Stand Up and Speak Out: Using Storytelling Techniques to Change Yourself, Your Life, and the World.”
“Telling this Truth: Creating Social Justice Theatre.”
“Purposeful Memoir as a Path to a Thriving Future.”
These are the titles of past conference presentations at The Power of Words Conference: Transformation, Liberation, & Celebration through the Spoken, Written, & Sung Word. Since 2003, staff at the Transformative Language Arts Network have hosted the annual four-day event that blends storytelling with community building and cultural and ecological recovery.
Managing Director Hanne Weedon describes the presenters and the attendees as creatives who care deeply about social change and making the world a better place. “They use their voice whatever way they know how – sung or spoken or in poetry or as a journalist or writer; they use the power of words to change the world,” she says. “The conference is a really beautiful experience.”
The 2021 gathering was supposed to take place in New Mexico. However, due to pandemic concerns, Weedon and her staff opted to host it virtually at the end of October. Several tracts are available for participants, including ecological literacy, narrative medicine, social change, spiritual engagement, and how to earn a living while working in the arts.
What you’ll learn
Presenters include writers and storytellers, educators and activists, performers and healers. As TLA’s website notes, participants will learn how to “make community together, integrate what we’re discovering as we’re discovering it, and find more direction in our life’s work, education, community commitment, art, and activism.”
Keynote speakers offer two-hour workshops during the Friday pre-conference, and participants may register for either a half or full day. Some presentations will concentrate on stories focused on health and illness as a way to heal individuals and communities. Others look at literature that connects readers with ecology and inspires environmental justice work.
In 2019, Usha Akella taught a poetry workshop titled “Fetch the Fire: Writing the Ghazal.” Lisa Chu gave a presentation titled “Bad Asian Daughter: Transforming Shame through Embodied Storytelling,” while Loren Niemi taught “Walking Fields and Streets to Find Poems and Stories.”
“This is not a conference geared towards finding an agent or getting your work published,” Weedon says. “It’s a space for people to come together and be inspired by each other’s work and by how they’re taking transformative language arts out into the world. Presenters offer experiential workshops that engage the senses; their presentations tend to be very moving and very powerful.”
Following the formal workshops, attendees can participate in open mic events featuring readings, songs, dances, and other artistic expressions. Other evenings, conference keynotes, and instructors offer readings and musical performances and gatherings like the 2019 “Improvalooza,” a hilarious, lightning-speed event in which conference staff made up poems and stories on the spot.
Poet and musician Joy Harjo is a keynote presenter. Harjo is the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, appointed again in 2020 to serve a second term. She’s the author, most recently, of the poetry book An American Sunrise. Indigenous environmental scientist, musician, and community organizer Lyla June is also a keynote presenter; she’ll discuss her work as a multi-media performer with a focus on ecological healing.
Poet Javier Zamora will present; at age 9, he immigrated 4,000 miles by himself from El Salvador to join his parents, who had already settled in the U.S. His first book of poetry, Unaccompanied, examines the effects of civil war and immigration on his family and his life. Artist and writer Caits Meissner will present as well. The writer and illustrator of the DYI Comix poetry zine Pep Talks for Broke(n) People, she does social justice work with a focus on the power of imagination and creativity to effect change.
Advice for first-time attendees
Weedon tells first-timers at the Power of Words Conference to expect a deeply moving and powerful experience. “Plan for small gatherings in which you’ll do really powerful work with other change-oriented activists and artists,” she says.
This is an intimate conference of 100-200 attendees. During morning talking circles, participants meet with an even smaller group to discuss their responses to the previous day’s presentations and other events in a safe, confidential space. “What I hear from people so often is that they come to this conference and end up finding their tribe,” Weedon says. “They find an artistic community working to make the world right, and they use these relationships to move the work forward.”
The Power of Words Conference at a glance
Dates: October 28-31, 2021
Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart