thinking about elements of improvement for the future of The International Congress of Youth Voices, however, I think that it would be extremely pivotal if there were to be a certain amount of diligence dedicated in the research of screening and inviting guests to speak at the Congress. During some of the speeches of invited guests, I and other fellow Black women found ourselves highly critical and/or unsettled at the content of particular speakers that in result were either inconclusive or disparaging. I would also hope to see efforts dedicated to promoting inclusiveness to delegates who were invited to this experience but weren’t able to come due to limitations of the US borders.