How a Young Poet Is Nurturing Empathy ... With Virtual Reality

How a Young Poet Is Nurturing Empathy ... With Virtual Reality
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Why you should care

Because connecting America through virtual tech is harder than it seems.

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?

Amanda Gorman, 19-year-old sociology major at Harvard
New York City

It was a really big whirlwind. There’s a line from Hamilton: In the eye of a hurricane, there is quiet for just a moment. I felt that was true of my experience.

I woke up at my hotel, Pod 38, earlier than I liked: probably 7 a.m. I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep because it’s finals week, and that can be pretty hellish at Harvard. I took a Lyft to go on the radio on Hot 97 — I don’t know why I always am, but I was shocked by New York City traffic.

I was interviewed with Hajjar Baban, another finalist for the first-ever national youth poet laureate. We were just talking about the laureate program and a little bit about what I’m doing with OZY — trying to not just be a teen writer, but be a teen leader. I was in the city shadowing my OZY mentor, John Fitzgerald, the co-founder of Sensorium, a creative studio that specializes in virtual reality.

My project is called Generation Empathy. As I was explaining to John, the seed of the project came out of me having this experience on Martin Luther King’s birthday. We were visiting these museums, exhibits, talking about identity, making change. What was really interesting to me was thinking: What if there was a way in which all students, regardless of their ZIP code or socioeconomic status, could have field trips like that?

That was the idea: to create a virtual-reality museum where there were digital portraits of a select handful of young activists. We have these phenomenal change-makers who have these really incredible microphones to talk about society’s problems — what I want to do is highlight the lesser-known ones who are putting themselves on the line and taking risks for what they believe in. If you can give that kind of experience — of paying witness and homage to a teen to inspire another one — you can have that domino effect. And if you can instigate that through virtual reality, which is boundless in geography, the limits are endless.

One thing I’ve been struggling with, though, is which area to focus on. Because that will affect the story I tell. I was talking to John and the team: Do I want to focus it and condense it to one area I’m familiar with, like the West Coast? Or broaden it into a national discourse and what it means to be in a United States of America that doesn’t necessarily feel united at this moment?

I went back on the subway to my hotel, listening to the Hamilton soundtrack — the soundtrack to my very existence at this moment. So I was strutting down the street, and there was this song, “Schuyler Sisters,” which pays honor to New York. And I feel like I’m Benedict Arnold, because I’m from Los Angeles. At home, I never sing that song out loud.

I had to go immediately to Gracie Mansion, the home of Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York. I performed a poem there called Linguistics Rising, which I wrote when Maya Angelou died. I guess you could say it’s about transcendence through literature, very personal about my experience:

I forget
all of what she said
yet when people asked me
to repeat words three times
she understood me
just as she thought Shakespeare knew
how it felt to be molested
Maya knew how it felt to be a Black girl
in Los Angeles carrying a book bag and a speech
impediment

And they announced I was national youth poet laureate. And there was this craziness, of being interviewed, photographed, signing things, talking to people, just a whirlwind of experience. I got in a taxi to go back to my hotel and I never felt such a stillness as I felt then. I almost thought that I couldn’t hear anything.

I went home, had some greasy pizza to eat and called my mom. I felt so grateful, so honored, at the same time so loved, because I know it was a village that helped get me to that point.

OZYTrue Story

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