Speaking in fuming shouts and quiet, expressive tones, with emotions ranging from fear and sadness to livid outrage and smoldering anger, 18 young poets took the stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., July 17 to call for environmental justice.

Part of Brave New Voices: Youth Speaks! 11th International Youth Poetry Slam, the Green Mic event brought an astounding personal perspective to the green movement. The poets, many in high school and all under the age of 25, spoke about the daily impact of unhealthy and unsustainable communities on their most vulnerable citizens.

"It was wonderful to hear all the perspectives, but there were so many social issues," Kimberly Lewis, a judge for the event and vice president of conferences and events for the USGBC, told EcoHome Online. "We talk about the buildings, but it's also about the people." She said the poets spoke about "the consequences of not being a good caretaker, and what effects that has had on their lives."

The USGBC supports the event both to inspire and energize current building professionals and to build environmental awareness in younger age groups, she added. "It is really how do we support this generation of emerging green builders?"

In his neighborhood, recited 19-year-old Joshua Bennett of Bronx, N.Y., "the month-old meat on the grocery shelves is the only thing going green." Bennett, one of four winning performers or groups who were chosen to perform their poem at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah next January, cited "environmental racism" in linking environmentalism to social issues. "The sunlight is ultra-violet, but the street life is ultra-violent," he intoned.

Another winning performance, by Urban Word, a group of three women and one man from New York City, addressed the painful truth about the different meaning of green in an urban setting where their peers face the dangers of daily violence. The poem was frequently punctured by the jarring, vocalized sound of gun shots from one of the artists.

"How can they expect us to save the trees..." one of the poets began to ask, before another shouted, "Bullet shells after bullet shells after bullet shells after bells." The first finished: "...if we can not even save ourselves?"

"My brother has a brain tumor," began Berkeley, Calif.'s Katri Foster, 22, a third winner. Doctors told her family it was just "a coincidence," she narrated, that they lived in an unhealthy area of a polluted city. "Maybe we were just unlucky," she said, before imagining a litany of other families and cultures in harmful environments who were just "unlucky." She finished on the verge of tears.

"I don't hear much about the earth dying," observed event MC James Kass, founder and executive director of Youth Speaks, which partnered with actor Robert Redford's Sundance Preserve and the USGBC to present the event, after Foster's performance. "What I hear about is us dying."

Redford, representing the Sundance Preserve and the Redford Center, said in introducing the event that both the performers and the performance medium could foster change in a new way. "I believe more than ever that advocacy about the environment must speak a new language," he said, adding that the poets were lending their voices to the call for change. "They're speaking to both their peers and to adults who are making policy in a way that conveys the depth and degree of their passion." 
Watch video of the performances here.

Jeffrey Lee is associate editor for Building Products and is a frequent contributor to EcoHome.