When Kevin Vaughn Jr., a 15-year-old from North Philadelphia, wrote a letter to victims of police brutality, he did so from a perspective that many in his community say they share. Namely, that being young and black in America is a raw deal.
“I am sorry you were treated as something less than human,” he wrote. “No matter who or what you are, you should be respected as a human, a citizen, and an American. … Use your experience to make a difference.”
The letter wasn’t intended to be read by anyone other than him and his classmates, a group of about a dozen teens from some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. Vaughn Jr. wrote it for a writing workshop that encourages young people like him to record their thoughts and feelings in a journal — punctuation, spelling and grammar be damned. The point wasn’t to get a good grade; it was simply recording his experience that mattered.
Vaughn Jr. is taking part in Mighty Writers, a program that teaches writing skills to students between the ages of 7 and 17. The nonprofit works with about 2,500 kids annually, exposing them to everything from playwriting to comic book creation through after-school classes, night and weekend workshops, and summer sessions. Boosting literacy skills is crucial in a city like Philadelphia, where nearly half of the population lacks even the basic reading skills to hold down a job. The idea behind Mighty Writers is that kids who master writing also make better decisions, have higher self-esteem and achieve greater success as they enter adulthood.
The first step is getting them to think creatively, says Amy Banegas, program administrator for the North Philadelphia chapter of Mighty Writers. This summer, Banegas, a 14-year teaching veteran of North Philadelphia schools, is holding weeklong summer sessions at the Mighty Writers location just north of the city’s burgeoning Center City neighborhood. It’s the fourth writing center the nonprofit has opened since its founding in 2009.
Despite downtown Philadelphia’s booming economy, the local school system is flailing. The cash-strapped district, which educates about 130,000 students, has had a hard time retaining permanent teachers, resulting in dramatically low test scores across the city. To save money, the education department will reportedly begin closing three schools a year starting in 2019.
All of this is bad news in a city where nearly a quarter of the population can’t read or write beyond an eighth-grade level, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003, the most recent year information is available.
“Literacy is horrible in North Philly, from kids to adults. And as parents, you can’t help your child read or write if you can’t do it yourself,” says Banegas, who sees many sophomores enter her program at a fourth-grade reading level. “It’s sad that it’s not shocking.”
Mighty Writers’ network of 400 volunteers, made up largely of filmmakers, musicians and journalists, attempts to combat that by providing structure through consistent writing exercises based on the issues that affect the kids who attend. In one recent session, for example, students learned how to channel their voices to become advocates for justice and equality.
Mighty Writers measures the impact of their program by assessing participants’ writing development using a tech platform. Additionally, the organization tracks students’ self-reporting on writing motivation and writing stamina over time. Education director Rachel Loeper says that she’s seen improvement among the students who attend.
There have been other city-based organizations that are similar to Mighty Writers. One is Writers Matter at La Salle University, which focuses on middle schools students. Professor Robert Vogel created the program in 2005 and says writing classes like it are imperative in urban areas with large populations of low-income and special-needs students.
“The writing programs in most large cities are pretty minimal and don’t really address the adolescent issues these students experience. Schools there just aren’t as well-funded as they are in suburban and rural areas,” Vogel says. “It’s a whole different social-economic dynamic in inner cities. As a result, the resources aren’t that good, and the challenges are much greater.”
At the Mighty Writers summer workshop that NationSwell attended, the topic at hand was the state of “being unapologetically black.” Students discussed police violence against African-Americans — specifically the deaths that have dominated headlines over the past five years — and then wrote in their journals. That these kids would have strong feelings about cops isn’t a surprise. In 2015, a federal study found that 81 percent of police shootings in the city targeted black residents in North Philadelphia. Just last month, a policeman in North Philadelphia’s 15th precinct shot and killed an armed black man after he was stopped for recklessly riding a dirt bike.
“It’s not just a workshop,” says Banegas. “It’s about self-growth and connecting to community.”
Those are qualities that Vogel, who conducted a three-year study on the effectiveness of his Writers Matter program, says are necessary for future success.
“There’s an emotional and social impact, and a building of confidence among the children that is hard to measure, but we’ve been able to see [those positive results] through interviews with [participants],” he says. “These kinds of programs have an impact that goes beyond the academic.”
Vaughn Jr., the 15-year-old who penned a letter to victims of excessive police force, says he’s learned to appreciate the practice of keeping a journal since enrolling in Mighty Writers.
“I find value in it because it’s a great way to let you know what you’re thinking and feeling,” he says. “It’s just keeping note as to where you are as a person.”
Homepage photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari