These are fraught times—nationally and locally—and in fraught times, it’s the simplest of things that can seem the most necessary: Kindness.
That’s why, in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election and the midst of Covid-19, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) and Philadelphia poet laureate Trapeta B. Mayson launched the PA Kindness Poem Project, a year-long initiative to celebrate kindness among our fellow state residents.
On February 17, PA Second Lady Giselle Fetterman, kicked the project off with a video message: “You are not a burden, and loving you is not an obligation, it is an honor,” she quoted L.A. poet Arielle Estoria. Since then, PHC and Mayson have received about 100 quotes or poems promoting “generosity, healing, reconciliation and peace” through their social media channels. Some are quick written phrases; others, like the poem from last year’s youth poet laureate, Cydney Brown, are short videos.
“I dream of a world of peace / A world where love prevails / A world where I can inhale kindness and exhale all my anger…. I dream of a peaceful world that will suffer no more.” —Andre’a Rhoads, Philadelphia’s 2021-22 youth poet laureate
Pennsylvanians are invited to contribute messages through the end of this month. Mayson will then use the words as inspiration for an original poem to celebrate World Kindness Day on November 13.
Mayson says she feels honored to be entrusted with the project. “I think it’s restorative to think that all these people took the time and effort to contribute,” she says.
“a light is lit / a seed is sown / a mountain is moved / a heart is healed / wisdom is written / when we begin with kindness” —Debra Powell Wright, poet and Philadelphia resident
The PA Kindness Poem Project was the brainchild of Dawn Frisby Byers, PHC’s senior director for content and engagement, who was originally just looking for a way to increase PHC’s social media presence. After witnessing the 2020 presidential election and its violent aftermath, Byers realized her efforts needed to address the bitter political and cultural divisions among Americans. And she was “super inspired” by poet Amanda Gorman’s moving inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during President Biden’s inauguration.
The Poem Project was Byers’ way to connect Pennsylvanians to the present moment, and to the work of PHC, which uses the humanities to improve civic education and engagement within the Pennsylvania community. The PHC’s core programs are Heart and Soul, which organizes residents of small cities and towns so they can better influence local policy and improve community engagement; and Teen Reading Lounge, a book club for youth ages 12 to 18.
“We believe in civility and dialogue through storytelling,” Byers explains. “Our core values have to do with civic engagement—not the political side, but the actual deepening of communities and our belief that communities and individuals possess the skills to move forward.”
“May we wear tenderness on our skin / May everyone who encounters us feels its warmth, / know its power, / carry its sweet scent of healing.” —Trapeta B. Mayson
To Mayson, a licensed clinical social worker, the Kindness Poem Project was an “amazing” fit with her focus on mental health and healing through poetry. Appointed in late 2019, her tenure as poet laureate has overlapped almost entirely with the Covid-19 pandemic. Early this year, she launched a toll-free telephone line featuring a weekly rotation of 90-second poems. Callers can also access information on mental health resources. “Poems are healing, too,” Mayson says.
Once all the submissions have been collected, Mayson will spend the fall creating an original piece for World Kindness Day inspired by the words of Pennsylvanians across the state. As a social worker and Liberian immigrant, she particularly wants to carve out space for what she calls “the voices that are not there”—disadvantaged groups that often have access to parts of the literary and artistic world.
“I’m smiling behind my mask / Wait, let me get the door for you, how can I help you today? / Yes, I can take you shopping tomorrow, I’m not a threat to you / because I have a dark hue / I’m here if you need me. / I have a KIND heart!” —Valerie, PA resident
For Byers, this project is intended to be a reflection of Pennsylvania, which she sees as a microcosm of the United States—in its division, diversity and need for tolerance and community-building. Of the state’s 18 U.S. representatives, “nine are Republicans and nine are Democrats. You’ve got two urban areas that have urban issues—Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—and then you have a bunch of small towns and you’ve got raw farmland in the middle.” And while at least 44 alleged Capitol rioters hail from Pennsylvania, “there’s also the City of Brotherly Love in Philadelphia… and we’re the birthplace of democracy.”
Can poetry and kindness solve all the ills that have burdened our country these last few years? Probably not. But we can certainly use anything that encourages civility and dialogue.
“Be kind. Be a good friend. Love the people who love you. Nothing else really matters.” —Mama J, PA resident
“I think we’ve already accomplished a goal by providing a forum for Pennsylvanians to participate in a communal process,” Mayson says “You can choose to opt in or out, but once you opt in, your voices are joined with the community’s voice. And that’s kind of cool.”
Submissions to PA Kindness Poem Project must be posted on social media with the hashtag #PAKindnessPoem, and tag or mention the PHC (@pahumanities on Instagram; @PAHumCouncil on Twitter). The PHC will accept submissions until August 31.