Ruth Lewandowski, a recent Portland High graduate, left, and local poet Signature MiMi at a pilot youth open mic night offered by Gateway Community Services this past spring. Fall sessions of the Youth Voices Matter program kick off on Friday, Oct. 11 Courtesy / Youth Voices Matter

PORTLAND — Giving area youth a place where they can be themselves and feel a sense of community, belonging and inclusion are just some of the motives behind a new open mic series offered by Gateway Community Services.

Although the nonprofit is mostly aimed at assisting immigrant families and youth, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Ali said this week that anyone ages 15 to 24 is welcome at the open mic sessions, which kick off at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11, at 501 Forest Ave. Two other nights are also planned this fall on Nov. 8 and Dec. 13.

Called Youth Voices Matter, the open mic series is sponsored by two local poets, Signature MiMi and Marco Soulo, but Ali said that youth are encouraged to stand up and share anything from poetry to spoken word to song, storytelling, dance, art and more.

Ali said the open mic nights offer youth the opportunity to “come forward and share without fear of judgment.”

“We’ve had participants from all walks of life who are using the open mic nights to also socialize, network and learn from each other,” he said about two prior pilot sessions, held this past spring.

Another benefit of the Youth Voices Matter series, Ali said, is that “it helps to bring out the talent of our young people and shows them that their talent and skills mean something and are important to the community.”

The sharing that occurred at the pilot sessions in the spring were “really very inspiring,” he said, and Ali is looking forward to what comes out of the open mic series this fall. “Our approach is that everyone has something to say. It means something just to provide the podium and the open mic.”

In addition to providing a variety of direct care resources, Ali said that Gateway Community Services also focuses on furnishing youth empowerment programs, from college prep to leadership training and even youth soccer teams. The nonprofit also has offices in Lewiston and Augusta and Ali said this week he hopes to expand the Youth Voices Matter to the Lewiston location soon.

MiMi and Soulo helped found Youth Voices Matter in 2015 in Syracuse, New York, and brought the program with them when they moved to Maine. The mission then and now, according to the program’s Facebook page is to empower youth to “explore and experiment with their voice through various modes of creative expression.”

The two poets usually open and close the Youth Voices Matter sessions, but Ali said Gateway Community Services has also invited youth to co-host or facilitate the open mic nights and several members of his staff are also on hand each evening.

Overall, “our goal with Youth Voices Matter is to bring people together,” he said.

Brita Wanger Morier, the performing arts and media director at the Maine Arts Commission, said this week that poetry and spoken word provide a “truly meaningful way to connect” and can also offer ways for youth to learn to better process their emotions.

Wanger Morier also said the self-confidence and ability to speak in public that youth gain from participating in open mic nights are “truly portable skills” they can take with them into their adult lives.

“Any opportunity for youth to claim their own voice and express themselves is really important,” she said. “Poetry is really such a beautiful thing.”

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