Tamara Crockett

One Loud Latina


When Meliza Bañales is introduced at Ladyfest Bay Area, the emcee pronounces her name wrong. So, when Meliza gets onstage she gives the crowd a quick lesson in Spanish pronunciation. "Come on crowd, repeat after me," she says, "May-lee-za Bon-yah-lez."

From that moment on, Meliza is in command of the audience. Her strong voice and captivating presence transports onlookers to the moments that she is describing. She makes her audience feel as if they are right there with her.

In one poem called "Do the Math," Meliza, who is Mexican and White, talks about growing up in LA. She talks about having to watch her father work in degrading jobs just because of his Mexican background and his strong accent. As a young woman, this self-described "blanca" admits that she was happy to have a lighter skin tone than her three other siblings, because she didn't want to embrace her Mexican roots. In another poem, she talks about developing breasts at an early age. In the piece, she speaks honestly about despising her big breasts, about how she was teased and received negative attention from others.

Meliza, who is 24-years-old, is originally from Los Angeles, where she got her start in spoken word in 1995. She left to attend UC Santa Cruz, where she received a Bachelor's degree in Literature and Creative Writing. In Santa Cruz, she started doing slam poetry and was on two slam teams there in 1998 and 1999.

Since then, Meliza has read her poems in a number of places and for a variety of people. She has performed on the streets, in bars and in restaurants all over the country, as well as in Cuba and even at Harvard University. She is the 2002 Oakland Slam Champion, and she recently won the People Before Profits Poetry Prize by Burning Bush Press.

"I am constantly fighting to make a difference and fighting to expand my writing. I am fighting not only to do social change, but to change myself as a writer." -- Meliza

Currently, Meliza lives in Oakland and is attending graduate school at San Francisco State University. At SFSU, she is studying to get her MFA in Writing and is teaching. Her job list doesn't end there, though. She also works as a nanny and in a bakery. Because Meliza grew up in a working class family, she has always worked several jobs at once. "I grew up with this idea that you work and you are defined by how good of a worker you are," she says. "If you work well and you take care of your family, then you're a good person."

As a result, Meliza writes about working class ethics, political struggles and family -- her parents in particular. Her heritage and identity play a big role in her art as well. "Most of my work centers around those situations. Most of my pieces are definitely political but with a personal twist -- it's like trying to reach a political goal through understanding my personal experiences and relating that to justice and understanding how that's all connected," she says.

Meliza describes herself as "a spoken word artist, a writer, a slam poet." In addition to poems, she also writes fiction and essays. But she loves being up on stage because she feels her spoken word performances reach larger audiences than the writing that she does on paper. "There is something about having a mic and being in front of an audience and relaying a message," she says, "that's completely different than expecting people to pick up a book -- it's a lot less elite."

"You're saying to the audience 'I don't expect you to know anything about poetry -- this is what I have to offer," she says, "if you walk away with something, that's great. And if you don't, that's okay, it doesn't mean you're stupid. And if you don't like it, that's even better because it's tells me that you're paying attention.'"
Meliza is a person who loves to laugh and make others laugh. She also likes to make people think. Meliza says that she has the same personality both on and off stage.

"I am not one of those performers who is terribly shy, personally, and then I get up there and I do all these crazy poems. I am not like that. I am pretty much the same person," she says.

Meliza wants to achieve two things through her art. "I wanna feel good about what I am writing and I wanna feel proud of what I am writing about," she says.

Meliza recently released a chap book of slam poems called "And I've Been Fighting Ever Since," which she published on her very Chula Press. The book's title is a line from a Charles Bukowski poem called "The Loser." Meliza feels that the title is appropriate because in the poems she feels like she is "constantly fighting to make a difference and fighting to expand my writing. I am fighting not only to do social change, but to change myself as a writer."

Meliza also feels that the title explains some things about her Mexican heritage. Her grandfather is indigenous Mexican and she comes from a family of farm workers and union organizers. Fighting has been an important part of her family's history. "I feel like I come from a long line of fighters," she says. "There's always that idea of fighting to survive, and fighting for people that you care about, your family and for everyday people who don't have a voice." She chose to put a picture of Emiliano Zapata on the cover of book because, she says, "he is one of the original indigenous people of Mexico that fought against the government for the right to their land and to practice their culture and beliefs."

In a poetry slam, judges randomly chosen from the audience score poets on a scale from one to 10. The poet with the highest score at the end of the evening wins. All slammers must follow these rules:
All work must be original to the poet.
No props, costumes, or background music can be used.
There is a three-minute time limit for all performances.

--compliments of SlamNation.com

When Meliza gets onstage, her fighting spirit comes across loud and clear. She has been doing slam for five years, and seems to enjoy the fact that it involves competion. In most slams, audience members are picked to judge the performers and rate them on a scale of one to 10. "There's this whole idea that people have a say in poetry," she says. "When you are at a slam, you know exactly how people feel about your work -- not just from the judges but from the audience."

This is when the connection to hip-hop and rap come in. Both are based on a process called battling, in which people freestyle competitively in front of an audience. This is what may attract a lot of hip hop listeners to spoken word and slam. Today Meliza says "some of the forms meld."

"You have a lot of early hip-hop artists that sound like spoken word artists," she says. She thinks that for instance, NWA, a West Coast rap group that was popular in the late 80s, had lyrics that sounded a lot like slam poetry. "They discuss a lot of the same issues, but they just do it in different ways," she says.

Russell Simmons also sees a connection. The CEO of Def Jam Records recently introduced spoken word to the country with Def Poetry Jam, a live performance series that is taped and broadcast on HBO. Meliza says she has mixed feelings about Def Poetry Jam.

She is happy that it is exposing people to poetry who have never known much about it. "I think the biggest problem with poetry is that people don't feel like they can be a part of it, they feel like they have to have some kind of education or background to understand it- and that's not the way it's supposed to be," she says. "I don't want them to have to just stand there and not know what to do with it or feel like they don't understand it or feel stupid."

She also thinks that poetry and spoken word may be on the road to becoming a big business. "It's now where people think 'oh you can become a superstar by doing spoken word,'" she says. "This is a way for everyday people to do something that they really care about and become really good at it. It's always this toss up. Local scenes can get lost in that whole fervor." She is afraid that it may stop being about small local poets.

But Meliza thinks that it's important to use mainstream outlets, like Def Poetry Jam, to get the original messages out. "We want people to listen, and we want to start utilizing those tools of oppression [but]...let's use mainstream outlets and do very controversial, fun, honest work," she says. "Let's show people that the mainstream doesn't have to be so bad. I think it's kind of a means to an end." Meliza says that one of the reasons that people are so attracted to spoken word and slam poetry is "because it's very honest."

"You can go and hear about your life spoken through somebody else, and you can feel like these people are real, everyday people," she says.

That's why even though Meliza would like to be able to make a living off of doing only spoken word, it's more important for her to reach her audience. "I am not doing this just to get paid, I am doing it because I care about it," she says. "That for me is the ultimate goal, and if I have to keep working through two or three jobs to keep doing it, I will."

WireTap summer fellow, Tamara Crockett, will be returning to Florida A & M this fall to finish her degree in Magazine Production and Graphic Design.

The photos of Meliza were used compliments of poeticdream.com

National Organizing Exchange Brings Young Activists Together

For some youths, political organizing is not just a way to exercise their values, but a set of responses to crucial circumstances in their communities. On the third weekend in June, thanks to the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) many of these young people had a chance to come together on the small, tree-filled campus of Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

The FCYO National Youth Organizing Exchange brought together more than 50 youth organizations working for social justice around the country to attend workshops and meet with other youth activist groups. The groups took time away from their work on issues ranging from juvenile justice and education reform to environmental racism to network and talk about collaboration.
"We decided to have the conference in the Bay Area because so much organizing is happening here," said Melody Baker, a program associate for the Collaborative and one of the event�s organizers. The FCYO also wanted to have the conference at a place of higher learning in order to set a tranquil and academic tone for the event.


Rather than working for an abstract goal or "cause," the idea of fighting for local and immediate change came through in every element of the gathering.



The FCYO is a collaborative of foundations that generates funding for youth organizations. They help youth organizing groups to develop stable and sustainable organizations and try to increase the awareness and understanding of youth organizing among funders and community organizations. All of the organizations at the conference receive support from the collaborative, which paid for two members of each group to fly to the Bay Area for the Exchange. Once there, the diverse group of young activists spent three days visiting the offices of Bay Area-based groups and attending workshops on organizing strategies, tactics and campaign issues.
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Rather than working for an abstract goal or "cause," the idea of fighting for local and immediate change came through in every element of the gathering. CAAAV, for example, a youth group that organizes Asian communities in the Bronx, are working for systemic change out of community necessity. When new welfare laws in that area threatened many of their parents and neighbors, they surveyed the community, held press conferences, made a documentary and organized a direct action at the welfare office. Similarly, several of the youth there who are involved in struggles against the prison industrial complex had either been in Juvenile detention centers themselves, or had friends and relatives serving time.
Precisely because these youth are so active in their own backyards, however, many of them are not aware of the larger youth-led social justice movement that is taking root around the nation. That�s where meetings like this one come in. Ditra Edwards the acting director of LISTEN, Inc., a group that gives technical assistance to youth activist groups and holds a similar meeting annually praised that collaborative for their efforts. "One of the biggest challenges," she said, "is connecting people from all over."
Many of the attendees were surprised to learn that other groups were dealing with similar issues in different places. While activists from New York brought stories about their work to reform the mandatory sentencing of the Rockefeller drug laws and their effect on youth, their Californian counterparts shared their experiences with aftermath of the passing of Proposition 21 and the subsequent practice of regularly prosecuting youth as most states do adults.
According to Baker, similar Exchanges may happen in the future, furthering the FCYO's goal of empowering youth through organizing.

The Participants


Alex Boykins, 19, was first exposed to activism in 1997 by her mother, who was involved with a program within the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN).

She says, at first, it was difficult to get a youth group together "because young people were not used to having people ask their opinion," Alex said. "In the beginning, a lot of them were cautious, while others jumped right in. They had been waiting for this opportunity."
In the last few years, NYAP has worked to keep an alternative high school open, has exposed racial profiling in schools, and has rallied against a chemical waste dump site. At the Exchange, Alex met people from big cities who were dealing with some of the same problems that she says they see Reno, but on a larger scale.
"Even though the we are a smaller city," she says, "the bigger cities aide us in solving our small problems. And sometimes the problems are overwhelming for the bigger cities, but the small cities can help them. "

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Andrew Wesley, 17, works for the Citizens for Community Improvement of Des Moines, Iowa. He is an activist who has worked on education and transportation issues in Des Moines and is currently working on a campaign for student fares on city buses.
He was excited to be spending the weekend on the serene tree-filled Mills campus. "Coming from a city school, I look around here and I think, I could learn at a place like this," he said.

Lisa Rodriguez (no photo avaliable) is a 17-year-old youth organizer from Chicago. Lisa got involved with the Chicago Youth Council when her mother brought her along to a rally.
"I was really loud and everyone was like 'wow, you should come join the group'," Lisa said.
So she did. Lisa has been working with the Brighton Park branch of the council for the past 18 months.
BPYC has worked to get better school lunches at the schools in their community. They are also organizing to get more police to patrol around grammar schools, more police cars on the street, and a youth-conducted training class for high school security guards focusing on sensitivity, diversity and dealing better with kids.
Lisa says learned new strategies for collaboration that she plans to take back to her group. "My group collaborates with people, but I don't think that we collaborate as much as we can. I think that it can help us a lot,"she said.
"The best part of is the experience of being here myself, " she said. "I got to meet people, and there are so many things that I didn't know about youth organizing that people have taught me."

alex and fenando
Fresh from organizing a hip-hop educational rally, Alex Cross and Fernando Carlo, both 16, came to the conference to learn more about youth organizing. Alex and Fernando are from New York and are members of the NorthWest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). They are also involved with Sistas and Brothas United (SBU).

Alex recently got involved with the NWBCCC through a summer job He took an active role and decided to join the organization. In order to join, Alex had to leave the street gang that he was part of. Since then, he has been elected to the NWBCCC Board of Directors.

Fernando has been active with NWBCCC for three years. In that time, he has assisted in a campaign on school repair, a peer mentoring program and a youth organizing summer training program.
The hip-hop rally was held in New York earlier this month, and was a way to inform people of $1 billion cut from the NY education fund's budget.

The organization teamed up with Russell Simmons to get a surprising range of popular entertainers including P-Diddy, Jay Z, Wu-Tang Clan, and Alicia Keys to come out and show their support for the cause.
"When you have people that others idolize, you get their attention. The concert opened up a lot of people's ears," Fernando said. "More people are active because of it."
"We educated people through hip-hop," Alex said.

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Seleah Bussey, 18, works for an organization called Sista II Sista in Brooklyn, New York, which monitors sexual assault in schools. They are working toward the training of school safety officers in middle schools and high schools.
She says she was surprised by the similarities in the struggles that organizations from so many parts of the country were taking on.
"With so many white kids out [in California]," she says, "I figured the schools would be better. But they got the same problems we got in New York. Everybody ain't really that different."

floor plan
Robert Foxx, 20, had flown all the way form Harlem on a red-eye Friday night and he was tired Saturday, but glad to be there. Foxx has worked with a few different organizations, and says that the people who work there make a big difference. He says he learned about the group he�s working with now, Youth Organizers United, when they did a presentation at his high school. He thinks that youth organizing is at a crucial point in its development. "It is starting to take off," he says. "Before, I didn�t really care about the issues, then I got educated and thought, hey, this is my problem. "

Emil, (no photo available) 17, is active in a group called Let's Get Free, a juvenile justice organization in the Bay Area. He was recently interviewed by the Oakland Tribune at a rally against the Alameda Superjail, but now he says he regrets speaking to a reporter who described his appearance in a less than respectful way. The media, he said, often distorts what young people say and do. Emil eventually warmed up to the WireTap crew, and admitted that making it to an organizer�s meeting was rough on a Saturday. "I've been working for [Let's Get Free] all week 9-6, " he said. "I'm tired as a mutha*****, but I came to this conference because it's important, you feel me?"

Tamara Crockett is a college senior at FAMU in Tallahassee, Fla. She is studying magazine production and graphic design in hopes of one-day starting her own magazine. She is a Summer Fellow at WireTap

Stephen Baxter, 22, is a recent college graduate and budding journalist from La Jolla, California. He is a Summer Fellow at WireTap.
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