Buffalo Poet Laureate Hanesworth to call for change in deconstructing systemic racism, roles we all play

The systemic treatment of people of color has been an issue for centuries. Jillian Hanesworth, the first-ever poet laureate of Buffalo, New York, wants to ask the question: Is America truly a place for people to thrive and grow?

She will give her lecture, “We Are in a State of Emergency,” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy to close Week Seven of the Interfaith Lecture Series, “Home: A Place for Human Thriving.”

Born and raised in Buffalo, she began writing at age 7 and obtained a bachelor’s in criminal justice from SUNY Fredonia. Her work as Buffalo’s poet laureate led to her invitation to speak in Chautauqua’s 2022 interfaith program; after the deadly, racist May 14 shooting at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, she pivoted her Chautauqua lecture to focus on current events.

“I had an entirely different idea of how to approach (my lecture),” Hanesworth said. “After dealing with the trauma that I had around that terrorist attack, and trying to help my community heal through my art, I decided that is absolutely what I’m going to talk about.”

She wants Chautauquans to understand that everyone has a role in fighting racism, violence, hatred and any other problem America faces. 

“I want people to be fired up and charged up, and I want them to challenge the status quo and challenge their family members and challenge their coworkers,” Hanesworth said. “I want people to join me in agitating the system.”

As a community organizer and activist, she uses her poetry as a call to action for her revolution, modeled in her book The Revolution Will Rhyme.

Hanesworth described this revolution as beginning with the momentum of uprisings and protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

“We are at this place where we are tired of the way things have been going in America,” Hanesworth said. “We’re ready to revolutionize all of it. We want to revolutionize the idea of public safety.”

Creating welcoming communities and improving access to quality food, housing and wealth are critical, especially in Buffalo, which she said is “one of the most segregated cities in the country.”

She uses her art to amplify her voice and passion for this movement, as others in communities across the country have.

Her degree in criminal justice not only gave her the understanding of the system — it also gave her an understanding, beyond her own experiences, of how to enact change.

“(My degree) really helped me understand the system and understand the role that public safety and policing were supposed to play in our society, versus what actually happens,” Hanesworth said. Social justice isn’t a hobby; it’s a lifestyle, she said, and the more often people are out in their own communities, making themselves aware and working to change, the more the system will actually change.

“If you don’t know how to get involved, that’s OK,” Hanesworth said. “It starts with debunking stereotypes in front of your children so they know that this is not how we think about people. This is not how we talk about people. This is not how we label people.”

She said people also need to be honest with themselves about the history of America and the acts of genocide it was built on, because if they don’t, history is destined to repeat itself.

“It’s time for things to change, and we’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer,” Hanesworth said. “It’s not a request, it’s a demand. The revolution is going to happen. …  We’re ready and we have work to do.”

Editor’s note: This event did not take place as scheduled, as many Institution events were canceled following an incident in the Amphitheater on Friday, August 12.

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The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.