“I see it all as activism – youth activism,” says Isabella Hanson, founder of the poetry and art competition “I Matter”.
Kennett Square High School Senior began the program in 2020 after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. A writer and poet, Hanson says she was shocked by what she saw her peers post on social media about tragic police killings.
“People tend to crack jokes and make memes and stuff that’s not really funny,” she recalled.
Hanson believed the inappropriate response came because young people lacked a safe space to really process and express their feelings about the many things going on around them. At the time, 14-year-old Hanson was studying Langston Hughes. She realized that poets used their words to express their outrage. Inspired by young poets like Elizabeth Acevedo, Hanson decided to follow in their footsteps.
“Then I thought maybe there were other kids like me who also had trouble expressing themselves,” she says.
Hanson hosted a June 19 celebration at the home of Dr. Bartholomew Fussell, the first in Kennett Township where young people performed poetry. But she wanted to do more. Soon after, Hanson launched the “I Matter” poetry and art contest. With the help of her mother, Sophia Hanson, who runs the National Youth Foundation, she secured a scholarship. Afterwards, the volunteers participated in a grassroots effort to reach out to teachers and youth organizations across the country to publicize the contest.
“We got blocked on social media because we used the term Black Lives Matter,” Hanson explains, “so when we hit that roadblock and couldn’t pay to promote [the contest] on social media, we just had to find another way.
Their work drew about 150 poetry entries for the competition’s first year, according to Hanson. They brought in NBA superstar Rob Covington and comedian Torrei Hart as judges, pushing the contest to over 1,000 entries from 48 states and 67 countries.
“It’s insane to me that so many kids are interested in something I love doing and are motivated to work for change,” Hanson says.
The top ten entries are included in a book of poems and art – all created by children – which is published and donated to local schools and libraries. The unique program brought recognition to Hanson who won the Diana Prize in 2022, which honors young people from the UK and around the world. She was also named to the Final 50 list for Nickelodeon TV and Time magazine’s Kid of the Year Award last year and became a member of Lady Gaga’s social justice foundation.
The reward through which Hanson creates space for other children to express themselves.
“Seeing a lot of different perspectives from kids around the world has really given me a new lens on the whole Black Lives Matter movement itself,” she says, “and I think that’s something I really learned – how open I can be to different perspectives.
“I would say she embodies more than a good soul,” says Vera Portier, who nominated Hanson for the Good Souls Project. “I was very impressed with this young lady.”
Portier got involved in the I Matter poetry contest when she says Hanson reached out after hearing a song she helped produce called “We Matter.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLOsfbPTLmc The song was written by Portier and Mara X Mini, a teenage singer-rapper duo. The band performed at an “I Matter” poetry event, Portier says. That’s when she says she saw Hanson at work.
“She’s genuine,” Portier says, “You believe what she says, you believe she cares about human beings in spirit and in the importance of giving young people a voice.”
The song Mara X Mini was featured during Hanson’s segment on Nickelodeon presented by singer Billie Eilish.
“It was all Bella,” notes Portier, “she gave them a platform.”
“With poetry, there really are no boundaries,” says Hanson, noting that she plans to go to college to pursue a career in journalism or writing.
She says her goal is to make sure the I Matter poetry and art competition continues to matter. The program is currently accepting entries for the 2023 competition. http://www.nationalyouthfoundation.org/i-matter/