Leading with the Written Word
Written by K.L. Kranes
The iconic Whitney Houston once sang of how children are the future and we should let them lead the way. Recent events have turned those lyrics into truth. Our children have stepped onto the world stage as the real leaders in the movement for equality and justice. Some speak out on television, such as the Parkland students. Others use a different medium, the written word.
One such writer is 15-year-old Yasmeen Jaaber of Chesterfield, Virginia, who infuses her poems and stories with deeply personal experiences and ideas in the hopes of spreading a message of tolerance and love. It is the kind of leadership only our children seem to be able to achieve—honest, open and fearless.
Yasmeen started writing at a young age. In elementary school, she would come home every day and write stories on her sister’s computer. She’d always loved to read, but hated to finish a book. Writing gave her the power to continue stories as long as she wanted.
At first, Yasmeen wrote what she called “silly stuff,” just for herself. As she grew older and entered her teen years, she started to view the world differently. “More issues became more prevalent to me,” Yasmeen explains. She suddenly found herself writing about her fears and hopes for America.
As a Muslim-American and a black woman, Yasmeen feels it is important to talk about the issues facing minorities. “I need to use my voice as an artist to talk about something that really matters,” she says.
Talking to Yasmeen is like talking to a ray of sunshine. Her voice rings with positivity as she tells the story of how she made a video as a young girl in which she told her future self she would have a book published by the 9th grade. “My old-self was telling me what I could do,” Yasmeen says. This time-bending pep-talk exemplifies Yasmeen’s fearless, can-do attitude.
Her younger self was also right. Yasmeen could do it. She recently published her first book, a picture book, through the Richmond Writer’s Workshop called Flea-Man. The book is about how a boy’s love of a superhero teaches him to learn to be himself. It can be purchased via the Richmond Writer’s Group website (http://www.richmondyoungwriters.com/picture-book-project/).
Although Yasmeen reveled in seeing her name on a book for the first time, it was one little boy’s response to her work that truly impacted her. “When I handed it to the little boy, he looked so excited and he ran upstairs to get his dad to read it to him,” Yasmeen explains. “That experience was really profound for me because it was the first time actually seeing the kids I was impacting with my story.”
Although Yasmeen oozes positivity, it does not always come naturally. “I often struggle with keeping a consistently positive attitude because it can be very exhausting.” It is not surprising. Prejudice has followed Yasmeen throughout her short life. “In school I’ve had many, many ignorant things said about my hijab,” Yasmeen explains.
Like many minorities, Yasmeen feels as if she lives in a state of constant worry. The kind that makes her look over her shoulder or fear walking to the bus stop alone at night. “If I wasn’t Muslim or black or a woman, there’d be a lot of things I wouldn’t know. Being who I am, I’ve experienced things that have taught me lessons about being a minority in America.”
Yasmeen channels these experiences into her writing, tackling topics many might view as controversial, such as homophobia and racism. Recently, she wrote a poem about burning the Confederate flag. It helped her sort through her emotions about the symbol, which she notes gives her shivers whenever she sees it. “When I finished it [the poem], it was more lyrical than I imagined,” Yasmeen says. “There was something so calming about it even though it was a crazy thing to write about.”
Yasmeen recognizes the importance of her role as a writer and how it can help change the world. “A lot of people just don’t know. If you grow up in a world where nobody tells you anything you’ll keep going as if what you’re doing is fine.” According to Yasmeen, writers have the power to open minds and change the world by sharing their perspectives in an intimate way, which is something Yasmeen does not shy away from doing. Yasmeen’s poems and stories tend to be intensely personal.
One of the pieces Yasmeen is most proud of is a poem inspired by the recent #MeToo movement. In it, she writes a letter to the person who sexually assaulted her. “I felt the momentum from the #MeToo movement and I was so angry I had to get it out some way,” Yasmeen says. “I wrote the poem for myself, but I’m still insanely proud of myself for acknowledging it in such a detailed manner, and not breaking down. It’s really hard to talk about it, but writing about it is like going back in time.”
This type of raw strength to face personal injustice, prejudice and fear permeate everything Yasmeen writes. She is the type of fearless young woman needed not only in literature but in the world. She challenges the status quo, tries to help educate through her work and shares her own experiences to help open minds. Young women like Yasmeen Jaaber are our future and we will be lucky if they lead the way.
K.L. Kranes is a blogger and author of young adult novels. Her debut novel, The Travelers, was published in 2016 by Saguaro Books, LLC. See more from K.L. at www.klkranes.com/blog.