The profile below is part of the Ms. Blog’s “Telling Her Story” series for Women’s History Month. Check back throughout March for more profiles of women doing great things in their communities.
Imagine, in your little feminist heart, a safe place you could have gone to after school once a week where creative expression of your feelings was not just encouraged, but facilitated. A place where you could discuss the injustices you were seeing in the world—even when you were 10, they were apparent—and make something productive out of them. A place that was nothing like school at all, but where you learned new things about yourself and your craft.
This place exists. It’s called Writopia Lab, and it’s the brainchild of Rebecca Wallace-Segall, a working New York City-based journalist and writer since 1997.
“Our method, our practice, is a safe-space writing method,” Wallace-Segall says of Writopia. “Safe space to me means it’s safe enough to talk about anything.”
Wallace-Segall founded Writopia Lab, a workshop-based program for kids ages 6 to 18, in New York City in 2007. Since then, Writopia has grown thriving branches in L.A., D.C, New Jersey and the New York North Metro Region (where I’ve been thrilled to work as an intern and assistant instructor!). The lab features after-school programs, day camps and a two-week sleepaway summer program.
Writopia is built on a strong sense of community, and fostering that community—along with creating space to express a diversity of views and experiences—is a central goal of the lab.
“We, the adults here, play the same writing games and go through the workshop process together to make ourselves vulnerable, to bond through group story-building and workshopping together,” Wallace-Segall says. “It may be unusual in a work environment, but to be good at what we do, we have to both have a blast with the writing process and make ourselves vulnerable to each other as adults, because we’re asking our kids to come here and put their stories out there.”
Writopia’s reach extends well beyond its classrooms, too. The founding lab, for instance, reaches into the wider New York City community, where it runs theater workshops on holidays at senior centers—during which teens interview residents and tell their stories in new plays—and hosts spoken-word poetry events at the legendary Nuyorican Cafe. The Nuyorican poetry jams (not slams, as slams are competitive) bring together kids from the boroughs and nearby suburbs from drastically different backgrounds—from homeless shelters to townhouses—allowing them to feel the magical energy that comes with being around other vulnerable young writers expressing themselves. Some teens at Writopia, many only high-school freshmen or sophomores themselves, become interns, providing one-on-one assistance to younger kids in workshops.
Writopia’s collaborative management style, something Wallace-Segall developed intentionally, connects directly with these teen interns. It encourages a workplace with clear leadership but also with constant collaboration, where any employee or intern can feel comfortable expressing concerns to any of their coworkers. When working on projects, “We all get together and brainstorm constantly,” Wallace-Segall notes.
Unique gender dynamics are modeled by Writopia’s employees, as well. Wallace-Segall is the executive director of Writopia, an unusual feat in a world where woman-majority leadership is still uncommon in all sectors. The fact that her husband, Jeremy Wallace-Segall, is the second-in-command is even more unusual in business. (This same relationship is modeled in the New York North Metro Region, where Léna Roy is the regional manager and her husband, Rob, is the operations manager.)
Many of the topics tackled at Writopia are informed by Wallace-Segall’s own family—her husband and two daughters, ages 5 and 7. She told me, for example, that her youngest daughter’s surprisingly traditional ideas about gender roles bubbled up one day as Wallace-Segall was leaving for work. The then-4-year-old complained, “Why can’t daddy go to work? He’s the man! He’s the boss!” leaving Wallace-Segall to explain, gently, that he was not.
That conversation came to inform the Writopia workshop style. “As we write and as we share, all sorts of fun but also uncomfortable things come out,” Wallace-Segall explains. “The way different kids feel about gender, some homophobic feelings come up, questions about race and race relations come up, all sorts of really important thoughts and feelings and associations come up. Our workshop communities become the tightest at Writopia when these difficult issues come to the forefront and we talk about them together.”
Even when truly offensive sentiments arise, both instructors and writers grow through the experience. Wallace-Segall recalls, “The workshops where the most offensive things have come to the forefront, those are the most memorable workshops … the most transforming for all participants, and also the most bonding. Kids who wanted to punch each other were, by the end of a two-week summer workshop, going to lunch together.”
Wallace-Segall states, with some humor but also with some hope, that what works for these kids could help the global community. “I believe that if you took five world leaders and put them in a writing workshop together … they will bond, they will see each other’s points of view, and they will get that much closer to understanding each other.”
She’s right, and nothing is more empowering for a young person than to access their own authentic voice. It reminds me of tapping into a tree for maple syrup: Although a tree needs to be at least 40 years old for good sap, a child need only be 6 or 7 before their insides are filled with dreams, hopes, questions and passions. A perfectly placed tap can hit that spot inside, and with a little encouragement, beautiful things pour out. This is something Wallace-Segall has done with scores of young people, and under her leadership, hundreds more beyond that.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lucas licensed under Creative Commons 2.0