Nine young people stood on a stage last week in San Francisco to read their poetry — and two others detained in juvenile hall had their recorded voices presented.
"You can feel the heat and desperation," read student K.M. from his poem about the sun, recorded at the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center.
The audience also heard student T.K.'s recorded voice: "I'm not a statistic that needs to be saved," he read from his poem "The Story of My Name."
Three adults, including Nigerian performance poet Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene, also read their work in the intergenerational event.
WritersCorps has given young people a voice since 1994 through varied programs in San Francisco. This year it will serve about 900 students in six schools as well as in afterschool and community programs. It offers creative writing at College Track, a college prep program for under-resourced kids, and it runs the arts program for Oasis for Girls, which serves young women ages 14-17 who are disengaged and undersupported.
WritersCorps also runs an afterschool writing and art workshop at the San Francisco Main Public Library and teaches creative writing at the city and county short-term juvenile detention center.
Professional writers lead the free classes, helping kids connect with their creativity and develop their voices.
"It's very powerful for young people to learn how to say exactly what they're trying to say," said Program Manager Melissa Hung.
WritersCorps helps them "to go out in the world and figure out what their own goals are," she said.
In 2010 WritersCorps was awarded the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, and students were invited to the White House by first lady Michelle Obama.
Six professional writers or artists serve as teaching artists for a period of three years each.
One of them, Annie Rovzar, teaches at an elementary school, Sanchez College Preparatory School, and also in the Hilltop School Pregnant Minors Program. Rovzar was influenced by Annie Dillard’s "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," a book that made her want to commit her life to writing. She encourages her students to write about the things that matter the most to them.
"My students constantly show me how a truly creative imagination is sparked by a love of the world and the people within it," she wrote in her blog.
“Writing is a way of seeing and being,” she also wrote.
Among the teaching artists last year was poet Anhvu Buchanan, who held classes one day a week at the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center with boys ages 14-18. His students were constantly asking for paper so they could write after class was over. They were also eager for Buchanan to give them writing prompts. In response, he put together a journal-style book of blank pages and writing prompts and which included poetry by some of the incarcerated youth.
"We juvenile delinquents tend to think / Our words are unheard and pointless," wrote L.G. in a poem published in the journal. The poem, titled "My Perspective of 'Freedom,'" goes on to say: "Sometimes after court or just before / We sit with tears rolling down our faces."
The book, “Words Within the Walls,” has been distributed among boys in the detention center.
Through the juvenile hall program, the students are "able to write down what's happening in their lives," Hung said.
WritersCorps is planning a Kickstarter campaign in March to fund a second printing of the book. The goal is to provide the journal for free to organizations that work with youth.
WritersCorps is a joint project of the San Francisco Arts Commission and San Francisco Public Library.
It has put together a number of anthologies. In 2010, it published “City of Stairways: A Poet’s Field Guide to San Francisco.” The book is a combination literary anthology and travel guide created by youth in the WritersCorps apprentice program.
WritersCorps plans an installation at the San Francisco Public Library in May. Lines of poetry will be installed on the stair steps, with each flight presenting a complete short poem. WritersCorps will also post youth work on a light rail line in the city.
Twenty years ago, Jane Alexander, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Eli Siegel, then-director of AmeriCorps, came up with the idea for WritersCorps. Programs were initiated in three cities, with Janet Heller co-founding the organization in San Francisco and others organizing in Washington, D.C, and Bronx, New York. All three cities had a tradition of community activism among writers. WritersCorps helped young people improve their literacy and communication skills and sought to offer an alternative to problems such as violence, truancy, alcohol and drug abuse.
Three years later, as the political climate in Washington changed, WritersCorps lost federal funding. In San Francisco, the city took over the program. In New York, the Bronx Council on the Arts took over. The Washington program became a nonprofit, but has since dissolved.
WritersCorps seeks to aid other organizations teaching writing to young people. It has published a collection of lesson plans under the title Jump Write In! Creative writing exercises in the book come from WritersCorps teaching artists over the course of 10 years. The book also includes poems by WritersCorps youth.
For its 15th anniversary in 2009, WritersCorps created an exhibition of art and film at the San Francisco Arts Commission gallery. The installation, This Place Called Poetry, was developed by multimedia artist Katharine Gin, sound artist Kjell Nordeson and 11 young poets.
Among them was Sandra Pulido. In her presentation she said: “I write about loneliness, pain, revenge and sometimes love. When I show my poems to people, they get surprised. "
Lateefah Simon was another participant who told about her life through a video:
“I was 18 years old and eight-months pregnant when WritersCorps first came to the Center for Young Women’s Development. We were pretty feisty, hard-core girls at the time ...
I remember the first day. .... There were no rules, no periods, no grammar, no spelling. That was the first time I’d ever abandoned my fear of writing.”
Eric Foster wrote: “Poetry changed my life. Without poetry, I wouldn’t be as confident in front of other people, or even as confident in myself. When you’re alone — thinking and writing — you really get to know who you are.”