Building Community for Children’s WOC/Indigenous Writers

Art installation at the Loft Literary Center in 2017

Children’s writers of color and Indigenous writers have voices that need to be heard and stories that need to be told. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Loft Literary Center is helping that happen with a series of drop-in classes for Writers of Color and Indigenous Writers. This writing center is truly a special place for writers in the Twin Cities. For me, it’s where my writers’ group meets and also where I’ve had the opportunity to learn from experienced writers through classes and lectures. It’s a place of community where writers of all kinds can learn, grow, and connect.

For the Writers of Color and Indigenous Writers series of classes, each one focuses on a different writing topic and is taught “from the perspective of writers of color and Indigenous writers, meaning that the unique experiences of these writers are accounted for in the materials provided to the class discussions,” says Marion Gómez, Program Associate for these classes at the Loft.

I asked Marion (MG) a few questions about the series of classes (now in its third year), and also talked with Sarah Warren (SW), an instructor of the children’s writers class in the series. Here are their thoughts on finding community and support for children’s writers of color and Indigenous writers.

Marion, how did this series of classes start and how has it changed over the years?

MG: The class came out of a collaboration between David Mura and the Loft. David Mura approached the Loft with the idea of him teaching a class intended for writers or color and Indigenous writers that would address some of the barriers these communities often face—such as cost and participants having unpredictable schedules. The Loft received a Minnesota State Arts Board Arts Learning grant in 2015 to fund a free, multi-genre class with drop-in attendance taught by David Mura. The class began in February of 2016, meeting the first and second Wednesdays of each month until August, 2016.

David Mura taught the first and second years exclusively, but this last year Diego Vázquez Jr., Vanessa Ramos, Michael Kleber-Diggs, Heid E. Erdrich, Kao Kalia Yang, Sarah Park Dahlen, Erin Sharkey, and Sarah Warren joined David in teaching the class, each teaching one session with David teaching the first and last classes. This last August, Sarah Park Dahlen taught a class that examined insider and outsider authorship in children’s books and in October, Sarah Warren taught an introductory class on writing children’s picture book biographies.

Sarah, how did you become involved with teaching for this series of classes?

SW: I started attending classes at the Loft over 17 years ago. I love to write and I’m grateful for opportunities to develop. The Loft is special. We get to learn from other authors. Instructors have a working knowledge of the field. I also appreciate the network of support I’ve cultivated from classes and conferences. I never would have found my footing in this profession without help from several mentors. Community is priceless. I’m proud that I get to contribute what I know as a teaching artist.

What do you think is most valuable about this series of classes at the Loft?

MG: Bringing more writers of color and Indigenous writers into the world is so important in combating racism and oppression. The more writers of color and Indigenous writers we have the more their truths will be heard, the less alone these writers and their communities will feel, and the more galvanized they’ll be to demand justice. I love the sense of community that has formed among the students. Some have even formed outside writing groups after meeting in the class.

SW: For most of us, sharing our stories with children means negotiating the publishing industry. That was a huge learning curve for me. I had worked so hard to build up my ego… to believe my art was something worth investing in. Once I started getting critiqued and rejected, my ego started to get beat down by outside perspectives. Sometimes, that was good! I needed to grow and learn and become a better writer. Sometimes, that was bad. The industry and the outside voices weren’t open to my cultural point-of-view. The problem was, I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t know when I needed to change, and when I needed to push back. Now, I have people I can go to when I need perspective. It took me way too long to find those people. I think classes like these can build a powerful network for POC/Indigenous writers.

I am all for building a space where artists of color and indigenous artists can get feedback, offer support, and share wisdom without feeling exoticized, humiliated, tokenized, abnormal, or lonely. I’ve felt all of those things (usually not at the same time) in class. It’s stressful.

Marion, what kinds of students attend, what do they say about the classes, and how does the Loft get students involved?

MG: The students vary in age, race, experience level, and type of writing they do. Some of the students have also taught a session of the class and/or are published authors while others are very new it writing. What I hear repeatedly from them is that they love being around other writers of color and Indigenous writers. That this intentional space allows them to feel less isolated and free to express themselves more fully. After we received the grant in 2015, we held three preview classes at various locations in Minneapolis and Saint Paul to reach out to perspective students as well as promoted the class at Loft events and on social media. The classes are listed in our quarterlies, which are distributed throughout the Twin Cities. I also have a listserv of past and present participants I send a monthly email to, letting them know about upcoming classes and other opportunities, and I’m always inviting new writers of color and indigenous writers to the class I meet. I’m so grateful to you, Karen, for helping spread the word through the Mixed-Up Files blog!

Sarah, how do you think children’s publishing will benefit from having more writers of color and Indigenous writers? 

SW: I heard Daniel José Older say in an interview, “To me, it’s a huge human rights violation, to deny an entire generation of young people of color…generation after generation of young people of color the right to see ourselves as protagonists in stories. How else are we to conceptualize ourselves as protagonists in our lives if not through the stories we are told?” That’s me he’s talking about. I never saw myself in stories unless I suspended my own personhood and slipped fully into someone else’s skin. We need the chance to grow up seeing many possible versions of ourselves. The community of writers serving kids should be just as diverse as its audience.

What do you suggest for other writing centers hoping to start similar programs?

MG: I recommend they start by listening to the communities they want to serve so that they can design a program that really addresses the needs and desires of these communities.

SW: Not all writers are comfortable calling themselves experts or teachers. Some of us don’t even feel comfortable calling ourselves writers! Find a way to mentor potential teaching artists. Be open to unconventional teaching styles. Accommodate students who aren’t comfortable in formalized educational settings by seeking out safe community spaces. Make sure to pay your artists!

What do you suggest for children’s writers of color and Indigenous writers wanting support and instruction in writing?

MG: Come to the class! We will have at least two classes focused on writing for children/young adults in the next round starting this spring. The Loft also has a new mentorship program for writers of color and Indigenous writers called Mirrors and Windows. Applications for this year have already closed but will be accepted again next summer (2019). The most important thing they can do is find a community that supports them.

SW: If you read things that resonate with you, contact the authors. Let them know their work struck a chord. Ask questions. Attend conferences and readings and classes. Ask questions. Read your work out loud. If you connect with other writers, form a group! Go to my website: sarahwbooks.com. Do you have questions? Email me! I’m happy to share resources. Keep writing. We need your voice!

 

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with the Writers of Color and Indigenous Writers series of classes at the Loft, Marion and Sarah! To learn more about the Loft, visit https://www.loft.org. Are there any classes like these in your city? Tell us about them in the comments!

Marion Gómez is a poet and teaching artist based in Minneapolis. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Jerome Foundation. Her poems have appeared in La Bloga, Mizna, and elsewhere. Her poem “Father Bought Mangos” was selected for the Saint Paul Almanac’s Impressions Project. She is a member of the Latinx spoken word collective Palabristas and works at the Loft.

 

 

 

 

Sarah is an early childhood educator who graduated from the Loft’s Master Track writing apprenticeship program in 2006. Her debut picture book, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers was picked for the Amelia Bloomer Top Ten Book List and awarded a Jane Addams Peace Association Children’s Book Award honor. Her picture book about the singer Beyoncé is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin. Sarah’s family lives in Minneapolis with their dog, Bruce Valentine. Visit sarahwbooks.com.

 

 

 

Karen Latchana Kenney
Karen Latchana Kenney writes books about nature, biodiversity, conservation, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Born in Guyana, she moved to Minnesota at a young age and began writing in third grade. Now she's a full-time children's writer who lives in Minneapolis with her husband and son. Visit her online at http://latchanakenney.wordpress.com.