The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
It was a warm Bay Area day last May when Anouk Yeh found out via a Zoom call that she would become Santa Clara County’s inaugural youth poet laureate. Surrounded by mentors and friends, Yeh, a senior at Saratoga High School, felt emotional—“Yeah, I cried!”—and exhilarated. Once the shock wore off, she got to work.
Now, as her term comes to a close, Yeh is proud of the megaphone she’s given to incarcerated youth through weekly poetry workshops on Zoom.
“As young people, it can feel like when we’re voicing our opinions, they are falling into the void, and no one really hears,” she said. “But I really hope that at least the one takeaway the students can have is that writing can always be an outlet for them to express their voice.”
U.S. prisons house more than 2.3 million adults and youth, 6.6 percent of which are women, and that number has grown sevenfold from 50 years ago. Of those incarcerated, teenagers are at least 25 percent more likely to have depression and behavioral maladjustment issues compared to their peers.
Yeh wanted to open the discussion of their mental health through poetry. For one writing prompt she used—“Write to your worst enemy”—one teen wrote a letter to himself about self-sabotage.
“What surprised me was how willing the students were to throw themselves off the deep end in terms of their poetry,” she said. “I think that was dope. Even though they’re my age, these students were so introspective.”
Yeh felt drawn to working with incarcerated youth after volunteering in junior year with the Prison Journalism Project, where she experienced a paradigm shift in how she viewed mass incarceration.
“If you think of any other national crises, people will talk directly to the primary sources in order to better understand the problem and how to solve it,” Yeh said. “But with mass incarceration, if you’re incarcerated once, it’s like your opinion isn’t valid, when in reality, we really need to listen to the voices of those who are directly affected.”
Encouraged by the previous poet laureate, her mentor Janice Lobo Sapigao, Yeh partnered with the Hawkins Project, which funds literary and social justice endeavors, to compile an anthology of incarcerated youth’s poetry. In March she put out a national call for submissions with the theme of “reimagining incarceration through a lens of restorative justice.”
Those incarcerated in California are disproportionately people of color: Black people are imprisoned at a rate of 10 times the rate of white people, with Native American/Indigenous and Hispanic people at higher rates as well. These marginalized groups are more likely to emerge from incarceration maladjusted, or unable to cope with an everyday social environment after living in harsh prison conditions, due to lower personal safety.
If you’re incarcerated once, it’s like your opinion isn’t valid, when in reality, we really need to listen to the voices of those who are directly affected.
Anouk Yeh, Santa Clara County youth poet laureate
The system “allows us to dehumanize people who are incarcerated,” said Cary Aspinwall, a staff writer for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering American incarceration. “They’re [seen as] not girls, not young women, just inmates.”
Programs like Anouk’s offer incarcerated girls even more than a way to process their traumatic experiences in prison or jail. The experience provides them with the educational skills prison is not giving to them otherwise.
Anouk said that teaching her poetry workshops and meeting incarcerated children her age have honed her sense of urgency to continue to uplift the voices society would otherwise dehumanize.
“In Hollywood or in American media, the people who are very intentional about broadcasting the stories of marginalized communities are very often from those communities themselves,” Yeh said. “As young people, we should be fighting for our stories to make it to the surface. There’s an obligation to tell these stories. Who else is fighting for us?”