Students ready to find their voices as they learn of great writers

Laura Henderson is on a mission to find the future writers of America. Along the way, they'll learn about writers of many races and a measure of social justice.
Let's be honest. Asking a cafeteria full of seventh-grade students questions like, "How familiar are you with black and Latina writers? What do you feel right now as far as how literature and the performing arts can affect society on a social justice level to really make a change?” could be an exercise in futility.

Especially when they're extremely restless because the half-day session on a sunny mid-October Friday is just about over.

But Laura Henderson, project director of Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative's Great Writers Program, bravely asks her questions. She is on a recruiting mission to get 15 future writers out of the over 700 seventh and eighth-grade students from the Milwood Magnet School.

When the day was done, she saw the hands of nearly 30 students raised to show their interest in reading outspoken writers, and in speaking out through the written word as well.

Fueled by a $24,922 Michigan Humanities Council grant, Great Writers will introduce the Milwood students, Loy Norrix high-schoolers and a multi-generational group to the writings of powerful figures in history and literature. Fire will then have them write and develop their own voices, and publish the resulting best poems, fiction and essays in an anthology. Fire will film the process, November through June, for a documentary.

The program is about "reading great writers and creating great writers," Henderson says.

Henderson is also executive director associate of Fire and comes out of a performing arts background. At the cafeteria, she makes her case like a motivational speaker and builds the kids' enthusiasm.

She asks the seventh graders if they've read works by Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin--the response was a robust "No!"

"What authors do you read?"

One boy responds, "Harry Potter."

She tells them that this is a pilot program that's looking to add diversity to the curriculum...and at first seems to lose the kids' focus.

"This is the chance for your voice to be heard," she says. "Why do you think we want to hear you, what you guys have to say? Why do you think your voice should be heard?"

This got the students excited. They all start talking. A girl in front says, loud and clear, "Because we are the future."

"You are the future! Woop-Woop!" Henderson says.

The Past Influencing the Future

Great Writers was developed by Fire co-founders Michelle Johnson and Denise Miller.

Johnson says, "it emerges out of the foundation of our organization, our model of creative justice--the idea that people need to identify, understand and articulate their authentic self. And then be able to have the skills to express it, the opportunities to express it, be sustained in the expression of that authentic or unique self."

She adds, "and finally, in the creative justice model, people should pass that on."

This model was inspired by the writers in the Great Writers curriculum, she says. In their times, they managed to express themselves "in a system that consistently seeks to confine them."

The program's reading list includes Harriet Ann Jacobs, who lived in a society that literally sought to confine her after she escaped slavery. She wrote "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," one of the first accounts of enslavement from a female perspective.

It includes major voices of the 20th century, like James Baldwin, whose prolific work covered racial, GLBTQ, and class issues. And it includes contemporary, 21st-century work, such as that by Junot Diaz, a Dominican American who won the Pulitzer for fiction inspired by his journey as an immigrant.

After 10 years at the old Edison neighborhood firehouse that houses Fire, Johnson is moving on. Henderson is transitioning into being the interim executive director. The nonprofit is going through a "process of a makeover," Henderson says, but the creative justice mission remains the same.

The program "goes along with Fire's mission, to help people find and express their authentic self," Henderson says.

Reading, Writing, Publication

The ultimate goal of the program is to show students what it feels like to get their words in print for others to read.

Milwood Magnet School's principal Craig LeSuer says, "it's a very rare and special opportunity" for his students to create something the world might see.

Kalamazoo Public Schools is a "literacy-based district," which has long held a monthly essay contest that he judges, LeSuer says. Writing is a "universal outlet, especially for young people, who have so much going on, and need to express themselves."

More than the limit of 15 seventh grade students raise their hands to show they'd like to be in the Fire program.

Then the eighth-grade class gets its turn in the cafeteria. They're more focused. When asked the who-do-you-read question, a few reply, "J.K. Rowling."

Henderson asks them to think about what it means to be published, to imagine students 20 years in the future reading what kids in 2015 had to say.

She adds, "Getting published before high school? What's that going to look like on a resume or a college application?"

Again, around 15 students raise their hands to show they'd like to be in the program.

Why learn to put your voice on the page? Why is it important for their voices to be heard?

"Because you can probably change the way people think, and what they read, and what they get from that," an eighth-grade boy says.

Another student adds, "Everybody has something important to say, everybody deserves to be heard."

Three Great Writers classes of intergenerational, 7-8 grade Milwood Magnet and 9-12 grade Loy Norrix will get underway in November and end in May. For more information, contact Fire at 269-344-6659.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance writer in Southwest Michigan since 1992. He can be reached at

Support for this story about race and cultural identity is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.