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Author Elizabeth Acevedo Is Doing It For The (Latinx) Culture By Empowering Through Literature

The Award-winning writer shares her inspirations and how others can live out full-time writing dreams.

BOSS UP

A good book can change the course of one's life, spark a whole movement, or transcend limitations of time, money, class, and location, and every power woman (even our favorite former First Lady, Michelle Obama) counts on a great read to keep them empowered and inspired.

Elizabeth Acevedo, a New York Times best-selling author, is one power woman who is on fire about using creative writing to empower communities, especially minority youths. Her debut novel, The Poet X, about a teenager named Xiomara who combats family issues through poetry, won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

"I write the stories I wish I had when I was younger. Growing up, there were so few books where I felt like I could see myself. I needed more images and stories that showed me different examples of the kind of girl that I could be."

Drawing from her experience as a Dominican-American woman, she's provided just that, and sis has some pretty dope receipts.The former 8th-grade teacher and University of Maryland professor has been honored with the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction, the CILIP Carnegie Medal, and the 2019 Pure Belpré Author Award for her work in celebrating Latinx culture and experience. Another fly it factor: She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, having spit rhymes that could make the best rapper's or wordsmith's head spin. One of her books, With the Fire on High, about a teen mom who has dreams of being a chef, was even recently a DC Public Library's virtual book club pick. Her books offer a window for Latinx youth to see themselves, evaluate their realities and build inclusive futures.

We caught up with her, in this xoNecole interview, to talk inspiration, why she rides hard for Latinx culture and voice, and how other aspiring writers can make a living using the art of language:

When did you know full-time writing was for you?

I was a touring poet years before my first book came out. I would go to colleges and high schools and do shows. My parents had no idea what I was doing. (Laughs) They were like, 'Oh, you don't have health benefits? You don't have a secure income? What are you doing? You went to all these amazing schools to be a poet?' And I'm like, yeah, that's exactly what I did. It was really hard for people to see the vision I had.

I wanted to make a life of language---a life where my stories and the stories that connect us was how I made a living. That was more important to me than a check, how big it would be, or whether I had a 401k.

Once the book came out, that changed things. Then you have a novel that's on The New York Times list and wins awards, and I think it really shook people up in terms of what the possibilities were. I think I always knew that there's a lot I can do with this if I just figure it out, but I don't know that everyone had that same belief at the time.

How has your work in education and community advocacy played a role in the stories you choose to write?

I've been in the space of youths or as a classroom-based teacher in some capacity for the past decade. It makes me mindful of how young people talk and the experience that they have.

The respect that I have for young readers comes out because of the fact that I meet so many amazing teenagers.

It just makes me aware [of the] readership and what that readership is able to handle. [New ideas can come] just talking with them. It could be something simple and it'll just spark something--what they had for lunch that day or their interaction with a teacher or another student. Little moments come up for me. I'll also talk with my mom and [a conversation might] make me think, 'Hey, this isn't a character trait I've seen before' or 'That would be interesting material in a novel.' I think I'm just open to what's happening around me and it means that I always have a list of ideas that I want to work on.

'Clap When You Land' is striking, especially if you're someone who travels often. What's behind the title?

There are certain countries in Latin America and even the continent of Africa, where, when you land, people applaud. It's usually people coming back home---you're from that place. There's so much joy in returning and in having survived the trip. Particularly for Dominicans, growing up, it was so beautiful to be on that flight returning to where your people are from. It's like we're all in that moment together---we're all just grateful together. It's really moving for me.

In 2001, there was a plane that crashed when traveling from New York City to the Dominican Republic. I was 12 years old and it completely shook me up. Hundreds of people trying to go back home was a moment that should've been full of joy, yet it was riddled with tragedy. I've always wanted to write about that experience.

So the phrase "clap when you land" and this horrible event that happened kind of started meshing together. What is the joy and bittersweetness in going back and forth, and in what way does that affect our lives? It's reflecting on that event but it's a very different kind of story of two sisters--one in the Dominican Republic and one in New York City--who don't know about each other until their father dies in a plane crash. It's about the secrets people keep and forgiving a parent after they're no longer here to be forgiven. How do you develop a relationship with a stranger you may have resentment toward and is there room for applause in any of that?

You still have a passion for poetry. How can others tap into a love for poetry or develop as poets? 

I think it's a really exciting time for poetry. We're seeing more people from marginalized communities receiving a lot of attention for their work. It's incredible to see how many poets---of color, transgender, within the LGBT community---are able to have their work in the world. Because of social media, YouTube---there all these different ways you can consume poetry. I do so many school visits and I don't remember a poet ever coming to my school---ever.

Now, schools all over the country are using poetry videos in class, getting poet visits, or reading poetry collections---it's so exciting for me to see that. It feels like poetry is part of the narrative in people's lives, whether in the classroom or elsewhere.

Every year an article comes out that says poetry is dead, but I'm like, I don't know what poetry you consume. The poetry I live with is breathing! I feel good that The Nuyorican Poets Cafe is an incredible, historic place. The Bowery Poetry Club in New York is fantastic. Depending on where you're from, I would encourage you to look for whatever poetry community exists [where you are.] Throughout the country there are different programs---whether it's even a theater program that has a poetry component or maybe a creative writing program where you can work on verse.

What advice do you have for others who want to become full-time writers?

Keep working on honing your voice. Everything else can fall into place, but if you don't have the clear sense of what you're trying to say and how you're trying to say it so that it's uniquely you, you're going to get lost in the sauce. There are a lot of writers out there, and I think that what creates distinction between people's work is that very unique language and point of view.

Second, find a writer's group. I feel like folks want to look at [the] Internet and say, 'How do I do that,' and not consider that the community is a big part of it. I've always had a community around me since I was a kid---cyphers on my block, hanging out with the dudes on [the] corner, rapping---that was my first writer's group. When I went to high school, I joined a poetry club, and when I went to college, there were workshops. You want two or three people you can share your work with, who can give you feedback---who you trust.

Last, look for a mentor whose doing the same thing you want to do but they're one or two steps above where you are. Reach out to them. There's a lot to be said to someone who has carved a way and who can help school you on how to do things.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Acevedo, her books, and her work via her Website or her Instagram.

Featured Image courtesy of Instagram/acevedowrites

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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