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Chester County Press

I Matter: High School student's new book illuminates voices of young poets

06/29/2021 02:46PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

On June 13, 15-year-old Isabella Hanson – who will be a junior at Kennett High School this September -- was one of 15 students from eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware to receive the 2021 Princeton Prize in Race Relations, that identifies and recognizes high school-age students “who significantly engage and challenge their schools or communities to advance racial equity in order to promote respect and understanding among all people.”

Hanson was recognized for her work in founding and developing “I Matter,” a nationally recognized youth poetry program focused on the Black Lives Matter movement; publishing a book of the same name that featured the poems of 12 young authors; working with her high school’s teachers to diversify the English and social studies curricula; and for developing a confidential reporting form for equity and diversity concerns through her work with the Equity Diversity Council.

For Hanson, however, the recognition she received earlier this month was the culmination of growth, awareness and discovery she experienced between the bracketed dates of exactly one calendar year – from June 19, 2020 to June 19, 2021 – a 365-day blank slate in her young life that she filled with purpose and meaning during one of the most volatile years in memory.

When Kennett High School converted to a virtual form of education at the outset of COVID-19 last March, Hanson took on the responsibility of attending not just one school, but two. Her mother Sophia, the founder of the National Youth Foundation, began teaching Isabella and her younger daughter Victoria a curriculum she called “Black History X,” that complimented her daughters’ regular schoolwork with a condensed history of the Black experience in America.

It was a daily overview of a 400-year odyssey, and one dotted with African-American names not often found in the pages of our country’s homogenized history books. The sisters learned about systemic racism, and were introduced to those who countered indecency with activism. They learned about Black poets, authors, artists, musicians and leaders. Sophia also opened The Autobiography of Malcolm X for her daughters, and then screened the Spike Lee film starring Denzel Washington.

I never learned about Malcolm X in school, so reading the book and watching the film became a new education for me,” Isabella said. “At the time, I was reading Animal Farm, Shakespeare and Beowulf, so this was a good change to learn about something I could truly relate to.”

“People can point to a painting and identify it as a Picasso or a van Gogh, but how many people can identify the work of Horace Pippin, who lived in Chester County and was one of the greatest artists to ever walk the face of this earth?” Sophia said. “I felt I had to open these doors for my daughters. I love Kennett High School, but I felt their curriculum was not well balanced and I felt it was crucial for me to take our daughters past the traditional ‘Male, Pale and Stale’ genre of influential people and to a new place of consciousness.”

Then on May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered in Minneapolis while being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill, and within hours, an eight-minute, 46-second video capturing the event hit the airwaves and unveiled the horrible aftermath of Floyd’s arrest by the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin.

On June 19, 2020, a day that called for eventual thunderstorms and rain, the clouds above the historic Fussell House in Kennett Square parted long enough to welcome 100 invited guests to “Juneteenth: Network to Freedom,” an event that Isabella organized with assistance from The National Youth Organization and Kennett Township, and funding from the Gucci Changemakers Fund.

“I saw the [Floyd] video on the news and on social media, and I was distraught to think that someone could do that to another living person, especially given that one person had expressed that he couldn’t breathe, but was continued to be stepped on like he was a bug,” Isabella said. “After George Floyd’s death, I just wanted to do something positive. I saw that Juneteenth was just a few weeks away, so I began to research on Google, send e-mails and create guest lists in an effort to organize the event.”

One of those guests included Dr. Susan Fussell, a descendant of Bartholomew and Lydia Fussell, the Quaker activists who provided refuge in their home for a decade in the mid-1800s. Fussell, a professor at Cornell University, drove from Ithaca, N.Y. to Kennett Square to speak at the event.

‘A forum to express their emotions’

While the tumultuous year of 2020 continued to play itself out in the form of pandemic shutdowns, virtual education, political divide, racial unrest and the evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement, Isabella turned to her journal, where during a report she was writing about the poet Langston Hughes she began to use words in order to make sense of what she was experiencing. The power of her own writing eventually led to what became the start of her “I Matter” K-12 national youth poetry contest, in order to provide young writers with a forum to express their emotions as a result of witnessing the violence and injustices that disproportionately impact the Black community. 

When Isabella sent out a call for submissions, she expected to receive a few responses. Instead, she received over 100 poems submitted by young writers. With help from a panel of celebrity judges including comedienne Torrei Hart, hip hop artist Kool Moe Dee, singer Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George and a review committee at Gucci, Isabella narrowed the number of entries own to ten. With funding from the Gucci Changemakers Grant and The National Youth Foundation, these top ten poems and two others are now published in I Matter, a 28-page, limited edition book complimented with art and illustrations from local student artists.

“Some of the poems I received were amazing,” Isabella said. “It thrilled me to see how many students of all races nationally love poetry and want to use it for the good.”

From cover to cover, I Matter is an unblemished, raw explosion of art and words that take the reader on an exploration of loss, suffering and hope in the wake of racial injustice. In her poem “Hey Google” – which was declared the winner of the contest -- 12th-grade author Khabria Fisher-Dunbar writes:

Hey Google/What’s the black national anthem?/Lift every voice and sing/We still have to sing because no one hears us/When singing turns to screams are we still invisible/What do we do?

In his poem “I Can’t Breathe,” 12th-grade writer Sanai R. Eaton-Martinez writes:

I don’t want a knee on my neck/I don’t want a gun held to my back/I don’t want to be hunted down like a deer/ I don’t want to live in fear/I don’t wanna be another hashtag/I don’t wanna be a trend/Because all trends end

‘Anything is Possible’

I knew that while people had feelings about what was going on, they probably didn’t know how to express them, so I created the project to give them a chance to express all of their bottled-up feelings, in a platform that allows them to speak about the events of 2020, through poetry,” Isabella said. “Watching the reactions to what happened to George Floyd and Breanna Taylor on social media was that there were too many posts and not enough action. The Black Lives Matter movement began to show me that anything is possible.”

From May 30 through July 5, 2021, the Chester County Juneteenth Festival has offered a county-wide, month-long calendar of events that acknowledged what is now an official U.S. holiday. Presented by the Chester County Historic Preservation Society, Voices Underground, the Chester County History Center and the Chester County Planning Commission, the festival was highlighted by a keynote lecture held at Cheyney University on June 19 by Caroline Randall Williams, a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, who spoke about the role of the artist in the journey towards freedom.

As a lead-in to Williams’ address, several of the poets whose work was published in I Matters delivered their poems to an enthusiastic audience.

‘I see something, I will do something' 

Over the past year, during a time of great uncertainty both in the environment and in the culture of America, Sophia began to see her oldest daughter’s voice and consciousness emerge quietly in the wake of upheaval.

“Isabella is a very smart, organized and kind young woman, but prior to the social unrest of 2020, she had a hard time understanding the depth of racism in America,” Sophia said.

“When my husband Thomas and I used to talk to Isabella and Victoria about racial unrest and inequity, they could listen but not absorb it until they witnessed it for themselves in 2020. Now, there was empirical evidence of someone hired to protect human beings doing the exact opposite and killing a human being.

“I began to see a transformation in Isabella in 2020 – a wake-up call that saw her step into a leadership space that encourages someone to raise their hand and say ‘I see something, I will do something.’ It was positive and empowering.”

Kennett High School principal Dr. Jeremy Hritz offered his enthusiastic praise.

“Bella is a true leader who actively seeks out opportunities to bring about positive change in our world,” Hritz said in a recent interview. “Her work ethic, dedication, and passion shine through her efforts, and we are honored and proud that she is a part of Kennett High School.”

Isabella’s efforts have earned her a special commendation from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, as well as recognition on the Top 50 list for Nickelodeon/Time’s Kid of the Year Award. Wolf’s commendation includes Isabella among “the rich heritage of individuals who have made contributions to their communities and our commonwealth.”

Prior to the start of her junior year in September, Isabella and her family will embark on an early college tour of schools in New England that will include Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While college is only a few years away, it’s a distant dot on a list of aspirations that will someday lead to Isabella to study entrepreneurship and business, and eventually achieve her dream of becoming a chief executive officer.

In the mean time, however, there is still the small matter of publishing a follow-up edition to I Matter, whose submissions now number 420, with entries from 42 states and 15 countries. For the final selection of poems, Isabella will again be working with an esteemed trio of judges that will include Ron Covington of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, former Little League World Series pitcher and Hampden University student-athlete Monae Davis and NFL safety Malcolm Jenkins of the New Orleans Saints.

Wherever her future takes her, Isabella Hanson knows that it will be connected to her consciousness and sense of awareness.

“I believe that social justice is important because I am affected by it,” she said. “My place will be to continue to bring people together. I want to be a part of a positive change.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].