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Here’s how 826NYC is inspiring people to speak out with creative writing

Some superheroes have crazy powers like flight, super strength, or heat vision, but this league of heroes has something much more powerful: its creativity.

826NYC is a nonprofit organization that helps inspire students to channel their creative writing abilities through a variety of initiatives such as writing workshops and working with educators in schools. 826NYC is only one chapter of a whole network of 826, with other chapters located in cities such as Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and beyond.

This past week, I was fortunate enough to speak with 826NYC’s Executive Director Joshua Mandelbaum and Director of Education Aarti Monteiro to learn more about 826NYC’s mission, what they’re doing in these tumultuous current events, and what they believe to be the role of the arts in these unconventional times.

826NYC’s Mission and programs

“Our mission is to encourage the exploration of endless possibilities through the power of writing,” said Mandelbaum. “Which in short means that we believe that writing creates skills and inspires social-emotional growth, in areas such as confidence and self-efficacy that are valuable throughout a young person’s life.”

826NYC achieves this through a set of four core programs. One of their most popular ones is their after-school homework help program, which provides students with an opportunity to get help in their writing abilities.

Other initiatives include writing workshops, collaborative storytelling programs, and in-school publishing projects. At the end of the day though, many of these programs allow students to leave as a proudly-published author.

“Most of our programs end in some form of publication. We make that work available to the public through the superhero store, and through our online platform,” said Mandelbaum.

The nonprofit works with a variety of schools and grade levels in the New York City area, with programs that are geared mostly for students from ages 6-18.

Due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic however, 826NYC has had to make some changes to the way it runs things. Namely, moving its programs online, such as its online tutoring and academic literacy workshops. The shift to online learning has also allowed students from out of state to join in. Even with these new changes, the core goal of the programs is still the same.

“It’s still very much focused on creative writing and trying to give students the opportunity to explore their creativity and imagination. Of course, since they’re on computers, the programs are a little bit shorter, and they’re really interactive,” said Monteiro.

“And usually we do a lot of work with volunteers in our spaces in person, and so online we’re trying to replicate that, but it looks a little bit different and they’re doing a little bit more collaborative writing as a whole group in order to kind of create the intimacy and social experience that they would have in person.”

These changes haven’t diminished the organization’s impact, however. In fact, it has even launched a new initiative known as “quaranTEEN voices” to help give young writers express themselves in these unconventional times.

Unlike 826’s traditional programs, quaranTEEN voices allow students to write asynchronously each week with a series of writing and revision prompts. At the end of each week, the writers come together to work with a professional, published author. The new program has worked with industry professionals such as Claudia Rankine, Jacqueline Woodson, and Spike Jonze, among others.

“We’re really trying to create an experience where students are a little less isolated at home,” said Monteiro. “And since a lot of authors…have to cancel book tours and things like that because of the pandemic, we’re also able to engage them a little bit more and bring them in to talk with our students.”

“It’s been a really amazing opportunity for us. Actually, it’s kind of allowed us to live a dream of weekly connecting young people with published authors,” said Mandelbaum.

Keeping connected in times of adversity

826’s goal of connecting people is an essential one, and its importance is even greater in a time of protests, civil unrest, and a transmittable virus. With issues such as police brutality and systematic racism in this country coming through to a larger audience than seemingly ever before, uniting as a community is more important now than ever.

“I think that 826 NYC was founded because of all of these issues…We’re primarily working with students who are coming from communities that have experiences with systemic racism and oppression,” said Monteiro.

“And so we’re really trying to support those students and help both, you know, work on the education gap and opportunity gap, but also to provide spaces where they feel empowered to use their own voices and to have the skills to do so…we’re giving them the tools that they can tell their own stories and their own experiences.”

Monteiro also mentioned the importance of people being able to use writing as a way to cope and speak out on the issues in the world.

“I think that a bit our approach is more about how you can use writing, both as a tool to process your own emotions and your own experiences, as well as to educate and create change in the world,” said Monteiro.

Yet despite the events going on in the world, 826NYC also offers a sanctuary away from trouble.

“The students come to us often every week, regardless, particularly in our after school program of what’s happening in the world. And we want to be sensitive to retraumatizing students, of presenting content that parents aren’t necessarily comfortable with,” said Mandelbaum.

Whether times are normal or unconventional like now, 826NYC provides an essential opportunity for people to express themselves and speak out on whatever topics or ideals may be on their minds. In true heroic fashion, 826NYC lets young writers awaken the superhero within themselves.

“I like to think of the work that we do is we help young people sort of see themselves as writers with something important to say because that’s exactly who they are,” said Mandelbaum. “And that I think is the work that we’re doing, and why it’s so important. And why it’s so important in this moment.”

Making changes through creativity

In a school system that is not only highly standardized but also segregated, providing students with the tools they need to express themselves creatively also helps pave the way for change in their education.

“Our education system is structured so that students, especially students of color, are not given space to be themselves or to think critically about the world around them, and to share those thoughts,” said Monteiro.

“It’s much more about, learn this, and take this standardized test, and sit down and be quiet, you know? And I think that the work that we’re doing is really trying to dismantle that and to change it in a small way with the students that we’re able to work with. I believe that it can, even in a small way, have a bigger impact and create change.”

One special aspect of creative writing is that even if someone doesn’t grow up to be a writer or a content creator of any sort, the single act of writing in itself can still be a transformative experience for them.

“The act of reading is a readily accessible and transformative experience. But I also think that the act of writing is a bit of the accessible and transformative experience as an art form,” said Mandelbaum.

“With writing, you need maybe 20 minutes and a pencil and a piece of paper to have that experience. Maybe you’ve never shared it with anyone. You’re still having an experience that I think can be really powerful to the individual.”

In our shifting society, it is this act that can help not only translate people’s current experiences but also create new visions of what could be.

“How can we imagine possibilities outside of the world that we’re seeing right now…If we didn’t already know that our world was incredibly inequitable, we are seeing it everyday now,” said Monteiro.

“I think that writing can both provide ways to process for yourself, and ask questions, and try to understand what you think, and imagine something better, and of course is a way to read other people’s work and trying to understand experiences outside of yourself.”

It’s also in this time that Mandelbaum said creatives should “begin imagining a better world.”

“Because I think that…our imagination combined with our will is how we move forward as a people, and sharing that vision, and having conversations around that shared vision, no matter how outlandish.”

“I like to think that we’re doing at 826, and I think that all writers and artists can do is to be thinking about, like, ‘what are the voices that we’re not hearing? And how do we better create space for that?’” said Monteiro.

With so many people isolated and divided right now, the creative arts are arguably the glue that many need to strongly bind together. It is through creating not just conversation, but creating in general, that can help inspire people to unite as a community and envision a better world.

“And if you can share that with a few other people, I think that is a really important, powerful thing because then you begin to see the change I think for many people,” said Mandelbaum.

“You can conjure that future. You can conjure what’s next in this process, as a writer, as an artist. I think that’s really important.”

If you want to conjure a new vision of what’s next, no matter how creative you are, simply get out there and communicate with people like friends and family. The first step in uniting as a community is to communicate. Share your thoughts, your work, and take an opportunity to speak up about your vision. Once you do, the creativity will flow from there.

For those who want to help 826NYC, following them on social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Medium, where they share student pieces, is a great way to support the organization. Other ways include applying as a volunteer even at your nearest 826 chapter or donating.

826NYC also operates the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., which still offers online orders even in the pandemic. There you can get a variety of student publications and stock up on superpowers of your own by getting cans of gratitude or pints of pride. All proceeds go directly to 826NYC.

Remember, your greatest power is your creativity. Awaken the superhero in you by visiting 826NYC’s official website, or take flight and start a new creative project so that you too can help create a vision for a better future.