New York Writers Coalition
Who has the right to tell their story? That question lies at the heart of the mission of the New York Writers Coalition. The answer, they think, is “everyone.”
“We all really believe it’s a basic human need to tell your story, and to be listened to,” says Aaron Zimmerman, NYWC’s founder and executive director.
NYWC runs free workshops for disenfranchised groups ranging from people with a history of incarceration and war veterans to LGBT youth and the disabled. Over 1,000 people each year attend workshops at 45 sites throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, led by writers who volunteer their time.
“We are one of the largest groups doing writing workshops in the country, despite the fact we only have two full time employees,” says Youth Program Director Nancy Weber.
The NYWC began about a decade ago with one workshop at one community organization. In 2001, the Community Foundation gave NYWC its first grant of $500. Perhaps more importantly, Stuart Post, a Brooklyn Community Foundation senior program officer, gave Zimmerman time, honest advice and guidance in the early stages. Ten years and countless phone calls later, the Community Foundation has scaled up its support to $10,000. NYWC has blossomed.
The workshops give participants the time and space to develop a voice. But NYWC also strives to get people heard, publishing anthologies and putting on events like the annual Fort Greene Literary Festival. Zimmerman believes these voices enrich the conversation about the world around us, and Brooklyn in particular.
The borough has become home to famous artists and writers, a vision of lovely brownstones, a brand. “But Brooklyn is also a place of incredible poverty,” Zimmerman says, sitting in NYWC’s downtown Brooklyn office. “It’s important for people to know more about that, and be connected to that, and make it into one Brooklyn, not two or three or four Brooklyns.”
Weber nods. A writer herself, she begins to tell a story.
For several years, NYWC has run a youth workshop at the Coney Island Public Library. Weber remembers a session she led early on. To get her budding writers going that day, she put up a prompt about something that seemed familiar: roller coasters.
Though the ten kids were raised within spitting distance of the legendary Cyclone, only two had ever ridden a coaster. The moment stuck with Weber, a reminder that even in a city where people live hip to hip, we can lead lives different as night and day.
“There are not even grocery stores in Coney Island,” says Weber. “People don’t have the basic things in life.”
Zimmerman does not claim that writing can solve all our social ills. Yet for many whose lives have been a series of locked doors, like the kids in Coney Island, writing can be a key. “They need more support,” Zimmerman says. “They need better schools. But this workshop provides them a sense of possibility.”
The group of young writers in Coney Island has built on that possibility. The kids have set up their own workshop, modeled after that of NYWC. Twice a week they bend quietly over their writing papers, proving that they too have a right to tell their story.