TA-NEHISI COATES’article “Hard Corps” (7/19) was a wonderfully balanced piece that illuminates the dogged difficulties and the profound joy of teaching literary workshops to “underserved” populations in community settings. His experience is mirrored in the other two WritersCorps sites in San Francisco and the Bronx, where volunteer writers boldly attempt to make literature a real tool in the strengthening of communities and individuals. WritersCorps members are volunteers, and despite the rhetoric of right-wing congressmen, the stipends they receive from AmeriCorps to venture into shelters, prisons, halfway houses, churches, schools, and community centers barely covers their expenses and could never cover the real value of their effort. That the D.C. WritersCorps is able to obtain the service of emerging and nationally recognized writers such as Joel Dias-Porter, Jeffrey McDaniel, Brian Gilmore, Kwelismith, Coates, and others is due to their commitment to both the art of writing and, more importantly, their commitment to community. This year our 25 writers served an average of about 800 residents per week in 33 community sites. The writing produced in these workshops with students, Alzheimer’s patients, recovering addicts, and the vision-impaired, has been an amazing testament to the participants and the writers who instructed them.
As the article suggests, it is often frustrating trying to navigate the deficiencies in inner-city institutions, but Coates also taught at two very successful sites this year that were less challenging. Mentored by D.C.’s leading pedagogical expert on community poetry workshops, poet Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade), Coates led a wonderful workshop at (ironically enough) Lorton Prison’s medium security facility, where over 40 inmates in the GED program participated, and Ketcham Elementary School, where selected students read at the Library of Congress in a program hosted by Poet Laureate Robert Haas. Additionally, the D.C. WritersCorps has been fortunate to partner with wonderful institutions where the students are well-behaved and the administration is serious about providing the best atmosphere for learning. Some of these sites were Hart Junior High School, where writer Nancy Schwalb and others led a writing program that engaged nearly 300 teenagers, Birney Elementary School, which saw its students sweep the Larry Neal Youth Essays Contest, Bell Multicultural High School, and Latin American Youth Center, which saw some of its participants read recently with poet Luis Rodriguez.
As we head into the third successful year of WritersCorps, we believe even more strongly that what we do is simply to help people reaffirm the importance of their voice by helping to amplify it—but we do not create that voice. What these inventive and dedicated writers do is create a safe place for that voice to be heard. Poet Carolyn Forche commented that “WritersCorps involves the participants in their own literacy, and in their own discovery of self.” In the case of young Mr. Coates we learn that the WritersCorps participants have a thing to two to teach our writers also.
WritersCorps D.C. Site Coordinator