Undercover spy shop? Or super cool free writing program?

Yesterday, while wandering around my friend Meghan’s Chicago neighborhood, I stumbled across this awesome storefront:

In case you can’t read all the tiny print, this sign is freaking hilarious.  It also happens to be a front for the super cool organization, 826Chi – the local branch of a national organization that is “dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.” (excerpt from 826Chi’s mission statement on their website)

I’d heard rumors about this organization before, but had no idea how incredibly cool they were – I’m so glad I stumbled upon their store yesterday!  There is an actual store inside this building, selling all kinds of spy paraphernalia and other products, with the proceeds going directly to the programs that they offer.  I bought a compilation of writings by 826Chi’s students, a wonderful collection of funny, poignant, adventuresome stories written by 2nd graders up to 12th graders.  Behind the store is their classroom space, where they offer all kinds of exciting writing workshops.

Can’t wait to check out their New York branch – apparently it’s called “The Super Hero Supply Store!”



This past Saturday evening, I arrived in Portland, OR, shortly after 8PM.  Having just spent 11 hours driving up from San Francisco, my rideshare deposited me at the Hipbone Studio, bags and all, so I could attend the Urban Tellers showcase put on by Portland Story Theater.  Despite the fact that I had been traveling since 8:30AM and was pretty tired, I was whisked into the darkness of the theater and spent the next two hours listening intently to the true stories unfolding before me.

Portland Story Theater is like a local version of The Moth (whose podcast you should subscribe to if you don’t already).  Their focus is on true stories, both personal narrative as well as historical events.  Urban Tellers is a workshop series in which “ordinary people” learn to tell their own personal narratives, and the showcase is where they get to present the results of their work.  The founders of PST, Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, share my belief that through sharing our stories and connecting on that raw, human, level, we can break down barriers and build a better community.  They strive to do this in every work they present.

Lynne and Lawrence have also been my generous hosts in Portland, having spontaneously offered me a place to stay after I emailed them about PST last week.  The last few days have been full of wonderful conversation, lots of reflection, and excitement about my next steps.  I’m learning a lot about direct, simple storytelling, and have begun to think about my own stories.  Last night I got to sit in on the final post-performance reflection for the group of Urban Tellers that just performed, and tonight I will be sitting in on the weekly workshop of the group that will be performing in a few weeks.  I’ve connected with some wonderful people, and am looking forward to the rest of my week in Portland!

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, Oregon Coast

My store! They even spelled my name right!

Spotlight: Moviemiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana – San Jose, CA

It was just a handful of youth, but the words coming out of their mouths were powerful, funny, heart-breaking, inspiring. Gathered under the shade of a few trees in a small park bordered by city streets, these youth fought the noise of a nearby construction site to make their voices heard. They represent the multicultural population of San Jose, California, and they are part of MACLA – Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, an “inclusive contemporary arts space grounded in the Chicano/Latino experience that incubates new visual, literary and performance art in order to engage people in civic dialogue and community transformation.”

This past Saturday I attended Mi Palabra, a monthly youth-run open mic series that just recently got started at MACLA.  Though the group was small, it was very welcoming, and there was a variety of talent to be seen.  Most people shared spoken word pieces, and two youth collaborated on a song.  They even invited me to perform, though I hadn’t come prepared (that’s where cell phones and websites come in handy…).

After the event, as I sat in the office chatting with Rhiannon Beltran, Programs and Curatorial Assistant, one of the youth came in, and they started discussing the low attendance at the event.  She was concerned that no one was coming because it was the timing was bad, but Rhiannon was insistent that they just needed to strategize and do better outreach so people would know it was happening.  She told the girl (paraphrased), “Let’s work on this together. You and I and the Program Coordinator need to sit down and rethink our recruitment strategy. I’m going to make sure you have access to all the resources we have and that you have everything you need to make this a success.”  It amazed me how with just a few words she made the girl an equal partner in the process, gave her a large amount of responsibility, and also an offer of complete support.

MACLA is an organization that, like a few of the others I’ve visited, serves a variety of functions, and operates in many senses like an arts-focused community center.  In addition to their youth programs they have an art gallery, they have a black box theater that serves both as a presenting space for touring performers and community events as well as a performance venue for their own productions, and they run a variety of programs that do community development through the arts.

They have an interesting history, in that they were created in the late 80’s as “the result of a broad community mobilization in the City of San Jose and nationwide on behalf of multicultural arts” (MACLA’s website).  Around that time someone realized that, though a fair amount of money was being set aside for the arts in San Jose, the bulk of that money was going to for-profit, high end arts venues that 1. primarily served an elite population and 2. didn’t really need the money, as they had a strong foundation of private donors.  As a result, MACLA was created out of some of that excess money, to fill the need for a strong local arts organization focusing on the multicultural community.

So if you ever find yourself in the Bay Area, be sure to check them out!

Girl Power!

Catfish in Balmorhea Springs Pool, my campsite in the deserts of west Texas

Dear oh deary me! It’s been almost a whole week since I last posted!  Apologies for letting time get away from me – I spent the first 2.5 days this week traveling across the desert from Austin to LA and camping along the way – needless to say I did not have internet access, let alone could I charge my computer!  Upon arriving in LA, I checked into a hostel, which, while full of lovely international peeps, was a mite bit crowded and had REEEEEEALLY slow internet.  Plus I think I was catching up on sleep lost while on the road, and adjusting to the two hour time difference.  At long last, I have found a lovely co-op which has taken me in, and am starting to get settled into life in LA.

Ok, enough with the excuses.  Time to get you all caught up!  Today I’d like to spotlight one of the very coolest organizations that I checked out while I was in Austin: Grrl Action!

Program format: Arts mentorship program.
Art form(s):
Primarily theatre, but incorporates many different art forms.
Austin, TX
Community served:
Girls roughly between the ages of 13-18.
To help teenage girls find voice and vision through the power of performance.

Grrl Action is an awesome program that focuses on developing artistic/theatre skills in teenage girls, and in doing so helping them to find their voice.  They are a subsidiary program of the Rude Mechs professional theatre company.  Two cool things about their program: 1. It’s a very safe space for girls to come together and explore things that are important to them, and 2. They have a great mix of girls – because of their connection with Rude Mechs, they get daughters of patrons of the theatre, but they also offer full scholarships and work with public housing, so they get girls from lower income backgrounds as well.  The girls learn a lot from each other and really seem to open up and blossom in the space.

A key philosophy shared with me by co-director Madge Darlington was actress Deb Margolin’s idea that, “Your everyday lives are worthy of performance. Everyone has a story to tell.”  I really connect with what this organization is doing because it resonates so much with what theatre did for me, but it takes it to the next level.  Theatre gave me a voice, it was an outlet for me to experience the world and learn to feel comfortable in my own skin.  Yet this idea that “your everyday lives are worthy of performance” goes a step further: it encourages girls to find the value in their own lives, to examine what they have experienced, learn from it, and create something beautiful to share with the world.

Cool news: a sister branch of Grrl Action is in the works for Boston!

Spotlight: The Neighborhood Story Project

Program format: School and community-based writing workshops, culminating in published books
Art form(s):
Writing, photojournalism
New Orleans
Community served:
New Orleans’ 7th ward – primarily high school students.
Our stories told by us.

The Neighborhood Story Project (NSP) is a unique documentary book-making project that takes the idea of personal/community storytelling to a whole new level.  They began about seven years ago when, while running a writing workshop in one of the most underprivileged high schools in New Orleans, founders Abram Shalom Himelstein and Rachel Breunlin realized that the students in their class had really important stories to tell.

The typical student books

Based in New Orleans’ 7th ward, NSP primarily works with high school students, but also offers workshops and collaborates on projects with other members of the community.  They begin by focusing on writing practice, encouraging their students to write and journal about their own lives.  After they have written a fairly substantial amount of material, they begin to gain perspective on who and what the major players and events are in their lives.  At this point they also begin to work on some photojournalism and interview projects in addition to the writing, focusing in on the discoveries they’ve made about who and what is important to them.

Book created in partnership with Ronald Lewis, a Mardi Gras Indian and resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, about his incredible collection of Mardi Gras memorabilia

The result? A beautiful, professionally published book.  The first set of books that the NSP published came out right before Hurricane Katrina, and at the time they were the second best seller in the city – behind only Harry Potter!  The students also have the option of purchasing an unlimited quantity of their own books at $5 a piece, which they can then go out and sell themselves at the full retail value of $15 – a big profit for the student.

To view (and purchase!) any of their books, visit the Neighborhood Story Project website.

Spotlight: Ashe Cultural Arts Center

A performance at Ashe

Program format: Arts-focused community center offering a variety of programming to serve people of all ages, cultivating and honoring community through the arts and culture. In addition to workshops, they also serve as a presenting space.

Art form(s): All forms, but primarily performance arts such as theatre and dance.

Location: New Orleans

Community served: New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood.

Mission: During this Post Hurricane Katrina recovery phase, to serve as:

  • A community-based center for ReBuild New Orleans activities
  • A strong advocate for culture, community and justice principles in the ReBuild New Orleans effort
  • A leader in the strategy to re-populate the Central City neighborhood with it’s former residents, and other like-minded neighbors who will work with us to establish a community that respects the values of diversity, justice, cultural fabric, strong families, strong educational resources, youth development, and a robust economy available to all
  • A producer and presenter of multi-disciplinary cultural art works throughout the New Orleans Diaspora (Katrina evacuee locations) that inform and guide the consciousness of community, public policymakers, and business leaders about ReBuild New Orleans issues; and
  • Support and assistance for New Orleans artists and culture bearers in their efforts to resume their lives and careers

The Ashe Cultural Arts Center is truly a gathering place for the community they serve.  In the week that I was in New Orleans I attended an end-of-year performance by the Young Audiences youth, a bi-weekly health/dance workshop for women, and a celebration of the Freedom Riders coming to New Orleans, all in Ashe’s space.  In addition to the things I was able to attend, I missed the Kuumba Institute, Ashe’s youth arts education program that runs on Saturdays.

Not only does Ashe provide a wide diversity of programs for the community to participate in, they also have their own nationally recognized theatre troupe, which most recently created a production in partnership with Eve Ensler, of the Vagina Monologues. They maintain a very strong presence in the Central City community – they are at the table of virtually any meeting that takes place regarding their community. This enables them to both remain aware of the current issues of concern (and incorporate this into their performances and programs) but also to remain a trusted face, and to gather support for whatever they decide to work on.

Executive Director Carol Bebelle puts a strong emphasis on the role of culture in their work.  She talks about culture as the origin of art, of creativity, and the idea that every social space has a culture.  It is important to first recognize the culture of the community in which you work, and figure out how to best teach what you need to teach within that cultural environment. She brings up the difficulty of getting past the idea many people have that “artists” are these special creatures and only they can practice art.  Everyone has a creative path, and the importance of this work is in helping people to find that path.

Spotlight: YA/YA, Inc.

**This is the first in a series of spotlights that I will be doing on each of the organizations that I have visited.  Stay tuned for a new spotlight each day this week!**

One of the "YA/YAs," exhibiting the corset-like tree costume he is creating for a production of Peter and the Wolf

Program format: Art studio, workshops, gallery, mentorship and employment for youth

Art form(s): Visual arts (painting, sculpture, jewelry, costume, etc)

Location: New Orleans, LA

Community served: Youth of New Orleans

Website: http://www.yayainc.com

Mission: To empower creative young people to become successful adults. We do this by providing educational experiences in the arts and entrepreneurship to New Orleans-area youth, and by fostering and supporting their ambitions.

YA/YA (Young Aspirations/Young Artists) is a youth-focused organization that provides a productive, positive space for and encourages the development of youth through visual art.  Their model is primarily focused on providing opportunities for participants to hone their artistic skills (through workshops and open studio time) and professional development workshops teaching the youth how to market themselves as artists, among other things.

One of the unique facets of the program is the way in which they have created an intentional community among their artists, both current and alumni.  Almost all of the staff at YA/YA were once student artists themselves, giving them a unique ability to connect with and mentor the youth who come through the program now.  YA/YA operates on a guild system, enabling students to advance to higher levels of responsibility and reward as they put time and energy into the program, and as they develop their talents. Whenever a piece of work sells, the student who created it receives a percentage of the profits – a percentage that increases as the student advances in level from apprentice, to guild member, to senior guild, to resident.

In addition to the YA/YA studio, some of the staff and guild members offer programming at a number of schools around New Orleans.  They bring art classes to children and youth who often won’t receive any form of art classes otherwise.

While in New Orleans, I spent some time around the YA/YA studio and spoke with some of the staff members as well as some of the students.  While YA/YA does have an artist’s handbook which (among other things) articulates some of the rules and expectations of the artists, it was evident that the atmosphere in the space is very self-enforcing.  The youth who come there attend because they really want to be there, because they see the value in it for themselves (both as a developing artist but also in opportunities to get paid and to travel), and because they feel comfortable in the environment.  People are respectful of one another, and they remind new-comers of what types of behavior is not cool in that space.  This atmosphere is in no small part created and reinforced by the staff, who are laid-back yet strong role models for the youth.