5 Steps to Engage Young People in Poetry Competitions

A young man speaks into a microphone.

To celebrate National Poetry Month this April, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence will distribute books of poetry to middle and high schools throughout the state. Unlike many publications written for teens, these books—featuring original works on topics like sexual assault and dating violence—use a surefire approach to resonate with readers. The 200 poems within were penned specifically for Idaho youth, by Idaho youth who entered the coalition’s “Our Gender Revolution” writing challenge.

Similar to the teen dating violence media challenges we highlighted in February, poetry contests offer a creative opportunity to engage youth in critical thinking about gender-based violence. But giving young people a platform to raise their voice isn’t enough to guarantee participation, says Executive Director Kelly Miller. Organizations should adjust their contest guidelines to accommodate young people’s diverse talents and interests, she says, and take the lead encouraging community buy-in. 

"We reach different groups of youth by offering as many platforms as we can for youth to express themselves and think about gender-based violence,” Miller says.

In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Independence House, Inc. takes a proactive approach to drawing youth to its annual “We are the Change” contest. In 2016, the resource, counseling, and advocacy center accepted submissions about healthy relationships across a range of mediums, including poetry, graphics, videos, and music clips. Giving entrants a variety of platforms to express themselves attracts a broader group of young people to share their experiences with relationships and gender roles, says Development Director Donna Giberti.

[Read about ways to create poetry with youth.]

Miller and Giberti share five steps for getting youth to participate in poetry contests or other creative opportunities.

1. Engage youth leaders. Recruit young people who are already involved in your organization to be contest organizers and champions, Giberti says. For example, Independence House enlists youth mentors from one of its violence prevention programs to meet with their school principals to encourage school buy-in and participation.  

2. Allow room for creativity. Not all young people feel inspired by the same topic or even define poetry in the same way. Miller encourages organizations to adopt a “multi-pronged” approach to their poetry contests, whether that means accepting submissions across a variety of formats or adjusting contest prompts based on participants’ ages. 

3. Get the word out. Reach out to teachers, schools, and community organizations working directly with young people, Giberti says. Independence House invites all local schools to participate in their contest in addition to contacting local art teachers, many of whom give extra credit to students who participate. The organization also sends out contest-related newsletters, e-blast messages, posters, and flyers.

4. Create a prolonged approach. Design an extended rollout for your contest, or tie it into other community activities to get youth excited about different events. In Idaho, the “Our Gender Revolution” writing challenge kicks off each fall, when middle and high school student receive their poetry writing prompts. Contest winners are then announced in February as part of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Miller says the coalition also plans to host a book launch party and poetry slam in April to publicly recognize the contest winners.

5. Celebrate youth. Give youth opportunities to have their voices heard and celebrated, Miller says. The April poetry slam event, for example, will allow contest winners to read their poems to an audience of 500 peers and adults from across the state. Winners also receive gift cards, Miller says, and recent decreases in the prize amounts did not negatively impact applications. Last year, the coalition received more than 3,000 entries.

[Discover how art can bring healing to at-risk youth.]

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