The Gift of Voice: Mighty Writers North Changing Lives One Workshop at a Time
Do you remember how in your grade school years you were given the opportunity to process the experiences of your young life in such a way that it contributed to the unfolding of your individual talents, leading you towards the person your inner self was willing you to become? No? Me neither. Among other reasons, this is because we grew up without the services of Philadelphia’s own Mighty Writers.
Founded in 2009 by Tim Whitaker, Mighty Writers provides free educational supplements for local youths. One example includes an after-school program for neighborhood middle schoolers consisting of homework help from their tutors, followed by structured creative writing workshops. The organization’s first main location was at 1501 Christian Street. Since then, Mighty Writers has expanded to include locations in the Italian Market and West Philly.
Most recently added is the North Philly branch at 2123 N Gratz Street. It shares space with The Church of The Advocate, a church active in community programs and social justice. This is not coincidental. The Advocate Center, which is that church’s outreach program, partnered with this branch of Mighty Writers so that they could provide education for local youth. At the helm of this branch is Shamira O’Neal.
“Before this, I was a traditional classroom teacher. I taught high school math and middle school math”, O’Neal told Spirit News. “I did some other writing things. I led a writing club and newsletter writing at the other schools that I taught at, and writing’s always been a passion of mine. That’s what I wanted; I wanted to do something that was a little bit different, more in line with my passion and my goals. I saw this opportunity and jumped on it.”
No longer bound by Common Core and standardized testing, she and the students alike are free to explore both reality — through memoir-style narrative writing discussion — and imagination — through fiction and fantasy. “[Students are encouraged to] talk about things that happen to them every day, or things they see on the news, or things they don’t see on the news but see in their communities,” O’Neal explained. “Bullying is a big thing; they always wanna talk about bullying, and often they write about bullying, and they write about violence in the community. It’s very, very telling of our lives, I suppose.”
Beyond this “after-school academy”, as they call it, Mighty Writers offers workshops which are held either at their locations, after the middle schoolers go home, or brought in by request to various Philadelphia schools. One of their most popular workshops is the cursive writing workshop.
For the sake of helping young women grow up with dignity and self-esteem, O’Neal has gone above and beyond the call of duty in the workshop department. “My background is a bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies… I wanted to do something special for girls, and most of the sites have workshops for girls and guys. We’re working on the boy’s workshop this spring, but [the] girl’s workshop has really taken off.”
As for the little fellas, Mighty Writers had a boy’s workshop over the summer in which discussions were held regarding being a young man in Philadelphia and how they should treat girls as they grow up.
Those three examples of workshops leave the surface unscathed. Mighty Writers also offers resume writing, cover letter writing and college essay workshops to high school students, among dozens of other options.
Individualized attention is given further in the form of mentorship programs where one-on-one student-mentor pairings are formed for the mentor to help the student with both their school work and whatever specific project they may be interested in. O’Neal explained, “They might wanna make a comic book, or they might wanna write a short story. They can go on trips around the city for inspiration. Each site has a specific number of mentorships that they have. A lot of our mentors hang out with us during workshop time, so we’ll have an adult and their mentee come to Girl’s Workshop or an adult and their mentee come to Cursive Writing Workshop. We’re pushing that a lot because we see a lot of worth in mentorships.”
In spite of the challenges they face working in low-income neighborhoods, O’Neal pointed out the positives. “Poverty’s always a big thing… [it] brings a lot of challenges like attendance issues, consistency issues, behavioral issues, and so on,” O’Neal said. “So when we do a writing project, we do a brainstorm, we do a pre-write, a first draft, a second draft, a third draft, a final draft – and being able to see that first draft become that final draft and how different they are is always rewarding for me and for them.”
In their work with these students and the communication they keep open with the parents and teachers of specific kids, Mighty Writers has integrated themselves into each of the communities they serve. Though its doors are briefly closed for this holiday season, programming will continue on January 3rd. They are always looking for and are appreciative of volunteers, interns, students and book donations. •