Meet the 2021 Writers of Ypsilanti honorees

Eight Ypsilanti-area writers who exemplify the values of community writing lab YpsiWrites – including Concentrate's own Sarah Rigg – have been named to the lab’s Writers of Ypsilanti cohort for 2021. 
Author’s note: I had begun work on this story weeks before I found out I had also been named a 2021 Writer of Ypsilanti. Our editorial team decided to have me complete the article to celebrate my fellow honorees.

Eight Ypsilanti-area writers who exemplify the values of community writing lab YpsiWrites have been named to the lab’s Writers of Ypsilanti cohort for 2021.

“The core beliefs of YpsiWrites are that everyone’s a writer and writing matters,” says YpsiWrites co-founder Ann Blakeslee. “To demonstrate these beliefs, every year we honor eight to 10 writers from the community. The Writers of Ypsilanti are writers of any age who live or work in, or have significant ties to, the Ypsilanti area. They might be published or unpublished writers across a variety of creative or professional genres.”

The Writers of Ypsilanti program began in 2019 and has honored a handful of community members each year since then, with a new motto for each cohort. This year’s motto is “Write Now.” The writers are A.M. Dean, Frankie Koni, Brent Miller, Ayesha Nadeem, Kierra Owens, Sarah Rigg, Debbie Taylor, and William Teepen.

Published author Rodolpho Alvarado was among the first cohort of Writers of Ypsilanti in 2019. He says he loved the theme that “everybody can write” and getting to know the other honorees.

“It was nice to meet a lot of other authors that were doing their work in the Ypsilanti area,” Alvarado says. “I never realized there were so many."
Yen Azzaro.
Yen Azzaro, a local artist and writer, was named a Writer of Ypsilanti in 2020 and says she was “pleasantly surprised” to be included in that year’s cohort, with the motto “Writing Matters.” Much of the programming went virtual that year due to the pandemic, and Azzaro says she enjoyed listening to young people talk about writing during a Zoom program hosted by YpsiWrites for that year’s Writers of Ypsilanti.

“It was interesting to hear about what students across the county were interested in learning about the work that I did,” she says. “And also, for the creatives in the group, it helped them understand how important writing is for artists to be able to apply for grants, fellowships, and residencies.”

This year’s honorees use writing in their everyday lives in a variety of ways, from a children’s author to a playwright to a teenager who writes grants.

Taylor is the author of two children’s books, “Sweet Music in Harlem” and “Over in Motown.” She lives in Pittsfield Township but calls Ypsilanti’s Brown Chapel A.M.E. her church home, and says she and her husband both love the Ypsilanti Farmers Market and the Michigan Firehouse Museum. Taylor says she’d like to use her nomination as a Writer of Ypsilanti as a platform to advocate for literacy. 
2021 Writers of Ypsilanti honoree Debbie Taylor.
“I want people to read and write, and to enjoy reading and writing,” Taylor says. “Writing can be such a good way to share your story and your feelings during these peculiar times we’re in.”

She’s currently keeping a journal and is revising a sequel to “Sweet Music in Harlem.” She also is thinking about adapting several of her short stories for a reader’s theater format.

Ypsilanti resident Teepen uses his writing skills to write articles for “Fresh Prints,” the newsletter of Ypsilanti’s self-help mental health center, Fresh Start Clubhouse. He has also been helping the clubhouse work on its business plan and other documents that will help the organization establish its nonprofit status.
2021 Writers of Ypsilanti honoree Bill Teepen.
Teepen says he uses writing to process current events or personal life experiences. He has covered topics including trauma and consent for “Fresh Prints.”

“I like to take a problem or issue I’m dealing with and write about it for other people in more generic terms,” he says. “That could be some medical condition or health issue I’m dealing with, and [I turn it into] something they can relate to.”

2021 honoree Koni began writing poetry in fifth grade and turned out a book of poetry for a school contest. They have been writing off and on since then, and had four poems published in “Asylum” magazine, an online publication that bills itself as a “radical mental health magazine.”
2021 Writers of Ypsilanti honoree Frankie Koni.
“I write some semi-autobiographical poetry about mental health and sexuality,” Koni says. “I get a form of catharsis out of poetry that I don’t get out of much else. It’s a really good way to write about your life without having any real [structural] constraints.”

Koni says being named a Writer of Ypsilanti has inspired them to start a daily poetry practice again and launch a Facebook page dedicated to their poetry.

Nadeem was nominated by Ypsilanti District Library librarian Jodi Krahnke for Nadeem’s work with the library’s teen advisory board. Krahnke says the teenager “played a big role in developing a vision for a project to help other teens in the community and in writing a grant to fund the vision.”
2021 Writers of Ypsilanti honoree Ayesha Nadeem.
“The best writing experience of mine this last year has been learning to write grants,” Nadeem says. “I feel powerful, knowing that my words will translate into real change.”

Dean is an Ypsilanti-based playwright and novelist who has had numerous plays and musicals premiere in Ypsilanti, and serves as the literary manager for Neighborhood Theatre Group.

“Right now I am working on a second draft of a novel I finished about a decade ago,” Dean says. “Traditionally, plays have been my favorite to write. Being an actor myself, I like to write for other actors. Theatre is a whole different process that is really a thrill to be a part of.”

Owens, 15, is a poet and an active member of Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Educate Youth. She was nominated by that organization’s founder, Gail Wolkoff. In the nomination form, Wolkoff called Owens “an excellent role model of young Black women on their journey of the power of words.”

Owens has been using a workbook by Michelle Obama called “Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice,” and that process produced a written piece about police brutality. She shared the piece with Ypsilanti Police Chief Tony DeGiusti “to share her firsthand experiences of what it is like to be a young woman of 15 living on the Southside of Ypsilanti,” Wolkoff says.
2021 Writers of Ypsilanti honoree Brent Miller.
Miller, the final 2021 honoree, began volunteering with YpsiWrites in March 2020. He has since done one-on-one tutoring with YpsiWrites and created various guides for the organization, such as book club reading guides, a scavenger hunt project in collaboration with First Fridays, and a guide to finding and corresponding with a pen pal. 

In his professional life, Miller writes instructional materials as an instructional designer at the National Center for School Safety, a program of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. He also writes fiction in his free time and hopes to spend November revising the first draft of a novel he’s written.

He says he loves YpsiWrites’ emphasis on the idea that everyone is a writer.

“If you send text messages or emails or fill out your taxes, you’re a writer,” he says. “I’m glad YpsiWrites is encouraging others to embrace that they, too, are writers.”

All the honorees will participate in a virtual celebration of the Writers of Ypsilanti program Oct. 23. Details will be announced soon on the YpsiWrites website.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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