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For Washington Writers, a Creative Calling

In the backroom of a popular restaurant in Washington, D.C., a group of teenagers are getting ready to take the stage for their first public appearance as published writers. The room is abuzz — families congregate, babies laugh, each teenager enclosed in his or her own entourage, glancing nervously at the empty stage.

Meanwhile, their teacher, Frazier O’Leary, sits stoically in a corner. He has not read a single word of ‘The Way We See It: Complete Coverage of the Nation’s Capital From the Inside Out,’ the beautiful, glossy, self-published book his students have created. He’s been in charge of several special projects this year — his students performed at the Folger Theater, had classroom visits from writers like Cynthia Ozick, Amiri Baraka, and war blogger Colby Buzzell, and were some of the first students in the country to read “A Mercy” by Toni Morrison. But in this case, O’Leary handed control over to the volunteers from the Capitol Letters Writing Center, who came into his classroom to encourage his students with writing exercises and walk them through the revision process, offering feedback and support through to their final drafts.

The students who get up to read, juniors and seniors from nearby Cardozo High School, switch back and forth between essay, ode, even experimental cut-up poem, with one constant theme: life in Washington. Alongside personal views of the city are some familiar Washington themes: the presidential inauguration, an inspirational visit to the White House, a visit to the Supreme Court gone awry. The collection as a whole is, as the CLWC has described it, “a unique take on one of the most famous but most misunderstood cities in the world. The first student publication organized by Capitol Letters, “The Way We See It” includes a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Cardozo High graduate Edward P. Jones, and an introduction from another famous local author, crime novelist George Pelecanos.

Many of the more than 180 young volunteers who work for the CLWC are professional writers themselves: journalists, editors, and poets from D.C.‘s creative community. “You have a sort of unsung community of writers and editors and young educators here, who are interested in writing and what it can do, but until recently, had little outlet to give back,” said Mike Scalise, a leader for the book project. “Whenever you’re a writer, you feel like you have a useless task, like, who does this serve other than me?”

“Now I know 31 new writers — published authors — and they’re about to go to college, and their resumes say, Author, ‘The Way We See It,’” says Scalise. “That for me is the biggest victory of the whole project.”

Veteran educator O’Leary (a teacher in the neighborhood since 1977) echoes that thought: “I don’t think they will even understand the impact until they’re much older of what it means to be a published author.”

Capitol Letters is one of many organizations across the nation that is committed to helping youth find their voices through writing. “Within every student lives a writer,” says their mission statement. The Washington group is loosely modelled after 826 Valencia, the writing and tutoring space founded in 2002 by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari in San Francisco.

Capitol Letters is not affiliated with 826 National, but is a ‘friend’ of the program, and hopes to effect similar change in D.C., according to Holly Jones, CEO and president of the board for the group. The relationship is also literary; Jones has written for McSweeney’s, the lit quarterly and Web site also founded by Eggers. (Her contributions include Dispatches From the Anacostia, which eloquently followed formerly incarcerated teens as they worked to help clean up the Anacostia river, one of the most polluted in the nation, as a way to stay off the streets.)

The tutors found that working with students helps them when they turn back to their own writing. “If I do what I tell them to do,” volunteer Eleanor Graves admitted of her own poetry, “I’d be a much better practioner.”

Capitol Letters hopes to anchor itself with a permanent space in the neighborhood of Columbia Heights, a gentrifying neighborhood that is among the most diverse in the city. Explaining why she liked working at Cardozo, Graves said, “This is my neighborhood … I wanted to see [these kids] and know them.” Working with them also gave her greater perspective on the teens she encountered in her neighborhood: “They looked different on the street. They looked savvy, and all I could think was ‘I just read a poem about your sister.’”

As Capitol Letters sends tutors out to the area’s schools, the vision for its future continues to grow. Beyond one-on-one tutoring, Holly Jones hopes Capitol Letters can be a “powerful resource for educators and DC [public schools] and help them effect the systemic changes needed to improve educational conditions on a larger scale.” She is optimistic about a time when Capitol Letters will have “writing rooms within schools or satellite centers in every quadrant so that no student is ever far from the help they all need and want.”

But that dream requires funding, and Capitol Letters has taken an appropriately creative approach to that challenge in today’s tough climate. It’s currently in the midst of a mustache-a-thon, where $10,000 was raised in one month alone from pledges. That fundraising effort is being duly recorded by Sean Carman in his ‘Dispatches From An Enviromental Lawyer Who Is Trying To Grow A Mustache,’ on the McSweeney’s Web site. In the first dispatch, he fantasizes about volunteering with Capitol Letters: “In the dream, I’m a natural. The children look up at me in wonder. I am helping them learn. It’s a beautiful thing. On the street after class, I sling my backpack over my shoulder and toss a quarter to a stranger. The young man grabs the flashing coin from the air and pushes it into a pay phone. A passing woman smiles at us. It’s spring.”

Actually, it’s summer, school’s out, and Frazier O’Leary’s seniors are bound for college in the fall. But Capitol Letters isn’t taking a vacation. They’re gearing up for summer workshops at local bookstores, brainstorming new projects for the fall, and training a whole new batch of volunteers for next year.

For more NewsHour coverage on service among young people, check out Judy Woodruff’s Gen Next series.