Stop saying that millennials are entitled and apathetic. Better yet stop thinking it. Truth is they are part of the woke generation with enough self-belief to make waves. Case in point. Amanda Gorman, 18 year old author, activist and L.A.’s first ever Youth Poet Laureate. Impressed yet? Well you will be after reading the full interview. MC, editor
For someone who doesn’t know One Pen One Page, how would you describe what it stands for?
One Pen One Page stands for creative youth leadership development through storytelling. We strive to give young leaders, especially those of color, an opportunity to share their stories and initiate positive change in their communities. Through in-school programs, our online magazine, and our youth chapter program, we hope to inspire young people to use the arts as an innovative form of activism.
And what led you to start it?
When I was named Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, I wanted to use my platform to give back to my community. The summer I was awarded the title, I had the opportunity to be an ANNpower fellow in Washington, D.C., which really helped me develop the skills and network I needed to launch my community project. With funding from ANN Inc and Vital Voices, I returned to Los Angeles and initiated One Pen One Page’s reading rewards program, online magazine, and school workshops.
How have you witnessed first-hand the impact of the platform and your efforts to promote literacy?
One of the most influential moments I experienced through One Pen One Page was when we hosted an online poetry workshop program with schoolgirls from Afghanistan last year. The students got up bright and early to attend, some busing to get there, and all gathered in a school room to participate in the workshop. They were so energetic and had so many ideas about gender equality, writing and being a leader. They were very engaged in the workshop, which went on much longer than I’d anticipated. I was told that afterwards, these girls started their own poetry group, which was amazing to hear, as sometimes there is stigma toward girls writing poetry in the area they’re in. Whenever I wonder if what I do has an impact, I’m inspired by those girls who were able to explore the writers in themselves at the workshop.
Do you feel that you’re a born storyteller/activist or is it something you have to work hard at?
I would say that some people are born with the natural desires or skills of an activist or storyteller, yet I can say from experience, that it definitely requires work and perseverance. Ever since I can remember I was always infatuated with stories and the possibility of making a difference, yet the ability to tell those stories myself, the leadership skills needed to unite people and put a plan into action, is still something I’m learning. There’s never really an “I’ve arrived” moment when it comes to this, because we’re always growing, changing, and progressing. With being a storyteller/activist, it’s less about any final destination and more about the path we take to get there.
Who would you list as an inspiration and why?
My mom is such a big inspiration to me and so are all my mentors, my family and friends. They’ve given me the foundation that’s helped me accomplish what I have. As for people I don’t know personally, Maya Angelou and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie inspire me. Whenever I get lost in what I want to do in my career, or need to be reminded about why I do what I do, I love to watch videos of these two amazing women. It helps me remember all that can be done with a pen and tenacity.
You’re a published author, the first ever Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate and currently an ambassador for School of Doodle. Did you ever plan for any of this or would you say success happened accidentally?
Ha, before I saw the application for L.A. Youth Poet Laureate, I didn’t really even know what a Poet Laureate was, so that wasn’t a goal I was pushing for specifically, because I didn’t even know it existed! A teacher at my school dropped the advertisement flyer on my lap and suggested I apply; that opportunity literally fell out of the sky for me. Similarly with School of Doodle, that is a wonderful chance I had but not one I’d necessarily planned for. I just got an email from someone on their team one day. What comes my way is half luck and half preparation. Before the LAYPL application, I’d been working on my poetry and activism, I’d been actively pushing myself to write more, to get published, to share my work and learn from others, so when the application showed up in my life, I had some poems and work to send in. Before School of Doodle, I’d been proactive in making spaces for young women, advocating for intersectional feminism and creativity, and so when I found out about the platform one day, everything seemed to align. These transitions are authentic and also prepared for in a way, in that I do set personal goals for myself and I’m also very fortunate and grateful for the opportunities that have intersected with that preparation.
Do you feel the pressure to keep setting the bar high, to keep exceeding yourself? If so, how do you work through that?
With every new opportunity I’m fortunate enough to have, there is a nagging thought in the back of my head, something that sounds like: “How can I keep raising this bar? How can I make sure this is not the peak?” I want to keep progressing and ascending, but that can be a lot of pressure to manage, to always be the best you’ve ever been. I got a little overwhelmed, and I realized it was weighing on me to think ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ I want to focus on the now, and the why. So currently I look at my life as: “How can I keep my heart and mind open to the possibilities that might come my way? What is it that I like about where I am – whether that’s the people I’m working with, the cause I am advocating for, or the community I’m learning from – and what are the places that I can get more of that?”
In moments of uncertainty and self-doubt, what keeps you driven and focused?
In the hardest moments I pray and meditate, trying to remind myself of what really matters. I list what I’m grateful for and what makes me laugh, or cry. This helps center me so that I can stay focused on what’s most important in my life – love, community, and giving back. At the end of the day, that less-than-perfect grade, that challenge with running a nonprofit, that negative comment, is minimal in comparison with the big picture. I think of all the people who have supported me, which gives me the determination to continue to do all the good I can with that warmth and encouragement.
“I’m always angry. I wake up angry. There is a lot to be angry about. Anger is a positive energy.” – Thandie Newton. Any words of wisdom for future changemakers on how to channel their anger/frustration into action and make passion projects happen?
Recently there’s been increased media coverage of police brutality, an issue for me that evokes anger, confusion, sadness and anxiety. I funneled these thoughts into my writing, especially in my poetry book “The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough”, the title of which is from a line in A Raisin in the Sun. In the poems I explore what it means to be black, to be a woman, and to be both, in the context of the contemporary United States, and what that implies for activists and our communities as a whole. Often youth, especially black women, are told: “Don’t be angry.” Yet human beings have every right to be angry, to own their emotions. Yet I would say we must use these natural reactions to be constructive, to add more to conversations, to propel progress. That is the difference between anger and passion, vehemence and drive.
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