plenary Speakers

Mia Birdsong

Mia Birdsong has spent more than 20 years fighting for the self-determination and pointing out the brilliant adaptations of everyday people. In her current role as Co-Director of Family Story, Mia is updating this nation’s outdated picture of the American family (hint: rarely 2.5 kids and two heterosexual parents living behind a white picket fence). Previously, Mia worked as the Vice President of the Family Independence Initiative, where she created and curated the Torchlight Prize. Mia, whose 2015 TED talk–titled, “The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True”–has been viewed over 1.2 million times already, has been published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Salon, and On Being, and has guest lectured at UC Berkeley. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and an inaugural Ascend Fellow of The Aspen Institute.

Mia is also a modern Renaissance woman. She has spent time organizing to abolish prisons, teaching teenagers about sex and drugs, interviewing literary luminaries like David Foster Wallace, John Irving, and Edwidge Danticat, and attending births as a midwifery apprentice. She co-founded Canerow, a resource for people dedicated to raising children of color in a world that reflects the spectrum of who they are. These are some of the many reasons that Mia was recognized as one of Colorlines “15 Remarkable Women of Color Who Rocked 2015.”

Ashanti Branch

Mr. Branch, born and raised by a single mother on welfare in Oakland, California, took the road less traveled to get out of the ghetto and attended one of California’s premier engineering colleges, California Polytechnic - San Luis Obispo. Ashanti studied Civil Engineering and worked as a construction project manager in his first career. After tutoring struggling students and realizing his true passion was teaching, Mr. Branch changed careers. He had suddenly found the “fire” that was missing in his life and he hoped to ignite a similar enthusiasm in his young students. In 2004 as a first year teacher, Ashanti started The Ever Forward Club to provide a support group for African American and Latino males, who were not achieving to the level of their potential. Since then, The Ever Forward Club has grown to serve both young men and women and become a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. The Ever Forward Club has helped 100% of its members graduate high school and 93% of them have gone on to attend college.

With over 19 years mentoring youth and 10 of those years as a math teacher educating inner city youth, Ashanti was awarded with a Fulbright Exchange Fellowship to India, a Rotary Club Cultural Ambassadorial Fellowship to Mexico and a 2010 Teacher of the Year Award from the Alameda-Contra Costa County Math Educators. Mr. Branch is on a mission to change the way that students interact with their education and the way schools interact with students.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Originally from rural Oklahoma, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz completed the doctorate in History at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1974, specializing in Western Hemisphere and Indigenous histories. She is Professor Emerita in Ethnic Studies at California State University East Bay, where she created and taught the curriculum in Native American Studies and co-founded the Department of Ethnic Studies.  She is author or editor of 12 books, including The Great Sioux Nation: An Oral History of the Sioux Nation; Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico; Indians of the Americas: Human Rights and Self-Determination; and the memoir trilogy:  Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie; Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975; and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War. Her most recent book is An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

Violet Juno

If you count all the languages learned and lost in her family’s discourse, English is Violet Juno’s seventh language. So it is perhaps no surprise that Violet combines a range of artistic languages including spoken word, movement, kinetic sculpture, visual tableaux, soundscapes, and three-dimensional mapping to create multi-sensory experiences for audience members. Violet's artwork explores the dynamic and intersectional relationships between language/languagelessness, disabilities/super abilities, binary/non-binary gender identities, and the creative process/neuroplasticity.

Since 1990, Violet has presented her transdisciplinary performance work at 75 venues in 40 cities in the United States, Canada and Scotland. Venues include MOMA, PS1 and PS122 in New York, LACE and Highways in Los Angeles, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Southern Exposure in San Francisco, Pro Arts and the Berkeley Art Museum in the East Bay, Center for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Scotland, and the Banff Centre of the Arts in Canada.

In addition, Violet has taught as a visiting artist at 17 K-12 schools and 20 universities over the past 25 years. Passionate about the arts, Violet has served on the board of the National Performance Network, as well as participated in a wide range of art residencies, think tanks, fellowships, and collectives to support the national and international advancement of the arts and teaching artistry. Violet is currently working on three books that focus on transdisciplinary performance and how neuroplasticity creates a synergistic effect between art practice and healing. More information at

Tassiana Willis

Tassiana Willis (Performer/Gallery) is one of the inaugural Emerging Arts Fellows at Youth Speaks, Inc. She is an accomplished writer, actress, and singer and has been a leader in YS programs such as SPOKES Youth Advisory Board, Brave New Voices Team Bay Area, and Future Corp; the engine that runs Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival in a rotating US city each year. She has recently been chosen by the Emerging Arts Professionals SF/Bay as one of their Fellows, and has just completed the historic run of Anna Deveare Smith’s Notes from the Field at Berkeley Repertory Theater as a facilitator for their community engagement process that worked with over 12,000 audience members during the 24 show run.