(ST. LOUIS Monday, January 11, 2021) — The 2021 St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate is Grace Ruo, a 17-year-old native Kenyan and Hazelwood West High School senior. UrbArts will host an induction ceremony online and in person on January 18th to commemorate the federal holiday and observed birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr at 1:00 pm. Visit UrbArts.org for details on this event.
Ruo will serve as the city’s fifth Youth Poet Laureate, an honor that is bestowed upon some of the top youth poets in the region. Ruo has already caught the ear of national audiences, notably the Library of Congress as an invited poet participating in the National Book Award.in September 2020. As the lead ambassador of youth poetry in St. Louis for this year, Ruo will be a part of the St. Louis Youth Poetry Slam team, winner of the 2019 and 2020 Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Slam championship. Additionally, Ruo will conduct numerous local performances, host open mic events, and compete for the Midwest regional Youth Poet Laureate in November 2021.
“Being the 2021 Saint Louis Youth Poet Laureate is not just my victory.” Ruo said before adding a touching multi-generational, transcontinental note. “The first thing my parents did after receiving the news was call my grandmother in Kenya. She told me how proud she was that America is so eager to hear what I have to say. This achievement is proof that the stories I tell of my people not only matter, but that they deserve to take up space.”
“Grace is an incredible talent with so much to share,” said UrbArts founder MK Stallings. “Her ability to ensnare audiences with her words and her presence is remarkable and is a key reason St. Louis won a second youth poetry slam championship last summer. Everyone should experience her work.”
A focus for Ruo’s laureateship this year will be mental health in the Black community, particularly Kenyans living in the region.
“In 2017 and 2018, the Kenyan community lost two members of our youth to suicide. Instead of talking to the rest of the youth about mental health, adults told us to strengthen our relationship with God,” said Ruo. She would go on to assert that the Kenyan youth were stigmatized because of their mental health, which she believes is the reason they never received the help they needed.
Started in 2016, the St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate program is a joint effort of Urban Word NYC and UrbArts. The program aims to identify young writers and leaders who are committed to civic and community engagement, poetry and performance, human relations, diversity, and education across St. Louis. Previous St. Louis Youth Poets Laureate include Bisa Adero, Zach Lesmeister, Camryn Howe, and Sarah Abbas.
Bio and Poetry of 2021 St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate Grace Ruo:
Born in Kiambu, Kenya in the Nairobi Metropolitan region, Grace & her family immigrated to the United States when she was six years old. As well as being a rising senior at Hazelwood West High School, Grace is a recent Brave New Voices International Youth poetry champion as a member of the UrbArts youth poetry team in St. Louis, Missouri. In September of 2020, Grace represented youth poetry slam at the National Book Award presented by the Library of Congress. Her work weaves her family stories into narrative poems of her experiences in America, often in relation to ethnicity, gender, race, & justice. Grace intends to study biology with plans of becoming a psychiatrist.
Excerpt from “Manifestation: a Letter to My Grandmother,” a poem by 2021 St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate Grace Ruo:
His parents told me in order to make it to the top, I’m to let go of everything keeping me on the ground.
It’s as if English is the only key into this
Land of the Free.
They said I cannot afford to be locked out.
That I’m to speak this language as if it were the one I was born into.
They must not have known that
I am daughter of a mother tongue unmuted.
But how could they?
I indulge in the sin that is this language.
Douse my tongue in English before I leave the house.
& When I come back home,
I scrub it off.
Try to find the scattered bits of Gikuyu
& Place them on the tip of my tongue.
I call it my act of repentance.
Urban Artist Alliance for Child Development, Inc (UrbArts) is a youth-centered, arts-based nonprofit organization based in north St. Louis. Its mission is to create platforms and platform creatives for youth and community development. In addition to administering the St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate program, it offers the award-winning Youth Poetry Slam program through which a team of St. Louis youth poets won the 2019 and 2020 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. Other UrbArts programs include its art exhibition series and open mic poetry in Old North St. Louis. Find more information online at UrbArts.org.
About Urban Word and the National Youth Poet Laureate Program
The National Youth Poet Laureate Program is championed by Urban Word and celebrates teen poets at the intersection of artistic excellence, social impact and youth leadership. Currently in more than 50 cities across the United States, this program engages partnerships between local youth literary arts, youth leadership programs and city government. For more information, please visit: www.youthlaureate.org