Jontesha wants to start her own business, Aaliyah plans to attend law school, and Marla hopes to become a Broadway actress.
These goals are written on the teenage girls’ coat of arms in a summer program called “In Our Own Voices.”
Sponsored by Just Communities of Arkansas, a nonprofit that seeks to bring people together to achieve inclusion, equity, and justice, the workshop aims to teach students about themselves and others through creative writing projects.
“From our work with young people, we know that they need to be encouraged to find their own voices, and to be confident that what they think and feel is important,” Ruth Shepherd, executive director of Just Communities of Arkansas.
“Giving these youngsters an opportunity to explore the themes of diversity, identity, neighborhood, parents, and other important adults and institutions in their lives makes it possible for them to become more introspective, more thoughtful about how they present themselves, and how they interact with others.”
The class is based on a curriculum to foster social justice created by Kelly Ford, a graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service.
Ford writes in her curriculum paper: “Young people can benefit from a structure that encourages them to think, share and listen face to face. And if, in the doing of these things, they find their voice, improve their communication skills and self-esteem, or develop an affinity for reading and writing, wouldn’t we call that impact?”
On a recent Wednesday at the newly opened Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center in Little Rock, neighborhood is the topic. Students are asked to close their eyes and imagine their house and its surroundings. When prompted by the moderator, the students share what they see.
“A garden with colorful flowers,” a child says.
Another one says, “A brown house that needs to be cleaned.”
“A big, loud dog,” says one girl.
From there, the students write about their neighborhoods on bright, yellow pieces of paper. They are timed as a way to work quickly. After a few minutes, they are asked to share their work with others at their table.
They then take their thoughts and write a poem that will be placed in their binder. Students are asked to read their poems, and after a reading, everyone snaps their fingers for positive feedback.
Other daily projects include creating a coat of arms about what makes each student unique, writing an ode to something they like and a writing exercise about who raised them. The latter project’s goal is to teach “diversity, self-esteem, acceptance and understanding,” according to the curriculum.
At the end of the two-week class, the students will host a party to “share their voices” with family and friends and read their best piece of writing. They will also have a book with their writing in it to keep.
Just Communities of Arkansas plans to share the curriculum with its affiliate organizations around the country. Ford says she believes the power of the arts—literary, performing and visual—can effect change.
“Writing is a way for students to discover how they really think and feel about some things. It’s an opportunity for them to dream, to mourn, to explore situations (hypothetical or real), and more,” Ford said.
“I think we learn empathy from reading and writing. Hopefully, this curriculum is structured in such a way that the students find much within themselves of which to be proud.”