Jillian Hanesworth: Buffalo’s First Poet Laureate Lights the Way

by Schondra Aytch

(pictured above: Jillian Hanesworth in a unique design  surrounded by prolific  poetic Black Women including  Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Phyllis Wheatley, Margaret Walker , Nikki Giovanni, Amanda Gorman, Sonia Sanchez, and Rita Dove  for the challenger 2021 poetry issue. Photo Blanc Photographie and  image design by  Outside The Box) 

Jillian Hanesworth  has been doing the work. An organizer, activist and poet, the 28-year old has used her voice to support underserved neighborhoods in Buffalo for the last 5 years, but her new role as poet laureate is bridging the gap between the local government and the community. Historically appointed on March 16, 2021 by Buffalo’s city council members, Hanesworth’s obligation as the city’s first poet laureate is to share her poems for events and special occasions, but she plans to use the position for so much more.

“My art is my vehicle, my work is the gas,” Hanesworth simply explained.

Currently the director of leadership at Open Buffalo, a non-profit organization teaching and fighting for racial, economic, and ecological justice, Hanesworth runs programs to equip community members as leaders in their own communities. With a significant focus on building resources and sustainability in her program, her main goal is to bring awareness to the disparities between certain areas in Buffalo and propose solutions for them. Utilizing her talent as a wordsmith to compose poems that shed light on underserved communities is a part of her activism as an organizing leader and uniquely has elevated her influence.

Gaining notoriety for her spoken word that brings intimate perspective to social justice issues, much of Hanesworth’s experiences as an east side Buffalo native and Black woman has informed her art. Writing since she was 7 years old, the young artist has always had a knack for words. A self-proclaimed introvert who loves to read, Hanesworth’s passion for equality and fire for justice was ignited by books like Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems by James Baldwin and The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac. Starting to apply her knowledge for words and literacy while attending Performing Arts High School, she became involved in many activities. A talented voice major during that time, Hanesworth was also captain of the school’s undefeated debate team.

Jillian Hanesworth 2021 Blanc Photographie

“I love that school. I really came out of my shell as a leader there,” Hanesworth mentioned.

Leaving Buffalo for the first time after graduating from Performing Arts in 2010 to attend Fredonia University, the young poet’s passion for advocacy grew. Learning to assimilate while experiencing a predominantly white space like Fredonia fueled her efforts to take on leadership roles at the college. While majoring in criminal justice with a concentration in law, Hanesworth organized events on campus throughout her college career and became the president of the Black Student Union her senior year. At one point tackling 3 jobs, an internship, duties as a school ambassador and the president of the BSU, her focus never strayed from creating opportunities for students like her.

“I took this mindset where it’s like, ‘I have to know who I am, I have to know what I want, and if what I want doesn’t exist, I have to be willing to build it,’” Hanesworth explained. “What you need as a Black student most likely doesn’t exist because they don’t have a lot of Black students, so we had to build our culture, we had to build our place on that campus.”

In the midst of fighting for funding, resources and safe spaces for minority students at Fredonia, Hanesworth was going through her own personal battles. Struggling academically which later she discovered was due to dyslexia, stunted her confidence as a poet. Still writing and reading poetry, the young artist hid her poetry work from the public. Assuming her position as an organizer and speaker until she graduated in 2014, Hanesworth’s passion to share poetry didn’t sprout until she moved back to Buffalo. She can recall a day when she was sitting in her parents’ living room, watching the news about Trayvon Martin’s and Mike Brown’s deaths.

“I remember writing one line on my paper and that line was ‘I wish the little black boy did something wrong.’ From that poem, came everything that I do now,” Hanesworth said.

Recognizing her gift for poetry at that moment, Hanesworth decided to stop running from it. Writing and reciting her poetry professionally since 2017, the talented wordsmith has performed over 200 times in Buffalo, New York City, Toronto among many other places and released her first poetry book titled For The Culture in 2018 which includes her popular poem “Little Black Boy.” Leading social change through her artistry, parallel to organizing, Hanesworth has worked with multiple local institutions to increase equality and equity in Buffalo. From being a counselor at the Haven House for survivors of interpersonal violence, a teaching artist at Ujima Theatre, managing a Department of Justice grant in Trocaire College’s student affairs, and now at Open Buffalo, the young poet has manifested her activism in many unique ways.

“The most important thing I can possibly do is remember I’m a servant,” Hanesworth explained. “Not a star… I’m building a platform to represent people, to represent my community, to express the needs of historically ignored, historically excluded people.”

A major organizer during the political and racial tension of 2020, more specifically after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last summer, Hanesworth led peaceful protests within the city of Buffalo for legislative change. At the same time, she was also in the thick of pushing city council members to create a poet laureate role. Recognizing the need for someone to speak to both the community and city officials in a way that brings unity and awareness, Hanesworth has worked diligently behind the scenes with politicians to have the role officialized with no intent on taking the position.

“Art expands beyond social economic status, it expands beyond language, it expands beyond gender identity, sexual orientation – all of that. It reaches people in a way that nothing else can. Art is always appropriate. Politics is not,”Hanesworth mentioned.

With strong support from Masten District council member Ulysses S. Wingo and his Chief of Staff Damon Palmer, who assisted Hanesworth in building the resolution for a poet laureate, the common council approved the role. A no-brainer for council members to appoint Hanesworth, who’s been consistent throughout the process and already respected as a speaker, artist and activist, she humbly accepted the role and is already using her new influence to support the community.

Still continuing her leadership program at Open Buffalo, Hanesworth has doubled down on the organization’s Community Restoration Project which is a campaign demanding lawmakers to make changes to 3 major pieces of legislation and that is legalizing marijuana (which they won), clean slate expungement, and taxing the top 1% of income earners in New York. Along with her efforts at Open Buffalo, Hanesworth is also single-handedly running a fundraising campaign to establish little libraries in the east side and riverside neighborhoods of Buffalo.

 Hanesworth photographed by Blanc Photography in Niagara Square

“I’m hoping that through this project, I can help provide some actual, tangible things that our community needs,” Hanesworth explained about the little libraries campaign. “We need access to literacy tools. If our kids can’t read, what can they do? You can’t even fill out a job application if you can’t read. But we also understand that the education in school is not always equitable…So we understand the systems that we’re combating. We understand what we need, so it’s time to start filling in those gaps.”

Continuing to expand her activism, Hanesworth is currently working on her second poetry book titled the Revolution will Rhyme which will include transcripts of a conversation she had with Dr. Cornel West. Also planning to drop a poetry EP later in the year, Hanesworth’s ultimate goal is to keep organizing while supporting like-minded activists and creatives in Buffalo. Intent on collaborating with painters, musicians and poets in the city, she wants to elevate the poet laureate position as much as she can for other aspiring poets to apply when her 2-year term is over. But for right now, Jillian Hanesworth is leading the way.

“I’m just excited about everything,” Hanesworth concluded. “I feel like I finally am walking in my purpose. I’ve known what my purpose was, and I feel like I’m living it now. Every single day I wake up, and I come to work, and I like what I do at work. And I go home feeling like even if I can’t directly see the impact of my work, I feel like I’m helping, I feel like I’m doing something that’s worth it.”

Keep up with Jillian Hanesworth by following her social platforms or connect with her directly at her website www.jillthepoet.com  

Follow Contributing Columnist Writer Schondra Aytch on social media  and her blog   @sneakvibingblog  sneakvibing.com