Have you heard the word? Urban Word announced the regional winners of its National Youth Poet Laureate program, and one is from Staten Island!
Elizabeth Shvarts, 17, was this year’s National Youth Poet Laureate Northeast Region finalist. She is a first-generation Russian-Jewish American from Grasmere. Growing up in New York, her experiences inspire her poetry and her expertise in supporting and caring for communities. A poet since age 7, Shvarts has stuck with her passion and uses it to make a difference in the world.
Her love of poetry and also songwriting—she’s a big Taylor Swift fan—was amplified when she became a freshman at Staten Island Technical High School in New Dorp. She became involved in Climate Speaks, an advocacy program around the climate crisis that included a spoken word performance.
“I just remember the joy of creating art with fellow poets and friends and being able to shape minds and hearts with poems,” Shvarts explained “I wanted to keep doing that so I came to Urban Word. I’m so grateful for the community of friends and poets that I have there.”
Since then, she’s been active in many programs offered by Urban Word to help foster her poetry skills and creativity, all while on the path to becoming a youth poet laureate finalist.
About the National Youth Poet Laureate Program
The National Youth Poet Laureate program, an initiative of the literary arts and civic engagement nonprofit, Urban Word, recognizes the country’s top poets who are committed to artistic excellence, civic engagement and social impact. A small handful of finalists—including Shvarts—were chosen from throughout the country.
“These poets are truly awe-inspiring as writers and artists. Their craft, the way that they approach difficult subject matter and the deftness with which they assert their politics is spellbinding,” Michael Cirelli, founder of the National Youth Poet Laureate program, said. “But what is even more remarkable is that these teen writers have already committed their lives to making their communities and the world a better place. These are the changemakers that are rewriting our futures.”
Shvarts’ application to the program included a portfolio of poems about her life experiences and community. Camea Davis, Ph.D., national director of the Youth Poet Laureate program, was impressed with Shvarts’ poems. Although she didn’t participate in choosing the finalists, Davis said the young Staten Islander’s application really stood out.
“What stood out about Elizabeth’s application is her deep commitment to her sense of place and her community. Many of her poems talk about her home and how her community functions—the great things and the problematic things,” Davis said. “She does an excellent job of weaving that in poetry.”
In addition to putting her thoughts, feelings and observations into words, Shvarts works in her community around the issues she finds important—another factor that stood out to the judges, most of whom are poets, scholars and activists themselves.
Bridge to Literacy
Shvarts has a community engagement resume that many would say is remarkable for someone at her young age. She co-founded the Bridge to Literacy program, an organization that strives to foster a love of language by teaching literacy to children from underserved communities.
As part of the program, Shvarts and fellow Bridge to Literacy team members organize local book drives and fundraisers. Currently, the team is holding a book drive through June 3 to send books to Ukraine, Kenya and Honduras. More information about the drive is available on the organization’s website, bridgetoliteracy.com.
As the school year wraps up, Shvarts is getting ready for another chapter in her life. Next fall, she’ll be a student at Yale University, New Haven, CT. She has some strong ideas on what she’ll eventually major in, but no matter what she decides, her love of words will continue.
“I love bringing joy to people, specifically radical joy,” Shvarts said. “It’s reminding people they are worthy of love and achieving the dreams that they set for themselves while also being able to make people question their preconceived notions about a certain topic and spark conversation around important issues.”
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