At-Risk Kids Find the Write Way

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Young people in foster care, juvenile justice systems or low-income neighborhoods rarely have a public voice. That is why writing programs can be so empowering. “You can confront the meaning of your experience by writing about it,” says Keith Hefner, executive director of Youth Communication, a New York nonprofit that has fostered youth writing for 27 years.

That’s one reason that out-of-school-time programs around the country are trying a variety of ways to teach youths to express themselves through writing, often helping them get published.

Professional Standards: Trayvione, left, gets help from L.A. Youth Editor Amanda Riddle as part of a writing program for foster youth.

Photo: L.A. Youth

The programs do not set out to create professional writers, although that sometimes happens. Their purpose is to teach maturity and self-responsibility through self-expression. “Most of the writing kids do in our program has a reflective component,” Hefner says. “It helps kids think about who they are and who they want to become. It helps them establish an identity.”

It can also help them establish their place within a larger community. Maya Nussbaum, executive director of a small writing program for at-risk girls in New York City called Girls Write Now, describes the model as “a custom one-on-one experience, and the group experience of writing together.” Teens are paired with adult writer mentors, and share their work as a group.

“Writing is a communal enterprise,” Nussbaum says. “We try to break down the myth of the isolated writer.”

Thus the Girls Write Now participants each create a polished portfolio of their work, some of which they share with one another at workshops and other events. Many of the girls use the portfolio in their college applications.

For some programs, getting published is a major goal. “The idea of a real audience makes a huge difference to kids,” says Hefner, whose Youth Communication publishes the youth-written newspaper Represent. “It makes the writer accountable, and it motivates kids.”

That’s the case at the Foster Youth Writing Project in Los Angeles and the Urban Youth International Program in Chicago, both of which produce periodicals with youth writing. Many of the youths participate in the entire process, from brainstorming through revising, editing and publishing. That process can be challenging, especially when writing experience is not a prerequisite to join the program.

“We’ve worked with kids with very low skills to those with high-end skills,” says Amanda Riddle, an L.A. Youth editor.

Hefner says it is sometimes difficult for adults to reconcile high writing standards with working with kids who have virtually no experience. “Many have had poor education, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid,” he says. Some programs provide writing workshops to youth in immigrant populations, which can be an even bigger obstacle.

“Often the biggest challenge is the poverty of the population,” notes Ethan Michaeli, publisher of Residents’ Journal, which began as a newspaper for the residents of Chicago’s public housing projects. He says most of the 300,000 families the newspaper serves live on annual incomes of $10,000 or less. That means the kids have no money for transportation or supplies, such as notebooks. Plus, many of them are working to help support their families.

That’s one reason that Residents’ Journal pays its youth writers, Michaeli says; it motivates them and helps compensate for their time.

Yet many writing programs for at-risk kids work on shoestring budgets that don’t allow them to pay well, if at all, or to help youths with costs. Riddle says some youths who complete their assignments with the Foster Youth Writing Project often do so because editors meet with them at their group homes or because another caring adult intervenes. For example, Riddle says that one youth writer’s social worker takes him to the L.A. Youth office each week.

Michaeli says it’s also difficult to reach kids living in low-income neighborhoods. To get to the Residents’ Journal offices, they often must contend with violent streets and drug pushers along the way.

As for the programs themselves, the major challenge is funding, because they usually can’t produce data that show longitudinal results. “Most funders want evidence of success, and that’s hard to demonstrate,” Hefner says. “Writing programs are labor-intensive, time-consuming and expensive.”

On the other hand, they produce something tangible – work completed by youths that is often published.

Michaeli says the Urban Youth International Program got started with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, while Nussbaum says Girls Write Now survives largely because of its volunteer mentors. It’s not unusual to find writing programs that are run by only one full-time employee, or by a volunteer founder and a paid part-timer.

Hefner says the formula for program success is simple, although not easy: “Begin with the kids’ ideas, not the actual writing. Then work on structure. Have them address why what they want to write about is important.”

The following are four writing programs that take different approaches to youth development through the written word.