When Amanda Gorman was in high school, a teacher gave her some advice: “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.” By the time she was 16, Gorman was already a youth delegate for the United Nations, on her way to publishing her first book of poetry, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, and the executive director of a non-profit that promoted literacy. So she didn’t take her teacher’s words as advice so much as a call to action. “What I really wanted to do what fuse creative writing with activism,” she says.
In 2017, as a freshman at Harvard, she was named the first-ever United States Youth Poet Laureate. Because no one had defined the role before her, she molded it herself. So between delivering keynote speeches and college coursework, “I went on this tour around the U.S. — it was just me and a lot of meetings in rooms and museums, trying to learn as much as possible.” She funneled that into her poetry: Using a striking combination of autobiography and historical imagery — from the first image of the Earth from space to scenes of the Jim Crow South — her poetry reads in part like a free-form dissertation. “I do so much research that people will never see,” she says. “I’ll return to a moment in history — look to the past to try to construct a poem about our future.”
The L.A. native, now 21 and a junior majoring in sociology, has credited her mom, an English teacher, for her creativity. “She kept the TV off because she wanted my siblings and I to be engaged and active,” she said. “We made forts, put on plays, musicals, and I wrote like crazy.” Her mom often told her that “the poet is lucky because they can serve as a messenger.” And there’s no message Gorman cares more about spreading than the importance of literacy and education. She’s now working with two non-profits, 826 National and the Amplifier Foundation, to launch an essay contest for high school students. “My personal motto, wherever I am, how can I contribute, and how can I pay my own education forward?” she says.
Her poems are often commissioned by social and political organizations, like Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and the UN Social Good Summit, and she’s found poetry can be a valuable tool to pierce otherwise paralyzing subjects. “Being able to communicate, not just the science and the facts,” she says, “but also the artistry and the humanity — it gets to people in a way that I think is unique, to try to get people not to feel scared but to feel prepared to become agents of change.” But whether she’s advocating for racial equality, climate action or LGBTQ rights, she says, “you can bet your dollar that I’ll approach that from the viewpoint of education of young people…literacy is a fundamental human right.”