The Art of Giving Back

A few years ago, I stumbled upon an article about a writing workshop for ex-offenders in Baltimore’s City Paper that caught my interest. There was something folksy and raw about this grassroots workshop that brought together experienced writers and those looking to find their voice as they re-entered society. Many of the program’s participants had stories to tell about their lives beyond life behind bars and barbed wire. The name of the workshop — Writing Outside the Fence — seemed fitting. After reading the article, a sense of urgency swept over me. I had to be a part of this effort.

My mother instilled the “giving back” mentality in my younger sister and me while we were growing up. As children, we volunteered at church sorting and folding clothes for the needy, or helping out with the church’s soup kitchen. Instead of teaching us to pity the images of the destitute and the homeless on the TV screen, my mom took us out to see what homelessness looked like on the streets of Baltimore. We met orphaned children at a local shelter. We took sandwiches and coffee to men and women living on the city streets, under bridges and in alleyways. I learned a very sobering lesson about life at a very young age.

Reading the article about this writing workshop brought back memories of my experience as a literacy tutor at church. It was humbling for me, then in high school, to sit with men and women old enough to be my grandparents and help them learn to recoqnize letters, numbers and simple words. When they were able to read that first sentence aloud on their own, and write sentences for the first time, their sense of pride brought tears to my eyes. I had taken the letters and the words they were struggling to learn for granted.

And so, on a muggy afternoon in June of 2007, I headed downtown to Enoch Pratt Library‘s Central Branch for a reading by the participants in the Writing Outside the Fence workshop. I had to meet these people. Both the instructors and the participants were rock stars in my mind. I wanted to be a part of this effort to help those struggling to find and hone their voice.

Their writing blew me away. One after the other, they stood up to read powerful, beautifully-written pieces about life, love, loss, hope, darkness, regret, redemption and God. The creative energy in the room gave me a buzz. I wanted to sit in on the next workshop (which is open to the public, by the way). After the reading I introduced myself to the workshop organizer and told her as much. “That’s wonderful, she replied. “But we’re looking for instructors. Would you be interested?” I didn’t feel like I could contribute anything by teaching a workshop. But she asked me to give it a try.

I’m glad I did.

I’ve been involved in the Writing Outside the Fence workshops for four years now. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. In addition to the weekly writing workshops (held on Tuesday at the Re-Entry Center at Mondawmin Mall), we’ve held several workshops and reading events at the Brock Bridge correctional facility in Jessup. I can look beyond the records and rap sheets and see the stories, the potential and the untapped talent that reside in the hearts of these men and women. Everyone has a story to tell, and no matter who you are, what you’ve done or where you’ve come from, everyone deserves to be heard.

Since becoming a part of the WOTF family, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for writing and for the power of words on the page. I’ve probably learned much more than I’ve taught in the past four years. There is a beauty in helping others breathe life into their thoughts and ideas in order unleash their stories waiting to be told.

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