"If your words were a spell, what kind of magic would they make?" Cleo Wade asks us. The young poet, artist, and activist has built a cult following on the premise that words can empower people to be better, kinder, and more active in their communities. From her East Village apartment, the New Orleans native publishes poems, mantras, and affirmations—unapologetically in all caps and handwritten—to her 334,000 followers on Instagram. "Self-love: It costs nothing and you gain everything," says one of her latest. Her spell is one of love, kindness, and support.
This mission has propelled her to Instagram stardom (though she likely wouldn't want it labeled as such—she dislikes the term "It girl"). Two years ago, The Cut named her the "millennial Oprah." Last year, she delivered her first TED Talk. Today, she releases her first book, Heart Talk, a collection of over 100 original poems, mantras, and affirmations delivering digestible daily pep talks for a better world.
In a digital age where everyone is so focused inward, it's refreshing to see an empowered woman shifting her attention outward: on how we feel, why we feel, and how we can heal. Not one to shy away from social justice issues like gun control, inequality, and the criminal justice system, Wade speaks out through her words. But she also listens—tapping into the collective instability of our world and inspiring people to be kinder. "Our words are our first stepping stone in how we build the world and it is so important we use them with very precise positivity as much as possible," she told MyDomaine.
When we asked her to write a mantra for MyDomaine in the wake of her new book, it was straightforward: "Women, remember who you are (total badasses)."
Instagram has been stigmatized as a platform that fosters negativity, jealousy, and depression. On social media, keeping up with the Joneses is no longer reserved for our immediate neighbors—we are now keeping up with the entire internet: the good, the bad, and the sometimes unrealistic and unattainable. But in Wade's corner of the internet, there is no keeping up—just messages of worthiness, empathy, kindness, and equality. "Trust yourself. It makes knowing who else to trust that much easier. That's all," reads one. "We make the world safer when we speak up," reads another. For Wade, Instagram is a place of empowerment and support.
To her engaged Instagram audience, Wade preaches compassion and community participation—actions she practices herself. "Sometimes it is as simple as making sure I smile, say hello to my neighbor, ask how they are doing, and really listen to what they say," she told us. "Sometimes it is the way I spend my money. Sometimes it is the way I spend my time. I would say the most important thing to remember is that there is no one way to be an active citizen. There is no one way to make the world a better place. There are many different ways to show up."
Her message is more than just one of personal empowerment, though. In the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Wade published "It should be hard as hell to get a gun." After this year's Women's March, she wrote a poem for The New York Times on the importance of getting involved in local politics. Like many others since January 2017, her advocacy for issues like race, class, and gender inequality, the broken criminal justice system, human sex trafficking, gun control, and the safety of Muslim and LGBTQ+ communities is tenfold.
"The more people paid attention to my words, the more I felt it was my responsibility to use them to build a better, fairer, and more just world," she told us. "When your work has a lot of eyes and ears on it, I think it is important to use that to shine a light on the people or the issues that go unseen and unheard." In her TED Talk, she advocates for love and acceptance in a time when both seem in short supply. Just like Oprah delivered her now-famous speech at the Golden Globes, Wade is the voice we all need to hear loud and clear on Instagram and beyond.
Most importantly, Wade recognizes that not everyone will become active citizens in the same way. Some will run for office, while others will give their time or money to charity. Some, like her, will use their platforms to speak out, while others will listen. Each of these avenues encourages voices to be heard and people to become involved in their communities—so long as everyone comes from a place of love, acceptance, and understanding. "Sometimes all someone needs is a little pep talk or for someone else to tell them they are scared too," she says. "I don't think you can motivate anyone without first showing them that you are the same, that you get them, and that you are in it with them."
Her secret to being so in tune with other people's emotions and feelings: listening. "The more you listen, the better you are at understanding how to use your own words." In the social media age, where we incessantly talk about information bubbles and echo chambers, Wade makes a point to come from a place of compassion. "We all have biased views," she told us. "Recognizing that is the first step. There are many reasons our views are shaped. To understand why someone thinks the way they think, you have to pay attention long enough to understand where it comes from."
Wade knows firsthand the importance of shining a light on issues that go unseen and people who go unheard. Growing up as a black woman has shaped every experience in her life. "Being a black woman is first and foremost who I am in the world," she told MyDomaine. "To be black and a woman in America is a deeply unique, complex, and beautiful experience. To feel in your bones the torture and injustice that your family and ancestors went through and continue to go through (especially in this country's current mass incarceration epidemic) is to feel a pain and also a special kind of motivation to live out their unlived dreams. To know that there are people who fought and died for my rights makes me personally feel that it is my honor and my duty to continue to push forward for equality, equity, and justice."
In her poem in the Times, she wrote: "Sometimes I get up because the land of the free is locking millions of human beings in cages." She decried the injustices of DREAMERS living in fear, the inexistence of equal voting rights, and the white supremacists marching in our streets. Like many of us, she wants to see more inclusion, acceptance, and equality—something she believes begins at an individual level: "Celebrate black women. Actively diversify your content. Actively diversify your lives," she says. "If you look at your social media, your friend group, or your office and you are not seeing women of color, there is a problem." Like many of us, Wade is acutely aware of the fact that biases often stem from a place of fear and that simply reaching out and fostering different relationships is the first step in realizing just how much we are all one and the same.
Wade may have been named the "millennial Oprah," but she recognizes the importance of the women in her life who have mentored her and helped shape who she has become. "Gloria Steinem has given me some of the best advice I have ever received," she says. "She once told me it was more rewarding to watch money change the world than watch it accumulate." Her friend, Bettina Prentice, equally inspires her. "She is a female business owner, mother, wife, and an incredible friend and inspires me so much in how she chases her dreams with dedication and precision while never failing to be there for her family and to be deeply kind to others."
What Wade learns through her experiences, she continues to pay forward—and is creating a large community of empowered and supportive women. "I really wrote [the book] so that I could meet my audience in real life, get to know them, and hear their stories. It is strange to love so many people you haven't met yet. I am just so excited to see them all. The book was created to be there for them. Everything written in that book is meant to help someone along their journey." While we are busy chanting the "support, not shame" mantra, this beautiful artist is making the world a better place, one Instagram poem at a time.