Writopia’s Longtime Partnership with ESPI

Each July is filled with our longtime deeply meaningful and exciting partnership camps! For a decade now,  Writopia has been running a special writing arts camp for dozens of creative and fun-loving children and teens at Homes for the Homeless’ Saratoga Family Inn. 

Starting seven years ago, we began working with 20-30 wonderful and gifted tweens from low-resourced areas who are selected by The Exam Schools Initiative (ESPI) as they prepare to apply to NYC’s specialized, magnet, highly selective high schools. It is a gift to us to brainstorm and help cultivate original short stories, films, and graphic novels with all of these beautiful young people who deserve all of the enrichment, support, and inspiration in the world. 

Students in a creative writing workshop and playing games during break time.

ESPI directors recently surveyed 50 of their alumni for feedback on how they may further benefit from ESPI support;  80% of them have named college essay support as a “top need.” So starting this summer, we have had the deep pleasure of working with some of our former middle school ESPI students, now highly engaged college applicants. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Affirmative Action, equal access to college access support systems has become even more urgent.    

Students in the graphic novel and filmmaking electives.

According to ESPI Founder, Andy McCord, “For ESPI students the Writopia week is a revelation. For students who have already begun to self-identify as readers and writers the experience is a homecoming. Many of these students continue on their own with Writopia in future years on scholarship. For other students, probably a majority, who are math kids who have never liked ELA, Writopia connects their innate verbal flair with a subject that had often seemed dull and restrictive in school. Our goals are explicitly academic, in that we seek to address the “excellence gap” that keeps many Black, Latinx, and low-income students out of the pipelines to schools like Hunter, Stuyvesant, and Bronx Science, but we find that a creative approach like Writopia is essential across disciplines to build deeper motivations that can underlie achievement at high levels as our students progress through school. At an organizational level, ESPI’s partnership with Writopia has been a model.”

The story and data behind Writopia’s 2023 professional development pilot, launched this winter with the NYCDOE Chancellor’s Office

By Rebecca Wallace-Segall

Within this essay, I  examine the ongoing youth literacy crisis in New York City and, along with it, two long-standing, opposing education policies—progressive and traditional—that have sought to address it. I argue that resisting dogmatic adherence to one or the other of these approaches, coupled with teacher-centered professional development opportunities that emphasize educators’ reconnection to the personal experience of writing, will improve classroom writing education goals. Over the course of a decade and a half, I co-designed a new educational framework that combines and elaborates upon the strengths of both approaches; over the past year, I co-designed a teacher-centered professional development opportunity for New York City public school teachers that allows them the space to apply that framework to their own writing and, ultimately, grow as both writers and writing educators. Inspired by John Kingdon’s open policy window theory, as a new administration took office in the city in 2022, I researched and connected with old and new contacts that lead a like-minded policy community within the Department of Education in order to implement and test this professional development project. In this paper, I imagine a city in which all writing teachers have access to joyful, teacher-centered writing workshops of their own, and the potential impacts this would have on youth; I suggest that building bridges between educators and writing experts, between progressive and traditional educators, and from high- to low-performing schools, may improve literacy education for public school youth in New York City.

Click here to read the full essay.

Click here for more information about how we can best serve your school.

National Newsletter 2022: Staff and Organizational Updates

Spotlight: Writopia Lab was profiled for CUNY TV!


  • Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Chief Executive Officer, published the Writopia founding and impact story in the Village Voice in 2022 and co-authored an article on partnering for literacy impact in the Afterschool Matters Journal. She is completing her Masters in Urban Education Policy at CUNY Graduate Center this winter.
  • Yael Schick, Co-Associate Executive Director, graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2022 with a Masters in Education Leadership, Organizations, and Entrepreneurship. At Harvard, she was a recipient of a Saul Zaentz Fellowship, awarded to emerging leaders in early childhood education.
  • Jeremy Wallace-Segall, Chief Operations Officer, completed a Certificate in Business Excellence at Columbia Business School‘s Social Leaders Program for Nonprofit Professionals.
  • Janelle Williams, Director of Programs and Outreach, had her novel, Gone Like Yesterday, accepted for publication by Tiny Reparations Books, forthcoming in February 2023.
  • Rita Feinstein, D.C. Regional Manager, had her narrative poetry compilation, Everything Is Real, published through Brain Mill Press.
  • John Manuel Arias’ debut novel, Where There Was Firewas accepted for publication by Flatiron Books.
  • Léna Roy, Bianca Turetsky, Rebecca Wallace-Segall, and Janelle Williams, whose proposed panel was accepted to the Association for Writing Programs conference forthcoming in Seattle in 2023. 
  • Rebecca Wallace-Segall’s session, co-proposed with Susan Matloff-Nieves, the Vice President of Innovation and Justice at Goddard Riverside, was accepted to the New York State Network for Youth Success conference.
    • Special thank you to the Pinkerton Foundation for their ongoing commitment to extending Writopia’s literacy impact throughout the broader after-school educational landscape.
  • Léna Roy, Director of Teen Programs, and Rob Roy, Director of Program Operations, launched Writopia’s first university-based residential program, Advanced Writing Seminar, at The New School in 2022.
  • Matthew Jellison, Senior Manager of Education, and Elsa Bermúdez, Los Angeles Regional Manager and WriCampia Co-Director, ran a free summer program for Portland Public Schools students.
  • Bianca Turetsky became our Associate Director of Programs.
  • Tom Flynn became our Director of Business Operations and Development.
  • Will Bond became our Manager of Digital Media and Communications.
  • Jocelyn Gottschalk became our Senior HR Manager.
  • Malcolm Knowles became a Program Manager.
  • Tasnim Hussain became a Program Manager.
  • Shanille Martin became our Registration and Debate Program Lead.
  • Michaela Florio became a Project Manager.
  • And a special congratulations to Danielle Sheeler, Co-Associate Executive Director, for the birth of her first baby, Maya Fae!

Instructors’ 2022 Publications

Welcome our 2022 New Full-Time Staff

  • Carly Sorenson, Instructor and Registration Associate
  • Christina McDowell, Registration and Outreach Coordinator; Instructor
  • Lizz Mangan, Private Sessions Coordinator
  • Jem Werner, Registration Associate
  • John Manuel Arias, Registration Coordinator
  • Matthew Wong, IT Specialist
  • Peter Quinn-Jacobs, Operations, Registration, and RPG Coordinator

Partnership Highlight

  • We have been serving juniors and seniors at WHEELS, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. This year their team has been internally measuring our impact on 80 of their writers. We are thrilled to start sharing their early findings with you! 

Writopia Publishing Lab Highlights

Specialty Program Highlights

  • WriCampia
    • Served 200 kids at our 11-day sleepaway camp in the Poconos. Enrollment is opening soon for our August 14th-August 25 2023 session!
    • Two films made in the Filmmaking Track at WriCampia were selected for the New York Short Film Festival. Congratulations to Sam Stearns for INERTIA and Castle Bloodgood and Moon Emigli for Worm On A Genius String!
  • Special thank you to Alex Tlatelpa, our Accounting and Operations Specialist, for bringing Mabel to WriCampia this year!
  • Worldwide Plays Festival
    • Produced 32 short plays live in Bryant Park.
Watch the plays from the festival in the playlist below!

Missed the student accomplishment newsletter in June? Check it out and let us know if you have more news to share! 

During these difficult financial times, our team continues to do great work. Please help us stay intact and continue to have impact into the new year. On behalf of our Board of Directors and our entire staff, thank you and happy holidays!
Support Writopia Lab

College Essay Spotlight

Our graduating seniors wrote dozens of individualistic, beautifully-crafted college essays at Writopia this year that helped college admissions teams get to know—and feel deeply connected to—them as people. I am excited to share two essays below because of the creative format the writers chose to employ and because of the high level of personal reflection and analysis they shared. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as they enjoyed writing them!   

Eliana’s Essay

“So, Eliana. What’s your sustained investigation? What’s the meaning behind this painting?” Ms. Fallon, my art teacher asks. It’s our monthly in-class critique, and it’s my turn to present my project. “Well, it’s a long story…” I begin to respond, reflecting over the moments that led me to where I was. I contain a multitude of histories and stories that no one can see, but that I feel deeply. These histories help shape who I am.  

I’m seven and visiting my maternal grandmother’s family in Finland. I learn how to play Old Maid from my great aunt and greet my cousin’s cows, feeding them chocolate chip cookies.  

I’m ten and my sister and I are visiting our paternal grandparents in Brussels for the first time without my parents. It is thrilling to be in a foreign country without our parents. We visit Le Grand Place and its museums, explore castles, play Rummikub, and light Shabbat candles.  

I’m thirteen and eating Sunday brunch with family and friends the day after my bat mitzvah. My father’s family is there, the ones who escaped Poland in the war and immigrated to Venezuela. Although I am tired from the beautiful chaos of the previous day, I feel encompassed by the love of all those who traveled from near and far to support me as I read Torah. Everyone speaks Spanish and English while eating bagels and arepas and telling me how much I’ve grown: “¿Me recuerdas? I changed your diapers!” I feel incredibly fortunate to have my father’s Venezuelan dishes and family every Sunday, allowing me to connect with my heritage through delicious food.  

I’m fourteen and walking the streets of Jerusalem with my family. I hear Hebrew all around me and notice Judaica stores on every third street. I visit the Western Wall and feel the 2000 years of history. I stand on the roof of a citadel and view the city around me, feeling connected to my heritage. I buy a necklace in Tzfat, which I will wear practically daily for the next few years. 

I’m sixteen and, while exploring ideas for paintings, I ask my grandpa, the lifelong educator, to tell me more about his side of the family. In response, I get a 100-page packet. Looking at my ancestors’ names, it hits me once again that barely over 150 years in the past, my ancestors were enslaved Africans. Some days later, my mom and I are eating lunch and processing how racial justice has improved since then, yet how much more progress is necessary. My grandpa, a 78-year-old Black man, a retired teacher and school superintendent, had just moved to New Hampshire for the summer, out of fear of both COVID-19 and getting shot by the police.   

I’m seventeen and creating my final portfolio for AP art. I paint the farm and Le Grand Place. I paint the streets of Tsfat and arepas. I paint a Torah in my arms and draw the Lodz ghetto. I paint dark hands in chains and a Bantu mask, learning more about African art in the process. When I present my work, my classmates are quiet, ask many questions, and say, “We didn’t know your family was so diverse.” I shrug it off. I pass; this is who I am. Just because my heritage isn’t visible at first glance doesn’t make it any less meaningful. Through my art, I can share my story and feel a little less unseen. Art has helped me feel more comfortable discussing my identity and enhanced my connection with my family. I now understand the power of sharing who I am with the world. When someone shares who they are, the world becomes a more incredible place.  

There is loneliness in feeling unseen, but there is fulfillment in knowing who I am and all that my ancestors have overcome to lead me to where I am now. 

Ailynn’s Essay

Two Minutes Till: I’m going to need full focus for what I’m about to do. I can feel the presence of my group mates in the room, even though I’m not looking at them. People give off energy, I think, whether they mean to or not, and I can feel theirs almost as strongly as my own. 

Noah is pacing, Jack is fiddling with his inhaler, Charlie is staring off into space, and Tomoko has mysteriously disappeared. An unspoken understanding passes between me and Noah: we are both terrified, but we can’t show it because that will make it real.

One Minute Till: We form a huddle, like a football team. Music can, in fact, be an athletic endeavor, especially in a chamber group. Everyone must be aware of each other, simply through peripheral vision and non-verbal communication. 

Noah tells us to try to just have fun. I translate: Play with wild abandon. We nod. This piece is so dramatic, we silently assure each other, it almost plays itself. Yet we are keenly aware of the lack of control we really have out there. A violin might fall out of tune. Someone might miss a measure. The panic might swallow us up. 

Twenty Seconds Till: We line up. The walls begin to close in, but I push them away and quiet my breathing. I don’t look up at the faces of the professors and students in the balconies, in case they can read my thoughts. I’ve had years of practice, but the better I am, the higher my expectations of myself are.

Time’s up: We bow, our voices reedy as we announce our names and what we’re playing: Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A minor, first movement. I sit down, smooth my purple dress out on the piano bench. I know this. Charlie looks scared, but determined. I nod and give her an assuring wink. We know this

I start my opening solo, letting my fingers linger lovingly on the keys before sound emerges. The cello part dances alongside me, her notes sometimes complementing mine and sometimes clashing purposefully. The others join us, sometimes in unison, sometimes forging their own paths. It feels like the first time I’m hearing it, getting lost in the beauty and emotion behind every phrase.

This is the moment I usually start to unravel. But I don’t. Instead, it’s as if the chaos of my life comes together. I know who I am, I know what I’m doing, I know why I like it. This is for me alone, it’s both this beautiful exploration into myself and an external break from the hectic nature of life and everything I’m interested in; it encompasses my love for history, my need for non-verbal communication, my desire to share with others something that is personal, precious, and instant. It speaks to my ability to empathize and internalize feelings, my love of good stories. Music ties my entire life together. It creates a bond between things that usually feel separate and makes me feel like a full, whole person.

Seven minutes later: This is what it’s supposed to feel like. Applause erupts around me from all sides. Full of adrenaline, I bow. The walls are where they are supposed to be. A light feeling grows in my chest–We did it. And I would do it all over again, just to feel that infinite, temporary joy for a few more minutes. It’s the first time I haven’t performed just to get through the piece. Instead, the melodies flowed through my veins and the world of the piece fully enveloped me in its arms. I smiled as I hit the last note. The breath I let out now is not one of relief, but wistfulness at having to leave the scene of this beautiful creation. This is what it’s supposed to feel like. I feel grounded, ready to take on the world.

I Am Curious…

by Bianca Turetsky

Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead”

At our last virtual retreat we took an exercise from Brene Brown’s book, Dare to Lead, and through the process of elimination discovered what our core values truly are. In the busyness of day to day life, particularly these past two years, it’s not a question we often give ourselves the time to dig into. What really matters to me? These central beliefs guide us in both our personal and professional lives because as Brene points out, we only have one set of values. A lot of unhappiness and unease creep in when one’s values at work don’t align with their values in their personal and home lives.

We shut off our cameras and individually pondered over an extensive alphabetical list of values ranging from accountability to leadership to wisdom. We started by picking ten values, which was challenging enough, and then reluctantly culled our list down to two values. The values that act as our North Star, much like how I describe a log line in a novel to my novel writing workshop. Everyone’s values were different. It was hard tossing out creativity, community, success, and learning. I felt tremendous guilt crossing out family. But for the sake of the exercise, I did it. 

I was surprised at what I was left with: 

Joy and Curiosity 

Upon more reflection I realized that curiosity and joy felt like umbrella terms for many of the other values in my more expansive list. For me, joy includes humor, connection, well-being, optimism and love. Curiosity encompasses creativity, learning, and flexibility. When I looked at the two words again through this lens, they felt true to me.

Bianca teaching a workshop at WriCampia.

I have always loved how joy was one of the first words of Writopia’s mission statement: Writopia Lab fosters joy, literacy, and critical thinking in children and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing. If you are in a place of joy, you are more open to learning and community and growing. You are not coming from a place of fear. I’ve always tried to take a Marie Kondo approach to life – does the way I spend my days bring me joy? Because of course as we all know, the way you spend your days is the way you spend your life. Writing brings me joy. Working with kids brings me joy. Helping young writers tell their stories brings me joy. And seeing the joy these writers experience when they write a sentence or story they are proud of makes me feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to put this value into practice. 

Bianca assisting writers at a reading.

I lead my workshops coming from a place of curiosity. I genuinely want to learn more about who these writers are and how I can guide them to tell their truths. I’m curious, what story are you destined to tell? Through our strengths based approach, constructive feedback is offered in the form of questions: I’m curious, how does your character feel at this moment? I’m curious, what does this magical forest smell like? I’m curious, what inspired this hilarious talking cat? I’m curious, I’m curious… 

Even in her 90s, my grandmother is still the most dynamic person in the room. She has an insatiable curiosity that has never diminished. She is always learning new things, meeting new people, asking questions and actively listening to the answers. Not surprisingly, she was a beloved second grade teacher. A smaller group of us did this exercise a few years ago and I found myself with two different core values (“making a difference” and “creativity”). These are values that still strongly resonate with me. They definitely made my top 10 list this year. But a lot has changed in the world in a few years and I think when things seem really hard, I am actively leaning more towards joy. When the news seems confusing and scary, I am actively leaning towards curiosity. I plan to do the activity again in the future to see what resonates with me at that moment in my life. It’s exciting to know that even as adults we’re ever evolving. I hope to still be chasing joy with our young writers. And I’m curious to meet my future self and find out. 

A Lucky Few Enjoyed Writing Their College Essays During the 2020-2021 Admissions Season. Here’s Why. by Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Executive Director

By April, the grueling 2020-2021 college admissions process will have to come to an end, with over five million high seniors finding out which colleges have accepted them during one of the most disheartening application years in decades. And just then, as the trees begin to blossom and the Covid-19 vaccine supply begins to meet its demand, another five million teenagers will begin their applications from scratch. But do not fret: the lucky few will enjoy major aspects of the application process despite all. 

Because of the power of creative nonfiction. I’ll explain.

When I founded Writopia Lab in 2007 as a creative writing youth community, I did not have college essay mentorship in mind. But in 2009, Eunju, a high school senior in one of my creative writing workshops, showed me her college essay and asked me if I’d read it. I agreed because I was curious to see what was being asked of her, and what she was offering up. What I found myself reading was a brilliant, playful and creative identity narrative about her name that immediately drew me in, provoked and moved me, and left me feeling like I knew her much more deeply than I had before I read it. She edited and revised it again and again until we said: it’s ready! But when she shared it with friends who were at Yale at the time they said, “You sound like you’re trying to start a cult, don’t recommend!”  And her advisor at her elite public high school didn’t approve either, telling her, “It doesn’t sound like a college essay.” What was she trying to convey about herself? the advisor asked. I read it again, perplexed. 

We both agreed that she should use it nonetheless. 

A few months later, Eunju received a hand-written note on her acceptance and full financial aid letter from Yale declaring: “Loved your essay!” And thus I realized that something was very wrong in the world of college essay writing guidance. And something very right in approaching college essay writing as, essentially, the most exciting form of creative nonfiction in our world today. 

In some ways, this is not a surprising statement. When we have the opportunity to reflect on and claim editorial authority over the narratives of our own lives, it’s simple: we feel happier, write more enthusiastically, and to our highest standards. But we have to be given the space to do so. Which means we need to stop being afraid to give our teens the room to think and write creatively and authentically— yes, especially when applying to colleges. And what’s actually surprising is how few kids are given that space.    

Indeed since Eunju, I have worked with hundreds of teens — and the Writopia team with thousands —  who show up weighed down and stressed out by the conflicting and confusing messages they have received: Market yourself. Impress the admissions committee. Position yourself as a leader. Be personal.  But don’t be cliche. Don’t sound privileged. Don’t sound like a pity case. Or one of the most confusing directives: Don’t mention a sibling, or really anyone else for that matter—this essay has to be entirely about you! 

But great news: you can ignore the noise. I have sat on panels with members and directors of various colleges’ admissions committees, have spoken to others on the phone, and rarely do they share the same outlook on the “ideal” college essay. They universally agree on one thing: that they want to get to know you a bit as a human being– moved by your maturity, humor, humility, curiosity, capacity for growth, and overall sensibility in the world.

When I tell applicants this, I see their bodies relax. And then, when I show them examples of voice-driven, fiercely individualistic essays, they actually get excited. I am allowed to write that? Yes. And you might even get a personal thank you note for it from a director of an admissions committee for making someone’s day by sharing a story that moved them or made them laugh or just simply surprised and entertained them. 

College essay writing should be celebrated as the most widely explored subgenre of creative nonfiction today rather than a self-marketing opportunity. After all, it is the one main section of the college application that allows the applicant’s humanity to emerge above a set of grades and scores. Yes, the college essay industry has promoted cynicism and inequity as families desperately try to learn what admissions committees want and how to deliver it just so — often at a very high price. But there is another way: ignore all the noise in order to pursue your personal voice and story.

At Writopia, we work with funders like the Pinkerton Foundation, the Meringoff Family Foundation, and are supported by our board members like Kim Hartman, along with school partners to make sure that this high-level instruction is available to anyone who seeks it out.  

In one school we work with in Harlem, the seniors struggle to make it to their classes as they navigate Covid-19 related health and financial family crises around them. But they show up for online college essay workshops. “Ms. I thought college prep was going to be boring,” chats Thais, one high school senior in Harlem in a Zoom chat to her Writopia instructor this past fall. “But I love this. I’m dead enjoying it.” Another joins the chat: “It’s dead fun and interesting… it’s the one class I feel glad I woke up for.”  

This process works on many levels. On the social-emotional level, mentors and mentees bond during this process because there is little room for the superficial; rather, we live in the realm of deep reflection, clarity of expression, self-discovery, and real-world connections. Our writers leave with more confidence, a passion for writing, and a much better understanding of themselves as thinkers and writers. On the admissions level, the great majority of our writers win admittance to their top choice schools.  

And the power of discovering your writing voice doesn’t cease upon application submissions. In October, one of my high school seniors, Sophie, who attends a top public magnet arts school, was tirelessly crafting her college essays. She was writing about the changing role of art and creativity in her life, her learning disability, and other personal aspects of her life. She didn’t smile often so I feared I was exhausting her with my close reads and challenging questions, like “Is this how you really felt?”  Or, “Is that what he actually said?” 

Interrupting a random quiet moment over Zoom, she looked up at me and said, “This process has changed my life…  figuring out who I am and what I really thought in any one moment… I write all the time now…” and then went back to her edits. I looked at her as she typed away: the application process didn’t destroy her — in fact, it made her more excited than ever about what was coming next. 

You can read Eunju, Sophie, and Thais’ essays, get inspired to write your own creative nonfiction, and support this work by buying The Writopia Publishing Lab’s newest book, “30 Fiercely Individualistic Essays of the Decade”Proceeds help ensure that we provide college essay support to every single writer who registers using our sliding scale, applies for full financial aid, or attends our workshops through our partnership programs at Title 1 schools.

Thanks so much and happy writing!

– Rebecca Wallace-Segall – Executive Director

How to Talk About The Scholastic Awards’ Results by Writopia Founder Rebecca Wallace-Segall and Program Directors Yael Schick & Danielle Sheeler

This year’s results for the Regional Scholastic Writing Awards are intended to be announced in most regions on January 28th, 2021.

Many of our writers ages 13-18 will find out that their pieces were honored with honorable mentions, silver keys, and/or gold keys! We are so, so happy for all of our teens who received positive feedback this year. It feels great to work hard and be heard and celebrated by people other than our own parents and Writopia instructors. Of course, not everyone wins recognition each year though. Either way, how we respond to the results impact our childrens’ emotional well-being.

The suggested responses below help cultivate happy long-term writers.

The Writer Who Wins Recognition

After big hugs and cheers, be as thoughtful as your writer is about what words you use to celebrate their success. I would like to urge you to praise the hard work, dedication, and courage that your writer invested into their writing this year. Carol Dweck and a growing body of researchers recommend refraining from praising children’s raw talent alone. Their research suggests that praising hard work and dedication leads to … more hard work and dedication.

As writers, we all know the value of winning outside recognition. Receiving recognition from publications and awards can increase a teen’s confidence and help cement their identity as a writer. A new writer may understand the power of their writing in a brand new way— a stranger read their work and was moved/inspired/impressed! After receiving recognition, many writers feel validated, encouraged, and committed to return to their writing and continue to develop it to its furthest. Most writers have a deep desire to connect to with a wide audience through the written word, and this is an important first step in that journey.

Unfortunately, since our writers submit over 2,000 pieces a year to various competitions and publications, we have also seen kids become negatively affected by the process–even when they win. We have seen kids take in tremendous praise and attention after they win awards, and then produce less work afterward, become increasingly anxious about their work, and even plagiarize out of the fear of disappointing family and teachers in the next competition. In the past, an 11-year-old writer we know plagiarized a story and handed it in as a school assignment. She explained over tears: “My classroom teacher said to me at the beginning of the year ‘I heard you were a gifted writer, I can’t wait to see your writing!’ I felt so anxious about that expectation.”

A Happy Writer Needs:

Hugs, high-fives, and an acknowledgement of their dedication to writing and revising and sharing. A happy writer needs to hear that you were moved by their writing. Final takeaway: Laugh and cry when you’re supposed to laugh and cry as you read. What is more inspiring and uplifting than that?

The Writer Who Did Not Win Recognition

Parents share with us each year their challenges with figuring out how to speak to a disappointed child about not receiving recognition for their creative works. We have a few suggestions that we hope you find helpful:

Acknowledge your children’s disappointment while staying focused on the positive–how effective of a writer they are, how subjective the adjudication process is, how much they love writing, and how many more years ahead there are to write and share. It is very important that the writer does not feel the weight of your disappointment in him/her or in the results in general on top of their disappointment. Sometimes when we think we’re commiserating, we are actually exacerbating their pain. You are not upset at all about the results because you are so proud of your writer for writing, revising, and submitting.

(Please note: if the writer had been resistant to revision in workshop, instructors may use this as an opportunity to encourage further revision. It is ideal to not take this topic on as a parent in most cases, though, at least in intense emotional moments.)

At Writopia, we believe that the success is in the submission. A writer isn’t a writer because she wins awards; a writer is someone who has the motivation and passion to write and to submit regardless of the result. We are all writers at Writopia. Not only do we know how much goes into producing a piece of writing, but we also understand how difficult it is to share writing, whether it be with a workshop or to a panel of anonymous judges. We have all faced rejection; it’s part of the journey.

The good news: Every one of our regular Writopia writers who has continued to submit throughout high school has received an award, a publication, or a production by the time of high school graduation.

We make sure that your child’s workshop environment continues with positive support and enthusiasm for self-motivated writing. However, we certainly understand that this may be a sensitive time for our writers, and we want to let you know that Writopia instructors and staff are here to continue to encourage and support your writer. And so we have a policy of not discussing who received recognition and who didn’t inside of workshop, as we have already celebrated everyone for finishing their pieces, finessing them, and sending them in.

In Conclusion

Your kids have dedicated time to imagine, articulate, narrate, and polish their writing, and ultimately, help us all consider the world in a new way. They make us laugh and cry every day. That is the real cause to celebrate.

Follow Their Lead: A Year of Teen Leadership

by Madeline Taylor & Kimberly Faith Waid 

At our national staff retreat in 2019, our full-time staff came together to focus on teen leadership and the ways we could empower our young writers within our community and beyond. We’d run programs in the past, and we were ready to take it to a new level: to guide writers to contribute their ideas, help produce events, and be the voice of the messaging that, after all, defines their passions. Our discussion centered primarily around the needs of our teen community; many of our teens had been involved in Writopia for many years and were ready for a new experience, in the midst of a world full of new challenges. We wanted to center our programs around our young writers’ passions and ideas so that we could provide the scaffolding and tools while allowing them the freedom to express their creativity in new, impactful ways.

Writopia Lab at Pride 2019

Our Enviroactivism club began after a teen entered the workshop space devastated by the impact of climate change and that conversation drew compassion and concern for the room at large. It became clear that this was a conversation these teens would like to be having but also a concern they were motivated to pursue actionable change to achieve. The group is student-led, instructor-mentored, and aims to empower kids and teens to use their voice to become leaders and environmental activists in their own neighborhoods. Originally bi-weekly meetings, the structure expanded to a monthly event series. In the past year, participants have brainstormed advocacy efforts to raise awareness around climate change, written thank you letters to firefighters and advocates, written urgent letters to representatives and corporate social responsibility managers, and engaged in the replies! They’ve probed outside of typical “environmental stresses” and explored urban planning and housing for the homeless with a guest speaker who educated them on the intersection of public health and sustainability. These topics informed them as citizens who will care for the health of any city they inhabit. Local participation and advocacy is vital and how wonderful that it was born from their creative writing workshop where they can tackle words and ideas without censorship but rather with wholehearted empathy and cultural consciousness. 

One of the best things about teen leadership is watching it grow and evolve as the teens themselves grow up from passionate youth into smart, strong, well-equipped young adults. A favorite example is the way that Writopia’s LGBTQ+ community has flourished thanks to teen leaders who committed to forging a space not just for themselves, but for their whole Writopia family. During the summer of 2017 at WriCampia (our sleepaway camp), we started Plus, a discussion/writing/hangout space for LGBTQ+ campers and anyone who wanted to have a place to learn more about gender and sexuality in a friendly, low-key environment. Over the next several years, we grew beyond WriCampia and into our school-year programming as well. For Pride 2019, a particularly significant year that marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, we ran three different programs to reach more young writers than ever. From a queer movie night with poster-making, to an art and writing field trip at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, to the NYC Pride March itself, Writopia teens created powerful, fun, thoughtful spaces. 

As we reflected on our queer community’s evolution and the growth of our Enviroactivism group, we saw that in order to truly serve our kids, our role as educators must be to teach kids the toolkit they need to empower themselves; it’s incredible to watch how these empowered and equipped kids can take those tools to lift the needs of others as well.

A year after our initial conversations, when we gathered for our 2020 staff retreat, we had presentations prepared on the teen engagement programs we had started over the past year. Our retreat, however, turned into a huge planning session for Writopia Lab’s transition to online programming, which had to happen fast, as more cities started shelter-in-place orders. A few weeks later, once we had moved workshops on to Zoom and were getting in the groove of this strange time, we had a moment to stop and remember our teen leaders. Our next challenge: how could we continue to support our teen leaders and activists via online channels? How would Covid-19 affect these kids’ goals and plans?

It didn’t come as any surprise when we realized that these young leaders had continued their projects and started new, timely projects, all through their determination and hard work. Turning the Page, a group dedicated to writing about and destigmatizing mental health issues, has continued to meet every weekend; they are creating an anthology as well as sharing ideas for mental health support on their Instagram. The Next Chapter, a teen-led gun control advocacy group, continued to meet once a week to discuss future projects, including their involvement with the “Enough” plays project. They’re also accepting submissions for a zine about gun violence. Diatom, our new teen-run literary magazine, took the initiative to write acceptance letters and start curating their new issue, outside of meetings led by Writopia Staff. In our debate club, our older teens who are nationally ranked debaters are working with us to develop a new debate culture and format that goes beyond argument and rebuttal and celebrates problem solving as well. Enviroactivism has met monthly to process the impact of the virus on issues they’d covered prior like housing and climate. They’ve collaborated on earth day social media posts, a recipe exchange of common pantry items, and they traveled the Earth while staying home this month thanks to a Zoom viewing party of Our Planet. Our kids had the tools they needed to maintain their activism even — especially — during the most challenging time many of them have ever faced.

Covid-19 showed us clearly that the future of youth activism programs is dependent on our efforts as instructors and mentors to be alert to the questions of young people, reminding them that their voice is needed and deserves to be heard. In a time when young people are feeling weighed down by anxieties about the future, it’s vital that we foster literacy through creating spaces for writers to engage with their ideas, beliefs, and passions beyond the written page. Collectively, all of these programs will bring confidence and deep awareness to our young writers. Now is the time to hear and celebrate their passions, angers, and curiosities. Our present and our future will be filled with their voices.

Telling the Story, No Matter What by Yael Schick, Director of Programs

Growing up, Passover (Pesach) overtook the spring curriculum in my school. Weeks were spent studying the Haggadah, creating our own, learning the laws and practices that had been passed down through generations.

“The most important thing is to tell the story of the Exodus,” I remember one teacher explaining. “Even if one is having a seder alone, they should still tell the story, read it to themselves and speak what happened.”

I remember the image that came to my mind, a forlorn adult sitting at a beautifully set table, whispering the words all alone. I remember the pang of sadness that came over me, and how I comforted myself, dismissing the image with the knowledge that no one was really alone, that Pesach was a time of family and community, that surely everyone had someone to tell the story to.

The Seder is a time for togetherness. After all, the story we tell is not a story of an individual, but of a people. It was through the Exodus, the horrors and the miracles, that the Jews became a nation. They grew united through their days of affliction, through the splitting of the sea, through taking their terrified steps into the unknown.

But more than that, the seder is a time for stories.

I’ve thought about those early lessons from elementary school over the years; I just never got it. Why should an individual observing alone have to tell the story to themselves? Can’t they just have their wine and matzah and call it a night?

I see it differently now. Because within the story of the nation is the story of individuals, thousands, now millions, of people who weathered those hardships, took leaps of faith, saw the world change before their eyes.

And when you tell yourself that story, when you are both the narrator and the listener, you and the story are one. The story becomes part of your being, and it shows you who you really are, the incredible deeds you are capable of.

Today we are alone and not alone and we need stories desperately. I feel beyond blessed to be celebrating with my immediate family, and though we’ll be telling the Pesach story together, I am going to make sure I tell myself the story too.

I am wishing everyone stories of hope and courage and love, to those who celebrate and to those who don’t. Tell yourself your story, and may it strengthen and nourish you for the days to come.

Two Weeks Later by Lena Roy, Associate Creative Director of Programs, and Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Executive Director

It’s the first day of the staff retreat, 2020, March 12 to be exact. We are in the middle of nowhere in a beautiful retreat center in Connecticut, trees starting to bloom, purple crocuses pushing up their heads, reminding us that spring indeed does follow winter. COVID-19 still seems far enough away, and the impulse to come together as a team is strong enough that we haven’t canceled. We’re a small, close-knit group. Still, one of our regional managers is Zooming in because of a preexisting condition, and our team from Los Angeles has flown into the city and then turned back around and flown back home. There is passion to be together along with tension around what is to come.

We use staff retreats to look at the big picture — how can we further engage kids and our communities, how can we reach and impact more people? Last year was about meeting the demand for more Youth Leadership. This year’s retreat will be about our new Writopia Publishing Lab platform. During the retreat, we will also carve out time to develop our own writing, workshopping memoir, one act plays, poetry, and fiction.

But after the first day of the retreat, we sleep uneasily because we have heard about so many more school closures in the New York Metro Area. In the morning, we change our agenda and schedule. There is no longer space and time for big-picture thinking and lovely writing breaks. We need to immediately move from long-term visionary thinking and creative reinvigoration to short-term organizational crisis planning. 

We come together in a circle, some of us teary-eyed, everyone wanting to be part of the solution. We realize that this might be the last time together in a physical space for a long time. We realize that we won’t be with our writers in our cozy writing labs for months to come. What will this mean for those of our kids who rely on us as their main social outlet? What will it mean for our children from low-income backgrounds who don’t have laptops and reliable internet at home — and whose families may not be able to stay home with them and support homeschooling, or would face greater financial stress? What will it mean for the viability of Writopia Lab as an organization, and for the livelihood of the 27 people sitting in the room together?

We turn our agenda and attention for the day on moving to an on-line platform so that we can not only stay afloat, but also serve our mission of fostering joy, literacy and critical thinking through creative writing to kids and teens of all backgrounds. How will this work? Feeding off each other’s commitment and drive, we break into small brainstorming groups— the tech and systems people in one group, the programs people divided into others—to re-imagine and design an entire new Writopia world. When we come together a few hours later, we understand that, together as a team, we have the potential to not only keep our community intact, but also to reach new people across the country and even the world — especially those who don’t have access to a Writopia Lab brick-and-mortar lab. Zoom is going to  become our new best friend. 

A few hours later, we hear that New York City and NY State have both declared states of emergency. It won’t be long before the New York City public schools close. We have accomplished all that we can together, now it’s time to get ready to put it into practice. We pack up and leave that night, a day early. We have too much to do. We need to prepare our homes for long-term social distancing and sheltering-in-place. And we need to prepare for the immediate learning and launching of the new Writopia Lab era: online, emotionally connecting, intellectually stimulating writing workshops.    

Two weeks later, we have worked with almost 900 kids and teens across the country, and have received just as many warm smiles and relieved faces. We have loaned out laptops to those in need, extended our sliding-scale fee structure to the online space, and have developed a new a la carte online program that makes Writopia Lab especially financially accessible to those in need. We haven’t figured out how to reach every student we know; but we are reaching more and more each day.  

Two weeks later, most of us are in states that have shelter-in-place orders, and the number of those who are affected by the Novel Coronavirus has increased tenfold. We have learned of several Writopia Lab students from schools we taught at who are diagnosed with COVID-19, and some Writopia Lab students from our labs living with ill parents, fighting for their lives against COVID-19. While most of our community is healthy at home, self-quarantining without symptoms, we are listening to each other, supporting, inspiring, distracting, and entertaining each other — coming together as  an unbreakable community of creative writers and thinkers.

Two weeks later, despite the dramatic, successful move to online workshopping, we are financially hurting like so many others. But we will continue to grow and connect, finding new ways to be together and accessing the best of ourselves, even when we are processing the chaos around us. We need our creativity —  whether it be expressed through writing, dance, music, or art to connect us as humans, and we are blessed to be able to serve in this way.

Thank you to our full-time team, our instructors, our writers, and our writers’ parents for not only bearing with us, but for participating in this life-affirming movement, and for continuing to bring on the bloom of spring.