Putting a Girls' Education Spin on National Poetry Month

Never underestimate the potential of a tweet. Without one special tweet from @shesthefirst two weeks ago, there would not have been eight girls inside a Brooklyn classroom yesterday, filling the room with their voices, pouring laughter into the silent halls, which were otherwise empty on spring break week. Without this tweet, we would not have found Azure Antoinette, a performance poet who had been commissioned by Maria Shriver, who had met Oprah and was featured in the April poetry issue of her magazine. Purely though a 140-character connection, she was now willing to fly out to New York City on her own dime, just to unlock the immense power that a small group of teenage girls have to change the world.

It all started when She's the First, a not-for-profit sponsoring girls' education in the developing world, sought to add a local impact to its global Poetry Month campaign. While collecting poetry from girls in India and Nepal to publish on our blog, as well as poems from young women in the US which we can exchange with them, we decided we wanted to have an offline impact, too. We wanted to give deserving girls in New York City the chance to express themselves in poetry that could be shared with girls we sponsor worldwide. These girls around the globe have different routines and realities, but they share higher ambitions and dreams for unprecedented success; be it first to graduate, go to college, or blaze a new career path in their family.

Selected poems and verses from these girls will be designed on ecards and sold on shesthefirst.org later this week for $4. We hope to raise $365 to sponsor a full year of primary school education for a girl in Southern Sudan, via our partner Project Education Sudan. (Follow @shesthefirst on Twitter and Facebook now so you know when they are available!)

She's the First is a youth-led organization started in 2009 that encourages the Millennial generation to pay it forward by creatively fundraising for a girl's education in the developing world, so she can become the first in her family to graduate. As The Girl Effect campaign by the Nike Foundation often cites, of the 170 million youth who are out of school in the world, 70 percent are girls. We partner with outstanding 501c3 organizations running sponsorship programs in developing world countries -- such as AfricAid in Tanzania, Shanti Bhavan Children's Project in India, and the Arlington Academy of Hope in Uganda -- to distribute these funds and then show the impact on shesthefirst.org. Our supporters work around the clock year-round to organize the GIRLS WHO ROCK concert during Internet Week New York, or host tie-dye cupcake sales on their college campuses. They selflessly exchange birthday gifts for sponsorships, or invite friends over for a poker night or a dinner party that raises $200+ in a snap. In the process, these twentysomethings are all growing as global leaders and citizens -- and we want to ensure that we're taking the girls closest to us along on that journey.

For Poetry Month, I thought She's the First should host a workshop to show girls in New York City that they could connect with girls abroad. It was easy enough to reach out to a school I've long admired, the Young Women's Leadership Network, founded by journalist Ann Tisch. All we needed was a poet.

So from @shesthefirst, I tweeted to @girlswritenow, the not-for-profit providing creative writing and mentoring to high school girls in the city, and I asked them to retweet our request. Within minutes, @AzureAntoinette replied and the conversation quickly moved to email. Azure, who is normally on the West Coast, was traveling for National Poetry Month and decided she'd make a stop in Brooklyn to host this workshop...for an organization she had just heard of, with a founder she had never met. Sounds totally impractical, right? But two weeks later, the same performance poet who opened the Grand Finale for the Minerva Awards at the Women's Conference, hosted by Maria Shriver, was standing before us in a classroom, reciting spoken word poetry that exposed her views and life experiences before the harshest critics out there: 13-year-old girls.

The lesson I learned: You can start a class asking girls to tell you something they think you should know about them...they'll pause, look down shyly at the table, and say, "I don't know..." But when you talk frankly about the issues we all see and some that scar us -- be it sexual abuse, single-parent households, the circus of celebrity gossip, out-of-control reality TV, superficial friendships -- they will reciprocate. They will get up in front of a classroom after 10-minutes of free write -- oh, they might even jump out of their seats for you to pick them to "perform" if you play your cards right -- and they will open a window for you to see inside their hearts.

On Tuesday, I heard poems that suggested challenging home environments -- divorced parents, a brother in a gang, a lost loved one. You could momentarily see clouds, like the ones actually outside on that overcast April morning, loom above these girls. Some of their words reminded me of the shadows cast in poetry of Preetha Peter, grade 8 at the Shanti Bhavan Children's School, which enrolls children from the "Untouchable" caste in India. In a poem sent to She's the First, she wrote: "They shoved me / to the depths of darkness / where they lay. They stung my heart / at the most tender part. / They slashed my naked wounds / trying to pull me down / from where I was, above them, / higher, prouder than ever."

But even with the raw realities exposed, there were rays of confident, rebellious sunshine peeking out. One 13-year-old recited: "I am who I am, I don't care what you think of me. You can say I'm ugly, but I know deep down, I'm beautiful. I'm amazing in many ways, but not perfect. I am who I am...I work hard to become better and stronger. I am who I am..."

Maybe certain clouds are meant to teach us something. We all look up to the same sky, don't we? The difference is, do we all have a chance to learn, and grow, and peek through the clouds in our lives?

Well, maybe we should look to Nisha, an 11-year-old student at Maggie Doyne's Kopila Valley Children's Home in Nepal, who submitted "Big Cloud" to She's the First:

I saw a white cloud floating by in the sky
She was looking down on me saying hi
I told her to come take me for a ride.
She said sorry my dear, you need to stay behind.
You have so much to learn,
You have so much to do.
The world is at your fingertips.
Just waiting for you.
But why can't I come too? I asked.
To learn all of those things with you?
Because you need to go to school,
And wear your uniform, and shine your shoes.
There are books to read
And sums to add
Little girls look good in plaid.
That's where little girls need to be.
In school learning, you see.
Okay I said.
I will learn all there is to learn in the world.
And then I'll go far away.
Up in the clouds.
With you.

Let us know what you think of the girls' poetry, and keep up with Poetry Month on the She's the First Aspire blog here.