Social Justice Through Poetry

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Happy World Poetry Day!

In honor of World Poetry Day, I wanted to post a poem written by a 12-year-old black male a few years back. This poem was written when he was given the prompt “Youth Violence” in sixth grade language arts classroom. He had anxiety over the loss of several African American males in the custody of law enforcement over a short span of time. He felt unsure and unsafe and put those feelings on paper.


I’m a young black male in a society that seems to not value people who look like me;

I am aghast when I see violence against young brown-skinned boys by police brutality.

I’m confused, sad, bewildered, puzzled… aren’t the officers in blue supposed to Serve and Protect;

Who’s protecting me from the violence…seems more like neglect.

I can’t breathe!

On the computer there are stories about Trayvon Martin who held nothing but skittles and iced tea;

How did Zimmerman get away with making Trayvon the perpetrator on TV?

Michael Brown had both of his hands in the air surrendering, some witnesses say;

But that would be the last moment of his life as his body lay in the street for more than 4 hours that day.

Obeying universal rules and buying snack,

Doesn’t make sense to shoot someone in the back,

This is making me sad, angry and confused,

Of this really twisted unexplained news.

I can’t breathe!

Tamir Rice was only 12 years old like me, how could he be gone so early and so violently;

He never got a chance to say I’m a just a kid playing in the park, please don’t hurt me.

Eric Garner’s last words ring in my ears as I try to make sense of the violence against black youth like me;

Can’t you see that I can’t breath. Give me space, Hear my words, Get to know who I am and you will see.

Choking someone to death is extreme,

And even more so… killing a tween!

This makes me devastated, enraged and perplexed

And it makes me think…it could happen to me next.

I can’t breathe!

They think, boys like me with dark colored skin

In a hoodie with some friends is a sin;

Some white police officers are not understanding;

That negative stereotype is not upstanding.

BANG! BANG! BANG! the shots would ring out

One by one…

Not even realizing what they had done.

They think, “whoops another dumb boy was killed”

“He’s probably been smoking weed with a gun, another job fulfilled.”

I can’t breathe! Do you even know who I am?

I am a gifted ‘A’ student, I am a talented actor, I am a brilliant pianist;

I am a great athlete with goals and dreams of one day being a neuroscientist.

The actions of a few create unrest, mistrust, division and affect us all; Give young black boys and opportunity to succeed and fail, but pick us up when we fall.

Don’t make judgments, don’t assume, don’t stereotype because it often ends badly for young black boys;

Nonviolent protest, education, and know our words are not just loud noise.

I can’t breathe…


After turning in his assignment, he never heard back from his teacher regarding the assignment. NOT ONE WORD. Adults have the power to change children’s lives. He put his heart on the page and by not acknowledging this emotional poem, the teaching in fact made him feel invisible…not validated…like he didn’t matter…like he couldn’t breathe. I know this to be true because this young man is MY SON.

When we ignore or avoid tough and potential controversial questions and content, we in fact fail to acknowledge the feelings, anxieties, and fears of children. We miss out on teachable moments that could alter our children’s potential to engage in social action. We see throughout history, youth activism has been on the front line of change. We saw it during the Civil Rights Movement’s Children’s Crusade in the 1960s and we see in right now with the Never Again Movement in 2018. Let’s not get in the way of youth using education to liberate and transform.


3 Critical Rules of Engagement

Know yourself

Know our own biases and stereotyping in order to be mindful of how you present others’ stories and realities. Stay on top of current issues/events so you will feel more comfortable addressing topics from various perspectives with your children. Being prepared and proactive is thoughtful and helpful to your children. You don’t have to have the answers, but using teachable moments to engage in opportunities for compassion and social justice with your children is the goal.

Provide safe space

Have open conversations with your children to engage in current events that may be controversial in nature. Allow (even encourage) them to ask the hard questions (even questions that you don’t have the answers to). Work together to find the answers and understanding of issues. Sometimes children just need to be heard. Actively listen and see if they just need to vent before you try to “fix” the situation. Be open-minded and show them various perspectives to the issue. The rule in my house is to always show more than two perspectives so my children don’t walk away with binary thinking (us against them). For example with the poem above we discussed the topic through the lens of the mother of the victim, the police officer who put his/her life on the line every day, the community members on both sides of the issue, the Black Lives Matter Movement members, etc.

Reflection and Action

Always reflect with your child to make sure his questions were answered and he’s feeling less anxious about the issue. If it is your goal to nurture socially conscious children, you may want to ask them to come up with an action plan to address the issue. What can you do? What can our family do to address, change or impact the issue? It doesn’t have to be a large scale action. It could be something simple like writing letters to politicians, joining a march, sending donation to a cause, etc. The key is that you are showing your children how to use their voice and resources to impact change.

How do you address socially charged topics with your children?



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