Smile Politely

Get to know poet and arts advocate Rachel Lauren Storm

You may know her as the coordinator of the Urbana Arts and Culture Program where she builds community, advocates for the arts, and generally works hard to make our piece of the world a better place. But Rachel Lauren Storm is also a published poet and a doctoral student working at the intersection of public education and transformative justice. She is also busy parenting. In the midst of a particularly difficult week, Storm was kind enough to share a bit about herself, her creative work, and how the Urbana Arts and Culture Program has been adapting to life in COVID-19 times. We are lucky to have her working on behalf of our local arts community and for the type of transformational work that is so needed now. The words she shared inspired me and gave me hope. May they do the same for you. 

Smile Politely: How have you been faring during the past few months? What have you missed the most?  What have you been doing to keep yourself grounded?

Rachel Lauren Storm: Keeping grounded is so important, as these times have so much to teach us, if we’re open to the lessons being offered. We have, at once, a pandemic that has underscored what is truly “essential—healthcare, eradicating inequities, essential services often provided by low-wage workers, local economies, and the recognition of our deep interdependence. We have political uprisings calling attention to the deadly reality of systemic racism and policing and advocacy for transformation of “public safety” as we know it. While so much of what feels closest to the surface is outrage, grief, and disconnection, what I’m trying not to lose sight of how this story is also one of people reaching towards one another in times of isolation. We are contending with two deadly viruses, COVID-19 and systemic racism, and yet, we’ve also seen one of the largest global social movements in history to address both of these public health crises.

SP: With much of the Urbana Arts and Culture programming on hold due to COVID-19, how do you stay connected with other creatives, particularly the poets you often read with?

Storm: We are working to open up more and more of our programming through virtual means and other alternative formats. We have converted our Poets on a Park Bench TV series to Poets in a Pandemic, still focused on Urbana Poet Laureate, Will Reger, interviewing local poets and hearing their work. We’ve converted our free art classes for kids five and up, Young Artist’s Studio, to Zoom-based events. We helped launch the Art in a Time of Quarantine digital youth arts exhibition. Chambanamoms What’s going on in Champaign-Urbana & Community Group, Krannert Art Museum, Koop Adventure Play, Museum of the Grand Prairie, and the City of Urbana Arts and Culture Program collaborated on this initiative to ensure engagement and community connection for the whole family.

As far as staying connected, so much has actually been possible with more virtual connections: connecting with folks in other cities, attending poetry meet-ups more easily, and the like. I made a vow to publish more of my poetry work this year and so far, I’m making good on that promise.

SP: Has it been a creative time for you? If so, how? or why not?

Storm: I’ve been writing more on weekends and evenings. I certainly try to stay invested in my own creative work, as it grounds me in times of turmoil and helps me flex my imagination muscle. So much of what is happening with our political uprisings across the nation is a call for imagination: what does a world without violence look like? What does a world with transformative justice look like? What do we need to imagine to get there? Creativity helps us innovate and imagine.

SP:  In addition to your writing, and your work for the City of Urbana, you are also pursuing your Doctorate in Education. I truly admire how you make all of the work you do, creativity, administratively, and academically, seem effortless and joyful. What’s your secret?

Storm: The secret is that it isn’t effortless, but stubbornness. I really feel stubborn about finishing what I start. I also feel most content when I feel connected and knee deep in multiple projects at once. It’s both an achilles heel​ and source of happiness.

SP: Is there a point of intersection between these aspects of your life? Do they somehow fuel each other or work together?

Storm: Oh, definitely! My academic work centers upon issues facing marginalized people in public education and restorative/transformative justice. I am deeply committed to educational work that is liberatory, brings the community together, and addresses injustice. I have always centered the power of art in my work. So for me, it’s all deeply connected. I think art is a language that transcends other barriers to communication and connection.

SP: Tell me more about your passion for education. What is the specific area that interests you the most?  What drew you to the PhD program? What are your goals?

Storm: I study restorative and transformative justice, international development, race and gender, educational policy, arts-based education, violence/trauma, and social movements. I am hopeful that my work–professional, academic, and community work–contributes to imagining new worlds where those oppressed and marginalized are more free.

SP: What inspires you most as a poet?

Storm: Last year, it was grief. I wrote about grief from a number of vantage points–loss, suffering, change. I wrote about the deaths of loved ones, but also collective suffering in the face of injustice. I spent time thinking about current events, historic events, but also storying personal experiences in my own life that were pivotal for me. I am very inspired by human relationships, in general. I don’t write much about nature, for instance. My work tends towards understanding the social.

SP: For those who haven’t yet heard or read your work, where can they find it?

Storm: Recently, I have had work published in CURA, Rust and Moth, and Poethead. I self-published a small chapbook last year called Ache & Love. I was published in an international anthology of women poets this year, too. My work will also appear in So It Goes Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. I have curated two poetry open mics in C-U, Writ n’ Rhymed and Open Scene Open Mic. I taught poetry weekly for two years in to incarcerated writers. I have performed at Pygmalion’s Poetry Marathon and I love opportunities to perform and listen to others share their work.

SP: Who are some of your favorite poets? What do you feel is the power of contemporary poetry, particularly live readings?

I love the work of Sonya Renee Taylor, Sharon Olds, Nayyirah Waheed, June Jordan, Joy Harjo, Li-Young Lee​, Nellie Wong, and Sonia Sanchez, to name a few. I think poetry is perceptive and prescriptive. Poetry offers translation of the world around us, encourages new thinking, and invites us to step into moments not ours. I love that about poetry. A few years ago, I brought Sonya Renee Taylor to the University of Illinois campus and got to witness her perform her poem The Body is Not an Apology live (now the title of her latest book). It is one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever heard and its words still sit with me. One of our University of Illinois alumni, Porsha Olayiwola, who I knew as a fellow student, is the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion and 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion and in 2019 was named Boston’s Poet Laureate. Her work moves me politically and spiritually.

SP: Right now we are at a significant moment in history. Artists often play a key role in helping to amplify the call for change. What have you observed in yourself or in the artists and writers you know? What advice would you give young writers, and BIPOC writers, wanting to make their voices heard?

Storm: I am grounding in the work of BIPOC artists who have been speaking truth to power throughout history and holding on to the knowledge that education is a gift for those of us with power and privilege, and should be treated as such, not with expectation, but gratitude. I am grounding in the knowledge that this moment of continued political reckoning with the unhealed and unending trauma of systemic racism demands that all of us, in all of the ways we move in society, move towards healing this deep wound. My advice is directed more at those who, like me, have relative power and privilege: amplify the voices, needs, and perspectives of BIPOC, tend to the parts of this wound that you uniquely can tend to (your family, your communities), and stay with the work of ending systemic racism and all forms of oppression. Social movement moments help pull us back on paths when we stray, but the work doesn’t live in them alone. This is long-haul work and you’re needed in it.

Top image: Photo of Rachel Lauren Storm. Photo from Facebook. 

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