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Her words' worth

Can a 17-year-old make a difference? Just read Sofia Snow's poems.

Sofia Snow will start teaching poetry for the Foundations Project at the YMCA in Hyde Park on Jan. 30 and has taught poetry workshops at Harvard University in conjunction with the hip-hop activist program Critical Breakdown . She has worked with YPACT , a peer leadership group based in Codman Square that works with at-risk youth. She performed in front of a citywide audience during the summer's Peace Fest at City Hall.

She's also 17 years old.

Snow, a senior at Boston Latin Academy, reached a pinnacle in June when she was voted best spoken-word artist in Boston by several thousand online voters at the Massachusetts Industry Committee's first hip-hop awards.

It was two years ago that Snow -- who comes from a long line of activists, volunteers, and intellectuals -- was a high school sophomore filled with angst and despair over the state of the world. As she sat in Keri Inger's creative writing class, issues such as the United States' foreign policy, AIDS, terrorism, and genocide in Africa, coupled with local issues such as poverty, teen pregnancy, and gun violence, played on her mind. She began to think of ways to express herself. She wrote a poem and titled it "Another Anthem."

"They say America America God shed his grace on thee," Snow wrote. "And what? Forget the rest of the Earth, that more than us, they deserve the protection of his grace to save them from starvation and diseases like HIV/ And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea/ Well, see, exactly what sea does that mean?/ A sea of dark hands reaching for bread but drowned in poverty?"

Snow gingerly asked for Inger's opinion one day while the teacher graded papers. Snow shook as she read her poem quietly. Finished, she looked to Inger for approval and was shocked by the reaction. Inger sat silent for half a minute. Then she began to cry.

"I had tears in my eyes and had goose bumps, literally," said Inger, who now teaches high school English in West Hartford, Conn. "I was so incredibly impressed. . . . She was so well - versed in so many issues."

Inger, now 28, pushed Snow to continue to write, and the two have kept in touch even after Inger moved to Connecticut in 2005. Inger said she was lucky to have had Sofia in her class, because a student that gifted only comes once in a lifetime. She also said she teaches about Snow to inspire at-risk students in West Hartford, telling them that they can do anything they want to if you put their mind s to it. "She could be such a great role model," Inger said. "She's an inspiration."

Since that day in creative writing class, Snow has written about 30 poems, half of which she has committed to memory.

"I did not get in poetry to be somebody in poetry," Snow said. "I just did it because I wanted to say something."

A history of activism
Snow grew up in Jamaica Plain and Roslindale. Also a breakdancer and ballet dancer, she attributes her worldview to the people who raised her.

Her mother, Lelia , is a bilingual English teacher whose students are mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican. Her father, Tom , is a labor organizer and advocate who has also been a case worker in shelters for the homeless and battered women. Her parents have always stressed the importance of empathy as well as education.

"[My mother] always taught me to really care about people, and to be helpful and resourceful to people, and to not be judgmental and all these things," said Snow, who has an older sister, Vanessa, at UMass-Amherst. "I always grew up with this sense of actually caring about others, being cultured and understanding, and always wanting to know more about people in the world."

Snow's paternal grandfather was also an important influence. The Rev. John Snow, 83, of Ashfield is an Episcopalian priest who was an activist from Washington, D.C., during the civil - rights movement. He said his granddaughter's love of hip-hop and her grounding in religion have helped her to capture the "pain of urban kids."

He draws parallels between his granddaughter and poetic greats such as Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin -- Rev. Snow was a graduate student at Columbia University with Ginsberg, and met Baldwin there in the 1940s. He said he became close friends of both men.

"Allen was the same way," he said, comparing his granddaughter's style with Ginsberg 's . "He didn't run from suffering. . . . He showed us the dark side [of humanity]." He likens Sofia's writing to Baldwin's best-known novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain." "It's the same thing that Sofia writes about," he said, adding that both detail the struggle of poor inner-city blacks in their works. "She really gets down and dirty. She's seen it all."

Driving force
In July , Sofia Snow was asked to recite one of her poems at the funeral for Herman Taylor III , an 18-year-old who was gunned down on Humboldt Avenue. Police believe he was an innocent bystander.

Snow accepted the invitation from his family, and the violence on the streets took on new life for her. "It was open - casket and really rough for me," she said. "That was my driving force from the summer until now."

Snow says she feels she has not done enough, as 2006 ended with 74 homicides as well as the deaths of two 14-year-old boys within weeks of each other. Jason Fernandes was shot and killed in Dorchester on Jan. 1 , and Emmanuel B. Saintil of Mattapan was shot to death three days before Christmas on Cummins Highway in Roslindale.

"I was really in shock," Snow said, describing her feelings after she found out about Fernandes's slaying. "It really hurt me, but it was an impetus to step up my game [in 2007] and have other people do the same."

She is working with Mayor Tom Menino on his Hip- Hop Roundtable , a group set up to organize events such as Peace Fest, which included both nationally known and local artists, as well as spoken word and dance. She also helps organize open-mike events at the Cloud Foundation on Boylston Street, an outlet for artistic city teens, and performs at various community events.

As soon as her college applications are sent, she said, she will finish her first spoken-word album, for which she has already recorded several tracks. Snow also recently wrote a poem about her mother, and one about a young man who dies in front of onlookers after being shot in the streets.

"I wrote the poem because I wanted to reattach people to the problem," she said. "The real problem is that kids are dying. I wanted to paint the picture of what it feels like to another youth. People want to treat us like we're used to it, but we're not."

Read Sofia Snow's poetry:
Pop-up 'Envision' Pop-up 'First on the Crime Scene'
Listen to Sofia Snow's poetry:
Audio 'Two-Faced apologies' Audio 'Public Service Announcement'