Grasping for superlatives to describe Kennett High School sophomore Bella Hanson, Principal Jeremy Hritz paused, took a breath, and started again:
“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime student,” he said, finally. “It’s amazing just to think what she’ll accomplish.”
That’s because she’s done so much already:
Currently in the midst of running her second annual nationwide poetry and art contest, Bella, 15, of Chadds Ford, a poet herself, organized a Juneteenth ceremony at the Dr. Bartholomew Fussell House, part of the Underground Railroad (in Kennett Township), last summer; created the first “I Matter” poetry and art competition inspired by Black Lives Matter not long after, then collected the poems into a 2020 children’s book; was named to the final list of 50 for the Nickelodeon television channel and Time magazine Kid of the Year Award, for which she was lauded and introduced on a Nickelodeon TV segment by singer Billie Eilish in December; received a commendation from Gov. Tom Wolf that same month for being among “the rich heritage of individuals who have made contributions to their communities and our commonwealth; recently became part of Lady Gaga’s social justice foundation; joined and helps lead her school’s student equity and diversity council; and became a member of the school’s track team.
Parenthetically, Bella was also the subject of a glowing February article in Forbes magazine, which linked her to Black poets Maya Angelou and presidential inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, and to a new form of written expression that sits at “the convergence of poetry, social justice, and activism.”
Bella has had savvy guidance from her mother, Sophia Hanson, 45, cofounder of the Chadds Ford-based National Youth Foundation, created by Black women to promote diversity, inclusion, and gender equality through youth writing programs.
“Growing up in Chadds Ford, my two daughters’ exposure to extreme racism has been limited,” Hanson said.
To broaden her children’s education, Hanson spent the first months of the pandemic in 2020 instituting “mommy school,” creating a program she calls “Black History X” for Bella and her sister, Victoria, 11. Hanson even asked her husband, Wilmington attorney Tom Hanson, to play Thurgood Marshall as a guest speaker.
In the midst of the family’s deep dive into Black history in America, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, one year ago Tuesday. Overwhelmed with emotion, Bella turned to writing poetry, a mode of expression she’d favored since early childhood.
“I had to give voice to what I was feeling,” she said. “And the killing really motivated me into thinking about what I could do to explain why Black lives matter.”
The first idea, to create a Juneteenth event last summer, came quickly. Hanson had been including Bella in a campaign to make the 190-year-old Fussell House part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, run by the National Park Service.
Fussell, a physician, and his wife, Lydia, were abolitionists who used their house for 10 years as a refuge for more than 2,000 enslaved people looking for safety, shelter, food, and clothing along their journey north to freedom. The house was added to the network last January.
Bella seized on the notion of conducting a ceremony at Fussell House to celebrate Juneteenth.
After scouring the internet, Bella found a woman named Susan Fussell, and correctly guessed she was a descendant of the Fussell family. A professor in the communication and information sciences department at Cornell University, Susan Fussell spoke at the ceremony, which Bella had organized in two weeks.
Linda Graham, a teacher at Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School in North Philadelphia who was impressed with Bella’s presentation, nominated Bella for the Nickelodeon/Time award.
With Black Lives Matter very much on her mind, Bella conceived of the “I Matter” poetry and art contest, collecting 150 poems, the best of which were included in the book in 2020. “When I was younger, my mom and I went to a poetry event in New York,” Bella said. “Since then I’ve been seeing poetry performances and reading poems throughout my life.
“Poetry is very important to me.”
The poems were judged by Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George, a singer, actress, and author who was a competitor on the TV show Survivor in 2009; Torrei Hart, North Philadelphia-born actress and producer: and hip-hop artist Kool Moe Dee. The book was sponsored by Hanson’s foundation as well as by Gucci Changemakers, an initiative of grants and scholarships provided by the fashion brand.
Impactful, earnest, and heart-breaking, the poems were written by K-12 students across America.
The 2020 winner was from this region, too — “Hey Google” by Khabria Fisher-Dunbar, of Germantown, then a senior at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School in North Philadelphia, currently enrolled at Villanova University.
The poem is a series of questions to Google that describe inequality, misunderstanding, and tragedy related to issues of race:
Hey Google/ How likely is it for a black woman to die during childbirth?...Hey Google/ ...So what do we do if more of our mothers are dying; how do we repopulate?/ Oh I forgot they don’t want us here/ So they’ll find any way to kill us off.
In “I Can’t Breathe,” then-senior Sanai R. Eaton-Martinez, of Upper Marlboro, Md., references the police killing of Floyd and racism with the words: I can’t breathe/ I can’t breathe/ I haven’t been able to breathe since I was born/ When society decided the melanin in my skin was not/ something to be uplifted but a tragedy to be mourned.
Winners of last year’s contest will judge this year’s, running through July 23.
After Bella was named to the Nickelodeon/Time top 50, it led to her appearing on Nickelodeon, where Eilish introduced her by saying, “Bella gave her peers a new platform to express themselves.”
Acknowledging that Bella’s list of extracurricular activities would impress any college admissions officer, Principal Hritz praised the young woman’s energy and work ethic.
And, he added, “it’s hard to remember, but she’s still only a sophomore, with more to do.”
This article has been updated to correct a reference to the Dr. Bartholomew House.