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Activist Spotlight: #PaceUniversityPoet

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Have you seen the haikus posted around the NYC Campus? The #PaceUniversityPoet talks with the CCAR about the poems, homelessness, and why you shouldn’t just walk by them or tear them down.

As part of Peace and Justice Studies 101 last year, the Pace University student now known as the #PaceUniversityPoet volunteered as a reading and writing tutor at the Bowery Mission for men experiencing homelessness. Last semester, combining a growing passion for the cause of ending homelessness with a love of poetry, the #PaceUniversityPoet created a project to inspire thought and consideration about homelessness in New York City and the Pace Community. The poems, seen across the New York City Campus throughout the fall semester, grew out of a desire to raise awareness about the reality of homelessness they experienced.

Why did you choose to do this project as a sort of “guerrilla marketing” poetry campaign?
Since I’ve started this project, I’ve seen that other methods may have been more useful, like using social media—everyone can see it, it’s there forever, it doesn’t get torn down. But I can’t really be anonymous if I post it on social media, so I thought this would be a good way to stay anonymous and still have students at Pace see the poems throughout the day. On Facebook, you’re choosing what to look at, but walking in the hallway you aren’t consciously choosing what to read, so I thought this would be a good way to reach people who typically don’t think about homelessness or might think about it in a different way and to encourage them to think about it differently than they normally would.

Are you still anonymous? Did you create the #PaceUniversityPoet hashtag?
I had no idea that there was a hashtag, or that I would be featured in Generation Citizen’s Activism Gallery! That’s what’s great about the anonymity of it; it’s affecting people that I never would have been able to reach or know that they were seeing it. I can put up a poem and it can get torn down, or it can be seen by hundreds of people. It’s a surprise, it was an experiment—I didn’t really know how it was going to go. Overall, I’m very pleased, but also very frustrated because most of the poems I put up end up being torn down very quickly, and a negative comment was written on the most recent poem I put up, which was upsetting. But I don’t really take that very seriously because it’s not constructive, and I don’t think something that’s just an insult says much about my writing or the cause of raising awareness about homelessness.

Could you tell me more about the reaction to your poems, and your poems being taken down?
I’ve seen some that have a rip halfway down the page and the other half is still up, or a poem that was ripped off and crumpled up on the floor, which I think would only have been done by a student. It’s upsetting because I’ve seen flyers for promoters on campus or people selling textbooks, and those things don’t get taken down, but I’ve put up a message about something I really care about and it’s heartbreaking to see it torn off and thrown on the ground. I’m not really sure who is taking them down, but I’m really glad that many of them have stayed up and that people have taken pictures of them.

Do you plan on remaining anonymous?
I do tell people that I’m the author if they ask me, or if it comes up in conversation and I’m asking people what they think about it. I don’t think I’ll ever post it in the school with my name on it, partly because I’m not allowed to and partly because if people know I’m the author, they might not give me honest feedback. I feel that keeping it anonymous separates me from the work that I’m doing, because it’s not about me or the person who wrote the poems, it’s about homelessness. Instead of people seeing it and looking up the causes of homelessness, they might look up “who is [#PaceUniversityPoet]?,” and that’s not important to me.

Why do you think it’s important for students to see your poems and start thinking about homelessness?
In order to change any sort of policy, I think we first have to change people’s attitudes about homelessness, the causes of homelessness, and the treatment of homeless individuals. University students share a goal of getting a degree and an education, so if we’re all already in this place where we want to be educated, we should be open to being educated about everything, including homelessness. This University is going to release a bunch of people into the world, and if any of those people go out and do anything that helps homeless people in New York City, to alleviate poverty, or to address the structural issues in our society, I think that would be a really great thing. Students also have more time than someone with a full-time job to go out and be active about things, so I think they’re a really important group to target because we are the people who are going to be going out into the world next.

Are you planning to continue this at all next semester, or are you working on any other projects?
I’m writing my thesis on homelessness, so that will sort of be the culmination of what I’m doing now. I also plan to keep volunteering with homeless shelters and to continue to spread the word by bringing it up in conversations and starting conversations about it. That’s really what I wanted to happen with these poems; I wanted people to ask each other, “Hey, have you seen those poems?” and create more of a discussion around homelessness that isn’t negative. I haven’t written any poems yet for next semester, but I think I might.

Is there anything you want students to know about homelessness that you didn’t get to put into your poems?
With the way that the poems on their own were structured, beginning with the introduction, I think that they speak for themselves. What I really want is for people to take away their own interpretation—if it makes you upset, if it makes you angry, that’s a good thing. If you don’t care, maybe you’ll start to think about WHY you don’t care. So I really just want people to interpret them for themselves and make of it what they will and see what happens.

Want to be the next activism or volunteer spotlight? If you are a Pace student, and think you or someone you know deserves a shout out for their dedication to service, activism, and civic engagement, e-mail CCAR at ccarny@pace.edu!

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