Social change is often described in literature (think A Tale of Two Cities, or The Mask of Zorro), but how often is it effected by literature or literary pursuits?
Aside from the more obvious benefits of literacy and entering the Great Conversations of literature, I would argue that literature can have a direct influence on social change. From time to time on this blog, I want to highlight some of the grassroots organizations that are using literature to make this change happen.
I recently came across the website for The Write Side Poets. Bold text at the top of the homepage proclaims, “This Ain’t Your Mamma’s Poetry.” The background is a brickwork pattern splattered with graffitti of positive messages.
The Write Side Poets (TWSP), “is a non-profit organization designed to gather, inspire, assist, and encourage young writers (ages 13 to 24 years old) who desire to speak their own messages through the powerful medium of spoken word art to millions of their urban and suburban peers.”
The organization was founded in 2000, in Tampa Bay, Florida. It is based on models from New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. By 2004, TWSP expanded to southern Florida.
TWSP offers regular after-school workshops led by cultural activists, well-known poets, and other word artists. It also sponsors inter-school poetry slam competitions, which allow participants to show off their accomplishments.
The broader goals of TWSP are built around the idea that language can be used for cultural critique. TWSP promotes dialogue and creativity focused on issues that are relevant to urban and suburban teenagers. In the process, TWSP helps students develop and take pride in their own cultural identity.
TWSP and other organizations like it are begun by visionaries who recognize the immense power of the written and spoken word, and who have taken the initiative to use that power for something good.
Truly, as Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in his 1839 play Richelieu, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Kudos to TWSP for remaking this phrase for the twenty-first century.