Facilitated by Merna Ann Hecht
Foster High School & Community Partnerships with the Jack Straw Cultural Center, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) Youth Food Justice Program, and the Food Innovation Network, Tukwila, WA. Former partnerships include Project Feast and the IRC Namaste Garden and New Roots Program.
The Stories of Arrival Poetry Project has been connected to IPM for the past 12 years during which IPM has funded eight major poetry projects with refugee and immigrant youth led by poet Merna Ann Hecht. Foster High School is one of the most language- and ethnically-diverse schools in the U.S. The project takes place during the school day in ELL teacher and co-director Carrie Stradley’s classroom. Merna’s unique approach to bringing poetry to each young person helps them find their voices and tell their stories of trauma, displacement, loss, resilience and hope through the process of poem-making. She not only devotes her time to the students in the project, she also reaches out to create lasting partnerships with organizations that work with immigrants and refugees, especially as related to access to healthy food, communities of welcome, belonging and sustainability.
Many of the young people in this poetry project have experienced the trauma of forced migration and life in refugee camps. All have endured the losses that encompass leaving a homeland often because of war, but also due to poverty, climate disruption, food and water scarcity, and lack of basic health care and education. Enriched by community partnerships and guest artists and poets, the project has grown in its mission to widen compassionate understandings of the refugee and immigrant experience. For most of the students, the project is a first experience with writing poems. The poignant and powerful stories that come forth through poetry are a testament to the power of poetic expression and to the indelible imprint of memories of family, culture and homelands.
For 2019-20 Merna and Carrie created a new venture which resulted in a stunning collection of broadsides including self-portraits and visual poems that show the deep humanity of each young person in the project. A rotating exhibition of this work, which was on view in 2021, connected to a new community partnership with the Tukwila Food Innovation Network Spice Bridge Global Food Hall where refugee women chefs prepare and sell the food of their homelands.
Merna has edited a beautiful book of these broadsides titled We Are the Future: Poems with A Voice for Peace. John Fox, along with the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, and other poets, educators and peace activists have written testimonials for the back cover. The book’s foreword is from Washington State Poet Laureate, Claudia Castro Luna, the first immigrant and woman of color to hold that title. Limited editions with proceeds going directly to the project are available by contacting Merna.
Word Travels: Bringing Refugee & Immigrant Poetry to the Community
by Merna Ann Hecht
Word Travels is an extension of the partnership that was established for our 2017-18 Stories of Arrival Poetry Project with the IRC’s New Roots Program and Youth Food Justice Program. The mission of the program states: New Roots is about healthy families, secure communities and a more sustainable future. It is about dignity, determination and the boundless possibility of human connection. And it’s about the power of people to heal and nurture positive change from the ground up.
For the 2017-18 poetry project our young participants created poems under the broad theme of “Caring for the Earth and Each Other.” We brought a number of refugee and immigrant community members into the classroom to offer their poetry and their life and work experience related to environmental protections, rebuilding communities and direct work in sustainability. We looked closely at the connections of the climate crises to the hugely troubling rise in forced migration and immigration. Poems about our need for mindful and sustainable care for the earth and each other resulted in the 2018 poetry anthology titled Holding the Earth Together: Youth Voices Speak for Our World.
Through partnering with the IRC New Roots program our students were able to work in the Namaste refugee garden adjacent to the school. This powerful collaboration led me to expand my work to settings with elder refugees and intergenerational groups which has led to further collaboration with the IRC New Roots Program and a pilot poetry and visual arts project with elder refugee gardeners. Since I was traveling further afoot with poetry, I named these expanded projects Word Travels. Literally, in the fall of 2018, I traveled with words! I volunteered in two major hubs of migration—Berlin and Athens—where I worked as a poet with asylum seekers and refugees, all women and children. One of the most moving parts of this work was bringing the poetry that the Stories of Arrival poets created to groups of refugee women in Athens who were from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and Burma and witnessing the power of words traveling! Most of the poems I presented and all of the prompts were from the Stories of Arrival youth poets. Their words touched the hearts of these women and gave them the courage and inspiration to write their own poems speaking to profound loss and to profound courage.
IPM is pleased to be funding and supporting this wonderful poetry partner program.
If you'd like to support this effort, please consider donating!
Enjoy the food-themed poetry and recipes in "Our Table of Memories"—part of a collaboration
between Project Feast and Stories of Arrival: Youth Voices Poetry Project.
Edited and directed by Merna Ann Hecht.
The anthology "Holding the Earth" offers the fruit of dozens of students' efforts as English Language Learners
to put their wrenching experiences of migration into words, using the power of poetry and the tools of art.
Edited and directed by Merna Ann Hecht.
Merna Ann Hecht
Merna has taught creative writing, social justice and humanities courses at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and both Language & Literacy and Imagination in the Classroom for the Seattle branch of the Pacific Oaks College Teacher Certification Program. She is a nationally known storyteller; through a National Storytelling Network grant she piloted a poetry/storytelling project at BRIDGES: A Center for Grieving Children in Tacoma. Other venues as a teaching poet include the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center School, homeless shelters for teens and youth detention centers. Merna began her career as a pediatric nurse and was in the first group of nurses to work with Elizabeth Kubler Ross which set her on a lifelong path of helping others voice their sorrow and discover their sources of strength and reconnection.
A longtime resident of Vashon Island, WA, where she was the 2017-19 Poet Laureate, Merna is also a blueberry farmer and a passionate cook. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Washington with additional training in Theater in Education and Expressive Arts.