(Sarah Schneider, Richard Russo, Lewis Robinson, Molly McGrath, Sonya Tomlinson) We understand each other through stories. How can writers and teachers use writing to help the newly arrived balance the challenges they face? How can sharing stories and building community in the teaching setting help students and writers do the same outside of it? The Telling Room of Portland, Maine, honored by the White House for its writing program for immigrant youth, discusses and demonstrates the power of connecting teens to their community through writing - and what we gain when we listen.

Published Date: April 19, 2017


Episode 139 Transcription


Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series.  This event was recorded at the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington, DC.  The recording features Sarah Schneider, Richard Russo, Lewis Robinson, Molly McGrath, and Sonya Tomlinson.  You will now hear Sarah Schneider provide introductions.

(Seagulls audible in the background)

“My grandmother still lives in Somalia.  Sometimes I call her.  I love my grandmother. I was closest person to her.  She used to take care of me. On our way to Kenya, we were at the border and my mother ...[inaudible]...but when we came to America there was no place for my grandmother.  I wanted to stay with her, but she said that I had to go with my mother—that she was too old to take care of me. She went back to Somalia.  She lives in Kismayo now, where her other daughters take care of her. You always believed in me. You always tell me, ‘Don’t let yourself down, no matter what.’ You ask me how things are going.  I always say, ‘Things are fine and going well.’ But I never told you the truth of how things were really going with me.  I didn’t want to break your heart when you know something was wrong. The life I was living was a life I was not comfortable with, without you. I knew you were far away, but your love keeps me safe and gives me peace and I wish you were here with me. You say, ‘If school is going well, keep focus on your education.  Don’t mess up your life.’ They say, I’m waiting for you.  My dream is to build a [inaudible] in Kismayo, but I have to finish my education and get a good job. I have to have a plan. I have to work hard to achieve my goals. We came to America for the opportunity for free education. It will be arduous.  I am an immigrant. I am a Muslim.  I am a woman and have a dark skin. But I’m not a fool. I know it will be hard, but I will make my dream come true. I will make your dream come true, Grandmother.”

Good afternoon, everyone.  Welcome, and thank you for being here.  My name is Sarah Schneider and I’m the moderator for our panel today—“I Told the Paper with the Pencil: How Refugee and Immigrant Teens Find and Share Their Voices Through Writing.”  We’re here together representing The Telling Room, a non-profit creative writing center in Portland, Maine, founded in 2004 by three nationally acclaimed writers, Susan Conley, Sara Corbett, and Mike Paterniti.  The Telling Room works with young writers, ages six to eighteen.  We seek to build confidence, strengthen literacy skills, and provide real audiences for our students.  As the Telling Room’s development manager, a big part of my job is to help shine a light on our students, so if you’ll permit me just a moment to give a snapshot.  We offer a safe space for all students, regardless of where they’re from, what are their family’s economic status, can encounter and practice creative writing in a supportive, structured environment.  We work with students who may be reluctant to write, as well as those who already identify themselves as writers, including children and young adults who are part of Maine’s growing community of immigrants and refugees, students with emotional/behavioral challenges, students struggling in mainstream classrooms, homeschoolers, incarcerated and other at-risk youth, and passionate young writers who benefit from support beyond what their schools are able to provide. 

As Maine’s only youth-focused literary arts organization, we provide creative writing programs for more than three thousand Maine youth each year.  We reach students from one hundred schools and more than seventy-five towns statewide, and all of our core programs are one-hundred percent free, so the students and their family, ensuring that young people who are least likely to have a voice in the community can participate.  We believe stories matter.  Writing matters.  Listening is paramount.  Today we’re going to highlight one of our nine programs, called Young Writers & Leaders.  It’s our after school program for immigrant refugee teens, we often say “International Students,” as that is often their preference.  This program serves sixty students each year.  We’ll focus our time around exploring the enormous potential that youth storytelling and youth-generated literature have to shape community conversations. We’ll discuss and demonstrate the power of connecting teens to their community through writing, and we’ll share some nuts and bolts about how you can start or grow your own youth writing endeavor in your own community. 

A few items to note about the structure of our talk today.  You may have already noticed that the representatives on this panel are not representative of the diverse students we work with.  We’re not just white up here, we’re Maine-winter white.  So we would love to have our students here with us this week, but because of school schedules and budget realities, they’re just not able to join us in person, so to ensure that their voices are heard here today we’ve included multimedia, so that they can chime in throughout the presentation.  I also want you to know that AWP is recording today’s panel for their podcast series and you can share it when it is available later this spring—that’d be great.  We’ll also save time for a fifteen-minute Q&A at the end of our talk. 

And now, let me introduce our panel.  Down at the end we have Lewis Robinson, author of the novel Water Dogs, and the story collection Officer Friendly and Other Stories.  Yes, please, a hearty welcome for Lewis. A winner of the Whiting award, his short fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, the Missouri Review, the New York Times Book Review and on NPR Selected Shorts.  He has taught fiction writing at the University of Iowa, Colby College, the University of Southern Maine, Stonecoast MFA Program, at Stanford University’s continuing studies program.  He hosts the podcast Talk Shop—it’s great.  You should check it out.  He’s a Telling Room author and has served as a mentor in our Young Writers & Leaders program.

Next, we have Molly Haley, she’s the Telling Room’s Director of Multimedia, as well as a young...(applause)...oh, fans, yay! ...as well as a photographer and documentary storyteller.  She’s developed curriculum and delivered programming on radio, journalism and multimedia.  Molly holds a BA in Spanish from the University of Maine, and is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.  Her work has been published in the Atlantic, Poets & Writers, Down East magazine and elsewhere.

Molly McGrath was part of the original staff that ran the Young Writers & Leaders program for the first few years (applause).  Molly is also a book editor and has an MFA in creative nonfiction.  She is the Telling Room’s Director of Publications, and she’s especially proud of our role at the forefront of youth publishing.  Since the printing of our first book in 2007, we’ve published more than 2500 young authors in over 100 books to help students share their stories.

And finally we have Richard Russo, novelist and screenwriter.  He’s vice president of the Authors Guild, for which he helped showcase emerging writers.  He received a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for Empire Falls.  His most recent book is Everybody’s Fool.

Rick, will you start us off today with your story of how you came to learn about The Telling Room, and what that experience was like for you.

Thank you.  Thank you Sara.  Can you all hear?  Okay.  Good.

Back when I was in graduate school, I had a grumpy writing teacher, who when someone told them that they wanted to be a writer, he would invariably ask, “Have you don’t a stint in the Army yet?”  When they said ‘no’ he’d ask, “Have ya had at least one divorce?”  If they replied, “no,” again, he would say, “Well, come back when you’ve lived.”  This was the late seventies, and creative writing programs were just then beginning to proliferate.  It would be decades before every English department at every University in the country would boast both an undergraduate and graduate creative writing program, before creative writing began to be taught in junior and community colleges.  Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, creative writing would find it’s way even into high school curriculum.  By the time that happened, I’d become grumpy myself, and took a dim view at encouraging students to write at a time that they should be reading and living.  Sure there were other defining life experiences beyond combat and divorce, but in general I thought it best to have a little life under your belt before you started telling people what you make of it.  I would probably still believe that if I hadn’t got involved with The Telling Room when I moved to Portland, Maine.  They had just started a book project called The Story I Want to Tell, which paired student writers—most of them high school students and many recent immigrants, with professional writers who would then respond in some way with their work.  I was given a bunch of writing samples to choose from.  There were many strong moving narratives, but one, written by a young man named Richard Akera, AK to his friends, knocked me sideways.  It took place in a refugee camp in Uganda where AK’s family was living after they’d fled Sudan.  One day when his mother was off at the church tent, AK and his brother were left in charge with their youngest brother, then a toddler.  When they ran out of water, the two older boys grabbed the bucket and went to the well at the center of the camp.  They had just managed to raise the bucket full from the well when they heard their little brother’s screams.   Running back they found the child in the dirt, his jaw half chewed off by a starving grey muzzled dog.  In the second half of AK’s story, oh never mind that for now...let’s instead go back to my grumpy professor’s questions.  Have you done a stint in the Army? Have you had your first divorce?  AK, at eighteen, would have had to answer no to those questions, but who in his right mind would want to say to this particular young man, come back when you’ve lived.  That was the thing about all The Telling Room kids—they had lived.  Here on the other side of the world they were still trying to make sense of their experiences, a past that they couldn’t forget and a present that was as strange to them as it was wonderful.   How could they move on with their lives without at least beginning to understand, their new lives without beginning to understand their old ones.  What we who worked with these student writers quickly learned was that their stories weren’t just important to them.  They were also important to us.  They expanded our understanding, not just of the world, but of our privileged place in it.  We began to feel viscerally what we already knew intellectually.  These young people were not like us, they were us, just with a different set of experiences.  They needed us to see them, to bear witness, to help make their experiences live in words on a page.  What they offered to us in return was the gift of themselves.  What kind of person says, “No thanks”?

So I’m lucky, and can you hear me okay? Let me get a little closer to the mike.  All right. Thanks.  So, I’m lucky that I get to, got to work with Rick and also with AK on their stories and The Story I Want to Tell, which is a fantastic book.  And I just want to say that there is a book signing after this back at our table in the book expo. And there you can read those stories too, you can read AK’s full story, and also what Rick ended up doing with it in his own way, to honor it, after, in the collection.  So a question is, where do stories like AK’s come from and how do we at the time help foster them and bring them out into the world.  One of the things that... one of the programs that we do have at The Telling Room is the one that AK himself was a part of, which was called the Young Writers & Leaders program.  So that program is specifically for international high school students.  It exemplifies our basic belief that everybody has a story to tell—it’s really important and also that these kids’ stories have the power to transform themselves, but also all of us out here, so... and speaking of us, I want to know a little bit about you.  So, I have a few questions and if you could raise your hands that would be helpful. 

So first of all, how many of you currently have a writing center in your town or city?  Just put your hands up if you have one.


Yes. And how many of you have a writing center specifically for youth in your towns and communities?  A bunch of you, that’s great. 

How many of you live in places where immigrant and refugee students are?  Glad to see everybody’s hands are up. 

How many of you have ever worked one on one with a writing student—young or old?  Great. 

Another question: how many of you have a population of artists and writers right there in their own community who might have a little spare time to do this kind of work, to work one on one with a writer.  All right.  Okay. And most of you...

So, um... this one might stump you.  How many of you have shared a book of stories by kids with kids? A few less. Okay.  Good job guys.  More of you should share writings by students with students.  I’m gonna just put that in there right now.

Okay, and then how many of you have been involved with a community audience where stories and poems can be read and heard?  All hands should be up because you’re all in that right now, so that works. So that’s great, and I want to find that out in part because I wanted to point out that if you raised your hand for any of those things then you can do a lot of this work that we’re doing at The Telling Room.  It’s not really unique to us.  It is not unique to us—people are doing it all over our country, all over the world, and so you can, too.  So, today we’re really hoping to allow you to find ways that you can bring some of the things that we do into your own communities.  But I should talk a little about me, because as Sara pointed out, we’re mostly white in Maine, but it’s mostly and so since the mid-nineteen-nineties, the immigrant population has definitely been growing in Portland, in greater Portland. Today Portland schools look so different than they did twenty years ago.  Eighty-three different countries are represented. Thirty-three percent of the student populations are from other countries, so that’s a big change.  But since The Telling Room began we have always been working with this population and we’re pretty committed to it.  In part because we learned early on, we read some of their stories and we heard some of their stories early on.  This book right here, it’s a book called I Remember Warm Rain.  It is fifteen stories by immigrant and refugee youth and in it they all tell their coming to America stories.  So we started with that book, and actually this little tiny square book outsold Harry Potter in our local bookstore, Longfellow Books.  So, yeah!

So what’s important about that is right away we knew we had an authentic audience for these stories.  People wanted to hear them and wanted to share them.  So, we kept going, and we were inspired by the students themselves who wanted to keep coming and telling their stories, and we were inspired by the teachers who kept telling us that they needed more support for their students in school. And because of that we launched the Young Writers & Leaders Program in 2010.  So today there’s more demand for the program from the community than ever before and more demand from the students themselves and there are more students to serve, so we’re keep growing this program.  It’s really important work that’s happening and we’re just so proud of it, so I’m not gonna say any more I’m gonna let this lovely video tell you a little bit more about the Young Writers & Leaders Program. Thank you.

(Video plays that describes and promotes The Telling Room)

So this short film was tailored to support our YWL expansion project.  We doubled the program this year in response to growing demand.  It gives you all a glimpse of the amazing kids we get to work with and also highlights how powerful creative youth development programs can be for individuals and for communities.  If you haven’t heard of creative youth development, these are programs to integrate the arts, sciences and humanities with positive youth development principles, and they position young people as active agents of their own change.  A recent article in Arts Education Policy Review noticed that these programs are assets based, viewing youth as resources in the community and partners in learning rather than vessels to be filled or problems to be solved.  This work is youth driven and, key to our talk today, it develops to serve local needs as Molly was saying and work with local talent, which is where you come in. We’re just one of many organizations that provide creative youth development programming and our student, Farihyo Hassan, talked about one of the key elements of YWL this way.

“Many programs want us, as immigrant youth to translate our experiences and culture for them, but The Telling Room honors our individual stories and connects us, so we can learn from each other.  We uncover our identities and become grounded in who we are.”

So with these ideas in mind, Molly Haley, will you take us through what a year in in YWL looks like?

Yes, I will.  Hi everybody! So, we’re both named Molly. (audience chuckles) So, we’ve been running this program for the last seven years and I’m here today as on of the teachers of the program to talk about how we go about implementing it to maybe give you some ideas for if you go back to your own community and want to start something like this to adapt it to what your students might be interested in.  So we meet with our students in our writing center for nine months from October until June after school once a week.  And that’s about two and a half hours each week, thirty-four sessions across the whole school year, and it’s a project-based learning program like Sara was saying.  We focus on poetry, personal narrative, and documentary studies over the course of the year.  The program includes a stipend for the students.  Each month they get a stipend, because they’re committing to a full year with us, and that’s often times a bigger commitment than a sport or most other extracurriculars, and when they’re with us, they’re real working writers.  They’ll be creating new pieces of writing all throughout the year, standing up in front of audiences all throughout the year and sharing their work, and we really want to reward them for that—that writers get paid, that writers are working hard.  And it’s a really competitive program for them to get into, and so they’re very eager for this opportunity to do this creative work and be a part of an international cohort.  So how do you find these students that are really interested in being in this program back in your city.  For us in Portland it’s been really important to develop strong relationships with the ELL, English Language Learning, teachers at the schools, and we go to them at the school to do an info session and an interview session.  The teachers will identify students and then encourage them to come to this interview—that they think would be a great fit for the program or might have something they wanna share with the community and they know the students best at that point.  So we go into their schools to meet them where they are there, and we always come into that room as a staff and start that session off with a question to all the students, “What is your relationship to writing right now?” And usually they go around the room and say, “Oh, I write essays for school.”  You know, “I text my friends.” “I just do...you know...I do assignments.  That’s what I do, that’s the kind of writing I do.”  Once and a while there’ll be a student who says like, “Well, I have a journal. Like, I write in a journal. I write a poem sometimes.” But it’s definitely a new experience for them to talk about being a part of a creative writing program outside of school, to share something personal from their own life and create something new.  In Portland, the students that will show up for the interview are all multilingual students, but some may be refugees, some might be immigrants, some might be asylum seekers and some might be first generation students.  For an asylum seeker, they may have only been in the US for a couple of months, and they may have received private education, education at a private school for years, there might also be a student in the room who was born in a refugee camp and never received formal schooling in that camp until they came to the United States, also students who are first generation, born here in the US and go... and are fluent in English and go to school here, but when they go home they speak another language at home, those are the students we see in Portland, but for all of them they’re very excited at this opportunity to learn more about writing, especially creative writing, connect with their community and tell their story.  And it’s a pretty new thing for them, and one student came to this interview a few years ago named Omar Raouf, and he was so excited and he wanted to get in so much, that he told us in his interview that he almost pulled the fire alarm so that no one else would come and he would definitely get a spot.  Um. He didn’t pull the fire alarm, but he did get a spot in the program.  So we set up a group interview with small groups and we asked them questions, like, “What kind of writing do you do now? What kind of writing help do you need?  Have you ever felt like a leader before in your life?  How do you feel about the idea of getting up on stage in front of an audience that you don’t know and sharing something true from your own life?” And the really important question, “What’s powerful about bringing multilingual students together from all over the world into one room to work on a creative project together, what’s powerful and important about that?” We ask those questions in the interview, and we want to ask them these questions as a small group because they’re gonna be a cohort throughout the whole year speaking in front of each other and sharing with each other a lot, and we wanna see how they are in a small group setting like that.  We also do written application with a writing sample, which is really important, to see what kind of writing style they have, what sorts of things they notice as writers and write down on the page, but then we leave the school and we have the really exciting and hard job of choosing the students that get in for the year, because it is competitive and we can’t serve every student that applies each year, which is why we’re trying to grow it right now, but um...we decide we want the cohort of fifteen students for each group to be a really interesting mix of students that have different personalities, different writing ability, styles, and interests who are from varying home countries.  We want it to be an interesting mix, and we make personalized phone calls to each of the students to tell them they got in and those are some amazing calls to make. 

So, the year when they come to The Telling Room, when they show up at the Telling Room and they’ve gotten into the program and they’ve signed up for it, we break up the year into three distinct units.  We have the poetry, which I’ll talk a little bit about, personal narrative, and mentorship in the winter, which Lewis will talk about, and then we move to documentary studies in the spring, and Molly’s gonna tell you more about that. So, we shift focus throughout the year, but every single session begins with a really important ritual, which is free-write, and the Telling Room space is not like school.  It’s a studio, and there are couches, beanbags, really colorful rugs on the floor, lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and the first day they show up we give them a journal.  That’s Rhode over there, Rhode Pambu, she’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo, she’s one of our students right now.  And she got her journal on the first day and it’s an old National Geographic map with Congo represented right on the front and her name is embossed on the top, too.  Each student gets a journal that they get to keep for the whole year. And we give them this journal and we say, “Okay, find the spot in the room wherever you want to sit and write about whatever is on your mind right now. Free-write.”  And they’re like, “What?” And, you know, they’ll write about anything. They can just catch up with themselves—they can write about their day, their families, maybe the political climate, they could make up a totally fictional story or try their hand at a poem, but it’s totally up to them what they write every time, and then it’s totally up to them what they share, so we’ll circle up and students will decide, it’s very student led, what they want to share with the group and when, and how much.  And this exchange between the students forges their bond as a cohort pretty quickly, and they really sense that their peers have some shared experiences that they might not have known about if it hadn’t come out through the story.  So it can really have pretty transformative results when they reveal their inner worlds to each other. 

When we begin poetry, we have an eye towards their cultural identity, these students, that they’re the historians of their own firsthand experiences, and poetry can offer them a platform to interact from each other and learn that.  They have some things in common, so this is an exposure to a new set of tools for self-expression, and also to the constructs of writing as an art, and for a lot of them this is the first time they’ve been asked to write creatively about topics from their own life and we introduce them to famous poets like Maya Angelou, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, Richard Blanco, Mary Oliver. They each write their own individual poem, but they work in small groups, on a group piece as well, and those are memorized and this poetry unit lasts for eight weeks and it has a performance as the end goal, where they’re gonna get up on the stage and read these poems in front of an audience of strangers, friends, teachers, and for many of them this is the first time they’ve been on stage or at a mike, especially sharing something important from their own life. And one such student is Rocio Pérez, who we’re gonna watch a little video of her reading at our poetry reading this past December.  She’s a first generation Salvadoran-American and she’s reading an ode about the women in her family.

(Plays video)

(audience applause)

So following our performances we always have the Q&A with the audience because these are people that might be new to the Telling Room, that might be new to meeting our students, and our students have just shared a lot about who they are and what’s important to them and their past experiences and we really want the opportunity for that conversation to happen between the audience and students about the writing process, but just as people, too.  And we let the students ask the audience questions as well, if they want to. So, following the poetry unit we move into our personal narrative and mentorship in the winter, and it’s another time that we invite the community in to work with these students, and to know them, and to have our students meet people from Portland as well, and each student is paired with their own writing mentor, own writing coach, and these are volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. We have writers, teachers, photographers, journalists, architects, actors coming in to work with our students one on one, and the main goal of this unit, personal narrative, is for the story or poem to be true and about the student and their experience, and they work for two months, one on one with this mentor to generate, revise and prepare their story for publication in a book.  And Lewis Robinson was one of our mentors last year and he’s going to tell you about the process that he and his mentee, Hamzeh Doale had together.

Great. Thanks. Thanks, Molly. Yes, so Hamzeh was part of a cohort of fifteen students as Molly said, and those fifteen were from eight different countries: Kenya, Somalia, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Jordan, Afghanistan, Burundi, and Rwanda. And like Molly said, when I met them, they’d already gotten comfortable with being in the Telling Room, and gotten to know each other, because they’d all spent the fall, as Molly said, writing poetry together and with Molly.  So, when we, we mentors, we fifteen mentors to match up with the fifteen kids, when we arrived on the scene, the kids were already established ambassadors of the program, so they were the ones who were really welcoming us into the fold. They’d already spent a good chunk of time finding their footing as writers, they’d started to experiment and they’d even gotten a taste of what it feels like to speak to an authentic audience. And that first meeting of the fifteen adults and the fifteen teenagers had this great celebratory feeling.  We all, all thirty of us recognized what a great opportunity we had.  The kids were eager to hone their writing skills, and to tell their stories and we adults were excited to listen. So that before that first meeting, we, the fifteen adults were kind of waiting out in the hall and waiting for our cue from Molly to come into the room, and then when we did come into the room, it was just everyone, all thirty of us were beaming, and people started hugging and shaking hands, and it was a great moment.  The program builds in a lot of getting-to-know-you time.  I started by asking Hamzeh just about the rhythm of his daily life, you know, his family, what his school here was like, what kind of music he listened to, what he did with his free time, and I also shared details about my own life with him.  It was important to me that these early conversations were unstructured and unrecorded, so I wasn’t jotting down any notes for those first several conversations.  My, at that point, my only goal was to listen and to try to be real, and to share.  But once we established this basic kind of trust and respect, then we took out our notebooks and one of the first exercises we did was to each spend about twenty minutes writing, describing a mentor or a teacher from our past, so we each did that, and then we read them aloud to each other.  Through these conversations, for those, you know, first three or four weeks, I learned more about Hamzeh’s family from Somalia, his parents, his three brothers and four sisters, how he and his siblings had spent most of their early childhood in Saudi Arabia, and then when he...when Hamzeh was in fourth grade they moved to Syria in the hope of finding better schools and then it was when he was in ninth grade that the civil war began and his school, the school that he was attending was shut down, and he was in Syria for the next two years without any school.  They lived in Damascus, and he described this time as very frustrating.  It was difficult, really difficult for him to have all of that idle time.  He also described how close he was with his friends, and how they would spend a lot of hours playing this card game called Tarneeb, and they would play pick-up soccer some, but it was frustrating to him ultimately because he had, since he was a little boy, dreamed of becoming a pilot and he knew that these idle years were not going to help him achieve that goal.   One thing that he felt very strongly about expressing to me during this time was that he was not exactly excited to come to the United States, that he was primarily nervous and he really didn’t want to leave the people, you know, that he...that he was bonded to in Syria, and this was a moment that he knew, you know, all of his friends were soon to be scattered throughout the world, to Germany, to Canada, to other parts of the United States, and there was so much that was unknown.  He and his family didn’t know that they were going to be moved to the United States until about two weeks before it happened. So, many of our early conversations circled around that feeling of being suspended between the two worlds, you know, dangling there between the past and the future.  And he described the way he would look longingly up at the sky, the planes overhead, and you know, and wish that he was the pilot of one of those planes.  He described then the feeling of getting onto a plane for the first time, which was that flight out of Syria to New York, and how on that plane his mind was flitting back and forth between what he was leaving behind and what he was heading towards.  So I asked him to try to describe the physical sensation of being on that plane—to try to remember what it had felt like to just look out the window while he was entering this emotional turmoil, and that’s when he came up with the refrain that begins his poem, and you all have, or you all should have a copy of his poem.  He came up with the refrain that begins and ends the poem:

“I see the world very small.
I hear the winds like a beautiful song.
I touch the soft clouds.
I taste the stars.
I smell the breath of space.”

We went through many drafts of his poem, and often the movement from draft to draft followed a similar pattern. I would print out what we had so far and ask him to circle his favorite parts and also circle the parts he felt weren’t quite right.  And then I would separately highlight those places that I felt could be opened up with more illustration, so the direction I was pushing him often was to specify and to illustrate.  He would say, he would talk about how much he loved his friends, and so then I would ask, “What do you remember about them exactly?” He had images in his head of the United States and so I asked him, “What are those exactly? Where do those come from?” And he would initially say, “they come from The Vampire Diaries or 90210.” And then, he would say he also had this image of like an endless green soccer field, that he imagined when he thought of the United States.  If Hamzeh asked for the correct way to say something, I did my best to offer him conventional syntax and diction. For example, when he described the moment of getting onto the plane with his siblings and his mother handing out pieces of gum to them, he wrote, “she gave us gums.” He was eager, though, to know the appropriate way to, um, to phrase his memories, and, on the other side, I was eager to not change the way he wanted to express something, so I think in the end we achieved the right balance, each of us, helping each other out until the final product felt really fully his.  Before I met Hamzeh and became his writing mentor, there were some pictures of that fall reading, where they read the poems that they had written with Molly, and I attended his cohort’s first public reading, and what I remember then about that, you know, before I got to know Hamzeh and his peers, is just being a member of the Portland community in the audience and feeling very proud of the young people of our city as they told their stories publicly.  And I also remember feeling that if those calling for an immigrant ban had been in the audience, they would have been able to see that policy differently.  While working with Hamzeh and getting to know the others in his cohort, that feeling just grew and grew.  The process of all of us seeing each other’s lives from the inside out is really what the Young Writers & Leaders Program is all about.  And it’s community work like this that I think could really change the national conversation. So...

So, as he said, you should be... either having a hand out in your hand or have some easy access to one if you don’t yet. We’re going to hear Hamzeh read his poem from our book Once and this is the final version of the poem that he worked on with Lewis.  This is also available on our SoundCloud page.

(Plays recording of Hamzeh Doele’s poem)

So, can we have a quick round of applause for Hamzeh?


So, um, yeah, so Hamzeh’s poem is in this book, Once, with a lot of other students, and I did want to point out that the students do work with... within the program, the Young Writers & Leaders program and then we publish their work sometimes with other programs as well, and in fact, Hamzeh, after he worked with Lewis on the poem, the next step was to meet with our publishing workshop, which was a mix of students and adults who are editors, so the students themselves work on the pieces further to bring them to publication, which is kind of cool. So... but before this happened there’s one more part to the YWL year, and there is a real arc to the program.  It’s very deliberate.  The poetry comes first, and during the poetry the students are discovering themselves, they’re doing a little bit more with diction and with literacy, and then they move into this wonderful mentorship where they really get to develop their own personal stories and really go along with their own thoughts for a long time, and then it’s spring.  In Maine, spring is huge.  It’s actually called mud season, but it’s still really invigorating, and we let the kids out for a little, of our cozy space, and they go out onto the streets and at that point they’re ready to get outside of themselves, too, I think.  So they go out onto the streets and they talk to the people they see there. So that’s documentary studies.  That’s what happens next.  They’ll go out and they’ll take with them a notebook, they’ll take a camera, they’ll take an audio recorder and they’ll interview the people that they see.  And they ask them some central questions, some things that matter to them, that they want to know.  So they’re moving away from themselves and getting into their community a little bit through that process.  In the end, they make some beautiful multimedia pieces, which is pretty exciting, and then the program draws to a close with a great community celebration called Big Night and they’re there.  Their book is there.  It’s been published.  They’re on stage in front of three hundred people who come out to cheer them on. And these are people that now they know a little better, or many cases a lot better, in the case like Lewis and Hamzeh. So... it’s really exciting. It’s a wonderful program.  It’s just... I think that everybody grows hugely through it, and we get to know each other a lot better. So, um, the two books that we’re featuring here at the conference today, The Story I Want to Tell, and A Season for Building Houses are both examples of this, and A Season for Building Houses, these are the stories of students who leave their home countries and then make their journey and then find these new homes here, so it’s always ‘a season for building houses’ for them.  So that’s a pretty great story, and the stories are wonderful.  They come out in these books, and then we really make an effort to get the books into the hands of the community, including teachers who are able to give them to their students, and the students read them, and then suddenly the students want to write.  So, there’s a wonderful circle that happens there, and I think Rick, you’ve pointed out before, you can’t write well unless you’re reading first.  So that’s how that works. That’s the lovely circle.  And I would say that the book that illustrates that the best might be The Story I Want to Tell just because it’s got this, this incredible dynamic where we gave these wonderful writers, these adult writers that we work with, pieces of writing by our students, and the stories are some of our students’ most compelling stories, and we ask them to respond to them some way creatively and write their own stories, and so the pairs of stories are in this book.  One of them is AK’s story, which is paired with Rick’s so maybe you could tell us a little bit more—return to AK’s story, Rick? Could you do that?

What struck me immediately was how cinematic AK’s story was--how so many of the best details would be available to a camera. The dusty, overcrowded refugee camp.  The wooden bucket used to drawl water up from the communal well.  How the two skinny, malnourished boys must have struggled to drag that full bucket up from the dark depths.  The grey muzzle of the starving dog. The terrified, mutilated child. And later, in the second half of the story, the bloody rock that AK used to beat that dog to death, wanting the animal to be, as he put it, not just dead, but dead-dead. So that’s how I responded to AK’s story.  By turning it into a scene from a screenplay, the idea being to demonstrate how fully realized it already was, how I had to invent almost nothing, only adjust the details to a different medium.  You can read his story and my treatment of it in The Story I Want to Tell.  Since the book came out, AK and I have actually taken our show on the road a couple of times, to an arts venue in Portland, where we did a dramatic reading, switching back and forth between our two pieces, and even more importantly to Portland High School, from which AK had recently graduated.  You should have seen the looks on the faces on those high school kids as AK talked about the process of writing his story. You could tell they had stories, too--stories that were important to them, to us. As you view this short film about The Story I Want to Tell, see if you can tell if the words you are listening were written by the students or by their mentors. See if you can spot some of the more famous folk, writer folk, like Lily King, and Bill Roorbach, and Lewis Robinson, but mostly look at the faces of these kids.  There are others like them in your own communities, and they’re waiting to tell you their stories.

(Video plays)

So in addition to these folks believing in the importance of listening to student stories, so did the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and First Lady Michelle Obama.  In November 2015 the Young Writers & Leaders program won a national arts and humanities youth program award.  These awards recognize the country’s best creative youth development programs and they are the nation’s highest honor for afterschool arts and humanities programs. YWL was one of twelve programs recognized that year, and we got to travel to the White House with our YWL student Ibrahim Shkara, where we accepted the award from Mrs. Obama.  And here’s what that day looked like at The Telling Room.

(Video plays)

So not all of our students can go to the White House with us, but many of them go on to do big things.  So thank you. With that I want to open it up to you all and hear your questions.  We have some time for some general questions, if you have specific ones please... or if we don’t get to them today come see us at our table at the expo.

Yes, in the back.

(Voice in background)

So the question is about funding.  Yes. We do receive some funding from the NEA.  That is our only federal source of funding. We have funding through our Maine Arts Commission in Maine. That’s a great place to start if you’re seeking out your own funding. We receive grants, private foundation grants and also corporate grants, sponsorships, that sort of thing. We have a great donor base because we have such a great community there and it’s really important to engage our donors in the work that we do, and, really, it’s similar to any nonprofit organization, and you can start small with reaching out to your local arts council, with reaching out to your local community organization or if there is an organization of nonprofits. And really we keep going because we keep getting our students out there, and, you know, they’re the best ambassadors at work. Would any one else like to add anything?

We throw a hell of a party.

Yeah. That’s true. I didn’t mention the party. Another question? Yes?

(Question in the back)

Right. Good question. You can all probably hear but I just want to say it. It’s about creating a safe space for LGBTQ youth in this program.

Great. Yeah. Um. Great question. And a lot of what we do is work really hard on community building right from the get go, and I think you heard that we do start really slowly and just with the kids in the room and that’s why we keep the cohort so small. It’s fifteen students. We really get to know each and every one. And we let them grow with each other, in part through those free-writes, but I’ll mention one project because it was sort of so special. There were two kids, who by the time they got all the way through the program to get to documentary studies, they went on the streets together, and one of the students was from Cameroon, and the other student was from Burundi, and they were curious about what it was like to be gay in this country.  In their countries, and they had such different... so they were coming from such different experiences, where I think the kid from Cameroon, Yann, he had experienced gay life in Burundi, but it was a terrible thing to be, whereas Clautel was from a tiny village in Cameroon and had never considered the possibility of homosexuality. So, these two guys had already come from such different places, and they went out on the street and interviewed people, and asked them very directly what their experiences had been as gay people.  And they found gay people and asked them that, and, in the end, they made this beautiful and incredible...was it a podcast Molly?... yeah, a radio piece about three different people that they ended up interviewing from that sampling. So, I think it’s about that community-building piece.  We just work really hard to make sure the kids feel safe first in our own space, and then slowly, by the end of the year then they are really able to voice some of those bigger ideas that they’ve... thanks for the question.

(Voice in background:
When the kids go back into schools, especially the older ones, do they then serve as mentors for other younger writers?  Are they sharing all their energy with other kids who aren’t in the program?)

Good question.  So it’s about the leadership piece and what the kids are doing when they’re going back to the schools and how they’re interacting with their peers and bringing what they’re learning to their friends at school.

We’re debating about which kid we’re gonna give you as an example because there are a lot of examples that we can draw on.  Yeah, one of them is actually that same kid Yann, he was at his high school, Deering High School in Portland, and oh, Molly just came up with another one, and Yann wrote up a beautiful piece called My Bathing Suit Smells Like Medicine and in it he talks about sort of being isolated on his swim team, as a black student in the pool, and-- but remembered a time in Burundi where he had had the chance to do some bridge building there, and so came back to his school and shared this, and the community sort of came around him once he had told his story, so that you know, in a very big way he braved that and brought that story straight back to his school and affected his school, and AK is another great example going back to his school.

We had a student named Mohammed Mahdi from Iraq, who had to be literally dragged into the room to be interviewed because he didn’t want to do it.  His friends were like, you should do it, you should do it. You hate writing. This would help you.  And he was like, “I don’t want to do that program.” And then he came in and did the interview and was like, “I hate writing.  Just telling you. But I feel like I should be better at it.  I know it’s going to be important to me in the future.” Within a few weeks of free-writing and sharing in the program, he was bringing in poems that he had written at home.  He was really proud of and wanted to share and was so excited to share, and an example of him bring it outside of The Telling Room after the program, he actually went to his mosque and actually started small group skill-shares, where he would share with other people what he had learned from The Telling Room at the mosque. That’s just a couple examples but there’s so many.

Yes. In the black, back there.

(Voice in the back asking a question)

Great.  Good question. So, the question is, how would this translate into higher-ed setting, and is there an opportunity for an exchange between the lower levels and the higher-ed. Yeah. That’s great.  I think you... have some thoughts on that.

I feel like maybe Rick Russo should handle this. He’s the only one that’s taught at the college level here. So maybe he could imagine it. I don’t know.

It seems to me that it would be the perfect sort of thing to do and if it’s not creative writing, then something like American studies.  But it seems to me that... I’m just remembering with a certain degree of shame, my own undergraduate years at the University of Arizona, in Tuscan, and remembering how the Black students used to gather together at a certain section of the student union, and other ways in which people who have self selected in various ways often out of a need of safety and community and all of that, but I don’t know...I guess my question would be do you start from the, and hope to work something from the bottom up in which you have a group of students who would want to do something like that. And it seems to me that it might be more useful to at least try to suggest something like that to a professor, to a writing professor, whereby you get into the course by virtue of your diversity. Making that… I… you know… I’m just talking really off the top of my head, because it seems to me the problem is… how do you… at the level we’re talking about… Molly was describing just going out into the schools. And talking to teachers and then talking to students and selecting… you have to find a mechanism for that it seems to me in terms of higher education.  I’m not sure what the mechanism would be, but I think a really charismatic teacher who is interested in doing something like that might be the place to start, anyway.  My motto in all these things is “Try something. And if it doesn’t work, try something else.” But that’s what I would be... if I were going back to teaching and wanted… and had something like this in mind, I think what I would probably want to do is try to talk to faculty members in other departments, maybe somebody in religious studies, somebody in women’s studies, somebody in African-American studies, and just say, “How do we assemble...how do we teach this course?  And how do we select the population in a way that doesn’t seem exclusionary to other people?” And as you know, and you all do, you all know how fraught higher education is in terms of some of these things, but then that would be my guess.  That’s how I would… how I think I would try at least as a first stab at it.


(Voice in back: Have you seen the current national mood around immigration and refugees reflected in the students and writing...[inaudible])

So the question is, “Have you seen the current national climate reflected in the students, in the mood, in the room and what they’re writing about?” We’ve been talking a lot about this.

Yes.  Definitely.  And the free-write is a really wonderful design, because The Telling Room is a warm, welcoming, wonderful place for them no matter what’s going on out there. They come in and they choose what they want to write about, and what they want to share.  Maybe they write something and they don’t want to share with anybody else, but they’ve written it down at least.  It’s not just in their head anymore.  But they’re coming in and they’re tired.  They’re exhausted, a lot of them, by what’s going on. That’s the overwhelming feeling.  But usually by the end of a couple hours with their peers, and with us, and with their mentors, they feel a little bit better.  They feel heard. They feel comforted by that. But it’s definitely coming up for them in their writing, and I think writing is a wonderful way for that to kind of work its way through them and to understand and process those feelings that are coming up.  But yes, for sure.

So, if there… we have time for one more… yeah go right ahead.

(Voice in the back)

Yeah, it’s difficult. I mean, it’s probably for the mentors or, in my experience, it’s the most challenging part of the mentorship.  And I knew that Molly also, you know, doing a lot of the publication work and doing the kind of fine tune editing, has some things to say about this as well. But I really… I… with Hamzeh, for example, I really did try, as best I could, to take my cues from him, and when there were those, those phrasings that he felt uncomfortable with, or curious about, we would have the conversation, but I… I... you know, he… um… he was often, um, you know, starting those conversations and wanting to know. And so, I wanted to answer his questions in a way that would not sully the original impulse that he had, and the… the things that he...he was very clear about what he wanted...the feelings that he wanted to express...so it was just through a lot of back and forth that we got to the place that felt right to him and also used some as I said earlier that some of those, like, conventional syntactical forms, so… but it is… it’s really difficult and best practices… I don’t know.  I mean I don’t know if you have rules of thumb, Molly, but I really tried to only respond to his desires to make something sound, you know, in such a way that it could be best received, I guess, so I don’t know.

I don’t have much to add there.  I think we put a lot of trust in these great writers that we get to work with like Lew and Rick eventually, come in and work with another student. Yeah. They seem to know.  These are good writers that these kids are getting to sit down with. And I think that the rule of thumb is to make sure that the student’s voice comes through. Like that is the single most important thing, so if you read any of the anthologies, you’ll know you’re reading different people. And that, and making sure that the core of the story, the heart of the story is there and true, and that the phrasings are as similar as can be but are not… making the reader stumble. That’s something else, too.  And I guess it’s worth… it is definitely worth pointing out that we do two different types of publications. We always do a chapbook, which is what we call a project book at the end of the Young Writers & Leaders year, and that book is more true to the actual voice of the student and maybe “gums” is in Hamzeh’s version of that book, whereas the books that we end up selling we do a little bit more professional polish on, and we work with the students on that too, and show them what the difference is there.  It’s actually really educational for them. They walk through that publication world in a very real way, so yeah, yeah.

(Lots of people talking at once about “gums”)

So thank you. Thank you panel. Thank you everyone for being here.

(Background music)

Thank you for listening to the AWP Podcast Series. For other podcasts, please visit our website at www.awpwriter.org.

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