Words That Burn

Cheltenham Festivals has supported Amnesty International in the development of Words That Burn, a national human rights poetry project. As a partner and regional associate for the programme, we worked with eight Gloucestershire schools in 2019. A selection of poetry written by the students was showcased at the Young Writers Showcase at The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival in October 2019.

It is important because it gives us an idea of the world’s problems and how young voices can be heard all around the world. It doesn’t matter what religion or race you are or what language you speak, everyone has a voice that should be heard.

Year 8 student, Severn Vale School

Throughout the ten sessions, students respond to a variety of poems by contemporary poets as well as poems from the literary canon, engaging with the literature as well as the human rights related issues they explore.

With our eyes wide open, we stand together

We don’t like to tell ourselves the truth,
The truth is sometimes lost but we know it is there.
We bear witness to your pain, we listen, we care!

Death came for you,
He surrounded you in a shawl of black;
He shattered your tranquillity,
Buried dreams under rubble,
Replaced your playground with a graveyard
As you watched your loved ones lie.
You all needed help but nobody tried,
We hear cries from the children break the silence in the sky.

We have witnessed how you suffer;
We have witnessed your pain.
We can see that you are trapped;
We want to give you wings.

Hear our words,
our words that burn with dreams of change and freedom:
The right to live within a world of tolerance and respect.
With our eyes wide open, we stand together.

- Wyedean School

Students can then choose to write poetry of solidarity or protest in response to human rights issues and real cases of people around the world whose human rights are being violated. These have so far included women’s rights and LGBTI rights.

I know first-hand the empowering nature of creativity and language, as a writer, performer and educator. Giving young people the tools to express themselves, to connect with the wider world and its challenges, to write in solidarity with those whose voices are suppressed, and to amplify those voices – and find their own – is a vital and beautiful thing.

Keith Jarrett, poet

The poetry written by the students is then sent to Amnesty International who forward them on to those affected by the human rights violations in an act of solidarity or, where possible, the perpetrators of the violations in an act of protest.
Young people are challenged to ‘Make a Difference in a Minute’ and video themselves reading their poetry in under 60 seconds.

It has helped me to understand that the world isn’t perfect and it has given me a way of allowing my imagination and creativity to process this.

Year 8 student, Severn Vale School

The teaching resource is freely available on Amnesty International UK’s website and the Make a Difference in a Minute challenge is open to every young person.

Our World Is Perfect

Our World is Perfect
Unless you’re a boy who feels complete in a dress
And wearing mascara and lipstick to express their identity

Our world is perfect
Unless you’re wasting your precious days worrying about your weight, your waist
But our world weighs worth by the number on a scale
Our world is perfect unless you count those pressured into self-starvation
While families beg and food banks cry out for donations

Our world is perfect until you realise:
Our map is full of man-made lines drawn to exclude and paralyse
They say borders are to protect and perfect a nation
But what if it’s your own leader that’s the source of frustration?

Our world is perfect unless you can’t be THEIR perfect:
One less like doesn’t make you less loved
You smile for the camera, feigning perfection
when in reality your soul is shattered: a deception
What’s under the surface must be questioned

Our world is perfect unless we keep suffocating trees,
Leaving them gasping for air: helpless, diseased
But stay selfish. Let’s make this about you:
If the trees die out then you do too.

Our world is perfect unless we ignore women
Because what their voices portray, is it nonsense anyway?
Too temperamental to function
Too stupid to govern
Too emotional to have a voice
Too bad they’re the door to your next generation.

Our world is perfect unless we categorise by colour
An accident of birth shouldn’t determine your path
And for some, that path leads straight to hell
On a daily basis where abuse is faced
Because who on earth can control their race?

Our world could be perfect if it hears our battle cry
Combat discrimination
Fight inequality
Challenge racism
Empower each other.
I guess our world isn’t perfect after all.

- Severn Vale School

Words That Burn was developed in partnership with Amnesty International