Catching Up With Durham Mighty Pen

Durham Mighty Pen is dedicated to affirming and amplifying the voices of Durham, NC’s K-12 youth through creative writing-based workshops, tutoring, and publishing. They believe critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills — cultivated seamlessly and with unparalleled effectiveness in creative writing contexts — are necessary in dismantling systems of exclusion and building confidence, opportunity, and community.

What made you want to start a youth writing program in Durham?

KG: My own experience with writing as home — a place that fosters agency and resilience — has opened doors for me that otherwise would’ve been closed. One of those doors was at a prestigious university, which led to a job doing what I love. Working at a writing center, I see students every day with SAT writing skills culled at the expense of critical thinking and creative expression.

The decaying writing pedagogy that creates disadvantages for low-income students — contextualized within Durham’s rapidly accelerating gentrification — compelled me to volunteer with the Emily K. Center’s Scholars-to-College program in 2013. I began learning about other organizations and people innovating for educational equality in Durham — Dasan Ahanu, SEEDS, Girls Rock NC, Book Harvest, Student U, and the Durham Public School’s Hub Farm. Even with the amazing work of local slam poetry organizations, Bull City Slam and Sacrificial Poets, there was still demand for a program that explicitly brings writing, creative practice, and publishing together.

What exciting new projects has Durham Mighty Pen taken on this year?

KG: In 2015, our inaugural year, Durham Mighty Pen took on a number of exciting projects. One of our proudest accomplishments, though, is a partnership with Club Blvd Elementary Magnet School. They asked us to take part in their new in-school extracurricular program, Clubs@Club. The program not only enriches students’ learning, but also provides school faculty with time to develop innovative lesson plans.

A persuasive letter by Durham Mighty Pen Student, Sophia D.

Our writing-based curricula for Clubs@Club look like extended writing workshops, with diverse topics and publishable artifacts. Some clubs we’ve offered are: “Monsters are People, Too,” “Writing through Hip-Hop,” “Postcards from the Pony Express,” and an SNL-inspired comedy improv workshop led by Kelly Jones, a Durham newcomer and founding member of Big Class — an 826-inspired organization in New Orleans. We plan to publish a volume of student work at the end of Spring.

Do you have any stories about how Durham Mighty Pen has impacted your community?

KG: Our biggest impact in 2015 really made the second verb in our mission shine: to amplify student voices. In celebration of National Poetry Month, Durham Mighty Pen partnered with Locopops for Popsicle Poetry, which was inspired by Big Class’ Pizza Poetry project.

A Popsicle Poem from Durham Mighty Pen’s partnership with Locopops for National Poetry Month

Our participants were K-5 students living in Durham who submitted original poems fewer than 30 words. Nine poems were chosen with the help of local writers Shirlette Ammons, Chris Vitiello, Eric Martin, and Meaghan Mulholland. 500 copies of a new poem, printed on collectible cards with the generous support of Summer Bicknell (owner of Locopops), were released every Friday in June and July. We ran out of cards every week (which means our poets’ work was read 4,000 times!), and fielded many requests from readers wanting reprints. The program concluded with a fun “Meet the Poets” event complete with readings, snap-applause, and free popsicles.

What was the most helpful bit of information you got from the 101 Seminar?

KG: The most helpful bit of information I got from the 101 seminar was that it’s okay to do things differently. When I came to the seminar, I had a lot of doubts about Durham Mighty Pen not having grown directly, organically out of a classroom. The seminar gave me more confidence to embrace our top-down organizational inception (which has a lot of benefits!) and that helped me move forward more resolutely. Seeing that our growth has been organic in its own way has been very rewarding.

I also appreciated the valuable insights offered by Opening Act’s Executive Director, Suzy Myers-Jackson, during her interview at the end of the 101 Seminar. She prioritizes working directly with students each week because that interaction grounds her in what she is passionate about and gives her the energy to be an ED.

Do you have any advice for someone starting up a similar organization?

KG: The information about protecting against burn-out has really resonated over the past year and inspired me to seek out conversations with local EDs. The message I’ve taken to heart more than any other is “Go Slow.” Although it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement (especially when folks hear we are inspired by 826!), we prioritize effectiveness in terms of our mission. We also believe that going slow in an atmosphere of gentrification is a radical and necessary act, especially when it comes to establishing ourselves as an anti-racist organization.

Going slow also means keeping an eye on impact. One of the tools we’ve found most helpful is the matrix map. Designed to assess profitability and impact in an organization’s big picture, we modified it to inform and plan partnerships and growth over the next five years.

826 National’s 101 Seminar is a two-day workshop that provides resources and tools to those interested in starting their own community nonprofits. Participants meet with 826 staff to learn how we do what we do, including key aspects such as fundraising, building a robust volunteer corps, board development, and our project-based learning model.

Our next 101 Seminar will be held in Boston on April 15 & 16, and again in Los Angeles on October 14 & 15. You can go here for registration information and more details about the event.

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