In October 2019 the Writing Our Lives program marked its 10 year anniversary in the Syracuse community. From its early days in the community rooms of libraries with handfuls of students, to recent years’ programming including conferences with hundreds of participants and after school programs from around Central New York, the Writing Our Lives program has had an impact on a generation of young writers. In this year of COVID, Writing Our Lives will have to be a virtual experience, but emerging writers will still be connected to the very best writers, poets, and performers dedicated to nurturing young voices.
This week, students have been receiving daily writing prompts from mentor writers through video on social media, including Abdi Nazemian (Like a Love Story) and Jenny Torres Sanchez (We Are Not From Here). The virtual conference will culminate on Saturday morning with a live, interactive writing and performance session, hosted by local poets, authors, and artists. To support their writing practice, Writing Our Lives has provided “writing survival kits,” for the week including notebooks, pens, and snacks that students could pick up at the South Side Communications Center. The kits and conference are supported by Believe in Syracuse, and the Department of Reading and Language Arts at the Syracuse University School of Education.
The Writing Our Lives program began shortly after Marcelle Haddix, department chair and Dean’s Professor of Reading and Language Arts, relocated to Syracuse with her family. In early 2009, she participated in a community forum on the state of education in the city of Syracuse, and heard the concerns of parent and community groups about the schooling experiences of Black children.
“My involvement was first as a parent who had a challenging experience with the school district, but also as a literacy scholar and English educator from Syracuse University,” she says. “I listened to the stories from other parents and community members who expressed frustration with the ways they felt the education system was failing their children.”
Haddix recalls that few parents were aware of the local school data that reported a graduation rate hovering around 50 percent for all students but 25 percent for African American male students. As a concerned parent, scholar, and community member, she followed up with school leaders and community members to understand the local history of education for African American youth, and wanted to identify solutions to create more positive educational experiences.
Haddix began holding free writing workshops at local community organizations and public libraries. The student interest was high, especially among African American males, with twelve to fifteen students attending each workshop. Building on the interest of the students and parents, she collaborated with local community youth centers and university sponsors to host a youth writing conference in fall 2009 that was attended by more than 100 students.
Since that first conference, Writing Our Lives has continued to host an annual youth writing conference, and has worked with community, school, and university partners to offer Saturday mini seminars on writing, after-school writing programs, and summer writing institutes for youth writers in middle and high school.
“I wanted to create spaces where youth writers define, understand, challenge, and use writing in and out of school and where they are critical ethnographers of their own writing lives, Haddix says. “I wanted to offer writing events for youth writers to be leaders of writing instruction for themselves, teachers, peers, and members of the community.”
In this year of COVID, where the lives of young people have been disrupted in immeasurable ways, violence and trauma are increasingly normalized. Haddix says they see and experience violence on multiple levels—physical, verbal, emotional, intellectual, through media, through bullying. “They are aware of violence against immigrant youth, against Black and Brown youth, and against transgender youth,” she says. Writing Our Lives can serve as a space for healing and for resisting and working against violence. “Through Writing Our Lives, we aim to offer opportunities for students to write about their experiences, to tell their stories, and to participate in the global conversation,” Haddix says.