Since she became director of Smith’s Wurtele Center for Leadership last July, Erin Park Cohn ’00 has overseen a process aimed at engaging the Smith community in shaping the center’s mission, programs and partnerships.
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Leila Mottley ’23: Finding Her Voice Through Poetry
By the time she was in high school, Leila Mottley ’23 had been writing poetry for years—yet she didn’t think of herself as a poet.
That changed in 2018, when Mottley was named Oakland Youth Poet Laureate. She began traveling around her home city, giving readings and helping to promote the art of poetry.
“All of a sudden, I was a performance poet, and I learned I really loved it,” she says. “I’m still getting used to people spotting me on the street and asking, ‘Aren’t you the poet laureate?’”
Mottley will be bringing her passion for poetry to Smith as one of 640 students arriving on campus this fall.
She grew up in an artistic family (her father, Nick Mottley, is a playwright), and in a city with a vibrant public arts community. She was drawn early on to the way poetry can distill thoughts and emotions, as well as to writers who spoke to her own identity as a young person of color.
“One of my first poets was Ntozake Shange,” says Mottley. “Her book Nappy Edges? I read every line, over and over.”
Even though she was routinely taking out stacks of poetry books from the library, writing poems and novels about what she observed and experienced in her city, Mottley still did not consider herself a writer in the public sense. Then, one of her teachers at Oakland School of the Arts encouraged her to enter the annual competition for Oakland Youth Poet Laureate. Mottley was named to the position at age 16.
As she visited city schools and nonprofit organizations to read and talk about poetry, she discovered a new role for herself as a public artist.
“It was surprising—and comforting—that after every performance, someone would always wave me down to tell me something about what they’d heard in my poems,” Mottley says. “The poetry made them feel they knew me in some way, and it opened the gateway to a connection I wouldn’t have made otherwise.”
She’d like to see more avenues being created for young people interested in poetry.
“In school, we learn poetry in the context of much older authors,” Mottley notes. “That creates a separation where kids don’t even think they can exist as poets. I tell people to start writing even before you think you’re a writer.”
In addition to her work as poet laureate, Mottley founded Lift Every Voice an Oakland Public Library art workshop program that links incarcerated youth with their peers on the outside.
Her interest in self-directed learning—and her mother’s experience at Mills College in Oakland—led Mottley to apply to Smith. A campus visit sealed the deal “by making me feel at home in a place that’s the opposite of Oakland in many ways,” she says.
Mottley—who has begun work on her third novel—will continue writing poetry when she enters Smith this fall, but also plans to pursue other interests, including sociology, Africana studies and education.
“I don’t see a life for myself without poetry,” she says. “I’m looking forward to slowing down, experiencing my classes and my learning, and focusing on all kinds of writing.”