Poetry for Social Justice

Tapping the Authentic Well – For Yourself and Others


Caroline Langston Jarboe is the Director of Development at the Constitutional Accountability Center. She has an MFA from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. In April 2022, Caroline led our Food for Thought on Poetry for Social Justice and here she pens some of her reflections, including three steps to open up your perspective.

Do you know the song “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie? Perhaps you, like I, learned to sing it in public school music class in the 1970s (60s, 80s, 90s…). Or, maybe you only know it from the movies or from American History class in college. One way or another, you probably already know the most popular stanza:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

I was in college before I knew that the song was the “great American socialist anthem”. And I was probably even older when I heard the stanza of the song that is almost never sung:

As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

Hold on to that stanza, because I am going to return to it later. Now, I’m going to turn to the way that most of us live out our work and vocational lives: on Twitter. It’s always a danger to start talking about something you saw on Twitter–if, for no other reason than thereby admitting that you spend too much time on it!–but I will confess to being a huge fan of the “Shit Nonprofits Say” account.

I will confess to being a huge fan of the “Shit Nonprofits Say” account.

Almost every day, “Shit Nonprofits Say” issues statements that can sound uncannily familiar to those of us who work in fundraising or advocacy. Here’s one from March 24, 2022:

We are conscious of our shared learnings, eager to amplify and promote best practices.

We listen and speak with a soft voice.

July 20:

The board has asked us to craft a matrix of KPIs to aggregate our value-add.

And here’s this gem from just a couple of weeks ago, on August 16:

We are aligning multiple strategic modalities at the forefront, while also remaining centred, authentic, humble, and appropriately apologetic.

Now these are jokes, but they point to something real. I think our tendency to use jargon and to focus on developing our “personal brands” risks the prospect of turning us–and others–into objects. We’re not really communicating, and a lot of the time, others are not listening either. Instead of relating to others, in Martin Buber’s ideal of an “I/Thou” relationship, we unwittingly fall into “I/It” relationships. And far too often, we not only make objects of others, we become the “It” ourselves.

Reading poetry–and writing it– is the antidote to “It-ness”.

Poetry is about how to really speak, and how–sometimes through struggle, and sometimes through fire–to really listen. Because poetry originated in orality, it is designed to be shared. And it’s an opening, not a defense. 

The very discipline of poetry is about “telling the truth, but telling it slant,” to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase. And the way you do that is through the unexpected play of specific language that can startle others–and yourself!–into unexpected recognition. (If you think back to the stanza from “This Land is Your Land” that I cited above, I always get hung up on the image of that sign on which one side said: “No Trespassing,” but the other side “said nothing.” The brilliance of that whole stanza turns around that image. It BECOMES a concept or an idea. But it STARTS as a concrete image). 

That’s a long way of saying what poet William Carlos Williams meant when he said: “No ideas but in things!”. I think there are important lessons for us as seekers of justice here. I do believe that poetic art can transmit the electricity of our deepest values and commitments. I also urge all of us, as nonprofit practitioners, to enliven our own vision with the wide-ranging complexity of poetic language to nurture and fit US for the tasks and work ahead of us–and for us to relate honestly and humanly with those humans whose lives we seek to improve. We must relate to them, and ourselves, as iconic beings, not as mere representatives of groups with whom we align or decry. 

In closing, here are some steps to help you as you open up your perspective and live beyond the closed jargon of the assumed phrase:

  1. Think about your deepest sources of meaning. These could relate to religion or history, but also lived experience. I am a person of religious faith, but I might remember my mother’s hands before anything else, the light from the crop duster airport a mile away from my childhood home, the tornadoes, and rains in the spring.
2. Read poetry and other literature widely to see the world in its specificity. Even pick something with which you think you’ll disagree, if for nothing else than to try to glimpse the person behind it. 
3. Trust the wisdom of your body and eyes, but move on in truth. Never stop looking outward, and always return the glance of others.