Janet Heller

Conducted by Melissa Andrews, July 14, 2005

CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT YOUR TITLE IS?

I am the Project Manager for the San Francisco WritersCorps.

CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE HISTORY OF WRITERSCORPS?

The program started about eleven years ago. We were funded initially as an AmeriCorps program for the National Endowment for the Arts, and the premise was that writers in three major American cities would be working directly with communities in need. The cities were New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. There were 60 writers originally selected to work in schools, after-school programs, detention centers, homeless shelters, public housing, any kind of neighborhood community center and they were very locally driven by the three local arts agencies involved in those cities. Over time, WritersCorps has evolved into one of the strongest literacy programs in the country, primarily because we support writers and train writers to do critical work in communities and we publish youth writing and we produce it. There is solid evidence and evaluation that the youth in our program consistently improve their writing skills and increase their self confidence.

CAN YOU TELL ME A FEW OF THE WAYS THAT YOU INCREASE THEIR SELF CONFIDENCE? I SAW THAT A LITTLE BIT ON THE WEB SITE, BUT DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIFIC WAYS THAT THE TEACHERS ACCOMPLISH THAT?

WritersCorps serves low-income youth and focuses on building writing skills. Some of our students are recently arrived immigrants with low English-proficiency. In creative writing classes at Mission High School, for example, students work on their vocabulary and mechanics. At the same time they express their feelings and share something of themselves. They can then stand up in front of the classroom and read a poem or share a story. There’s an enormous sense of accomplishment reading in front of peers. That’s one way students report that the WritersCorps experience builds confidence.

CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE POPULATION THAT YOU SERVE? HOW MANY PARTICIPANTS THAT YOU HAVE?

My numbers reflect the San Francisco WritersCorps. I don’t have any aggregate data about the other two cities. In San Francisco last year, we worked with about 700 youth. The breakout is 30% Asian; 20% African American, 30% Latino and 20% Multi-Racial. We work in San Francisco with primarily middle school and high school aged students, but we also work with some younger students in our after-school programs. Many of our public school sites have a large number of ESL students. We also work with youth involved with the juvenile justice system.

WHAT SEEMS TO BE THE GENERAL RESPONSE FROM THE YOUTH? DO THEY RESPOND PRETTY WELL TO THE PROGRAM?

They really appreciate the opportunity to meet a working artist and build a relationship over an eight-month period. They love the chance to express themselves while learning at the same time about literature. Our teaching artists share a lot of their favorite contemporary authors, which students enjoy. Young writers like to meet other kids who are interested in writing and forming a community.

YOU MENTIONED SPECIAL EVENTS, CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT A SPECIFIC EVENT?

Over the years, we have produced many kinds of reading series. We have loved being a part of a multi-generational reading series through Intersection for the Arts. They invite Bay Area literary icons to read with our teaching artists and their students. We’ve read with incredible writers such as Tille Olsen, Diane diPrima, Francisco Alarcon and many others. We also work closely with the San Francisco Public Library and produce an annual literary festival to celebrate work produced each year.

HOW DO YOU CIRCULATE THE WORK THAT IS PUBLISHED?

WritersCorps publishes with HarperCollins, Wiley, and some independent presses in San Francisco. We also produce limited runs of publications each year featuring students from our sites. Our books have won awards and been widely recognized for their literary merit and teaching value to middle and high schools. Jump Write In is our collection of lesson plans developed by our teaching artists.

YEAH THAT SOUNDS LIKE A GOOD RESOURCE FOR THE LITERACY CENTER THAT WE HAVE ON CAMPUS HERE FOR CSU. WE ARE JUST GETTING STARTED, SO WE ARE TRYING TO GET A LOT OF DIFFERENT RESOURCES THAT STUDENTS AND TEACHERS CAN LOOK AT IF THEY ARE GOING TO BE A FACILITATOR FOR A WORKSHOP. THAT WOULD BE GOOD FOR THEM TO LOOK AT WHEN THAT COMES OUT.

It is a great resource for teachers, community artists, parents, and librarians.

I HAVE A FEW MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE PROGRAM. ARE THERE ANY DEFICITS THAT STICK OUT IN YOUR MIND ABOUT A CERTAIN PROJECT THAT YOU COULD SHARE?

Well there are a lot of success stories at WritersCorps. There are a lot of youth who are a little on the edge in some ways, whether it means that they just don’t have enough on their side, at home or in life, and life just kind of keeps them from falling over. One woman I have mentioned – her name is Antoinette, and she started WritersCorps in 7th grade and I think that she is a junior now and has just steadily written and been a part of our program – she now is seen as a real leader in her community which is Bayview-Hunters Point, which is a neighborhood in San Francisco which has the highest violence and a lot of youth violence. And she has witnessed a lot of close friends’ deaths through random violence. She is writing a lot about that and she has a very positive voice and on her own she approached the Bayview Library – that is the public library branch in that neighborhood – and said that she wanted to lead a monthly series of creative writing and poetry talking about youth violence in that neighborhood. And so, here you have a young woman who doesn’t have a lot at home or on her side, but she is really taking writing and making it her own. I think that is what we want most. Yeah it would be great if one of our youth excelled and became one of the greatest voices in American literature but more important for WritersCorps is that writing becomes a tool for their lives. It really makes a difference for them for their own self discovery and also for the way they interact with the world.

THAT’S GREAT. I MIGHT QUOTE YOU ON THAT IF THAT IS OK. I LIKE THE WAY THAT YOU SAID THAT, SO I AM WRITING UP ABOUT A ONE PAGE PROFILE ON WRITERSCORPS FOR THE LITERACY CENTER, SO THAT WE CAN HAVE THIS INFORMATION. SO IF I COULD QUOTE YOU ON THAT, THAT WOULD BE GREAT.

OK and you pronounce it WritersCorps like Peace Corps.

HOW MANY TEACHERS OR FACILITATORS ARE THERE RIGHT NOW?

Last year we had eight teachers and we have a training coordinator who is a veteran teaching artist who facilitates our professional development for our teaching staff.

DO YOU COMPENSATE THE TEACHERS?

Our teachers are well paid. We start at $17 an hour and we have some teachers who have been in our program for seven years so we pay up to $30 to $33 an hour. They are hourly, which means they’re paid for every hour they work – a prep hour, a meeting hour, a teaching hour – they get paid for all of that. Their health care is paid for by WritersCorps. They receive an allowance for supplies based on a per pupil cost of $25 per pupil and they also get a little writing honorarium, very tiny, but they get $500 to support their writing.

DO THEY HAVE CERTAIN CREDENTIALS AND DO THEY HAVE TEACHER’S CERTIFICATES?

Our criteria is they have to have two years teaching experience with youth, they have to have a year of community service, they have to have worked with special populations and they need to show evidence of literary accomplishments.

HAVE YOU HEARD FROM THE TEACHERS ABOUT SPECIFIC CHALLENGES THAT THEY FACE? MAYBE THE GREATEST CHALLENGES THEY FACE WITHIN THE WORKSHOPS?

I have over 12 hours of meetings every month with the teachers. There is a lot of communication between what they are doing so that they can share with each other and so that the staff can support them. They are challenged in so many ways with the way the school systems work now, with so much focus on standards and less room for creativity and the fact that it is either-or but not both. They are really struggling with morale and youth violence, youth depression. They struggle with youth who have gone down the path with juvenile delinquency and there really is very little hope around that in terms of relationships with guns and drugs. There is a lot of challenge and pressure on the youth to be caretakers. There are so many kids in our program who are raising their siblings and there is a lot of pressure for them not to take every opportunity for their education. They are in school minimally because they have so many obligations at home that they can’t fully excel. That is just the short list.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE STRATEGIES THAT THE TEACHERS USE TO MOTIVATE THE PARTICIPANTS?

I think that our first step is always building trust and creating a safe place for writing. There isn’t anything that can happen if that doesn’t happen and then afterwards creating ways of building skills in an environment that feels creative, that feels open, that feels trusting. I mentioned Antoinette’s story – I think Antoinette has been motivated to perform. She read when she was at our Everett Middle School classroom and she came to several of our poetry series. Then she was selected to go to Washington, D.C. and represent San Francisco in our national slam. Then she was selected to be the Martin Luther King Jr Freewrite Contest winner and she performed in front of 6,000 people. I think a lot of the middle school youth we work with who stay with WritersCorps for five or six years like the opportunity to be heard. So that is really one of the big carrots that our teachers hold out – would you like to be in print, would you like to read?

SO YOU KIND OF GIVE THEM THE OPTION IF THEY WANT TO PARTICIPATE IN THE PERFORMANCES OR IF THEY WOULD LIKE TO BE A LITTLE BIT MORE IN THE SHADOWS?

We don’t push anyone. A lot of the most recent publications that we are doing – boxed sets of 10 books or CDs – represent every youth in the program. Those youths are putting themselves forward and teachers are really encouraging that, but in terms of getting on stage, we never push youth to do that. But it is a good motivator.

YOU MENTIONED THAT THE TEACHERS TRY AND BUILD TRUST FIRST OFF. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE WAYS THAT THEY DO THAT AND MAYBE IS THAT WITH ACTIVITIES?

I think that you start slow. You don’t ask people to be extraordinarily vulnerable in an instant. You earn it. You earn opportunities to learn more about a student. If they don’t want to read something aloud or if they want to fold a page over in their journal, that is OK. I think you let youth evolve on their own timeline and if they’re shut down and they don’t want to do it, as long as they’re not being disruptive that has got to be OK too.

I have heard so many stories from my teachers of how it will be six months or four months of someone with their head on a desk. Then little by little, little by little, there will be a way that student becomes more engaged. I just think there is a gentle approach. You know we have so many different personalities teaching in WritersCorps, but I think people are extraordinarily gentle with youth, and kind and encouraging. If they need to be funny, if they need to be light, if they need to be a friend, those are all ways in which trust happens.

RIGHT NOW THE LITERACY CENTER IS DOING A SIX-WEEK CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOP WITH GIRLS FROM TURNING POINT. HAVE YOU HEARD OF TURNING POINT?

I haven’t heard of that name.

IT IS A FAMILY OUTREACH CENTER – IT IS FOR REHABILITATION. IT IS LIKE A TRANSITION HOUSE FOR JUVENILE OFFENDERS AND I AM ONE OF THE FACILITATORS AND SO I DON’T KNOW IF YOU WOULD BE WILLING TO GIVE ME A LITTLE BIT OF ADVICE ON THE SITUATION. I THINK IT IS SUCH A SHORT TIME THE WORKSHOP AND WE ARE DOING A LOT OF EXPERIMENTATION SINCE THIS IS THE FIRST TIME WE HAVE DONE IT, BUT IT IS MANDATORY FOR THE KIDS TO BE PARTICIPATING SO WE ARE HAVING A BIT OF TROUBLE GETTING THEM EXCITED ABOUT THE PROJECT. DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS FOR US? MAYBE WE COULD MAKE IT LONGER, IF THAT WOULD HELP, TO BUILD TRUST AND THEN THEY WOULD HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO GET TO KNOW US A LITTLE BIT BETTER. DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER SUGGESTIONS?

A lot of it depends on who the teacher is and his/her experience. If the teachers are so different from the student, that can take longer just because of history. When WritersCorps works in communities we work mostly a minimum of eight months. We don’t do short term, we do long term and in depth. I think it is really hard, particularly for the populations you are talking about who have had so many adults leave; it is very hard to strike something up. They know that you are leaving and will not be there for the long term. Even though you are there and it is better for you to be there than not be there, those are just the challenges with the people who you want to make some kind of connection with.

I HAVE JUST A FEW MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT FUNDING. OUR OFFICE IS JUST GETTING STARTED LIKE I MENTIONED AND WE ARE TRYING TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO GET FUNDED OURSELVES. SO CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW WRITERSCORPS IS FUNDED?

Since WritersCorps is a project of the San Francisco Arts Commission, we are a local city program. We receive city support and some federal and private funding.

DO YOU HAVE A GRANT WRITER OR DO YOU HIRE OUTSIDE GRANT WRITERS?

No, I am the primary person.

DO YOU LIMIT WHERE FUNDS COME FROM? DO YOU HAVE SOME SORT OF POLICY WITH WHO CAN GIVE FUNDING?

We make careful decisions accepting funds. Many foundations won’t support a government program.

YOU MENTIONED A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WRITERSCORPS PLANS FOR THE FUTURE WITH THE PUBLICATIONS, BUT COULD YOU MENTION A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR OUTLOOK FOR THE FUTURE?

We are really interested in talking with teachers across the country aboutJump Write In,¬†our collection of lesson plans. Our books are really the ambassadors for the program since we aren’t able to travel or promote through conferences.

WELL THAT IS ALL I HAVE FOR YOU. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME. IF I HAVE ANY FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS WOULD I BE ABLE TO EMAIL YOU?

Yes, that would be fine.

IS YOUR EMAIL ON THE WEB SITE?

It is janet.heller@sfgov.org