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COMMUNITY POETRY

I like to say that I am poet by night and a social impact warrior by day. Together, with my team of other social impact warriors, we move the needle everyday fighting for greater equity and inclusion in spaces like mental health, HIV, and in education by co-creating, advising, and supporting the investments of the foundations, organizations, and companies we partner with.

We crunch data, breathe spreadsheets, strategize, theorize complexity, conceptualize frameworks, convene leaders, problem-solve. But most importantly, we storytell. The community poetry to follow were part of our effort to storytell, and all the while, connect. 

What is community poetry?

The concept of community poetry is simple. I take the words of the community we are working with and mesh them into verses that flow and inspire. The idea is that during share back the community sees their words in the poem. And they see, that they too, are poets through the work they do. 

Verses that remind...

This poem was collectively written by leaders participating in a working group for the National Alliance for Mental Illness, the nation's largest mental health organization. You Are Not Alone is NAMI's motto and the poem allowed us to step back from the grind of the work and center around the meaning behind why we do what we do, and that is to connect with and lend support to those experiencing a mental illness. 

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

My life

in the explosion of a supernova,

careening between brilliant shards

of color and the descent into the blacks

of a dying world,

is filled with thoughts and emotions,

needing to share.

 

But don’t pity me,

for in the swing of my pendulum,

oscillating between worlds

known and unknown,

you are my nadir, and my zenith, too.

 

You are

the weight that propels the motion,

the laws of physics non-defied,

the candle that sustains the glimmer,

the hope that springs eternal,

the change we are ready for, and

the simultaneous fear that ensues.

When there is joy yet to come,

I assure you, my dear, that it is yet to come.

Grapple with the darkness one more day,

and trust in tomorrow, trust in your soul

for you are beautiful, you are worthy.

Through this invigorated shimmer,

that will shield you from disdain,

you will see it, and others too.

What we see is what we will get.
If we take more time to see,
we would see what we don’t get.

So today, my dear,
delight in your light, 
for your light is our life.

And when you are ready to let go,
tomorrow or who knows,
and share some of that weight,
know that you are not alone. 

Verses of courage and resilience...

I Raise My Flag with Pride was a piece written as part of the Positive Action for Latinx Men initiative funded and spearheaded by ViiV Healthcare, a company dedicated to reducing HIV.  I based this poem on the findings from ViiV Healthcare's "Here As I Am: A Listening Initiative with Latinx Gay and Bisexual Men Affected by HIV" research report.  While I am not a Latinx gay or bisexual man affected by HIV, I tried to convey the stories from the report through this poem in the most meaningful way. The piece was written both in English and in Spanish.

I RAISE MY FLAG WITH PRIDE

Celebrate me, accept me, love me

for all that I am... just as I am

like the onion, wrapped in its layers,

 it begins with a sad story

hidden, fearful of your prejudices -

for not being the boy who would grow up

to be the macho of the house,

for not being the man you'd flatter,

for dishonoring our holy father,

for feeding gossip to strange ears,

for denying you the grandchildren

you dreamt about,

for my choices, your shame,

for being the pity of the neighborhood,

the stain of the family,

for not having told you before,

before my condemnation.

 

Peal me,

for all I am... as I am

like the onion, discover me.

Unveil me, feel your stinging tears

wash your stigmatizing blindness

so that you realize how much,

in your disappointment, I needed you

and how alone I have felt.

 

And on this road called Loneliness,

assimilating I go to a strange culture,

a language, to a foreign world, of new

possibilities to reinvent myself, to succeed...

but never arriving,

lost and captive

carrying I go, in my body a pain

that doesn't let me love or get sick.

 

My identity, the simple fact of my being,

is notoriously guilty until

proven innocent to deaf judges.

Because all that I am... as I am

exists within a racist rhetoric,

xenophobic politics, a homophobic culture. 

The same people who dictate our paths,

those who separate families and homes destroy.

And because of all that we are... as we are

many of us hide,

for not being part of the heteronormativity,

for not having “papers”,

or counting with geographical-sociocultural privilege,

for surviving, despite the virus, our companion.

 

And in the shadows, protected by the

dark’s mantle, we take a stroll, free, as we are.

 

But the shadows are heavy, they are exhausting. 

 

That's why today, I raise my flag, not in defeat,

but proudly signifying the ongoing struggle.

Its colors paint the days to follow,

my spirits reflected in them.

 

The red of my warrior blood,

forever changed by the illusion of a love,

which gradually in the orange of

June sunsets, finds hope that is

illuminated in that yellowish sun, shining

the purity of my nature, like the green of the grass,

vibrant, fiery despite being trampled on,

causing me sorrow in the indigo of the night;

and when I'm lulled, snuggled up with an "everything's fine”,

a serene tranquility envelops me, safeguarding me

against the purple rain, my spirit invincible.

 

Poetry, my shield, through its protection

I let out my cry of war that

these verses are of courage, resilience, and of protest; that

these verses are yours, and mine, and ours 

 

and of all those brave ones

who persist even in the shadows

with the love of our mothers,

abuelas, our fathers, and

each other, our stories, our strength,

lighting the way.

Verses of affirmation...

Inspired by the "hearts and minds" of the Ostepathic Heritage Foundations grant partners, If We Get This Right is a poem about vulnerability and commitment to the community. The partners were part of a work group dedicated to build capacity for organizations spearheading behavioral health services for youth in the Columbus, Ohio area. This poem was written from their collective responses gathered at the end of their kickoff meeting around the prompt, "share one thing that is in your head and one that is your heart". 

IF WE GET THIS RIGHT

If we get this right,

our entire community will thrive

aiming for our children high

the importance of our work we know

improving the lives of those we serve.

 

If we get this right,

we will gather and together strive,

feeling how the hours seem to fly

to make our shared missions grow,

excited about what we will learn.

If we get this right,

strength as partners we will derive,

the job is big but we will try,

our hearts with hope they overflow

as change together we will earn.

If we get this right,

to the occasion we will rise,

and on each other we will rely

to threads of love together sew

into a tight net of support.

 

Through this work as partners,

we honor our minds, bodies, spirits

we honor our youth in Columbus,

knowing and feeling very well,

in both our minds and hearts

that it’s not a matter of “if”

but of “when” we get this right.

Verses of the universe...

Every year ViiV Healthcare organizes a Community Summit to convene the leaders, movers, and innovators in the HIV field in a space to share, connect, and learn. Over 200 people are generally invited to be part of the event. For the 2020 event registration, we asked attendees to share their reflections on the image by David Wojnarowicz titled Something from Sleep III. I collected all of their responses and wrote the two poems below titled Constellations of Change, Part 1 and Part 2. The first poem was produced into a video and was used as the welcoming piece that kicked off Community Summit.

CONSTELLATIONS OF CHANGE
Part 1

In the spaces between us

there is magic.

We search the stars shining 
through the night,
all of us particles of a much 
greater constellation.
And the universe lives 
within each of us.
Love and light, visions of inspiration 
in our collective interconnectedness.

But in looking for those stars,
through the microscope, 
our telescope,
we are hit with our pasts’ scars
as our bodies become the heavens,
burning out slowly for 
another to shine brightly.

Each one unique in its power.

A power, like our infinite energy
sourced at the core of our souls
birthing us into a world that
consumes it, us, like a black hole.

To use as the stars, evolve,
as the sum of one is change.

I see the change in me,
as I look at the change in you.

Because we come into this life to dance,
reweave the story of our lineage -
our interconnectedness.

Why then does change happen so slowly?
Is it because like the stars, it’s far away?
 
It's in the microscopic particles of hope,
where the constellation 
of change transforms
the tiny particles of universe 
into summits of resiliency.
 
Like scientists working in the dark, 
searching for a sea of lights, bright, 
the majesty and wonder of the unknown,
full of opportunities, vast possibilities, 
beyond our world!
 
Worlds within; worlds without, 
in which we are the universe 
and the universe is us.
 
We are the energy. 
We are the light. 
We are large.
 
During this time when things are tough,
let us be, you and me –
a million little stars
sprinkled and sparkled
spelling out our future.

CONSTELLATIONS OF CHANGE
Part 2

I am tired, my love...

tired from all the noise and hate

abundant and rampant

like the endless stars in the sky;

all aligning but for different reasons.

 

I am sitting at home, my love

feeling alone in the dark.

This universe, the unknown, the fear.

And in it all, I can’t help but wonder,

does anyone see me?

Because after all, I'm just a person

with HIV and a keyboard –

looking away from myself

to find answers.

 

But today I tell myself to stand up!

I’ve been sitting much too long -

my promise unexplored.

 

Because the pain and suffering

of today is temporary.

There's a slow, slow train comin' up

around the bend,

looking for hope in everyday things,

the kind that gazing at stars can bring;

Celestial and optimistic.

Love and light.

Excitement and liberty.

 

Every time I see it I know we will survive.

Our bodies are the science 

that holds the tiniest bits of life. 

Discovery, at our reach, 

the purpose in this spiritual path,

we are learning, growing, expanding.

And knitted together, 
not just stars, but a constellation of
small specks of different colored lights that 
compel us to look deeper into the tunnel
of endless colors that we paint 
into a work of art.
 
And the deeper we dive into ourselves, 
our tunnel, the more we realize the interconnectedness between
us and the cosmos.
 
To succeed, live, 
and fight for another day
we must sync up; we must sing; 
we must dance.
All along watering our seeds of transition, 
letting our fruit be visible.
 
Because truths evolve, 
swirling in the Constellations of Change.
 
So bright, yet so dark. So large, yet so small.
 
We won't rest, we won't give up – 
because we can be the light in the darkness.
 
You are me, we are they, and they are us.
We all are stars in constant collusion, 
constant renewal. It can't be contested; 
we are irrefutably meant to be a
small part of a vast universe soaring
and connected for billions of light years.

Verses on learnings...

In Our Own Words is a collection of 14 haikus inspired by the learning community created around the Local and Regional Foundations Initiative, sponsored by a large US-based foundation. Participants provided reflections on the following questions about their learning community experience, 1) What is one notable conversation that stays with you? 2) What are the implications of these conversations? 3) What will you do differently moving forward? I put together these haikus based on the participants' responses to these questions. 

IN OUR OWN WORDS

DEFINITION OF IMPACT

Resounding impact

means expanding ways of seeing

with poignant inquiries.

PREACH AND PRACTICE
Racial equity is 
talking the talk but also
is walking the walk. 

 

EXPLICIT
I feel they are obvious
our missions and visions 
but I know they aren’t.

 

CONNECTIONS

Our broad connections

will impact and inspire our

work as it unfolds.

BEING

The value within,

created by being equitable,

not just by acting.

TOGETHER

A shared language

we’re all on a learning journey,

together we stride.

SEEING
Seeing not only what 
we achieve but also what 
is missing is key.

DIVERSITY

We gain the most from

people who see, do, experience

differently than we.

CHANGING THE SCRIPT

Subliminal and

purposeful ways subtly built

in conversations.

 

THE ORIGIN OF POWER

Impact isn’t a

zero-sum game of power,

it’s collaboration.

 

PARTICIPATORY GRANTMAKING

The community,

together, are making change

a reality.

THE "RIGHT" SEATS OF POWER
We challenge us 
to use this process to value
who we are, what we bring. 

POWER OF PHILANTHROPY

Let’s move past barriers

through the power of philanthropy,

let’s be free to do more.

PUSHING PAST
Pushing past our 
“comfort-levels” to pursue 
equitable practices. 

Verses that strengthen...

Today We Are was a poem collectively written and inspired by the "hearts and minds" of the 67 individuals who were part of the National Convening on HIV and Employment created by the National Working Positive Coalition. At the end of the first day, attendees were asked to reflect on what they felt and thought about their gathering. They shared their responses in the chat box. I took those responses made them verse and created the poem. The next day, the poem was read aloud by human rigths champion, HIV advocate, author, and leader in transgender communities, Tori Cooper, in a powerful experience. 

TODAY WE ARE 

Today we are

unleashed and intentional because it is

hard not to feel weary,

motivated by fury that

no man should beg for pay.

Value should lie in the life you live,

capital in the love you give.

Unto all we wish gain,

and not the servitude of pain;

It’s time to take our space and

make ourselves VISIBLE!

Today we are inspired by our power

to change create.

The well of wisdom in

the community is bottomless.

Gratitude for the wisdom,

gratitude for these moments,

for when they come again,

new challenges will have befallen us

but we will know, because we are wise,

that all intractable problems can be cracked.

 

Today we are aiming to go far, together,

relishing in our inclusivity, equality, our diversity,

breathing the collective impact

from our shared love,

because brilliance has no one face, as such

we are moving together, talking together,

uplifting together.

We all need each other.

Today we are inspired by 
what already exists
Hope prevails!
Because there is hope when people care.
And these are our people,
and as long as we show up, 
we are never truly alone.
The brilliance is in our people; 
it always has been; it always will be. 

Today we are doing, not trying. 
Community. Connection. Love.
As we conceive them, 
we will achieve them.
And when we get there, 
we will have these people to thank.
So, let everyone at the table rejoice
chanting: love and liberation to all of us!

Verses of action...

Reframing Risk is both the name of the poem below as well as the ViiV Healthcare initiative on HIV prevention. A working group of black women affected by HIV were convened to discuss the risk factors for HIV, especially as they relate to black women (one of the most vulnerable populations nationwide). As part of their work, the women shared their written responses on why this initiative was important to them and to other black women. Those responses were given to me and I wrote this "list" poem to honor their work, their words, and their commitment to each other. This poem appeared in the introduction to the guide titled "From Risk to Reasons: A Guide For Communicating and Connecting with Black Women Around HIV". 

REFRAMING RISK
A call to action

We must reframe risk to end the stigma 
and find solace in knowing there are sisters 
advocating for you, for me, for all of us. 
So none of us fall through the cracks.
To normalize health as wealth.

We must reframe risk to leave a

legacy of change, make a difference,

bridge the gap. To learn, to

grow and to share. To be part

of a bigger impact.

We must reframe risk to work collectively.

To commit to Black women. To shift the narrative.

We must reframe risk to show there’s life

after HIV. To take control. To delight

in the beauty of our shapes and sizes.

To enjoy happy, healthy and fun sex lives.

We must reframe risk to

affirm that we are creators, that we are

powerful, that we are brilliant, that we are

bold, that we are enough, that we matter.

Verses that connect...

The Positive Action for Women is a funding initiative led by ViiV Healthcare. Since its inception in 2017 the PAFW initiative has awarded over $2.2 million to community organizations to connect women of color living with HIV to other women and sources of support. To build networks of care, funded organizations participate in learning communities. Healing Through Reflections was a poem I wrote based on the words of these organizations. During the learning community, Tori Cooper extraordinaire read this poem aloud as a way to create solidarity around the meaningful work they all do.

HEALING THROUGH REFLECTIONS

No matter how hard life may feel,

I try to remind myself to take it one day

at a time.

 

So, I get out of bed, shower, and get dressed. 

 

I paid a hefty price, not long ago, but now

when life throws dirt on me, I grow.

 

Because from my struggle grows strength.

from our tears, triumph and togetherness.

 

In looking in the mirror,

I know it's okay to look back at the past -

as long as I don't stare too long.

“Can you look me in the eye, and really see me?” 

 

As I stare, I listen to my reflection,

counting my blessings

and remembering the stories

behind all the lines and scars.

I survived. 

In looking in the mirror,

I see truth, beauty, a willingness to dream about

any and everything I'd always hoped to be.

I am worth it.

 

I’m thriving with these things now.

When I look in the mirror, I see it!

When I examine my soul, I see it!

When I look at my family support, I see!

 

That is because

together we stand, but divided we fall; 

side by side is how we are great and tall!

 

My future, our future, holds endless possibilities.

 

In looking in the mirror,

I believe in the woman I’m becoming,

remembering that trans women are women.

And with that, today I choose my happiness,

it seems so simple yet so complicated.