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Better Conversation Through Writing

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By Danny Hom, Programs & Social Media Coordinator at 826LA

One of the things I like most about being around 826LA is giving kids the freedom to pursue their own interests. Whether it's inking a comic or rough-drafting the first formal response to a college application prompt, the things that drive us are very different from person to person. Since we're an organization working with an evolving model we developed at a place called 826 Valencia, what we say we do at 826LA may look exclusive on paper (and we do prefer most things on paper): this nonprofit tries to support students with their creative and expository writing skills, and to partner with teachers doing that same empowerment. But there's a lot here for every student. And doing this good work at a time when the public may have some confusion about how all this should work (school inequity, arts education, limited resources for nourishing our cities) takes a creative set of minds.

Students have been able to do some extraordinary things here, whether that's traveling to the Getty before we help them write artist statements or capturing past experiences in a travel writing workshop. Sometimes, developing young people whose likes and dislikes are still taking shape show up at the two physical 826LA spaces not knowing what to expect: they look for homework help only to find that they leave with a new interest to talk about (like suite music, which we tackled to the applause of a chamber orchestra). Other times we just tap into passion. We convinced an aspiring skater-journalist named Jihad to interview a professional in exchange for a signed board (footage on our workshop weblog), and a high school student named Ana who entered caring about fashion took it to new levels when we designed and published her co-written 'zine (which she diaried about).

Kids can be tough. Not everyone comes to a free organization like this one completely open to self-expression or enthusiastic about writing services or homework help. LAUSD campuses are characterized by crowded classrooms and high dropout rates, and within them are some individuals who lack confidence to describe their own positive impact on the world. For example, take Mark Twain Middle School, which is near our Venice space, recently sent us a wave of graduating eighth-graders who wouldn't be walking the stage this year without thirty hours of community service. I found kids in this crowd who balked at the help they were receiving every afternoon, then found adults at 826LA who listened to them, and eventually the students decided to come back when they didn't have to. We watch students adapt modes of language from professional writers who sit with them for an hour or more, and afterward, those students can exercise and flaunt the skills on their own. It's a process everyone should have access to, even if having 11% of all the English Language Learner students in America makes the mission tough in Los Angeles. I've also seen multiple transformations of our tutoring students as people: an invigoration not just of how they're able to say things but of what mature, unique ideas they're saying.

I recently worked with a student from this partnership who initially seemed to mostly be interested in the tropes of gangster culture that are at-large in our society. He used his time here writing a story about himself (in our After-School Tutoring writing program, self-mythologizing can be part of the entertainment). I listened to him build up his legend (that he was born capable of walking in Venice, drinking from a Playtex bottle) until he described his first pickup.

His sentence about a woman focused on her breasts at first, but he struggled to describe what he wanted to say until a realization came that in writing, the audience would be captivated by whatever he told them. The words took a long time to form: instead of saying that the person he'd created had a not-very-flat chest, he said that she had beautiful eyes. I think it's something about the process of publishing that makes people understand their words and channel a potentially-harmful impact into something better. When we write, we learn more about both ourselves and our impact.

If every student could think about what record they'd leave with writing, we might live in a society that had better conversations. But if we don't support moments like this in our society, what can we expect to support us? I see enormous challenges in what we do at 826LA. But the challenge that never gets old with these good minds is identifying more of them.

Danny Hom is Programs & Social Media Coordinator at 826LA. Find out about what we do from Westchester to Boyle Heights, seven days a week, by visiting 826LA's website site: www.826LA.org.