Social Justice Poetry: Books of Poetry Empower Students to Enact Change

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice
Edited by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Published in 2016 by the University of Arizona Press (UA), Poetry of Resistance gathers the verse of 88 culturally diverse poets. In the introduction, 2015 United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera writes that their voices manage to “sever border wires … [through the] bitter honey of their songs across time, terrain, family loss, brutality, and transcendence.” 

The impetus for the book began with the arrest of nine Latino college students who chained themselves to the main doors of the Arizona State Capitol in protest of the state’s “reasonable suspicion” law (SB 1070). The controversial law, later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, gives Arizona police the right to arrest individuals on mere suspicion of not having papers. Critics of the law have argued that it effectively legalizes racial profiling. 

Inspired by the students’ protest, UA professor Francisco X. Alarcón swiftly penned the poem Para los Nueve del Capitolio (“For the Capitol Nine”). The poems’ themes include indigenous cultural myths, homages to fallen border crossers, and sacred chants calling for communal healing.

Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice
Edited by Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson

Rhythm and Resistance provides teachers with lesson plans and sample student poems focused on celebrating young people’s diverse cultural identities and empowering them to “talk back” to injustice. It was produced in 2015 by Rethinking Schools, the nonprofit publisher and education advocacy organization. The editors are both experienced educators and writers.  

The book is divided into six themed chapters, which collectively encourage young poets to claim their cultural roots, celebrate their unique identities, stand up for their communities, and more. One chapter titled “Poetry and People: Breathing Life into Literary and Historical Characters” focuses on the cultivation of empathy across cultures. A lesson on “persona poems” shows teachers how to help students write from the perspective of a literary or historical figure after they finish a text or unit. 

Creative strategies for teaching poetry are embedded throughout the book. Lessons can be modified for any age group, with some specifically directed at elementary age children.

Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice
Edited by Gail Bush and Randy Meyer 

Published by Norwood House Press with financial support from the rapper COMMON’s Common Ground Foundation, Indivisible is a trim collection of poems by both esteemed American poets and lesser known emerging writers. 

In the foreword, COMMON states that the volume can help those, especially young people, from “every margin of our society fight the good fight” and “follow the golden rule” in a country that has a “difficult time matching [its] words with [its] deeds.” 

Contributors include Maya Angelou, Tupac Shakur, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and Billy Collins, among others. The compositions tend to be short, powerful, and accessible for young readers, punctuated by black and white illustrations by Matthew Thomas Bush. 

Poems are arranged into five sections, designed to lead readers through “a journey toward social justice,” according to the editors.

Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the Summer 2019 issue.