MARBLEHEAD – A typical 12-year-old’s summer is filled with camp, swimming, and sleepovers. But in the year of Covid-19 and the call for social justice, Molly Blander’s summer is hardly typical.
“I’m just planning on kind of hunkering down and doing some reading. I’ll definitely be going to more marches and more protests,” said the Jewish preteen, who attended JCC preschool and summer camps.
“I’m starting to do calls [to government officials] for different organizations like the Justice for Breonna Taylor movement.”
Blander’s passion for social justice shines through in her writing, too. She is also passionate about speaking out against anti-Semitism and for her it’s personal – her grandfather lost several family members in the Holocaust. The Marblehead rising seventh-grader recently became the youngest finalist in the Pulitzer Center-run international poetry competition: Fighting Words: Poetry in Response to Current Events.
The contest, which had about a thousand student entries from seven countries, required that poems use at least one line from an article on the Pulitzer Center website.
Blander chose to base her poem on a story about immigration, “Denied Asylum, Migrants Return to the Place They Fear Most: Home.” Her resulting poem, “Home Sweet Home: An Oxymoron,” details the fears immigrants hoping to receive asylum in the U.S. face when they are sent back to Honduras, which struggles with gang violence.
“I’ve always been very passionate about immigration. It’s an issue that I find really interesting and that I’ve always loved educating myself about,” said Blander. She chose the article because it focused less on the process of getting to the U.S. and more on what happens when migrants are sent back to their home countries they worked hard to leave, only to face violence when they return. “I thought that was really powerful,” she said.
As she sat down to write the poem, it “just flowed,” she said. “When you really enjoy learning about something, it just comes to you.”
Her humanities teacher, Natalie Belli, fostered Blander’s interest in immigration through her lessons at the Village School. Belli said she has a reputation for tackling topics other teachers are nervous to touch, and she is often inspired by a student’s question.
She’s covered issues such as homelessness, the 9/11 attacks, and immigration in her class. She took her students to the Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit on immigration, “When Home Won’t Let You Stay,” a field trip typically reserved for high schoolers.
Belli also is running a book club this summer for over 70 students aged 10 to 18, including Blander, that focuses on social justice. Many of the books have teen protagonists growing up in politically conflicted areas in Central and South America. “The books tend to be a little edgier,” she said.
Although she knows topics like immigration are controversial to teach children, she warned against doubting their ability to comprehend it, and in Blander’s case, to write an award-winning poem inspired by the subject. “As adults, we would be like, ‘There’s just no way that a kid could have written that,’” she said of Blander’s poem. “Oftentimes, we underestimate the child.”
She added that Blander is an “exceptional” student “because she’s constantly thinking. And it’s not necessarily just about what she ends up putting down on paper. She believes that. And then from that belief, oftentimes she puts that belief into action.”
As excited as Blander was when her work was published on the Pulitzer Center website, she’s even more excited to continue advocating for social justice on a local level.
Inspired by the recent attention given to the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice issues, and spurred by the murder of George Floyd, she joined multiple social media platforms to share educational content with her middle school peers about systemic racism, immigration, and other social justice issues. She knows many of them don’t watch or read the news as much as she does.
“When there’s a racial injustice event, it always makes me feel better about what I’m doing if I speak out about it,” she said.
Instagram is an accessible platform for her peers since many of them already use it daily. “It’s hard to get people to read a newspaper. But I think if you’re already on your phone, just pick one or two websites, like the New York Times, or whatever you choose, and just try to educate yourself,” she said.
When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, she answered unequivocally: “Doctors Without Borders in the Middle East, or an international reporter.”
“Home Sweet Home: An Oxymoron”
By Molly Blander
Request for asylum drifts out the window
Like the smoke from a snuffed out candle
Along with a desperate dream for safety and stability.
Like a child walking for the first time.
Grudgingly walking back to the land they hoped to escape.
“Gangs own it”
My Honduran hometown
No Park Avenue,
No get out of jail free,
The price we pay is not blue paper money.
It is lives,
It is the place we used to call home.
“Fear is profitable”
A forever fire
Burning with debt,
Burning with blood.
“Nowhere more frightening”