Contextualizing Empowerment Through Youth Writing Workshops
By: Amy Maurine Edwards
Vivian Lee Croft, founder of Girls Write Pittsburgh, grew up in a small farming town where creativity and self expression weren’t always applauded. “Agriculture was the main focus. Exploring creativity wasn’t really encouraged,” Croft said.
Looking back on her high school years, she remembers a distinct lack of access to other writers, “I felt very different, very alone in that respect. I didn’t have a lot of friends who were interested in writing, so I didn’t have anyone to share that. I also lacked mentors to guide me through the transition of high schooler to college student to professional, and I wanted to be a writer, a journalist, actually. Without anyone to help me, I had to figure it all out myself. I think if I’d had someone in my life to help me navigate my teen years alongside pursuing my dreams of becoming a journalist, and helping me figure out what I needed to do to get there, I would have had a much easier go at life.”
While in college at Duquesne, she focused on creative writing and received degrees in English, communications, and rhetorical studies. With her degrees in hand she hosted a travel TV show for a public television station, and published travel articles. Croft then secured another degree, this time in journalism. She kept writing and even started work on her memoir.
Fast forward to 2016, and Croft created the Girls Write Pittsburgh program. She designed the workshops, which meet weekly in Brookline and Garfield (at Assemble) for, “self-identified girls who already enjoy writing and want to get better at it, want to sit alongside peers who also enjoy it.” Every quarter, they’ll take a field trip or participate in a larger workshop related to a genre, whether it be poetry, comedy, songwriting or another creative endeavor. In addition to providing technical feedback on the girls’ work, Croft brings in facilitators versed in a variety of fields, including mental health professionals, to attend the workshops. Since then, their Brookline meetings have grown and moved from the Teen Outreach Center to now meet at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Brookline. In January, Girls Write Pittsburgh will be adding a new weekly workshop at City of Asylum on the Northside.
“Writing is very therapeutic. Mental health is an important component and I wanted to build it in from the beginning,” Croft said. In researching the program she, “didn’t see any one else doing a program like this as a whole,” and is, “glad to be doing something more progressive focused on allowing true, authentic voices to come out unimpeded and unrelated to what the facilitators are doing.”
In addition to the weekly workshops, Croft and her team of volunteer facilitators make an effort to connect attendees with resources that can help them further develop as young writers. “We partner with local publishers to provide a way for young writers to read in public spaces. We welcome guest facilitators of specific genres to expose the writers to something that is maybe new and engaging. It’s all about growth, however that happens,” Croft said.
The first time I attended a workshop for Girls Write Pittsburgh it was the International Day of the Girl, and it couldn’t have been more fitting. Croft, the lead facilitator of the evening’s workshop and founder of the program, opens the session by asking if any of the girls have new writing to share. Poems are read and technical feedback provided while Amy, co-facilitator and mental health professional, provides feedback of a different nature, asking the girls how the experiences recounted in the poems made them feel and why.
“Last year [on this day] we stood at the blackboard and talked about what it felt like to be a woman—when we are allowed to stand in our own shoes and speak for ourselves. It’s really empowering,” Croft said. She adds that yesterday was Mental Health Awareness Day and one of the girls mentioned that it is also National Coming Out Day. The awareness of these subjects and symbolism of these national movements is not lost on the girls in attendance as they talk amongst themselves about how the events of their week at school so obviously play into these topics.
Reining the focus back in, Croft asks the girls to take to the blackboard that’s painted onto the wall and articulate how they changed since last year. Do they feel differently, or have they developed as writers, as well as individuals, after a year of introspective writing and reflection? Grabbing the chalk, their ideas flow onto the board:
BEING A WOMAN IS:
• having to deal with mansplaining
• revealing concealed truths
• being “emotional”
• holding love for all our sisters
• joining male sports because you CAN
Sitting back and taking in the assertions now present in stark black and white on the chalkboard, attendee and young writer, Nora, remembers, “Being like Beyonce,” was one of the previous year’s responses. She laughed while reflecting on her own development, and her incorporation of concepts like feminism and mansplaining into her daily vocabulary. Croft follows up, “Maybe what we are actually talking about now is growing up.”
The first time that Nora came to a Girls Write Pittsburgh session, back when it was help at the Brookline Teen Outreach Center, she met her instructor, the creator of the program, her reaction was, “OMG—I see Vivian in her boots and dress and was like; ‘that’s my teacher, that’s the person that is going to change my life.’ And she did. She taught me so many things, so did Andrea, Sheena, and Amy.”
Amy Marvel, a school psychologist by profession, began volunteering with Girls Write Pittsburgh four months ago. “Being in touch with girls every day, they need an outlet, support, and a safe space to express themselves in this way. Girls Write Pittsburgh provides a space that is safe, nonjudgmental, and not predicated on grades,” said Marvel.
Marvel assists as an extra level of support for the writers as well as the facilitators. “We aren’t doing structured therapy in these workshops. I think the writers find the writing, in itself, very therapeutic. I do, however, try to help the girls navigate and process some of their more complex feelings. We talk about appropriate emotional expression and coping skills a lot. My hope is that we’re not only building writing skills in these workshops but some socio-emotional skills as well. In my teen years, writing was so beneficial, though I felt so alone in my bedroom just writing and trying to process all of it. I had these feelings and wanted to find people like me, all the while being obsessed with my journal. I think it would have helped knowing there were adults out there who were willing to support me in that way,” Marvel said.
Girls Write Pittsburgh is made possible by the dedicated mental health professionals, like Marvel, volunteer facilitators, and the benefactors who donate the physical spaces to the organization. Through their generosity, Croft added, a space is created where, “Self-identified teen girls can come and be themselves, grow their voices, and utilize that voice of strength to be who they want to be in the world, while also developing tertiary skills like how to build relationships and gain access to resources.
“Over the one year pilot, we’ve reached more than 120 attendance markers and served young writers from a dozen Pittsburgh neighborhoods. It’s been great to see the growth in strength of these writers, the quality and the depth of their work, and the confidence they’ve gained. It’s really something beautiful to watch young writers come into their own. We open the door and they walk through. I try not to impose my personal beliefs and want to guide them as a strong mentor,” Croft said.
To attend a Girls Write Pittsburgh workshop, volunteer, donate, or keep up to date on Girls Write Pittsburgh news, check out their website and follow them on Facebook:
On Thursday, November 29th, join Girls Write Pittsburgh to celebrate their first year at Threadbare Cider and Mead. Facebook event: www.facebook.com/events/1922330994753852/