Spoken word combats racism in commemoration of World Poetry Day

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March 21 marked the anniversary of a significant historical event -- the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, where South African police killed protesters demonstrating against apartheid laws. The U.N. now recognizes the day as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. At the University of Calgary, the Stop Racism Committee has the same goal.

Since its inception in 2009, the volunteer group consisting of students, staff and faculty seeks to create awareness and facilitate conversation about racism. The Stop Racism Committee held their biggest event of the year, "Drums for Diversity, Voices for Change," on March 21. The date also happens to be UNESCO's World Poetry Day.

In an "aha" moment, coordinator and event founder Joan Hedstrom had the idea to hold a poetry slam at the university to marry her love of poetry with her passion for social activism. "We wanted to engage students, that was the big thing," remarked Hedstrom.

Drums for Diversity, Voices for Change featured a performance by aboriginal group Wapiwin, a poetry slam with Canadian poetry figure Sheri-D Wilson, original performances by student and guest poets and motown music by Gary Martin and his band. Students' Union president Dylan Jones was the event's MC and Jen Kunlire was the "slam master."

Such a lengthy roster brought its own complications. "The big worry now is [that] maybe there won't be space for everyone who wants to come, but there is interest," said Hedstrom before the event.

The event was another addition to Calgary's already flourishing poetry community. The city, considered a poetry hotspot, is home to the Calgary Spoken Word Festival, one of the largest spoken-word festivals in the world. This year's festival will run from April 17 to 22.

Wilson said that the city's diverse landscape and voices of aboriginal and "cowboy" culture as oral traditions in Calgarian history are major contributors to Calgary's status as a poetry hub. She also mentioned the dedication of local poetry enthusiasts who have worked hard to create events such as the Spoken Word Festival.

One of the prizes offered during the poetry slam component of the event was the opportunity to compete for a place on Calgary's "slam team." Wilson mentioned that she was excited that the university would produce a potential national slam competitor.

"[Spoken word] is about people writing in the voice of the people, for the people," said Wilson. "It is poetry that you can participate with."