Youth Speaks Founder James Kass Stepping Down as Executive Director

James Kass (3rd from Left) and Youth Speaks Poets attend the Private Reception for the Premiere of HBO's Brave New Voices & Youth Speaks back in 2009 in San Francisco.  (Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

After 21 years of leading San Francisco's Youth Speaks, founder James Kass is stepping down as its executive director at the end of this year.

The group, which has outposts in ten countries helping kids find their voices through poetry, announced Thursday it was searching for Kass's replacement to "shepherd the next era of Youth Speaks."

When asked why he was leaving the organization he founded back in 1996, Kass said that he wanted to see how Youth Speaks evolved under new leadership.

Also, Kass said, "I'm turning 50. I'm not sure the 26-year-old me that started Youth Speaks would want 50-year-old me to still be running it."

Kass started Youth Speaks after taking graduate-level writing classes at San Francisco State and discovering there was little diversity among his classmates. He also found few programs where children could build an appreciation for writing, so Kass started Youth Speaks. The group initially worked with teenagers at schools and community centers around the Bay Area with their writing, be it essays, fiction or slam poetry. The organization's slogan was, "Because the next generation can speak for itself."

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"Youth Speaks has always been a place where young people can come in, and through the power of written and spoken word, both forge and publicly present their identity," Kass said.

Robert Redford (L) is presented a signed picture from the the Youth Speaks Foundation and James Kass (R) at the Private Reception for the Premiere of HBO's Brave New Voices & Youth Speaks back in 2009
Robert Redford (L) is presented a signed picture from the the Youth Speaks Foundation and James Kass (R) at the Private Reception for the Premiere of HBO's Brave New Voices & Youth Speaks back in 2009 (Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

In 1999, the organization proved to be so successful, Kass started Youth Speaks NYC (now Urban Word NYC). Kass went on to bring the Youth Speaks model to dozens more writing programs in cities across the US and in other countries. Kass also founded Brave New Voices, which hosts annual slam poetry festivals in the Bay Area and beyond. Those events became the focus of a short-lived series on HBO, including an episode taped at the White House during the Obama Administration.

By 2013, Kass had won several awards for his work and had raised $20 million for his many organizations.

"It's grown way beyond whatever I could have imagined it to be," Kass said.

Kass says he has been planning his exit with the board for the past two and a half years, and that he plans on leaving at the end of the year. Brave New Voices will celebrate its 20th annual show in San Francisco in July, and that festival will be Kass's last.

"Everyone should come out to see what the future (leaders) of our country [are] talking about," Kass said. "There's no better place."

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