According to his Twitter bio, former Penn basketball player Justin Reilly is a “Wharton Grad. Entrepreneur. Poet. Activist. Writer. Retired D1 Athlete.”
While he is certainly all of the above, Reilly has utilized his eclectic talents and his platform as a former athlete in a unique way: to make an impact in the world of service through his poetry.
“I always struggle with this. We sit and write about these things — and I think they do touch people; I really do believe that words can change people’s lives,” Reilly said. “But if I’m always talking about it, but I’m not doing it physically, is that the same? Am I doing as much for the world by standing up in front of a mic and inspiring more people to do it? How do I find that balance?”
Although he is still grappling with civic engagement, Reilly, who is now an entrepreneur in internet ventures, is no stranger to the balancing act.
Not only was he a member of the basketball team during his time at Penn, but Reilly was also a performer in Penn’s spoken word group, the Excelano Project. Former Penn basketball standouts and Excelano poets Ibby Jaaber and Steve Danley hosted Reilly on his official visit — and from that point forward, his mind was made.
“I think kind of the turning point was after meeting those guys and we talked a lot about poetry and kind of how well-rounded Penn was and the Excelano Project,” he said.
And Reilly’s teammates were nothing but supportive of his interest. He claims he was always grateful to see some Penn basketball players — many of whom had never been exposed to spoken-word performances—at his shows, and still remains in contact with former and current players alike.
“It’s all about passionate and intensity,” said Zack Rosen of his former teammates’ performances. “He loved it, it was an outlet for him. Going to watch him is cool; we just support each other outside of basketball also.”
Reilly came to know University Chaplain Chaz Howard — a self-proclaimed diehard Penn Basketball fan — through both the basketball team and the Excelano Project. But it was after Reilly’s 2010 graduation that he and Howard discussed the Atlanta native’s potential involvement in Howard’s issue-oriented New Year’s resolution project, Resolution 11. It was then that Reilly decided to compose and share a new poem each week in 2011.
Although Reilly initially intended to share his poems with a small number of people via Facebook, he expanded the project to its own website in order to facilitate more change. And thus, 52ReasonstoBreathe.com was born.
“The idea being there are 52 weeks in a year — a new poem every week on a different topic,” Reilly said. “And then it became, okay well if I’m going to write these poems about things that are going on, then try to facilitate some change. So then every poem was linked to a cause.”
But what earned the attention of LGBT rights activists nationwide was his poem, “Shooting Straight,” in which Reilly — a straight, 6-foot-8 male athlete — calls for equality for the gay community.
“I don’t think it’s intended that way, it’s just you got a bunch of hypermasculine males in a room and everyone’s really competitive and for whatever reason, homophobia has taken a place in sports,” Reilly said. “I think the difference was if someone like me or any of my teammates or anybody that is considered a hyper-masculine straight male comes out and says these things, it’s received differently than if a gay male, a straight woman, a gay woman says this.”
Not only was the poem’s reception different, it was uncanny. Following his performance in Atlanta, a gang-affiliated young man approached Reilly to tell him that after hearing his poem, he felt the need to reassess his stance on homophobia for the first time in 25 years.
“Courage and love are the first things that jump to my mind when I think of the poem, but also probably Justin’s character more broadly,” said Reilly’s friend and fellow Excelano alumnus, Joshua Bennett. “I think for me, ‘Shooting Straight’ is a really important poem for Justin as an ally and I think it really just puts him out there in a really brave way.”
Reilly’s work also caught the attention of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Reilly was asked to attend the GLAAD Media Awards and sat beside the likes of Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and the cast of Modern Family — all of whom were being recognized for their efforts in the field of LGBT rights.
“It was an amazing event,” Reilly said. “Since then, I’ve been talking with some people in [Los Angeles] and kind of working, and there’s a possibility to do some stuff there with that poem, maybe a PSA.”
With the dawn of a new year, Reilly has undertaken another poetry-related project as a part of Resolution 12 — this time with a much larger scope. With the help of his family and friends, Reilly hopes to launch the Haiti Duende Project. In addition to provide clean water and new infrastructure to the country, Reilly plans to enlist the services of 10 artists — including Howard and Bennett — to compile an artistic documentary with and about the people of Haiti.
“We want to build relationships with people, relationships with communities, that are based in service,” Bennett said. “It’s crazy to me that this has sort of emerged from Justin’s friendships. We all know each other, but I think the main connection between us all is Justin Reilly and his heart for people.”
Though the project is still getting off the ground, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Lisa Russell has already signed on.
“I want to try to prove this model as a new type of service, and if I can prove this model as something that has a bigger impact on the world than other documentaries or other service trips, we can meld art and service together,” Reilly said. “If I can do one of these a year, or possibly two of these a year, and take these artists there, it can do so much for bridging that gap between poems and tangible change.”
And with all the bridging he’s done thus far—between athletics, poetry and business — tangible change could be well within reach.