Building a Bridge: Writer & Community
By S. Kirk Walsh
At the beginning of this month, more than 12,000 writers converged in downtown Los Angeles for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (or AWP) Conference. Hundreds of panels and readings were presented, and a multitude of parties, revolving around the craft of writing, the art of teaching, and the love of books.
I was honored to moderate a panel titled “Writers & the Greater Community: How to Make a Difference” on Saturday, April 2nd. The goal of the panel was to discuss the role of the writer in community, and how that bridge can be created—whether as a volunteer, a staff member, or a founder of an organization. I was joined by Joel Arquillos, the Executive Director of 826LA, Vivé Griffith, director of the Free Minds program of Foundation Communities (here in Austin), and Ami Walsh, a writer in residence with the Gifts of Art Program at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor. By way of introduction, each panelist spoke briefly about their programs and shared writing by individuals who have participated in the respective programs. Since Ami’s work revolves around oral storytelling, she shared a moving audio story recorded by a patient awaiting a transplant.
Joel Arquillos & 826LA:Over the years 826LA has grown considerably with 9,600 students being served and 3,000 registered volunteers engaged. The organization now has its first school-based site at Manual Arts Senior High School in South LA in addition to its two tutoring centers/storefronts in Echo Park and Venice. A son of a Cuban father and a Spanish mother, Joel started out as a social studies teacher at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco, and was first introduced to 826 when volunteers came and helped out in his classroom. (Joel was voted as the first Teacher of the Month by 826 Valencia!) In 2006, Joel left the classroom to work with founders Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari to build 826 National and in 2008, he relocated to LA to become the director of the 826 chapter there. The organization has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership. During our conversation, he said one of the greatest rewards is witnessing his six-year-old daughter being excited by reading and writing. “Books weren’t valued in my household, and I was rarely read to as a child,” Joel said during the panel. “Even though my daughter hasn’t attended an 826 workshop yet, she is just excited by the idea of creating things. Books and creativity are such a part of her world now.” Recently, Alejandra Castillo was hired as the After-School Tutoring Coordinator at the organization; she was first introduced to 826LA when she participated in the Young Authors’ Book Project at Garfield High School in 2009. “I would love to see more of this,” Joel said, “former students working for 826LA.”
Vivé Griffith & Free Minds: Started in 2006, Free Minds is built on the similar model as The Clemente Course in the Humanities (which awarded a National Humanities Medal of by President Obama in 2014). Each September, this nine-month program seeks to provide low-income individuals with the kind of humanities education that is often reserved for students enrolled in elite universities and colleges. In 2009, Free Minds established a free series of creative writing workshops open to its students and the greater community. Vivé first learned about the Clemente Course while teaching English composition at the University of Cincinnati in the 1990s. Her course packet included an article by Earl Shorris in Harper’s magazine about her experience of founding the Clemente Course in Manhattan in 1995. “I was intrigued,” said Vive. “When I found out a program being started in Austin, I wanted to be involved. I never imagined I’d end up directing the program for nine years.” She also said that during her time at the Michener Center she had a chance to work with Naomi Shihab Nye, who has done amazing work bringing poetry to communities across the country. Later after graduation, Vive ran workshops in libraries, centers for teen moms, and after-school programs. “I knew I wanted to work outside of the university,” she said, “and find ways to bridge the academic and community environments.”
Ami Walsh & The University of Michigan Gifts of Art Program & 826Michigan: Ami (my sister!), a fiction writer and content strategist for a digital agency, started a bedside storytelling program as part of the Gifts of Art program at The University of Michigan Health System four years ago. The program grew out of her volunteer work with 826Michigan and Camp Michitanki, a summer camp for children who have had an organ transplant. At the camp, she discovered many campers preferred recording a story to writing one—for some, it was easier because the medications they were taking made their hands shake and so writing with a pencil or pen was difficult. Each child left camp with a recorded story on a CD. This led Ami to reach out to the University of Michigan Health System to see if she could work in a similar way with adults. Patients who participate in the program, which is called Story Studio, are referred by the clinical team or by other hospital artists-in-residence from the visual or musical arts. Ami meets with patients in their hospital room, the first question she asks is whom he or she would like to give a story to. “Locating an audience surfaces their intentions for telling a story and then the idea for story, which is often located outside the hospital, simply comes to mind,” Ami explained during the panel. “The patient’s story often effortlessly organizes itself into a narrative structure, with very little help from me. My role is to simply bring attention to the elements of the structure.” Her sessions usually take 90 minutes, concluding with participants receiving the edited piece (often with music loops mixed in) on a CD at no charge. Over the years, Ami has worked with about 200 patients. In addition, she has continued her work with the transplant camp.
I talked about the inspiration to start Austin Bat Cave in 2007. As a teenager, I experienced learning disabilities and was fortunate to have a summer-school teacher who gave me a blank journal and demanded that I bring him a poem the very next day. This request changed my life, and my relationship to language and writing. It made me understand that every person should have this opportunity for one-on-one attention and mentorship. My first involvement with working with others was through the graduate writing program at New York University. I was a graduate teaching fellow in Sharon Olds’ Goldwater program. Three of us team-taught severely disabled patients at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island. It was a powerful experience as two of my students couldn’t speak, and the third always forgot who I was each time I stepped inside her hospital room. These students taught me the importance giving voice to marginal populations, whether it be patients, at-risk students, or women living in a domestic violence shelter. After I moved to Austin in 2004, I connected with a group of other passionate individuals to establish the early beginnings of what became Austin Bat Cave. I moved out of the classroom and into a leadership position as board president, and learned about what it means to ask people for financial support and invest in our nascent vision. I had a lot of coffees and meetings and successes and disappointments. Over the years, the generosity and resilience of so many people—from donors and volunteers to dedicated staffers and board members—made what Austin Bat Cave is today. At the end of this school year, ABC will provide 43 programs, serving over 1,200 students in the greater Austin area, with about 200 volunteers engaged.
During our discussion, we all agreed that the community work certainly inspires our creative work, that often a natural synergy emerges. Conversely, it is also a balance in terms of carving out time for your own writing. “It’s challenging to keep a writing life while doing this work, especially with the emotional demands of the job,” said Vive. “I have learned what times of year are better for writing than others.” During my years with Austin Bat Cave, I did my best to set aside time for my own work, often writing first thing in the morning. After every ABC event and reading, I often walked away inspired. Vivé agreed: “My students approach writing from such a different place, and can still find wonder and excitement in encountering new work. That really inspires me.”
It was particularly special for me to be on this panel with Joel, Vivé, and Ami, because all three of them offered insights and guidance as I embarked on the road of starting Austin Bat Cave back in 2006-7. I visited 826 National in San Francisco more than once, and had several phone conversations with Joel about the fundamentals of starting a nonprofit. Vivé and Ami gave me advice and support during challenging times of keeping ABC going. Given all of this, it was very rewarding to have a chance to discuss our work and experience AWP together, and answer questions from other writers who were interested in exploring their own versions of working with others in their own communities.