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Poet Amanda Gorman will address a U.N. meeting on global challenges

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Increased food insecurity, economic instability, the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic could see 75 to 95 million more people living in extreme poverty this year. That's all according to the United Nations, where world leaders are gathering this week to address poverty, hunger and inequality. Poet, activist and UNICEF supporter Amanda Gorman wrote a poem for an appearance at the United Nations today to help encourage more global solidarity and cooperation to tackle those challenges. She told me why these issues are so close to her heart.

AMANDA GORMAN: I was raised by a single mother who also happened to be an English teacher, and she always taught me the power of words and language. That's something I dedicate my life to paying forward to the next generation. I think literacy is not just how we become better people, but it's how we become more active members of society and of our global community because it gives each of us a voice and the capacity to understand.

MARTINEZ: What are your memories of your mom making that important in your life? I'll never forget my mom. When I was learning how to speak English, she would tell me to write down a newspaper article in English and then read it to her when she got home from work. So I'll never forget that - my mom having that instilled in me every single day. Any memories you have of your mom making literacy and just all of this so important in your life?

GORMAN: Well, I love that story of your mother. It's incredible. I think my experience was animated by the fact that, growing up, I had a speech impediment. So feeling heard in conversations and in class was incredibly difficult. And one thing my mom did was she ritualized me speaking up for myself. So if there was ever a time in school where I raised my hand or spoke up or answered a question, she encouraged me to come back home, tell her about that, and then we'd have a kind of little family celebration of that. And I think that created this ceremony of empowerment in my household.

MARTINEZ: That's not bad. Ceremony of empowerment. That's exactly what that sounded like. And you've also joined the literacy initiative Writing Change, launched by the cosmetics company Estee Lauder. How did that come together, and what do you hope to achieve with them?

GORMAN: What I love about Writing Change is it's not necessarily just about throwing dollars at the board and hoping that some literacy sticks. We're very focused on working with groups that use artistry and literacy as real instruments of social change, that use it as kind of these weapons to imagine a better future.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And literacy is empowering, right? I mean, it's actually a literal way to describe what it is to empower someone. When they learn how to read, they're smarter. They have more knowledge, more information. So they are literally empowered into being just more powerful people.

GORMAN: We know from studies and research how important literacy is in the lives of young girls, especially those who are impoverished or in marginalized groups, for having better health, for having more control over their reproductive destinies. We know that populations that are more literate tend to show up to vote a lot more often. And we know that people who are literate also better understand the processes that could lead to a more sustainable, climate-friendly future. So when we're talking about disaster, or even if we're talking about development and change, literacy and education has to be included in that.

MARTINEZ: Now, you're 24 years old, but I think, Amanda, forever, I think people will associate you with youth in accomplishing something so young. Why is it important, though, to engage young people on these kinds of issues?

GORMAN: It's funny that you say people associate me with youth because I think at the same time, I'm, like, an 80-year-old woman in a 12-year-old's body. So it's this weird dichotomy I live in. It's something I hold so dearly to my heart, which is that youth are the future. And that's not a figurative, metaphorical statement. That's fact. That's literal. And I think if we look at some of the most successful movements throughout human history, whether it be the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, gender equality, typically, those changes wouldn't have come about without the fire and the ferocity of young people. We tend to be a lot more imaginative than our elders just because we bring, I think, the creativity and the openness that comes with being young. We have the most dire stakes when it comes to the future. Young people are looking at the dawn and realizing, whatever happens today and tomorrow is going to decide the rest of the fate of me and my family and my society.

MARTINEZ: So tell us now about the inspiration for the poem that you're reading at the U.N. today.

GORMAN: The poem that I'm reading at the U.N. is called "An Ode We Owe." And when the United Nations approached me, I was so excited to do it as a supporter of UNICEF because I really wanted to write a poem that focused around this idea of children and young people being such pivotal changemakers, as well as painting a picture that puts inequality, youth empowerment, sustainability all in conversation with each other. That is to say, in order to fight climate change, we have to fight poverty. We have to fight hunger. We have to fight the prejudicial isms of the world. And if we do it together, then it can absolutely be done.

MARTINEZ: Today's U.N. event, dubbed the SDG Moment, also is going to have performances by the K-pop band Blackpink and singer-songwriter Judith Hill. And now you're going to present us an excerpt from the poem that you've written for today.

GORMAN: Yep. OK. I'm going to take a sip of tea before I do, though.

MARTINEZ: Sure, sure. Take a sip of tea, and we'll spill the tea.

GORMAN: (Reading) We must go the distance, though this battle is hard and huge, though this fight we did not choose. For preserving the Earth isn't a battle too large to win but a blessing too large to lose. That is the most pressing truth. Our people have only one planet, and our planet has only one people. We can either divide and be conquered by the few, or we can decide to conquer the future and say that today - a new dawn we wrote - say that as long as we have humanity, we will always have hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: That's Amanda Gorman with an excerpt from her poem "An Ode We Owe." Amanda, thank you.

GORMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.