Ever since I was a kid, it’s been difficult for me to shake the anxiety that comes with sharing in front of a group of people. Activities like reading aloud in class, giving presentations, or even introducing myself from a Zoom window, can send jitters down to the tips of my fingers and jumble up all the words in my mind. Those who know my background in musical theatre may find that surprising, but the script, the song, the character always gave me the confidence to express myself on stage. When it’s just me being me…I often freeze. But in my heart, I have a passion for storytelling in every form. It’s what led me to theatre, and sharing my experiences so others don’t feel alone is one of the most powerful things I now get to do with Born This Way Foundation. But sometimes, I just need a little amping up to be able to think clearly and muster up the words to share what’s in my heart.
This is exactly what Mighty Writers – one of our Kindness in Community Fund organizations – is doing for youth across Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey. Their mission is to teach kids to think clearly and write with clarity, and this weekend I had the incredible honor of checking out one of the many safe and welcoming environments they’ve created for young people to do just that.
On Saturday, I stopped by Mighty Writers West in West Philly, one of four Philadelphia locations that offers evening and weekend writing workshops, an afterschool Academy program for grades 3 – 8, evening teen programs, and a Mighty Toddlers program. Tonight, they would be hosting a back-to-school celebration for all the students participating in their programs.
Upon entering, each student was instructed to first answer the prompt on the whiteboard: “What are you hopeful for this school year?” Many folks were looking forward to learning new things, making new friends, and enjoying new experiences. The excitement in the air around school starting that following Monday was palpable.
After sharing our hopes for the new school year, we enjoyed some pizza and circled up for a free-writing exercise. Maurice, Mighty Writers’ Education Director, and Kate, their Director of Social and Emotional Learning, explained that one of the most important things we can do this upcoming school year is make sure we’re fostering healthy, supportive relationships. With that in mind, we spent some time writing responses to a few different prompts including, “What qualities make a good friend?” and “Why is it important to feel safe to be your authentic self?”
We discussed how a good friend is someone who checks in on us, understands and is there for us when we have good and bad days, and loves us for our true authentic selves. I shared that one of the reasons Lady Gaga and her mom created Born This Way Foundation was to help us all learn to love and celebrate what makes each of us unique.
To close out the writing circle, each student was handed a blank notebook to fill with affirmations to repeat throughout the year. Kate got us started with a few including: “I surround myself with good friends,” “I can rely on my friends and teachers for support,” and lastly, “I am special because…” The answers were so insightful, and I was so inspired by the confidence and clarity with which each young person shared what made them unique in this world.
After the writing exercise, parents and guardians began to arrive. The Mighty Writers team took a moment before the event ended to thank the parents for bringing their children and discuss what their hopes and dreams were for each child. Then each family left with a backpack of goodies and a bag of groceries. During the pandemic, the Mighty Writers team realized an unmet need in their community. This particular location in West Philly, Angeliqué (the Literacy Leader at that location) explained to me, is a food desert with no grocery stores in a reasonable walking distance. While the team’s mission of empowering youth to write still held true, they recognized that they couldn’t write on an empty stomach. So ever since, they distribute food to those who need it daily.
I came away from my quick day trip to Philly feeling empowered by this remarkable group of young people who gathered to share openly and honestly. We all deserve safe spaces to express ourselves clearly because each of our stories matter. So for that, I am so grateful to the amazing team at Mighty Writers for helping to make sure all youth know they matter and should be celebrated for what makes them unique.