Using Poetry as a Force for Social Change

by Madeleine Roberts

Nicole Cozier, leader of HRC's Diversity Equity and Inclusion team, shares how poetry helped her explore her identity as a queer Black woman and how it is at the core of social justice work.

Nicole Cozier, who leads diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at HRC, doesn’t remember exactly what brought about her love of poetry. Reading and writing poetry is something that has always been a part of her. 

“It feels like it’s been a fixture for a long time,” said Cozier. “I’ve been [writing poetry] in some capacity for as long as I can remember.” 

For Cozier, poetry is a medium that can serve many uses: personally, in how we relate to each other and in social justice. 

When Cozier was first coming out and exploring her own identity as a queer Black woman, she was able to express herself, to find community, and feel validated through poetry. Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” is one poem that particularly spoke to her. 

“As a Black woman growing up in an environment that did not value the standards of beauty, strength and power of Black women, having that articulation of what it meant to be extraordinary or, in this case, phenomenal… was groundbreaking in many ways,” Cozier said. 

Cozier also found community through group poetry spaces in Washington, D.C., such as MotherTongue, where women and LGBTQ people would come together to share poetry through open mic nights. 

“There was something about… [hearing] people share their own vulnerabilities, and their own transformation -- there’s an arc in the poetry of realization that just gave me a sense of community, even if I did not know that person,” she said. Finding threads she could identify with in other people’s poetry and writing helped her to figure out her own intersectional identities. 

Cozier sees poetry as a powerful vehicle for people to understand themselves and others because it inherently makes the writer, and the reader, vulnerable. That’s also why Cozier sees poetry as a valuable tool for social justice and inclusion. 

“Art has always permeated social movements. The creative space connects us in a unique way -- it’s a different part of our brain that we’re engaging, a different part of our spirit and our sense of self… and it allows people to connect with each other’s humanity,” Cozier said. “I think that is also the core of our social justice work. How do we get vulnerable with each other, and how do we connect through that vulnerability and build a sense of solidarity even across the realities of the difference in our experiences?” 

As we close out this year’s Poetry Month, Cozier also shares what the month means to her. 

“Poetry is, in many ways, the ultimate artistic manifestation of diversity,” she said. “It can take so many different forms and touch us in so many different ways. So the idea of having time to reflect and appreciate that is just lovely.” 

Cozier has also found that poetry can be a powerful way to build connections in the workplace. Sharing her experience with colleagues through her poetry has been one way that she’s grown and become closer to her coworkers. One of her poems that has invited others to learn about her and her experiences is “Fragments,” shared below: 


by Nicole E Cozier

I move through the world in fragments,

Tripping over parts of myself along the way.

As each fragment jockeys for recognition, validation, and acceptance,

I learn to quiet their clamoring voices like a nervous parent quiets an exuberant child calling too much attention to itself.

I contort my pieces to fit into spaces that were clearly not meant for me.

The discomfort means I can not stay long.

At the end of the day, I do a roll call to ensure all my fragments are accounted for and none have been left behind.

A comrade asks: “Who would you be in a world without oppression?”

I answer: Whole.