Human rights workers are often focused on securing the immediate needs of the people they serve – food, water, shelter, safety.  It’s often easier to center these concrete necessities rather than think about the complex emotions that are caught up in human rights struggles around the world. Even as this work is intimately tied up in people’s lives, the fast pace and intense circumstances leave little time to personally reflect or process experiences.

However, creative expression through writing, performance, and poetry is a valuable and necessary tool that can aid both human rights workers and the causes they are passionate about. Shami Chakrabarti, British Labor party MP and human rights advocate, wrote an essay on how poetry is the perfect form to challenge human rights abuses. As she argues, “a politics that ignores or suppresses the intimate sphere will allow or even ensure abuses of power in the home, on the streets and in its own institutions.” Poetry is an opportunity for personal reflection as well as advocacy, consciousness-raising, and even fundraising work. Above all, poetry is a reminder that human rights work must concern itself with the personal as well as the political.

Poetry is an elegant and evocative way to explore and express how structural or large-scale problems affect the lives of individuals. The Button Poetry project is an online archive of poetry, both written and performed, much of which speaks to issues of social justice and human rights. These poets take on everything from structural oppression to everyday micro-aggressions, often expanding ordinary moments with layers of nuance and feeling. In Javon Johnson’s powerful poem “cuz he’s black” the author reflects on a moment riding in a car with his young nephew. When they pass a police car the child instinctively hides. This simple reflex prompts Johnson to think about the social forces that have conditioned young black boys to be so afraid.

“I’m not happy with the way we raise our black boys.

Don’t like the fact that he learned to hide from the cops well before he knew how to read.

Angrier that his survival depends more on his ability to deal with the “authorities” than it does his own literacy.”

Johnson’s poetry eloquently details the layers of pain, anger, and fear that underscore this everyday moment that might otherwise seem unremarkable. Another Button Poetry poet, Alex Dang, takes a similar approach in his poem “What Kind of Asian Are You?”. He begins with the tile question, something he regularly hears from all kinds of people, a repeated challenge to fit into their assumed stereotypes.

What kind of Asian do you EXPECT me to be?
Because any way you slice that egg roll,
I’m still pretty much whatever you want to see.
I’ve played many a Far East stereotype:
Awkward math genius,
cold and calculated Kung-Fu expert,
assistant to “Dr. Jones, you crazy!”

Dang continues to break down these stereotypes and express the difficulty, anger, and psychic pain at continually being expected to conform to other people’s ideas of his culture. He then details the real struggles of immigrant life, including poverty and language barriers, that are ignored by the larger society. He explodes this small moment to show the layers of oppression, assumptions, and discriminations that shape his life.

A London-born spoken word poet of Ugandan heritage, George the Poet uses a similar approach to break down the history of racism and oppression in Theresa May’s 2013 “Go Home” billboard campaign encouraging undocumented immigrants to leave the UK. George’s poem, also entitled “Go Home,” explains exactly what that phrase means to UK immigrants and people of color and actively calls out the insidious intent behind this policy.

“Go Home” harks back to a miserable memory

of hatred towards an invisible enemy,

and it’s wrong of Government to use this phrase,

it’s wrong of Government to abuse its place,

because language is a gateway to an attitude –

that’s menacing, that’s hostile, that is rude.”

In addition to personal expression and speaking back to the powerful, poetry can be incredibly useful in advocacy and fundraising. The emotional connection and visual imagery can be a powerful tool to connect donors large and small to the work that your organization does. While statistics and demographics are important, poetry has a special ability to demonstrate the struggles of refugees, the destruction of pollution, or the pain of living under a repressive regime. There are several major collections of poetry that collect work by both celebrated authors and those on the front lines of human rights struggles. These include Fire in the Soul (published by Amnesty International), I Go to a Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights (focusing on torture, immigration, imprisonment, and war), and In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights (a collaboration between the Human Rights Consortium at University of London and the Keats House Poets). These anthologies are also incredible resources for reflection and reengagement with your own work. They can also be used as inspiration for a book club or discussion group with your fellow human rights workers or as tools for personal self-care.

If you’re so inspired, you can start your own efforts to spread poetry inspired by your own work or the struggles of the communities you serve. In 2016, the Universal Human Rights Student Network held their first Human Rights Poetry Competition and solicited poetry from all over the world inspired by the plight of refugees. They published the winners and finalists in this e-book as a way to spread these important voices and further their commitment to global human rights. Publishing your work online is a great way to spread your message and reach as many people as possible. If you’re working with young people, Power Poetry is an online community where they can share their work and learn more about turning their words into actions. Whether you’re looking to share your work with strangers, reflect on your own, or build up connections to your co-workers or communities poetry is a powerful way to stay connected to the human part of human rights work.

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