By George Weiner | April 18, 2019
Co-Founder and CTO, Power Poetry
A single poem—a simple combination of well-chosen words—can liberate a young person's soul. "A great poem is no finish to a man or woman, but rather a beginning," wrote Walt Whitman.
It is in this spirit of new beginnings that the To Be Heard Foundation (TBH) carries forth its mission: to educate youth through heightened literacy. We seek to empower youth as individuals, within their communities, and as social activists through a mastery of reading, writing and expression of poetry. The foundation sponsors the work of two core programs, Power Writers and Power Poetry.
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Power Poetry is the first and largest poetry website designed expressly for young writers. Users share their work with a like-minded community of more than 445,000 other youth poets around the world. The website was developed in 2012 when Roland Legiardi-Laura, a school teacher from the Bronx, witnessed firsthand how reading and writing poetry positively affects the lives of teenagers.
Power Poetry is the largest online poetry platform for young people. Some of our data:
In his award-winning documentary, To Be Heard, Legiardi-Laura followed three high school students from the Bronx and chronicled how they used poetry both to improve their lives and to impact the world. The documentary served as direct inspiration for PowerPoetry as Legiardi-Laura recognized a need for at-risk youth from all over the world to experience the healing and growth poetry brings.
I was the CTO of DoSomething.org at the time. Roland invited me to team up with him to build a platform to engage and support youth in writing and sharing their poems. We wanted to support every individual, regardless of gender, race, or background, and create a way for them to have their voices heard. We invited them to share their stories with the world.
Today, the website offers writing guides and tip sheets, digital poetry slams, online mentoring, scholarships for writing, and teacher resources.
Power Poetry is not simply a digital community for poetry students. Our goal is much grander. We want to move users to action through empowered literacy. Toward that end, Power Poetry has built a community of socially engaged poets who use innovative multimedia art as a tool for educational and social impact. One of our website taglines is, “If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.”
We want youth to be empowered to write their own stories!
The resources offered on the site allow teachers, educators, districts and organizations to leverage the scale of technology, inspiring their students to write and create art works. From the very beginning, the secret to our success has been the way we analyze and act on our data.
We have used natural language processing analytics to prove that teen literacy improves as youth create more poems. We are able to track when a new poet comes onto the site, submits a poem or gets comments from others. We discovered that poets who reached and passed the 10-poem mark showed improved literacy in their writing. Even more exciting is the fact that the literacy improvement rates were greater in low-income zip codes.
Sponsored Scholarship Slams are one of our favorite tools for giving young people the space and prompts to talk about important social issues related to relationships, mental health, image, race, education and many other topics. The slams are exciting and competitive, and winners are awarded a $500-$1,000 scholarship. Their poetry is featured across our site.
Recently, we partnered with the One Love Foundation, an organization committed to promoting healthy relationships. Together, we launched our #BecauseILoveYou Scholarship Slam. Students wrote poems about their views on what is necessary for a healthy relationship. This was our most successful scholarship yet, with over 9,000 submissions. We hope to partner with other organizations in the future to yield similar results.
Power Poetry also partnered with the Academy of American Poets, a nonprofit that supports American poets at all stages of their careers, to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry. We worked together to cross-promote students’ poems and build our Poetry Genome tool. This feature uses machine learning to compare each poem on the site to the writing styles of classic and contemporary poets.
The tool generates a percentage comparison for each submitted poem based on theme, style, and content. This tool actively engages poets to post more of their work on the site and see which artists they match with. Users can then learn more about each poet they have been matched with, using bios we compiled on the site.
We offer extensive resources for educators, including lesson plans, action guides that link writing to social change, and a free online course on how to teach poetry. We offer a Poetry Terms database and a dynamic collection of poetry writing tips (“11 Facts About Bob Dylan,” “How to Use Simile,” “How to Write a Poem About Death”).
If you work with young people, I hope you’ll spend some time exploring the Power Poetry site. Whether you’re in a school, community or health-based setting, you’ll discover exciting ways to empower the voices of the youth you serve. Yes, this helps build strength and skill in young people. But I believe it also serves those of us who are not youth. When we listen to the empowered voices of young people, our own perspectives on the world are transformed for the better.
George Weiner is Co-Founder and CTO, Power Poetry. He is also the Founder and Chief Whaler at Whole Whale*, a digital agency that leverages web data and tech to multiply the impact of nonprofits. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*ETR is a client of Whole Whale.