The Power of Spoken Word


NewCo Shift Forum 2018/Ignite Series

The first standing ovation ever at Shift Forum.

Instead of attempting an introduction, we’re just going to ask you to watch this five minute video. Brandon Santiago’s presentation earned the first standing ovation ever at the annual Shift Forum. (The full overview of Shift Forum’s Ignite series is here).

Brandon Santiago: When I say love, you say love. Love.

Audience: Love.

Brandon: Love.

Audience: Love.

Brandon: Give somebody a high five right next to you real quick. Go ahead. I’m wasting my time. Hurry up.


Brandon: My name is Brandon Santiago. I was kicked out of my first high school the day before class.


Brandon: That’s not a joke. By the time I was 18, I had been kicked out of so many high schools I lost count. The last high school I attended was a continuation school. It’s a place they send you when they know you need help, but they don’t want to deal with you no more.

We call it the “last chance high school.” This high school gave you credit for showing up and doing yard work. Yes, I dropped out of that one, too.

18 years old. I had failed my GED test two times. I had no skill sets. I remember one morning my mom waking me up and saying, “Baby, I love you, but I don’t care what you do. You better get out of this house when I’m at work.” I would literally get dressed and hop on a bus with no destination.

While some of my friends were at four-year universities, some of them had gotten jobs, went to junior college, I was literally on a bus heading nowhere. Flash forward 10 years from then, I got my BA in anthropology. I got a full-ride academic scholarship to the University of San Francisco where I studied international education.


Brandon: I’ve gotten a chance to work for three of the top educational non-profits in the country. Currently, I’m the Program Director at an institution called Youth Speaks, which is the leading presenter of youth spoken word and literacy arts in the world.

I asked myself and I reflect often, especially when I’m talking to young people, “What happened?” The truth is a lot of things. I think it was my faith in God, it was a lot of mentors with a lot of patience, my mama, of course, but the thing that sparked it for me was spoken word. For those of you over 40, when I say spoken word I mean poetry. Keep up. It’s all right.


Brandon: Spoken word, for me, the power isn’t in the form. It was in the freedom. Spoken word gave me the freedom to share my story in a safe space with other folks just like me. I say, specifically, spoken word gave me three things. It gave me confidence, it taught me how to be a critical thinker, and it gave me empathy.

When I say confidence, in high school I never felt safe. I was afraid to raise my hand even when I knew I had the right answer. Now, don’t get me wrong. I was OK at speaking in public. I was the dude yelling at the movie theater screen. I was super loud and obnoxious on buses, but if you asked me to do public speaking in front of a group like this, I would have froze.

Spoken word helped me to find, develop, and publicly present my voice, and speak up when I needed to. The other thing spoken word gave me was being able to see the world critically.

We have a term in the spoken-word world, we call reading the world as a writer. Everything I do, no matter whether it’s listening to the news, talking to my friends, or digesting social media, I’m always thinking through these things critically the way I would writing a poem or reading a poem.

The last thing I say that’s the most important to me, at least, is the idea of empathy, specifically radical empathy. I think all of us at times move in our life empathetically, but the idea of radical empathy is that’s the lens that you see the world through. We talk about this energetic reciprocity that exists between the relationship of the poet and of the audience.

There is this relationship and thing that happens when you’re hearing a spoken-word poem. You’re not just listening to someone’s story. You’re actually experiencing it. Through the years, and years, and years of hearing all these different stories through poems, I developed a reservoir of empathy in which I see the world through.

I don’t know. If you ask me what the tech and business world need, of course, we need innovation and inspiration. The things I would say we need is to develop beings with higher levels of emotional intelligence. Folks who are able to be confident and speak when they need to. Folks who are able to view the world through an empathetic lens. Folks who are able to think critically.

For me, spoken word did those things. I would also say that spoken word gives folks a chance to share their story and understand the power that lies within them, and the power that lies within the person next to them. I want to share with you all a poem before I head out, so you can get an authentic spoken-word experience. Is that OK?


Brandon: Wake up, Y’all. It wasn’t even meat. It was an Impossible Burger. Here we go.


Brandon: In a city as diverse as San Francisco, people of color make up 50 percent of the population and 90 percent of the public schools. It’s no coincidence. It’s beautifully deliberate. Our state invests $230,000 for every juvenile in prison, as opposed to $8,000 for a student in the Oakland Public Schools. In other words, they invest more when we fail.

They won’t send us to study hall. They’d rather send us to jail. Fire our teachers and replace them with correctional officers. Turn our public schools into play penitentiaries, and prepare a third of our entire generation to be incarcerated, and tell you there was no such thing as segregation.

Young man, believe me when I say, you will always be brown versus the Board of Education. I can’t help but see myself in you. I was bred to be a worker, too. Taught to fill out a job application before I ever learned to apply for college. I have to remind myself that I’m doing it for you, so that no institution, whether it’s public school or prison, can ever validate who we are.

Nowadays, I go to sleep to the uneasy sound of an apprehensive retribution rising over my prayers. “Dear God, let us never forget that we are all sacred and equal.”

Thank you.

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