Renaissance Award alumni’s book explores poetry as way to resist in humanitarian crises

Black and white, Inaya Yousaf and Vikita Mehta smiling, leaning toward each other

McMaster Arts & Science program graduates Inaya Yousaf and Vikita Mehta, the 2021 Renaissance Award, co-authored "We Have Also Survived: Poetry as a Tool for Resistance in Humanitarian Crises Around the World," spotlighting activists, politicians and poets from communities facing humanitarian crises. 

For two McMaster students, what began as a shared passion for poetry — an art form outside their fields of study — has evolved into a published book exploring how poems can be a tool for resistance to humanitarian crises.

We Have Also Survived: Poetry as a Tool for Resistance in Humanitarian Crises Around the World spotlights 16 activists, politicians and poets from East Turkistan, Yemen, Nigeria and Indigenous communities in Canada.

It was co-authored by McMaster Arts & Science program graduates  Vikita Mehta ’22 and Inaya Yousaf ’23, the 2021 recipients of McMaster’s Renaissance Award.

“This project was born from our passions for writing and poetry, as well as for human rights and humanitarian work,” said Mehta, now a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto.

“The Renaissance Award allowed us to explore a field we wouldn’t otherwise have had the capacity for.”

Indeed, this is the point of McMaster’s Renaissance Award, created in 2012 by McMaster graduates Glen Bandiera ’93 and Jolie Ringash ’90.

Valued at up to $25,000, it emphasizes experiential learning and provides recipients from any faculty the opportunity to focus on any area they want, with just one catch: A project must be outside of a student’s degree program.

“The Renaissance Award offers an amazing opportunity for undergraduate students to engage in meaningful learning that builds on and extends their studies in a degree program,” said Beth Marquis, director of the Arts &q Science program.

“Vikita and Inaya’s project — like so many others supported by the Renaissance Award — makes clear the ways in which this unique opportunity not only fosters transformative learning for the students involved, but can also support the development of important, socially relevant knowledge.”

Mehta and Yousaf’s project was designed to explore how written and spoken-word poetry might be used as an accessible tool for sociopolitical resistance within dissenting communities around the world.

“We’re constantly inundated with negative news. Our research focused on how art, like poetry, forces people to actively take time to consider the things we are seeing on a daily basis,” said Mehta.

“For example, what does the word ‘genocide’ actually mean? And can we spur a larger conversation about it through art?”

As the bulk of their research occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mehta and Yousaf used the power of the internet to travel virtually to four regions of interest, conducting interviews with artists who live in places where people endure human rights violations.

“Not being able to travel worked in our favour, in fact, because we could now travel virtually to multiple countries, where historically Renaissance recipients would travel to just one,” said Mehta.

Two and a half years of research culminated in May 2023 in the publication of We Have Also Survived, now available for purchase on Amazon. All proceeds from sales will be donated to high-impact humanitarian organizations.

But Mehta and Yousaf are just getting started.

“We’re in the process of figuring out how to market the book to build our readership,” said Yousaf.

“But even when we’re done with the marketing piece, I imagine the book will play an important part in our lives. We invested a lot of time in it, and it really forged our friendship. There’s still so much to do.”

Click here to learn how to apply for the Renaissance Award