Writing is activism. Not like standing on the capitol steps with a picket sign, or handing out leaflets in a parking lot. Writing is being active in society, contributing actively to culture. Writers do not keep their ideas to themselves, and they are doing more than talking, which only reaches the people listening at the time. A piece of writing can exist for thousands of years, and today billions of people can access it digitally.
I teach creative writing at a magnet high school in Montgomery, Alabama, a city whose history is littered with unbecoming situations. Instead of filling our days with cute prompts or snappy exercises, I teach about skillfully expressing their ideas, presenting them in ways that readers can understand, and respecting both their own minds and the needs of the society that will consume their work. I teach them that writing is powerful, and can affect people, and this responsibility is not to be taken lightly. In a city where race is still very much an issue, I work every day to steer my students toward being writers who will help solve, not inflame problematic scenarios.
In 2005, during the year that was the fortieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the fiftieth anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I brought to the students some of the Civil Rights heroes like Rev. Robert Graetz who I had met while working for a small publishing house that specializes in Civil Rights histories. I brought them together, sometimes in small groups listening to a guest speaker and sometimes as personal interviews. The project grew, and we even traveled to meet some participants and on-lookers that I didn’t know. After writing about their experiences, we published “Taking the Time: Young Writers and Old Stories” that August with a grant we had. At the book release event, as they happily autographed copies and answered a reporter’s questions, I could see it in their faces that they understood now – they understood what I had been telling them about how important writing is when it responsibly addresses the reading public.
Some of the kids who wrote for that book have told me since then that the project changed their lives. I had hoped that it would. They hadn’t wanted to be writers before that, but now some do. That made all the hard work worth it. As our public education system is in constant flux, through the implementation of the No Child Left Behind legislation and Title I programs, both very real facets of education in Alabama, I hope those students gained a better understanding of how life was and how important it is to constantly improve our society for the sake of all people.