Cydney Brown is city's 2020 Youth Poet Laureate

It is fitting that her middle name is Hope, as the city’s new Youth Poet Laureate, Cydney Brown, brings so much of it to her new role.

“I just love Philadelphia. My sister goes to Drexel, and we always look at the skyline [from there] in awe, thinking this is such a beautiful city. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem directly to Philly, but I’ve written a love letter to where I’m from and my community, and how it shaped who I am,” she says.

A lifelong resident of Northeast Philly, Brown, 16, feels an equally deep sense of pride in her city, love for her community, and commitment to giving back to both.

“There’s so much going on in the world, [and] you have to go out of your way to understand what’s going on, to educate yourself. It’s not anyone else’s job to do that. But you have to understand what’s going on so that you can help others,” she says.

Brown, a junior at Abington Friends School, helps in ways big and small. For her Girl Scouts service project, this summer she created Project G.O.O.D., which stands for Girls Overcoming Obstacles Daily. She pairs girls in high school to mentor girls in middle school, having them meet up online to address issues like self-esteem, healthy coping mechanisms, toxic relationships.

    I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem directly to Philly, but I’ve written a love letter to where I’m from and my community, and how it shaped who I am,” Brown says.

“I know when I was younger I really needed a space where I could learn this is what’s toxic, this is what’s healthy. Because I didn’t know that I needed to set standards for who I let into my life,” Brown says. Girls from anywhere can join, since the connection happens online; since launching in June, 21 girls have participated in both mentor and mentee roles.

Growing up next to the Jardel Recreation Center tennis courts, Brown also spends summers teaching kids how to play the sport, through her work with Legacy Youth and Tennis Education.

She uses her Instagram, @cydtalks, to implore followers to wake up to the problems around them—Black people dying, climate change, the perils of social media—and do something about it.

“We spend so much time on social media and it really takes a toll on our mental health,” she says. “So many people don’t realize that you actually have to spend time with yourself and go through all the emotions you’re feeling. Because from day to day, we’re just going from this task to this task, but you have to breathe, and think.”

Brown also uses her Instagram as a vehicle to share her poetry; during the pandemic, her following has grown from a handful of followers to 1,000, as she started posting more spoken-word poems about social justice.

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“I was really excited to be able to connect with so many different writers and hear from other people just through sharing my work more frequently during the pandemic,” she says. The pandemic also gave her time to self-publish a collection of her poems, starting with an early poem she wrote in seventh grade, up until one she crafted this summer.

Yet as a younger kid, Brown never would’ve imagined she’d have such a large platform.

“I loved writing, but I felt like there were so many constraints. And I wasn’t that great at grammar,” she says. Then, her fifth grade teacher opened her eyes to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and the power of poetry struck her.

“I found poetry and [realized] no one can tell you it’s wrong. There’s so much freedom,” she says. That same year, Brown won a slam competition, and earlier this year she won first place in the national Hip Hop Poetry Workshop Contest. She’s also the founder of her school’s poetry club.

As Brown’s interest in poetry grew, her mom and two older sisters rallied around her, giving her the courage to put her work out into the world, and apply for opportunities like the Youth Poet Laureate, an honor that since 2017 has been bestowed upon a Philly student by the Free Library of Philadelphia.

“I found poetry and [realized] no one can tell you it’s wrong. There’s so much freedom,” Brown says.

Judges include poets, educators, and arts organization professionals, and the role includes a $1,000 stipend to create a community project, as well as the opportunities to be mentored by the City’s (adult) Poet Laureate, Trapeta B. Mayson, and be a poetry ambassador around the city.

In her first week with her new title, Brown already lent her voice to a recent voter-registration event for #VoteThatJawn, the youth registration initiative led by author, Penn professor, and Citizen contributor Lorene Cary.

And this December, you can hear a reading by Brown at the Citizen’s third-annual Ideas We Should Steal Festival. This year’s event will be virtual, and held over the course of four Tuesday evenings in December. (The full lineup will be announced in a couple weeks.)

Until then, check out two of Brown’s poignant works below, and be sure to remember her name—Cydney Hope Brown—because she is decidedly on course to change her beloved city. For good.