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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Seattle Civic Poet Jourdan Imani Keith Receives U.S. Water Prize For Outstanding Artist

Seattle Civic Poet Jourdan Imani Keith. Photo/Marcus R. Donner.

Seattle Civic Poet Jourdan Imani Keith was recently awarded the U.S. Water Prize for Outstanding Artist, 2022 by the U.S. Water Alliance. Awarded annually, the U.S. Water Prize commemorates outstanding achievements in the advancement of inclusive, integrated and sustainable solutions to our nation’s water challenges.

The U.S. Water Prize for Outstanding Artist honors an artist or culture bearer that has used artistic interventions or creative practices to center on the communication on the value of water, management, infrastructure and water issues in their work. The winner of the Water Prize for Outstanding Artist will also be awarded $5,000 to support continuing their work.

Keith, the City of Seattle’s 2019-2022 Civic Poet, is a Black, LGBTQ+, teaching artist, naturalist and poet, focusing on creative and environmental work with a racial equity and social justice lens. Keith founded and directed a 10-year non-profit youth program, Urban Wilderness Project (UWP) to ensure youth of color have access to and are engaged in the environment and related issues. Racial equity and sustainability of the natural world are through-lines of all their work.

Keith received the recognition after creating a multi-media/event project Women & Whales First, Poetry in Climate Change as the City of Seattle’s 2019-21 Civic Poet, examining how poetry can be used as a tool to illuminate environmental and social issues. The project centered the experience of Black Indigenous Women* of Color and explore, through art, the impact of our choices on the environment we all share. Part of that body of work included the poem Essential that was composed during the COVID pandemic. Essential was commissioned to celebrate Seattle Public Utilities’ (SPU) Community Centered, One Water, Zero Waste, vision and Strategic Business Plan. Keith’s use of the word women embraces all women and people who self-identify with the experiences of women. This includes but is not limited to Trans Women, cis-women, Femmes, Two-Spirit, Gender Diverse and non-conforming people.

Weaving together Seattle’s 2020 pandemic experiences through the lens of City water and waste services, Jourdan’s poem Essential uses images of water as a unifier and connector to Black Lives Matters demonstrations of the present and to the power, we have to shape our future. Each stanza brings forth and reveals a deeper part of SPU’s often invisible inner workings and the utility’s purpose in our lives allowing the listener and reader to see SPU’s work in an essential light. It inspires social and environmental action and reflection. Essential also becomes a reminder and ode to our pandemic experiences establishing the power of uninterrupted, essential service delivery and the heroism of essential service workers during that blur of time when little else was normal. 

“It is an honor to receive the U.S. Water Prize Outstanding Artist Award,” says Keith. “As Black Indigenous Women of Color in Seattle, we share the urban wilderness of the Salish Sea with the endangered Killer Whales. Our bodies face the same cumulative risks of environmental toxins and the harms of objectification, yet we both survive and are reviewed by the cumulative benefits of matrilineal wisdom, tradition and community. Our brilliance and wellness is entwined with the need for healthy and protected social and natural ecosystems.”

Keith’s work at the City of Seattle is supported by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture (ARTS) and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). ARTS manages the Civic Poet Program, a two-year commission that celebrates Seattle’s rich literary community, while investing in the future of literary arts through community engagement.

“We are honored to have our Civic Poet recognized by the U.S. Water Alliance,” says Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell. “Jourdan Imani Keith’s work is inspirational, uplifting and deeply centered on our communities and our shared responsibility to care for our earth and for one another. As we think about the challenges facing our environment, too often we respond with pessimism and a defeatist attitude, but Jourdan’s poetry is powerful in its ability to instead empower by meaningfully connecting us to water, waste and the broader social and environmental issues that are part of our daily lives.”

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