As a volunteer at George Junior Republic, Rachel Whalen ’19 works with students at the William George Agency for Children and Family Services. One way she’s found to reach them is through a new club, Poetic Justice, which is a collaborative effort between Whalen and GJR students to provide a safe space for students to express themselves through poetry and other creative means.
Poetic Justice was recently honored with the Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award, which recognizes students who have had significant involvement in community service by providing support for their projects.
Whalen began pursuing the idea of starting the club after a student she tutored expressed interest in poetry as a therapeutic outlet, a vision which Whalen helped realize last year.
“I met a student who was writing poetry and she was an incredibly prolific writer. She wanted to build solidarity around the events she had experienced in her life,” said Whalen, an English major and a public service scholar through Cornell’s Public Service Center. “She wanted this club to provide a place for talking about these experiences and sharing them with others, not just at GJR but beyond.”
Poetic Justice started in the spring of 2017. Each semester the club produces a magazine that is a collection of the students’ work. The group has also gone on several field trips and attended workshops at Cornell including at the Johnson Museum of Art and in “Experimental Writing and Transmedia Theory,” a graduate class taught by Jon McKenzie, visiting professor of English.
“We usually work through themes that the students pick,” Whalen said. “This semester, for example, has been about identity, and last semester we talked a lot about stereotypes.”
On April 16, the GJR students in Poetic Justice performed at the Community Engagement showcase in Klarman Hall.
“Empowerment is not giving someone a voice, but rather listening to the voices they already have and putting those voices in spaces in which they can participate in conversations that might not otherwise exist,” Whalen said. “This includes talking back to power and talking back to stereotypes and systems of oppression.”
The Public Service Center Scholars (PSCS) program allows Cornell students to engage in meaningful volunteer, community-service learning and advocacy work. George Junior Republic is a high school located in Freeville and is operated by the William George Agency.
“The William George Agency is a residential center for youth in the system of care who come from all around the state,” Whalen said. “Many of the students have gone through some pretty intense life experiences and are there for therapeutic treatment services.”