When 18-year-old Azariah Cole-Shephard speaks, people listen.
That’s because Oakland’s newly awarded 2016 Youth Poet Laureate doesn’t just have something to say – she has a captivating, educational and unapologetically bold way of telling it.
“Azariah is fired with the cause of justice. It heats up her words. Stand back lest ye be scorched!” says Wilson Riles, former Oakland City Councilmember, who served as one of this year’s five Youth Poet Laureate judges.
Now in its fifth year, the poetry competition arrives through a partnership between the Oakland Public Library and Youth Speaks, a multifaceted organization that challenges and supports young people to find, develop and share their voices as creators of social change.
Cole-Shephard received the award after participating in the highly competitive application and interview process, judged by a jury of accomplished authors, educators and community leaders.
“A lot of my work is motivated by injustices with the status quo and a lack of affirmation for Black girls – and people of color as a whole – in a society that consistently tells them they aren’t good enough,” says Cole-Shephard, who recently graduated from Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland.
Many of Cole-Shephard’s poems amplify the voices and concerns of youth of color, who are often left out of conversations surrounding race relations in the United States. Through her poetry and live performances, she challenges this status quo by taking on difficult topics such as mass incarceration and racial profiling.
“Those topics weigh heavily on my heart,” she says. “There’s a lack of conversation about it amongst youth, so talking about it on a larger scale was important.”
Cole-Shephard says she was “in shock” after finding out she had won this year’s Youth Poet Laureate award. For others though, the decision came as no surprise.
She was the runner-up in last year’s competition and emerged as the best of five finalists from Oakland. She was also a finalist in this year’s Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam.
She’s even made a name for her self as a performer and poet with Brave New Voices, a seven-year initiative through Youth Speaks that Cole-Shepherd describes as “one of the only platforms that exists for youth from all over the world to come together and engage as poets and voice their struggles.”
Along with the title of Poet Laureate, Cole-Shephard receives a year of mentorship and support from Youth Speaks and the Oakland Public Library. The organizations help her arrange press interviews and appearances like one at Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, where she recently performed her piece “For the Black Men My Love Cannot Protect.”
She also received a $5,000 college scholarship, which will go towards her education at Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering at San Jose State University. She plans to study electrical engineering and hopes to minor in African diaspora studies.
According to Lana Adlawan, a supervising librarian for teen services at the Oakland Public Library, a key part of the program is leadership and making sure the laureates are ready to lead their city. She and many others agree, “Azariah is ready to do that.”
“Right now my focus is pouring into other people who came from or are going through the same process that I went through,” says Cole-Shephard. “Writing [poetry] is a very effective way to access youth because it’s a perfect balance between essay and rap music… You can engage these interests and educate at the same time.”
With big plans and even bigger dreams ahead, Cole-Shephard stands out among even the brightest emerging poets and engineers. Still, she maintains a simple philosophy that speaks volumes about her craft and future: “My overall goal is to make change.”