Introducing Sonoma County’s First Youth Poet Laureate

California Poets in the Schools (CalPoets) announces the county’s first-ever Youth Poet Laureate. Sonoma follows the lead of the nation, the state and sister counties (Alameda, Los Angeles and Ventura) in acknowledging a student who has achieved excellence in poetry, allowing them to be a leader for the county in raising the profile of poetry and developing its audience.

Zoya Ahmed, an incoming senior at Maria Carrillo High School, was selected from a qualified pool of applicants by a panel of judges on May 11th, 2020. The judging panel included distinguished poets and teachers from throughout the county including Maya Khosla, the outgoing Poet Laureate of Sonoma County. Zoya Ahmed was the 2019 winner of Sonoma County’s Poetry Out Loud recitation contest and went on to become a finalist in the California State Poetry Out Loud contest. She was also the first winner of the statewide Poetry Ourselves contest, competing against other POL countywide winners from around the state, each with an original poem.

Phyllis Meshulam, current Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, and longtime Poet-Teacher with CalPoets, is spearheading the Youth Poet Laureate Program in Sonoma County. Meshulam states:

"Zoya Ahmed is a brilliant performer. Empowering a young person with a microphone to reach out and address the many special concerns that others of her age may experience, is a very significant gift to the community.”

Zoya’s one-year term as Sonoma County’s Youth Poet Laureate will begin June 1st, 2020. Within that time, Zoya is committed to conduct at least five public appearances/readings/workshops — ideally one within each supervisorial district, however virtual events are now highly likely and encouraged. Zoya will receive a $500 prize and an opportunity to publish a collection of her own poems or spearhead a broader, youth publication opportunity. Schools and community organizations are encouraged to contact Zoya (through California Poets in the Schools) if you are interested in hosting her at a public event.

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In Zoya’s own words:

“I embrace my diverse background as a first generation South Asian American, having both roots in Pakistan and India. This colorful heritage is my drive. Everyday I am empowered to work hard towards achieving my goals, humbled by the opportunities I am given, and inspired to give back to the community. My biggest motivators are my parents and my family, who encourage me each and every day. They are my muse; they symbolize the meaning of sacrifice in my life. Their stories, especially those of the women in my family, are what give my writing a spark of creativity and perspective. My dad has really been one of my biggest supporters and has fueled my passion for poetry.

Being a poet himself, my dad taught me Urdu as my first language along with Hindi, and that became the foundation of who I am as a desi American teen. Urdu is such a vibrant and poetic language as it embraces the rich tradition of poetry called Shayari. Having this background in poetry, I knew it was going to have a role in my life and thus I picked up writing a few verses in my free time. I find poetry to be a vehicle to connect with my own experiences and surroundings, a way to voice issues and topics that I want acknowledged. However, I never thought that I would have achieved as much as I have. Now, I am more motivated than ever to be resilient and persevere through my journey as a human being.”

Ms. Ahmed will offer her first public appearance as Sonoma County Youth Poet Laureate at the California Poets in the Schools Virtual Poetry Symposium happening June 26th, 27th and 28th. Visit for more information and to register.

The Sonoma County program is organized by California Poets in the Schools as a regional partner of Urban Word, and is supported by the Bill Graham Supporting Foundation, the Sonoma County Vintner’s Foundation and County of Sonoma Supervisors - including Lynda Hopkins and David Rabbit.

About California Poets in the Schools

California Poets in the Schools, a non-profit founded in 1964, is one of the nation’s largest literary Artists-in-the-Schools programs. Over one hundred trained, professional Poet-Teachers deliver poetry sessions throughout California to students in K-12 classrooms and a variety of other venues, such as children’s homes, juvenile halls and hospitals. Students are empowered to express their creativity, imagination, and intellectual curiosity through writing, performing and publishing their own poetry.

Since its founding in 1964, CalPoets has inspired over one million students in sixty thousand classrooms to create six million poems. Many of the young people reached through our programs are low-income, rural or second language learners. Student poetry is published in an annual, juried statewide anthology. High-school students from many counties are coached by our Poet-Teachers to compete in tiered Poetry Out Loud competitions from the classroom to the national level. Poet-Teachers gather at yearly symposia for ongoing professional development and community building.

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