The author of A Promised Land shared his work and insights with The Telling Room's Young Writers & Leaders Program

President Barack Obama left a group our students astonished and inspired after he dropped in on a recent Tuesday-afternoon session of The Telling Room’s award-winning Young Writers & Leaders (YWL) an afterschool creative writing and leadership development program for students with international and multicultural backgrounds.

Recently, the 44th President of the United States conversed over Zoom with YWL students who represent seven high schools in Greater Portland as well as 11 different nations, including Angola, Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, Iraq, Jordan, Kurdistan, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan.  

President Obama, whose critically acclaimed memoir, A Promised Land, was released in mid-November and spent 11 weeks at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, shared insights on writing, reading, his taste in music, and the experience of growing up between cultures. He began the discussion by noting his awareness that the YWL students are soon to become published authors themselves, with their work collected in a Telling Room chapbook due out in June. He added that he hoped they’d maybe autograph a copy for him to have as a keepsake. Ahead of his visit, Crown Publishing sent a free copy of A Promised Land to every student enrolled in the Telling Room YWL program and made the audiobook available as well. 

“The students had really great questions for him,” said Hipai Pamba, one of YWL’s two co-teachers and herself an alumna of the program, saying that Obama—who was born in Hawaii, had a Kenyan father, and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia—spoke about the value of knowing different cultures. “He specifically encouraged students to embrace all the different parts of their identities—and not to box themselves in by picking just one. He said that it makes you a better writer to have all those experiences to draw from.”

Telling Room students also discussed leadership and its challenges with President Obama, asking questions on how to bring about positive change in the world. Simona Ickia Ngaullo, a South Portland High School senior, felt grateful for his advice. “You can’t change the world by yourself,” she said. “You need other people trying to do the same thing as you to make it happen.”

Acknowledging that writing can sometimes be difficult, the former president encouraged students to stay positive and continue working hard. This landed with Alia Usanase, a junior at Deering High School. “I’m not in this alone,” she said following the conversation. “I’m going to get better with time. You just have to keep going.” YWL teacher Sonya Tomlinson encouraged students to journal after the meeting. “Definitely write about this day, capture it. How do you feel? Write it down. Leave that legacy.” 

Celine Kuhn, The Telling Room’s executive director, noted that Obama’s visit provided an energizing boost to students who normally would be meeting in person weekly but given the pandemic, have instead had to learn and form community remotely over Zoom. “That a world leader and a renowned author wanted to meet them and honor the work they’re doing as writers and leaders themselves was thrilling. Their joy over this has been amazing to witness.”

Among those touched by Obama’s words was Khalil Kilani, a senior at Waynflete who immigrated to Maine from Iraq in 2011. “This is just another person. He was in our shoes at one time. Your path isn’t always clear, and look at him, he became president, and he’s here talking to us,” said Kilani. “It gave me inspiration. I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up, but anything is possible and he made that very clear.”

Thank you for a great conversation, President Obama! View the video of the conversation here from NowThis.




A New Land: 30 Groundbreaking Poems by Youth Poets, Introduced by Presidential Inaugural Poet & United States Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman!

A New Land packages 30 groundbreaking poems by young poets, resulting in a compilation that is both a stunning exploration of identity and a triumphant chorus of American youth. Since 2004, The Telling Room has been publishing the work of today’s talented and inspiring young writers. The poets in this anthology, published in the fall of 2020, are from diverse ethnicities and economic backgrounds, represent Black and Brown, immigrant and refugee, LGBTQIA2S+, and rural communities. Author visits with the poets, an ebook, writing prompts for each poem, and select audio of poems read by the authors are also available.

A New Land: 30 Groundbreaking Poems by Youth Poets

POETRY / ANTHOLOGY | Paperback | 108 Pages | 2020 | Ages 12+


ISBN: 978-1-7332633-4-4

Every Telling Room book sold now through April 2021 will help us send A New Land to all 224 Maine high schools for National Poetry Month!

A New Land gathers 30 of the best poems published by youth poets over the past 15 years. In her Introduction, rising star and Presidential Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman calls A New Land “a collection of youth poetry that is both brave and radiant.”

A New Land and the “books-to-schools” initiative already has wide support—check out the stellar list of luminaries below. You can help us kick it off in style by ordering your copy today!

  • State of Maine Governor Janet T. Mills & Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin endorse A New Land for National Poetry Month.
  • Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum is producing a podcast and a radio show to air on Maine Public with A New Land poets with support from the Academy of American Poets.
  • Other community partners who have voiced their early support or signed on to help include: Maine Humanities Council, Indigo Arts Alliance, Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, Maine Racial Justice, and more.
  • Renowned poets Amanda Gorman, Richard Blanco, Kifah Abdulla, Cate Marvin, Gary Lawless, Nyamoun Nguany Machar, and Naomi Shihab Nye have all publicly endorsed A New Land.


A Season for Building Houses: A Telling Room Anthology, with a Preface by Presidential Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco

Published in the fall of 2015, this this Telling Room bestseller celebrates authors from The Telling Room’s Young Writers & Leaders program, which won the 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Programs Award, presented by First Lady Michelle Obama, the highest honor given to afterschool arts and humanities programs in the United States. In this anthology, 30 teenagers tell their stories in riveting poetry and prose, prefaced by Presidential Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco. Their beautiful and haunting stories teach us what it is to belong and to lose, to experience danger and safety, and the resilience it takes to be able to build home after home. Film shorts of select stories and audio read by the authors are also available.

ANTHOLOGY | Paperback | 178 Pages | 2015 | Ages 12+
ISBN: 978-0-9966465-2-9

You can also browse and order other Telling Room titles from our community partner Print: A Bookstore! Book sales proceeds support our youth writing and publishing programs and help us amplify underheard voices year-round at The Telling Room.



Help Support & Amplify Youth Voices — Make a Gift Today!

All donations will help us advance our mission to empower youth through writing and share their voices with the world.

Today’s youth need to be heard—they need to understand that they matter—they need to know that they are powerful agents of change, not only in their own lives, but in all our lives. Your gift will help support all our youth writing and publishing programs including Young Writers & Leaders, Young Emerging Authors, Second Story, Publishing Workshop, School-based Residencies, Student Writers and Readers Meet! (SWARM!), Summer Camps, and the work we do to provide a platform so young writers can discover and connect to their audience.

All donations will also propel our ongoing efforts to increase our reach through Telling Room author readings and visits to programs, elevate youth voices and books including those belonging to BIPOC and other underheard writers, and develop curriculum that supports all these diverse youth voices and helps get them into use in more classrooms. 

And you can hear what students have to say and get a glimpse of the impact of these programs and our work by checking out our most recent annual report.

We often say what an honor and joy it is to share the stories and poems of young people—how important it is to amplify youth voices, underheard voices. That is perhaps more true than ever now—but it is clearer than ever, too, that it's our young writers who are lifting us up and through this time. Together, with your help and support, we will make sure they can keep writing, sharing, and connecting—with The Telling Room, with each other, and with a world that needs their voices more than ever.

We know that there are so many good organizations doing urgent work to address antiracism and the pandemic that need financial support right now—and so many organizations working to bring the arts to everyone in new and vital ways. We encourage those of you who are able to do so to support them, to keep the love flowing, and to keep giving to all the causes you care about so our whole community can be stronger together. Thank you.