The Mighty Writers mission is simple, but far-reaching: no-cost programs that teach kids and teens to think and write clearly.
Mighty Writers launched with one location in South Philadelphia in 2009, and since then has gone on to open five more Philly locations which served more than 3,000 kids last year across the city — all at no cost to families. This summer it opened its first location across the river, partnering with the Nick Virgilio Writers House in Camden’s South Waterfront Neighborhood.
Education director Rachel Loeper says they’re not trying to train the next generation of writing professionals — but they are creating professionals who can write.
“We’re just trying to land on the fact that we’re all writers. We use this tool in a variety of ways, and if you can write well, it’s a ticket for success in whatever field you choose,” from the humanities to science to government to anything else — even a teenage retail job where having a resume immediately distinguishes you from other applicants.
With help from a huge cadre of staff and volunteers, Mighty Writers takes a nimble approach to programming, allowing it to evolve and tackle the needs of each year and neighborhood. One exciting newer piece is Mighty Writers El Futuro, located in the Italian Market, with fully bilingual programs for kids who speak English at school and Spanish at home.
Another new program rising out of local students’ needs was this summer’s Voices of Social Media class (led by Mighty Writers North program director Amy Banegas). It was a five-day workshop for teens ages 13 to 18, at the group’s North Philly location.
“Each of our sites [has] a lot of flexibility so that we really can listen to what kids and families are asking for, and what they need, and use writing to answer that in some way,” Loeper says. The need for a class focusing specifically on social media rose out of observing students throughout school year programming.
Mighty Writers volunteers noticed how digitally plugged in the kids were, and “wanted to use the summer as an opportunity to talk through that with young people, about identity and what social media is,” including how to put your best self forward online, as well as protect yourself from people with bad intentions, Loeper says.
And the topic is a natural for the age group: “When you’re talking to middle school and high school students, identity is a theme anyway. They’re figuring out who they are in the world. And social media is one component of that that we can’t ignore.”
The Girl Power program is one that goes all the way back to the start, with a Girl Power Poetry workshop for moms and daughters. “We knew it was something we were going to have to put into action in several iterations,” Loeper says.
Programs during the school year and summer have explored, “what it feels like to be a girl and what stereotypes girls face, what experiences they had in which they were made to feel less than as a girl,” she continues. “Just vocalizing it and then being able to tell it as a part of your story is really empowering.”
This summer’s Girl Power Camp got close attention from Christin Tucker, who taught this summer’s camp at Mighty Writers West on Lancaster Avenue. Tucker brings her own master’s degree in writing, experience as a freelance writer, and more than 20 years in the hospitality industry to bear on her classes. As she puts it, “You can’t step into what you want to write about or say if you don’t feel like your voice matters.” And making sure her girls could find their voice meant improvising a new curriculum every day.
She’s been involved with Mighty Writers for awhile, getting started with a class about food writing (with a husband who’s a chef, the topic is close to her heart). And teaching kids to write about food opened a range of crucial topics, including nutrition, where their food is coming from, and chances for cross-cultural learning with different cuisines.
But what she appreciated most was the self-directed learning and “organic leadership skills” she noticed in the kids. When she considered taking on this year’s Girl Power Camp (after teaching a Girl Power class during the school year), that’s what she wanted to bring to the classroom.
The camp didn’t have a standardized structure or curriculum. But Tucker wanted to develop a more intensive experience for her girls this summer, a group of about 10-15 youngsters ages 8 to 12 who completed a two-week program of morning classes five days a week.
The group she ended up with was more geographically diverse than the school-year group, whose parents are more constrained by school schedules. But with more flexible summer schedules, the summer camp group came from all around the city. That meant the students didn’t know each other when they first sat down together, and for Tucker, building a connection to each other had to come before any meaningful writing practice.
“Of course we did some poetry, but I needed to understand where they were,” she says of the underlying work. And a big part of that is breaking out of stereotyped versions of what young girls — particularly young girls of color — want to talk about.
“This age is kind of a neglected age,” she says of the pre-teen girls who aren’t little children, but who also aren’t in high school yet. Her passion for encouraging their own voices comes from a very personal place.
“At age 8 I was victimized by a child predator,” she shares. “Young girls are very much more vulnerable than their parents want to believe. I was committed to finding any way that I could to give them more of a voice, and allow them to communicate with one another and support one another.”
Tucker notes that especially in a world that has everyone glued to a phone, young women are “individualized” to a huge degree, losing valuable connections to their peers and a collective sense of power that can help them fight back against marginalization or predatory behavior.
“Someone is telling them what matters to them instead of listening to what matters to them,” she adds, and that’s the root of how girls and women get overlooked in general.
“That makes a lot more work for me as a volunteer, because I had to be committed to it as an organic process,” going home to re-do the curriculum day by day.
Like the time Chris Brown came on the radio, “and some of them were swooning.” She asked the girls, “How do we feel about Chris Brown?” The answers ranged from “He’s a woman-beater” to “he’s so hot.”
She found out that some girls were carrying thoughts like, “He didn’t punch me in the face, so what do I care?” A worsening cultural isolation means some girls failed to connect an act of violence against one woman to a systemic problem that affects everyone.
“I found that we have to talk about this in depth,” she says. Ultimately, fostering a genuine safe space for the girls meant a place where they could tell their real stories — and know that even if there isn’t an adult in the room, they can build the kind of community among themselves that helps to keep everyone safer. By the end of the two weeks, they even got to studying some Audre Lorde.
Coming up in September, Mighty Writers has another exciting first: its inaugural MightyFest, a weekend-long city-wide festival for both kids and adults. It kicks off on Friday, September 28 with a Soul Music Dance Party at the Franklin Institute’s Planetarium, with DJ Lil’ Dave. That’s a 21-and-over party, but discount tickets are available to folks under 30.
On Saturday, September 29, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., a “literacy carnival” for kids takes over Aviator Park, next to the Franklin. It will be packed with writing games and activities, from making bookmarks to writing thank-you cards, “Sentence Selfies,” poetry, comics, flash fiction, puppets, and even filmmaking. It’s all free, but parents are encouraged to register kids in advance.
On Saturday night, the Philadelphia Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square hosts keynote speaker Nikole Hannah-Jones, MacArthur fellow and veteran civil rights and education writer for the New York Times magazine. And things wrap up on Sunday, September 30 at Girard College at 10 a.m., with a Gospel Breakfast Tribute to the Dixie Hummingbirds. (Every ticket purchased will also cover the cost of a ticket for a Mighty Writers student.)
Loeper hopes the fest will be an annual event, and another way for the broader community to support Mighty Writers. As Tucker puts it, “The more ways we have to tell our own stories, the more we can understand other people’s stories.”