By Melissa Jun Rowley
Throughout history poetry and justice have seamlessly gone hand in hand. From the classic’s of Maya Angelou to the 2021 inaugural poem by Amanda Gorman, the convergence of poetry, social justice, and activism transcend time across generations. Today, Generation Z is leading the way.
Harnessing the power of creative expression, 14-year-old Isabella Hanson created the “I Matter” national poetry competition in 2020 to give a vehicle to young voices wanting to amplify awareness about racial injustices and civil unrest in the U.S. Honoring Black Lives Matter and powered by Gucci, the contest for grades K-12 drew participation from 26 states last year. The top poems and art were made into a compilation book honoring the lives of black people killed in 2020, and can be downloaded here.
Skilled with prose and verse, the featured writers penned poems addressing issues including contest winner, Khabria Fisher-Dunbar’s “Hey Google,” which questions Google’s representation of black people, Sanai R. Eaton-Martinez’s “I CAN’T BREATHE,” which dives into the impact of George Floyd’s death on black youth, an untitled poem by Charity Fisher, which discusses her struggle as a young black girl, Ashlyn Poppe’s “My Skin is My Shield,” which explores white privilege, and many more.
“I use poetry as an outlet to express myself, and especially after watching all the footage of the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” says Hanson. “I just thought, if I’m using poetry then maybe other kids will like it. I know how hard it is to feel like you can’t express your feelings about hard subjects. Through a grant from Gucci, I created the “I Matter” poetry contest to give students my age that chance.”
In a short amount of time, Hanson was able to garner support from the likes of NBA player, Rob Covington, of Houston Rockets, and the competition’s three celebrity judges who selected the final winner. They include comedienne Torrei Hart, hip hop icon Kool Moe Dee, and singer Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George.
The first “I Matter” project followed Hanson’s 2020 Juneteenth Celebration, which she hosted to bring racial healing to the community at the historic Fussell House – a site which helped lead over 2,000 slaves to freedom. This year’s competition, which launched in January, is accepting poetry and art submissions from students until July 23, 2021.
Hanson’s poetry contest caught the eye of “Inside Edition,” which put her alongside Amanda Gorman, who Hanson says “gives her so much hope.
Hanson’s early days of writing poetry when she was 11 years old were inspired Dominican-American poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo, the writer of the New York Times Best Seller, “The Poet X,” “With the Fire on High,”and “Clap When You Land.”
“I met Elizabeth at an event, and I remember she wrote a poem called “A Rat Ode” dedicated to a professor she once had, who told her rats were not noble enough for a poem,” shares Hanons. “Poetry is really just a peaceful way to respond to issues that you think need to be out in the open. That’s definitely why I use it. So, after attending that event I decided to become a poet.”
Hanson would like to keep the “I Matter” contest going for a few more years, and has her eye on studying business in the future.
“I really like managing things, and I know a lot of black women have not run companies,” she says “So I want to try to increase that percentage. I’m probably going to minor in poetry in college, and maybe I’ll continue writing, but I’m going to focus on business.”