Dedicated to the fusion of art and advocacy, we take
literature beyond conventional spaces. Our mission is to expand access to the
literary arts for unheard and under-resourced communities in Greater Boston —
including those isolated by the challenges of addiction recovery, trauma,
poverty, disability, and mental illness — through free, collaborative, writing
workshops, public readings, and publication opportunities intended to empower
community, amplify the voices of individuals, and to share stories with the
Writers Without Margins, Inc. was created in 2014 to address the disconnect that too often exists between three thriving arenas in Boston: education, the arts, and human services. Starting with a partnership between our executive director, Cheryl Buchanan, and a dedicated group of writers at St. Francis House, a low-barrier shelter in Downtown Crossing, they set out to create a tight-knit community of writers that could engage and inspire each other to make their stories heard; through this effort, they created the St. Francis Writers Workshop, our first and longest-running program. Over the past three years, Writers Without Margins has grown quickly, partnering directly with shelters, community health centers, youth services agencies, a women's transitional housing program, and a 12-step prison reentry program along with other like-minded organizations to provide weekly workshops, at no cost to participants, around Greater Boston. These partnerships ensure that we're meeting our participants where they are, allowing us to supplement the support from our partnered organizations, and it also creates a sustainable avenue for self-expression, connection, communication and creativity as a tool for confronting and combating trauma.
Through a belief in the empowering effect of writing one's own story, we connect the rich literary traditions and resources of Greater Boston with its artists and authors to empower, enable, and amplify the voices of unheard and underserved populations through free collaborative workshops, public readings, literary journals, video publications, and public exhibits that showcase their work and encourage personal reflection and re-vision, by both author and audience, while sharing their stories with the world. Our workshops are intended to expand access to the literary arts for everyone, including those marginalized, stigmatized, or isolated by the challenges of addiction recovery, disability, trauma, sickness, injury, poverty, and mental illness.
In addition to our writing workshops (of which we currently have six), we also publish an annual, self-titled literary journal and hold at least one public reading event through each workshop yearly, along with several events over the course of the year at which all of our participants are invited to share their work. We are also currently in post-production on a documentary, "In Their Shoes: Unheard Stories of Reentry and Recovery," which is our latest effort to expand access and involvement in the arts for our participants. This 90-minute film is centered around the lives of six men, whose stories intersected at one of our creative writing classes, located in a prison reentry program in addiction recovery treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs). Followed over a period of 9 months, these men share stories from their childhood, crimes, and experiences, along with sharing their hopes, goals, and plans, which unfold in real time. Each of the men featured has already served prison sentences related to their drug use, ranging from 5-28 years
Because of a lack of access, the talent of marginalized voices is often silenced by a shortage of opportunities to develop and distribute their work, with gaps continuing to grow. We offer programs that are both open to the public and tailored exclusively for the residents or clients of specific agencies or human services organizations, providing stability and consistency amid volatility as an ancillary tool for those combatting trauma. Our workshops are modeled after a typical graduate school writing workshop, while at the same time providing a safe place for these precarious and transient communities. Attendance is our first measure of success. When participants continue in a workshop, we're able to build relationships and trust through literary discussions and responses to writing prompts. In the longer term, we measure outcomes through the evolution of a writer’s self-reported sense of identity, clarity, and connection, which comes in both the community workshop experience as well as the one on one revision and response meetings we hold with participants. It's through this process that we can begin to appreciate the transformation and confidence-building in our participants. As we continue to build our programs, our writers gain self-esteem, and they take ownership (and authorship) of their voices.
None of these outcomes would be possible without our dedicated team of workshop facilitators. These individuals come from all walks of life and have an experienced understanding of the communities they serve, and, in several instances, have come directly from those communities themselves. By employing individuals who have a unique understanding of their participants and participant backgrounds (and by facilitating workshop conversations, rather than lecturing), our facilitators create the space for our participants to open up, share their story, and gain a broader understanding of their own experiences.
Our approach is based on a long history of programs and research in diverse populations. For more than twenty-five years, James W. Pennebaker at the University of Texas, Austin, has been studying the effects of expressive writing and reporting its positive impacts on both physical and emotional health as well as resulting behavior. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker writes. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function.” Furthermore, instead of obsessing continually over an event, they can focus on moving forward. As a result, stress levels go down and health, proportionately, goes up (“Writing to Heal,” James Pennebaker, UT 2005).
The effects of expressive writing are perhaps most profound in circumstances that are most dramatic. However, it may not take much in order to transform the narrative. According to a 2008 study at Georgetown University, “even a single, brief writing exercise is related to cancer patients’ reports of improved quality of life,” (The Oncologist, 13:196-204). With regard to physical improvement, a 2004 study of HIV patients in Auckland, New Zealand showed repeatedly higher T cell counts in patient groups who wrote directed personal essays throughout the course of treatment (Psychosomatic Medicine, 66:272-275). And, in the arena of academic performance, consistent results at Duke and Stanford Universities demonstrate that struggling students experienced increased empowerment, resulting in higher grades, through the writing and accompanying revision process. Their improved performance was attributed to a stronger sense of authority in decision-making and clearer reflection (“Writing Your Way to Happiness,” New York Times, 01/21/15).
In addition to developing our creative writing skills, we study classic and contemporary works of literature, finding commonality and building sustainable connection through the practice of “bibliotherapy”, a term first used in 1916 referring to the practice of reading for therapeutic effect. Writers Without Margins offers opportunities for critical thinking and analysis through literary interpretation, traditionally offered in a conventional college classroom, in human services environments and community centers. Our mission includes tailoring our approach to the individuals who gather, fostering group support and promoting personal insight during otherwise isolating experiences.
Board Chair Statement
Because we specifically want to
maintain a mission that focuses on low-income (and no income) communities, we
require funding as a public charity. So
that together we can achieve our goals and expand, responsibly and knowledgeably,
into the communities and populations who seek what we can offer, we need
assistance to grow. There are few resources we need, but they are
critical. For example, as personally fulfilling as witnessing what took
place at the St. Francis House was for me, I knew that there was a better way
for me to share the inspiration than for me to simply talk about it, or even
write about it. My own opinion that the writers were talented and
inspiring was clearly biased as were my own opinions of "outcomes." However, when I first, tentatively, brought up the
idea of creating a print journal to the St. Francis group, it was met with so much
enthusiasm in 2014 that I knew that I had to make it happen. Since the original
printing of Writers Without Margins: A Journal of Poetry and Prose: Volume One,
I have watched the transformation of the contributors as they introduce
themselves as poets, writers, and authors and I have seen their commitment to
their work increase as they consider their impact on others. Through this
experience I have also come to believe even more strongly in the power of
literature to change lives.
No one can be more convincing than Al, however, who is featured
in our first promotional video, "Why I Write." As unique as his story
is though, there is universal truth to the experiences he has endured and there are
many more people who can benefit from the same type of support.
Initially, I felt that there was far
more resistance in the greater Boston community when I tried to explain what I
believed was an important and unrealized relationship between the literary and creative
world and the social services field. I
could point to the research and data of programs in other places but it seemed
that there was, too often, an interest in keeping bright lines between
disciplines, categories and classes here. Now that Writers Without Margins, Inc. has existed as more than a theory
to blend those communities with positive results, we are able to demonstrate who
we are and where we fit in the continuum of a long history of artists and
advocates who work together to confront ourselves and our social problems and seek resolutions
together. Thank you for your
consideration and we greatly appreciate any support or involvement you are
willing to extend.