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Speak with a purpose

Scholar Salea Milard, a fifth grader at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, is learning to speak with purpose and truth. Photo courtesy of Speak with Purpose

Learning to Speak with Purpose!

Program helps kids find and confidently use their unique voices

“On the outside, you may see that I’m not the same. I’m not the same as anyone in this room, this country, or this world.” 

These are the opening words of Salea Milard’s speech. Salea, a fifth grader at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, has spent the past school year finding her voice through an in-class public speaking program offered by the local nonprofit Speak With Purpose.

Expressing truths

Frustrated with messages focusing only on the positive aspects of being different, Salea was inspired to use her speech to express how others’ perceptions of her differences have led to instances of bullying. She wants other kids to know they’re not alone. While it can be challenging to stand out, Salea is also quick to point out the value of being unique:

“Even though I am different, I am a part of this world—a part of this world that can never be broken. I may be frayed, but I am not afraid, because I am myself. If I cannot be that, then what am I?”

Founded in 2012, Speak With Purpose (SWP) is the only public speaking program offered as part of the regular school curriculum in King County. The organization serves 750 students, primarily from Title I schools in greater Seattle. Known as scholars, students participate in SWP classes for 10 weeks, a semester, or the entire year, depending on what school they attend. Scholars begin by writing original speeches and then move on to developing public speaking skills.

Empowering scholars

Founder Toyia Taylor is passionate about SWP’s scholars. As a student, Taylor experienced the challenges of being “taught at.” She recalls being surrounded by images and stories that didn’t resonate with her own experience. She’s made it her mission to offer a meaningful alternative to students, which she does by creating learning environments where scholars feel empowered to use their voices, share their experiences, express innate curiosity, and become engaged in their own education. 

“We let scholars decide what they are interested in,” Taylor says. “We encourage them to talk about how they see the world, and we listen deeply to their words, demonstrating that we value their opinions—both about history and current events.”

Developing life skills

Salea’s speech and voice powerfully attest to the program’s success. But developing these skills hasn’t come easy. She worked so long on writing, polishing, and practicing her speech that she almost gave up several times. 

“I just kept thinking and thinking about it,” Salea says. “I spent so much time correcting and re-writing it. I was overthinking, and I didn’t think people were going to like it.”

SWP staff gave Salea the support and encouragement she needed to overcome her anxiety. 

“I was so nervous, I was sweating. But when I got up there and started speaking, all my fear just went away,” she says.

After preparing—which included a practice run in the school’s library in front of peers and parents—Salea took the next step: She delivered her oration to a packed crowd in a large room at a conference hosted by the Community Center for Education Results.

Thinking beyond the class

Salea’s experiences have led her to consider a career in public speaking, something that was previously off her radar. For now, she’s looking forward to delivering her Passion Piece in an end-of-the-year performance at the SWP oratory showcase.

The SWP staff is made up of teaching artists, known as Educator/Innovators, who work together with Seattle Public Schools staff and parents to support program participants. These caring adults draw upon work experiences in advocacy, history, writing, dance, theatre, and other arts. They guide and support scholars to unapologetically use their “instruments”— that is, their hearts, minds, bodies, facial expressions, and movements. 

Speak with Purpose relies on community collaborations to ensure that young speakers have multiple venues to showcase their work. The curriculum culminates with opportunities to deliver speeches in real-world engagements outside of school.

Hear students speak

Salea’s next opportunity to speak purposefully will be on Father’s Day at SWP’s annual Rising Voices Oratory Showcase.

The public is invited to attend the event on Sunday, June 16, at Benaroya Hall.

Program supporters point out that being able to articulate thoughts and ideas with confidence is a necessary skill, not only for leadership but also for life. And, in the lives of young people, it’s difficult to imagine a better gift than the support of caring, interested adults who want to hear what they have to say. 

“Our children have a voice,” says Taylor. “Are you prepared to listen?”

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About the Author

Claire Sheridan

Claire Sheridan is a US-based writer and writing group facilitator. She enjoys debating about policy, current events, and critical existential concerns such as the best gluten-free cookie recipe. Connect with her at