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Isabella Hanson of the ‘National Youth Foundation’: “Politicians have to step up and support police reform”

Watching repeated news stories and footage about the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd pushed me into taking action. I could not sit by and watch Black people having their lives taken without taking action. Between the horrific news stories about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, COVID-19 and school closures, I felt that there […]

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Watching repeated news stories and footage about the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd pushed me into taking action. I could not sit by and watch Black people having their lives taken without taking action. Between the horrific news stories about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, COVID-19 and school closures, I felt that there was a need for space for youth to process the tragedy. I wanted to create a space for the youth to have a voice for self-expression about why Black Lives Matter and a place for their voices to be heard. I think that it was cathartic for the participants to use the “I Matter” platform to process their reactions to these killings.


As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Isabella Hanson.

Youth Co-Founder, National Youth Foundation, “I Matter” Poetry Contest Creator

At the age of 14, Isabella Hanson was inspired to launch a national poetry competition on Black Lives Matter. Powered by Gucci, Isabella’s “I Matter” poetry contest drew participation from students in 26 states. The top poems and art were made into a compilation book honoring the lives of Black people killed in 2020. This project followed her 2020 Juneteenth Celebration, which she hosted to bring racial healing to the community at the historic Fussell House — a site which helped lead over 2,000 slaves to freedom. Isabella is an Honor Roll student at Kennett High School in Pennsylvania. She holds a leadership role in her school’s Diversity Club and is a Youth Founder of the National Youth Foundation. She is a member of her school’s track team, Model UN and Humanitarian Club. In her spare time, Isabella takes sewing lessons and is a member of Live Like Blaine Leadership Academy and GirlGov. Isabella has also won over 10 grant awards for her work. In the fall of 2019, Isabella helped conduct research for NYF’s national application to have a local property known as the Fussell House added to the Underground Railroad National Network to Freedom. By conducting research, NYF was able to help provide written documentation proving that Dr. Bartholomew ​Fussell, and his wife Lydia, helped over 2,000 slaves escape to freedom through what was known as the Underground Railroad. In January 2020, the site was added to the National Network to Freedom.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

My name is Isabella Hanson. I am 15 years old and in my sophomore year at Kennett High school. I live in Chadds Ford, PA — outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I live with my mom and dad, my little sister Victoria, my grandparents and two cats named Midnight and Simone. I am an honor roll student. I am the Founder of the “I Matter” poetry project on why Black Lives Matter. At school, I am a member of Model United Nations, Diversity Council, and Humanitarian Club and I run track. I enjoy sewing and playing Roblox. I also participate in GirlGov and the Live Like Blaine Leadership Academy.

*When I was 14, I founded the “I Matter” poetry project on why Black Lives Matter.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Recognizing the value of Black lives in America is an important and necessary change in American society. Beyond talking about making change, I created a program designed to help students in grades K to 12 express their feelings about how Blacks are treated in society and engender progress towards equality. The “I Matter” book that I created from the poetry and art has been distributed to schools and libraries and will give young people across the country the opportunity to learn from the views expressed by their peers. This has had a significant impact on the readers during a particularly difficult time in our country’s history. If change is to come, it will not be through government programs, it will be through citizens changing their views and interacting with each other in a different way as a result. Additionally, the “I Matter” program united youth of all ages and racial backgrounds to use the power of the pen to work towards social change.

As an African American in America, I recognized that George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths were due to the lack of respect and value for Black people in America. I created the “I Matter” poetry program to help myself and other youth to process the pain they felt after watching the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the news. Utilizing poetry and art as the medium, the “I Matter” program provided the inspiration and forum for youth to be heard on the vital subject of why Black Lives Matter.

The “I Matter” program required me to volunteer months of my time to coordinate the project. After I decided to launch the project, I had to promote the project nationally. I led a grassroots marketing campaign by contacting educators across the country and asking them to help her spread the word. After that, I recruited and organized a panel of judges. I processed all submissions, which was very time consuming (I learned a better process for 2021). Once the submissions were processed and judged, I created a compilation of the top poetry and art. With funding support from the Gucci Changemakers project, I was able to publish the “I Matter” book and distributed free copies to schools and libraries in America. I was 14 years old at that time and I learned so much by spending my summer vacation working on a project to empower youth on the value of Black life. Through the process, I also empowered myself to speak out against injustice.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Watching repeated news stories and footage about the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd pushed me into taking action. I could not sit by and watch Black people having their lives taken without taking action. Between the horrific news stories about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, COVID-19 and school closures, I felt that there was a need for space for youth to process the tragedy. I wanted to create a space for the youth to have a voice for self-expression about why Black Lives Matter and a place for their voices to be heard. I think that it was cathartic for the participants to use the “I Matter” platform to process their reactions to these killings.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

My motivation to go beyond the idea stage and take action came from seeing the footage of George Taylor taking his last breath and the lack of concern from those paid to protect people. I was also called to action by the tragic killing of Breonna Taylor. When I saw Joy Reid’s and Gayle King’s news coverage on this matter, I felt as though Breonna could be any Black woman in America. I kept asking myself, why didn’t anyone try to help her. She was just left there to die. It was shameful! Our lives are not protected. These incidents called me to take action.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

My first step was to have the vision to create a platform for self-expression on why Black Lives Matter. Once I had the idea, I made a list of things that I would need to host a national poetry contest and the people that I would need to connect with. I then started sending emails and text messages to get the ball rolling. It was scary to step into this new space, but I wanted to do my part to raise awareness on the value of Black life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

It was very interesting to have a teacher who attended my Juneteenth event to nominate me for the Nickelodeon Kid of the Year program. I did not create this program for awards, but it was totally amazing to have Grammy winner Billie Eilish introduce my “I Matter” on national television. Everyone has been texting and emailing about me being on national television.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

The funniest mistake that I made was accepting entries via email. That required me to cut and paste each entry and the student’s information. This took me forever. Google Forms would have made my life so much easier. For 2021, I have already the process for entries to be submitted via Google Forms because things got crazy in 2020.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I have an interesting story about help along the way. Rappers Lil’ Wayne and 50 Cent made disparaging remarks about Black women. I saw comedienne Torrei Hart’s video response and it was perfect! She is the ex-wife of Kevin Hart. I tried to contact her assistant because she had a phone number listed on her Instagram page. I called and because I have a Philly area code (she is from Philadelphia), she answered thinking I was a family member. We had the best conversation and she agreed to be a judge for the “I Matter” contest. It blew my mind! She was so supportive and wonderful.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The “I Matter” poetry contest provided a forum for youth to express their thoughts about the killings of Black people by the police. The top poets and artists (art was curated locally with students) had their work included in a book, which celebrated their work. The individual that I think was most impacted by the “I Matter” poetry contest was Jay the Poet. Jay has been writing poetry about the need to respect for Black life for years. The “I Matter” competition gave him a platform to be heard and recognized for his powerful work. Additionally, Jay has four younger brothers who personally experienced their older brother being celebrated for his art.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Politicians have to step up and support police reform. If officers lost their jobs and could face actual charges like, the Maryland Attorney General, Marilyn Mosby, tried in Baltimore, I think that the killings of Black people by the police would stop. If they thought that their callous actions had consequences, this would not continue to occur.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

#1: I wish that I had known that Twitter and Instagram would ban my ads because they had the words Black Lives Matter. The lesson that I learned was that I need a ton of grassroots outreach to reach teachers, parents and students. Originally, I thought that my social media ads would allow me to reach students, but that was totally wrong.

#2: I wish that someone had told me to use Google Forms for the 2020 submissions. I mentioned this in a previous question. It was so much work taking poems and personal information and adding it to a spreadsheet. Google Forms does all of that for you, but I had not thought about that until the end of my project when I had to personally cut and paste poems and information.

#3: I wish someone had told me to heavily edit the book before it went to the graphic designer. All of my volunteer editors sent feedback after the book had been sent to the graphic designer. This made a lot of back-and-forth emails with changes and edits. Also, I had to pay each time we made edits. I could have made changes myself before submitting it for design layout. I learned my lesson from that experience.

#4: I wish that I had thought to add the contest website so that people reading the books (hardcopy of PDF) would know how to enter and how to share information. For the PDF, I could probably even make a link.

#5: I wish that I had the idea to set up an auto-reply for people submitting entries. For 2020, I had to email each person back. Again, that added a lot of extra work. On the positive side, it made the emails very personal.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell young people that it is empowering to empower others. I would also say that when young people set their minds to do something, they can make a difference. One thing all people should know is that when working towards positive changes in the world, it is very important to surround yourself with positive people. You need people saying, “yes, you can”.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

Zendaya for two reasons — first, she supports the Black Lives Matter cause. I feel like people will listen to her because she speaks softly and those are the voices that are usually really heard. Second, everyone says that I look like her.

How can our readers follow you online?

Through our website at www.nationalyouthfoundation.org and on Instagram @nationalyouthfoundation; twitter @NYFUSA, and Facebook @Nyfusa.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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