Vine Neighborhood

Read and Write Kalamazoo (RAWK) rocks youth voices in Kalamazoo’s Vine under new leadership

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.

Step into Read and Write Kalamazoo’s storefront on 802 W. Vine on a typical summer day and you will hear a low hum of voices and the shuffling of paper and feel a perceptible word-oriented energy. Everywhere words. Explore. Creativity. Love. Play. Big. Work Together.

In the storefront, colorful books line the shelves, and reading and writing swag and paraphernalia abound.

But you have to step through the store and into the inner sanctum to see what’s really happening. There youth from 2nd through 8th grade sit on colorful chairs around tables with volunteers and a roaming teaching artist. 

In seven short years, Read and Write Kalamazoo (RAWK) has metamorphosed from a pebble-sized idea discussed by its two founders over coffee at Fourth Coast Café to a cornerstone of the Vine neighborhood. 

Now under the year-old directorship of Nicki Poer, former Director of Education and Outreach at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, RAWK is entering what founders Emily Kastner and Anne Hensley refer to as the “post-high school years” of an “infant organization" dedicated to amplifying youth voices.

They’re both proud of their baby, who has returned to the home where RAWK was originally conceived and is thriving with the help of a highly supportive community, two full and two part-time staff and ample volunteers. And all this happens mostly without the founders’ help, at least on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s a tough task, the responsibility of ushering someone’s (brain)child into the next phase,” says Hensley, who stepped down as co-director of RAWK shortly before its move from Reality Factory, 213 E. Frank St.,  to Vine in 2017. “Nicki’s courage, willingness, and commitment are inspiring. She works really, really hard and she came with so many skills from the Civic, and so much community and knowledge of Kalamazoo. She was the right person at the right time.”

Kastner, who previously taught in San Francisco, was inspired by a youth-oriented writing organization there called 826 Valencia, and returned to Kalamazoo with the hopes of starting something similar here. 

In 2012, thanks to a $500 grant through Local Initiatives Support Corporation from the Vine Neighborhood Association, whose offices served as the initial location, RAWK launched its first camps with around a dozen students.

“What we wanted always felt big and lofty and huge,” says Kastner. “We knew we had to take baby steps, but it was great to have a national model to lean on and look at and shape it to what Kalamazoo needs.”

RAWK's Summer Drop-in Writing program runs from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.Inspired by 826 Valencia, Kastner and Hensley eventually wanted a place that had a “quirky storefront that led into a larger writing room,” says Kastner. “We wanted a clubhouse sort of vibe. We wanted our students to feel like, ‘Oooh, we’re in the back’ where there’s a fun, creative energy.’”

They also wanted a location that was accessible, on a bus route, and near schools (El Sol Elementary is down the block and Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center across the street). And they hoped for a place near Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College, prime intern, and volunteer hubs, too.

The Vine Street at South Westnedge Avenue location, which is perhaps the most visible storefront in the entire neighborhood, was obtained through a chain of events that reflects the collaborative nature of RAWK. 

Kastner and Hensley presented to the VNA board their mission and plan, and the board approved their request. RAWK was awarded $25,000 through a State Farm grant the community had to vote for in order for it to be awarded, and with the help of the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, they renovated the site.

“They’ve really expanded people’s ideas of what the neighborhood is and what kind of role a neighborhood association can play,” says Steve Walsh, VNA Executive Director.
Hensley says, “It’s a beautiful thing for RAWK that the VNA board believed we can improve this space and also be a cornerstone for the neighborhood saying the neighborhood values youth voices, the creative process, and this type of community.”

Working with writing and youth are naturals for Poer

For Poer, expressing herself in writing as a child was a way she found her own voice.
“As a child, I stuttered,” she says, “so speaking wasn’t very easy. I wasn’t given the opportunity to talk much and people actually encouraged me not to. So instead I wrote my own stories.”

In third grade, Poer wrote an essay about an invention that her whole class was assigned to write, and she was selected by the teacher to read hers out loud for the class. “I was horrified,” she says, “but I remember the way they helped me to feel comfortable despite the fact that I stuttered and that I felt nervous.”

When Poer learned about RAWK, she says she wished that it had existed when she was younger. “What I was looking for was what we do here,” she says. “We want an invested community built around youth to find their voice, share it, and have the chance to amplify and sell it.”

At a recent field trip to the RAWK literacy center in which a group wrote a book together, a student yelled, “I’m a real  writer!” It’s that kind of enthusiasm RAWK hopes to inspire in the youth it serves, says Poer.

“We listen to students and help them tell their story. They need to know their story is valuable, that it’s their story, and they can tell it the way they want to tell it.

“What is happening at RAWK isn’t that different from what I was doing at the Civic in terms of administration,” says Poer. “It’s still a place where we want youth to be able to be themselves, gain confidence, and find their voice.”

Growing outside its walls: RAWK rolls onward

RAWK’s programs are wide-ranging and involve a lot of community partners, but the staples are their summer prose and poetry programs and drop-in writing days on Tuesdays and Thursdays where lunch is also served through the Kalamazoo Public School’s Meet Up and Eat Up program.

“Some people call and ask about tutoring,” says Poer, “but that’s not really what we do.”

At Read and Write Kalamazoo's Vine neighborhood location a corner storefront welcomes youth.RAWK does have an after-school program that serves students of El Sol Elementary, the Spanish immersion magnet school down the block and at Lincoln International Studies School, but instead of tutoring most of their programs are meant to foster a joy and love for reading and writing. This, in turn, inspires a passion for reading and writing, the outgrowth of which is often increased academic success. 

“Youth are surprised at first because there are no boundaries,” says Poer. “We have expectations that are set, but they can go to the bathroom when they want or get water or a snack if they need to.‘’’

In the summer of 2013, RAWK served 16 youth, and last summer, RAWK served 540, which Poer calculates as a 2,085 percent growth. “When the programs went free, enrollment skyrocketed,” says Poer.

RAWK also uses 134 volunteers, up from 108 the previous year. “The support is amazing and we’re grateful and we can use more,” says Poer.

“From my perspective, it’s thrilling that RAWK is still there, that it’s growing,” says Hensley.

Now that RAWK has its dream location, Poer says, it is poised to grow outside its walls. Currently, RAWK has a RAWK Readers’ Room at Lincoln that serves first, third, fourth and fifth graders three days a week. 

Established two years ago, the Lincoln program, designed and run by Jason Conde, RAWK’s Director of Education, uses a trauma-informed lens that includes cultural agility, implicit bias training, and poverty sensitivity. 

“We wanted to provide a space where students could be free to be as creative as possible without worrying about any kind of punitive measures with the understanding that they have a lot of the effects of the trauma of poverty,” says Conde. “That first year we understood we needed to train our volunteers to be student-centered, non-punitive, but with a focus on joy and creativity and equity and access.”

After two years, Conde says that by working with volunteers, students and teachers, they have been able to develop a culture of “enthusiastic literacy” by focusing on social and emotional development. 

“I love teaching kids and working with kids in creative writing and literacy, but a lot of the youth I really like to work with are youth who don’t feel like literacy is for them. They are the ones who need the most support to understand that writing can be meaningful to who they are and what they want to do,” says Conde. “It’s much more than reading and writing. A learning brain is a brain that feels comfortable. And RAWK does create those spaces for a lot of students who otherwise wouldn’t have that.”

As for Kastner and Hensley, well, they can’t stop crossing paths with each other, even if it’s not at RAWK. Hensley is now the manager of Bookbug and this is a bookstore, and Kastner, the author and illustrator of a series of books called Nerdy Babies, picture books that foster literacy around different themes. Both say they are happy in their newfound work.

Meanwhile, Kastner’s own son currently attends RAWK programs.

Poer is excited about RAWK’s growth and looks forward to new programming in the coming year.

“RAWK is a place for youth to grow their skills and their voice,” says Poer. “It’s a place that when they leave, that confidence stays with them, and they can go do big, brave things out there.

“Be here, be safe, be confident. And take that confidence out into the world and let that strong voice be heard!”

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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