poetry and social justice

Five Powerful and Poetic Ways to Fight for Social Justice

With issues such as gun violence, sexual harassment, homophobia, and other troubling epidemics confronting us each time we turn on the TV, take in the headlines, or scroll through social media, it may seem like we can’t make a difference. In the last few years, the American Psychological Association has acknowledged the legitimacy of “climate grief,” naming powerlessness as one of the effects. Meanwhile, a lack of agency and control also characterizes many millennials’ experiences with rising costs of living, access to reproductive healthcare, and police brutality


Given all that, I’ll admit it — the social landscape can seem pretty depressing. But there’s also an underlying bright side: We possess our own unique powers to change it. It doesn’t take a special degree, a position of power, or a crazy time commitment. Instead, everyone can harness their talents and interests, including poetry. Here’s how.


Host a poetry slam.

One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had thus far in my poetry career was performing in a poetry slam sponsored by Planned Parenthood. A simple rationale motivated this event: Storytelling has been proven to help reduce stigma. While this applies to reproductive rights, storytelling can raise awareness for any issue you’re passionate about. 


Viral slam poets have used poetry to reach wide audiences with messages about body image and eating disorders, rape culture, and more. Organizations like Split This Rock see poetry slams as a crucial part of their social justice mission. In addition to the significance of poetry slams in the moment, they can have a lasting impact. Planned Parenthood used poetry slam footage as part of a Senate filibuster, proving that poetry can function as political action. 


Bring poetry to a march, protest, or rally.

Speaking of political action, give your poetry or poetry you admire an important platform. Think of Halsey’s impassioned women’s march poem, which has been viewed more than one million times. Just as Halsey wrote poetry inspired by her cause, you can pen stanzas geared for March for Our Lives, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and other occasions for advocacy. Your words just might stick with someone, providing a rallying cry for continued urgency and action.


Form a diverse book club.

Ever feel like you read mostly white, straight, male poets in school? Join the club. Disrupting this canon can be a way of defying the “single story,” or opening yourself up to new, more varied perspectives. How would discussions of international conflicts benefit from reading rich Iranian poetry or Middle Eastern poems that bravely contextualize the Israel Palestine conflict? How could poetry push us to think beyond the gender binary? You might be surprised that poetry can give its readers the vocabulary to discuss these and other complicated topics with insight and compassion. Recently, I took part in an exercise that I recommend everyone use as a starting point: I looked at the books I read last year and saw what percent of them were written by women, people of color, queer writers, and other marginalized groups. Facing these statistics helped me realize what other voices I need to make room for, as listening can be a tool for activism in itself. 


Write to your legislators.

Do you know who your legislators are? While many of us share our opinions on social media, in happy hour rants, and in long-winded group texts, we need to take it a step further and make sure our elected officials know how best to represent us. You can look up your senators and representatives here, as well as find out how to contact them. Using a quote from a poem as your letter or email’s opening line can grab their attention and evoke real emotion. 


Rest and recuperate. 

Self-care for activists has become such a talking point that it returns more than one million results on Google. Despite the echo chamber, this care remains a necessary, effective defense against burnout. Simply put, you can’t care for others if you’re not caring for yourself. Return to poetry for the break you crave, the reflection you need, and the strength to keep going.