What a Writing Workshop for Teens Taught Me About Community
Originally published on BahaiTeachings.org.
We decided to explore what the literature of that new, improved era will look like — and figure out how young writers can develop their writing skills to respond to today’s challenges. That’s how we started the Young Writers’ Endeavor, a Baha’i-inspired writing workshop for young people between the ages of 12 and 18.
The first year, our workshop attracted a small but wonderfully dynamic group, and we were so inspired by their articles, poems, and short stories that we decided we had to make it an annual event. In July, we concluded our second workshop. We had over 30 participants this year from countries on four continents — including young people from the United States, Ecuador, Kenya, and Cambodia. We knew from the first year that the participants’ skills would grow. Here’s what we learned.
Expanding Our Concept of Writing
Five facilitators make up our team of organizers: Hope, Jackson Joplin, Nura Scoggin, Raji Scoggin, and me. We were lucky enough to draw from the wisdom of a small cohort of Baha’i professional writers, poets, and artists who lent us their knowledge and encouragement.
As we outlined the content for the three weeks of the workshop, we knew we wanted to familiarize participants with specific writing genres and the skills they require while also exploring the spiritual values that lie at our work’s heart.
Our 2020 workshop focused on three genres: poetry, comics, and short stories. We also drew inspiration from three topics that frequently appear in the Baha’i Writings, and which feature heavily in the Baha’i-inspired spiritual empowerment materials for young people aged 11-15: “using art for the betterment of the world,” “talent and the power of expression,” and “collaboration and universal participation.”
We sought to foster a collaborative environment through these topics where writing is seen as a tool that can bring about the betterment of society instead of being just a solitary hobby, as it’s so often depicted in pop culture. We wanted to encourage young authors to pursue writing seriously and feel more comfortable in the industry, all while using language to inspire, motivate, and bring knowledge to others — whether through poems on social justice, short stories about self-discovery, or a comic about aliens!
Building a Community of Young Writers
Another key motivation we had when starting this workshop was to build a community of young writers. Their work reflected the diversity of their backgrounds, ages, and ideas. But we also found many unifying themes in what they created, many of which reflect the unique moment we’re experiencing globally in 2020. Race unity and the COVID-19 pandemic were particularly prominent topics this year, reflecting the many conversations and thoughts young people are having about the issues we face as a world civilization. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t a dash of magic to it all — dragons and talking animals made multiple appearances in these works!
Our different time zones forced us to meet at unusual times — for some, that meant participating at 1 a.m, leading some 12-year-olds to stay up past midnight for the first time in their lives! But their families were incredibly supportive and encouraging, and sometimes parents or guardians accompanied their children during the different workshop assignments. With their support, the young writers rose to the challenge — despite extreme time zones and different English fluidity levels, they brought an inspiring sense of motivation and mutual encouragement to the group that deeply moved us. As facilitators, we began to see the real implications of a collaborative, creative environment begin to materialize before us.
A week into the workshop, a group of 12-year-olds threw one of their new friends a birthday party over Zoom, as they all remained in lockdown due to the pandemic. Participants invited their friends to other Zoom activities they were organizing, like prayer gatherings, and many brought beautiful songs and readings in their native tongues to our goodbye Zoom call.
Since the end of the Young Writers’ Endeavor, two 13-year-olds have gathered a group of young poets in a beautifully structured, weekly poetry club. Some Spanish-speaking young writers have begun to explore the idea of translating some of the works created. And another participant has plans to start a workshop of her own surrounding another art form, seeing the potential in creating these kinds of spaces in all fields.
The implications of creating spaces like these, where young minds can gather, explore profound spiritual concepts, and develop new writing skills without fear, seem to be endless. And we are starting to realize that there’s really no end to what a small group of motivated youth can do.
Developing Our Capacity For Growth
Seeing what the young writers can do has also shown us how much we need to rise to the occasion to meet them. For facilitators, it was a challenge to balance the workshop and the work these early years of our respective careers in writing, engineering, education, psychology, and music require, as well as the many demands of our neighborhood community building activities spread across the Americas.
It took a lot of late nights and a lot of communication. We learned how to better draw from the wisdom of the professionals we knew, using everyone’s time and skills more effectively. We learned how to better use a variety of online tools that make things easier for everyone. And our own understanding of the arts and their role in society evolved — as well as our understanding of our role in creating a space for young artists.
We don’t see ourselves as writing experts, because we aren’t — we’re young people inspired by the Baha’i Writings and the power they have to change the world, and we love writing and the arts. While our roles as facilitators mean that we serve as guides and advocates for these young writers (both during the workshop and for any writing projects they have outside of it), they are also our teammates and colleagues — people whose writing moves and inspires us, and from whom we draw inspiration from when writing and serving. Together, we hope to shape the world of the future both through our writing and our service.
We learned that these sorts of endeavors — the small ones that come from individual initiative, with a dream and a blinding amount of potential — help us grow the most. They show us how amazing human potential is, and how much more we need to grow to meet it.
To see the work created by participants of the 2020 Young Writers’ Endeavor, visit our website at youngwriters.online or follow us on Instagram. Leading up to next year’s workshop, we’re posting comics, poems, or short stories weekly, along with writing opportunities and advice for young writers.
If you would like to get involved in the future, either as a participant, a parent, or a collaborator, please send us a message. We would love to hear from you. Together, we’re starting to see the glimmerings of that new era of literature — and it’s a thrilling experience.