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Mentoring the Next Generation of L.A. Letters

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Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman performing at the Los Angeles Public Library | Photo: WriteGirl Facebook

As a former high school teacher and someone who has mentored teen poets dating back to 2000, I am very fond of the hundreds of educators and dozens of organizations across Southern California that educate and sponsor young writers. This week L.A. Letters spotlights two Angeleno teen scribes who are doing important work, and also highlights several organizations in Southern California that mentor teen and youth poets.

Amanda Gorman, the Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate Program, and Urban Word

The Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate Program emerged from the National Youth poet Laureate Program initiated by the nonprofit organization, Urban Word. The program began in New York City in 2008, and currently there are five youth poet laureates nationwide. The executive director of Urban Word NYC and Los Angeles is the acclaimed poet Michael Cirelli, a former Los Angeles resident and longtime educator who expanded the program out west after successfully launching the youth poet laureate program in New York a few years ago. Urban Word collaborates closely with local and national partners like the Academy of American Poets, Say Word, Get Lit Words Ignite, 826LA, WriteGirl, and Street Poets.

In June 2014, Amanda Gorman was chosen as the first youth poet laureate of Los Angeles. Cirelli recently told me that Gorman "is one of the most passionate and committed young leaders that I have ever met in my 15+ years in youth development. Her writing is timely, earnest, and sincere, and she lives the words she speaks."
Under Cirelli's tutelage, Gorman has given a number of readings across Los Angeles at schools, museums, and bookstores. Gorman has also started her own nonprofit organization, "One Pen One Page." On Sunday June 28, 2015, Urban Word is staging a performance announcing the new youth poet laureate, as well as the release party for Amanda Gorman's first book of poems, "The One for Whom Food is Not Enough," to be published by Penmanship Books. Nominations for the next youth poet laureate are open now. In the meantime Amanda Gorman remains busy giving readings at sites like Beyond Baroque and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. This Saturday, the Los Angeles Poets Society is sponsoring a reading with Gorman at Tia Chucha's with Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez.

Laura Davila and DSTL Arts

Another important group working with young writers is DSTL Arts. Established in October 2012, DSTL Arts is a nonprofit arts mentorship organization that "teaches, inspires, and hires creative, at-risk youth ages 16-21 years old." The acronym DSTL Arts stands for Developing Skills and Transcending Limits through Arts, and they pronounce DSTL like the word "distill." Primarily based in Boyle Heights and Northeast Los Angeles, DSTL Arts was founded for the unique purpose of giving creative, at-risk youth the tools for pursuing a career in the arts. With one in seven jobs in Los Angeles County being either directly or indirectly connected to the multi-million dollar creative economy, DSTL Arts seeks to bridge the skills gap for at-risk youth by providing one-on-one and small group mentorship in the arts.

DSTL Arts is empowering and educating the next generation of creatives by developing skills in the arts through mentorship, while also teaching students universal work-readiness skills, such as resumé writing, interviewing and public speaking. Founded by Luis Antonio Pichardo, DSTL Arts also encourages their young artists to explore various pathways for success as entrepreneurial individuals by educating them in marketing techniques, branding principles, and financial management for personal and business finances. DSTL Arts is coaching the next generation of poets, writers, fine artists, and photographers.

One of their most successful mentees is Laura Davila. Davila has been working closely with DSTL Arts and Luis Antonio Pichardo for a few years now and has made great strides in her academic and writing career. Davila is visually impaired due to a firearm accident in her early childhood; nonetheless she is an outstanding poet and last year came in second place out of 250 applicants, after Amanda Gorman in the Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate competition. She is now the L.A. County Youth Poetry Ambassador and a first generation college student at Pasadena City College, where she is working toward a degree in English with an emphasis on writing and publishing.

Laura Davila reads at Beyond Baroque | Photo: DSTL Arts
Laura Davila reads at Beyond Baroque | Photo: DSTL Arts

Davila is a very inspiring poet and everyone that hears her is blown away by the powerful words composed by the blind girl from Boyle Heights. She credits much of her success to her work with DSTL Arts. Davila writes, "Because of DSTL Arts, I've been able to be a part of a few readings and zine fests. I've been able to create and sell my art -- a prospect that I'd dreamed of in the past, but had believed unattainable-and have been able to expand my artistic tendencies in other directions. DSTL Arts, as a program, has made my life as an artist seem much more attainable and much less of a dream."

Similar to Amanda Gorman, Davila will soon be releasing her first book of poetry, and also poised to publish a new short story chapbook this summer along with her fellow DSTL Arts students, Brian Andrade, Diallo Smith, Jeremy Arias, and Angelica Castañeda. On June 13, 2015, they will be featuring Laura Davila and other students in a student arts showcase at the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes near Olvera Street. See their website for the latest information and more on Laura Davila.


Founded in 2005, 826LA is an organization that provides after-school writing workshops for Los Angeles youth from the ages of 6 to 18. They have two locations, one in Echo Park on Sunset Boulevard and one in Mar Vista on Venice Boulevard. Both locations are equipped with desks, books, and staff and volunteers on hand who are dedicated to providing writing assistance to participants. Julius Diaz Panoringan is the Director of Education at the Mar Vista branch and Marisa Urrutia Gedney is the Director of Education in Echo Park.

In addition to the afterschool writing workshops, 826LA has a number of extra programs that extend their services. Educators from 826 visit schools and make presentations, many schools visit 826 for a lesson and there are also various programs like a weeklong screenwriting workshop, an introduction to journalism program and other similar workshops like the weeklong "Words Spoken," poetry class that I taught at 826 for five summers.

826LA also hosts many events throughout the year, like a teen reading series, a short fiction workshop, and other writing oriented events. 826LA emerged from the San Francisco based 826 Valencia, originally founded by author Dave Eggers in 2002. Their model has been so successful that they also have locations now in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Michigan.

Many aspiring teachers in the credential program at Cal State Los Angeles have found that volunteering or interning at 826LA has been very helpful in their transition to becoming professional educators. 826LA's executive director Joel Arquillos was an award winning teacher in the Bay Area and is also a well-respected local writer. His years of teaching and writing experience have made him not only a great mentor for students but also for the volunteers and interns at 826. There's a dynamic spirit of literary culture that permeates both locations. 826 has also developed a close partnership with the Hammer Museum. They are always looking for more volunteers. Visit either of their two physical locations, or website to find out more.

Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez visits 826LA in Echo Park | Photo: 826LA Facebook
Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez visits 826LA in Echo Park | Photo: 826LA Facebook


Another outstanding organization doing important work with young Los Angeles writers is WriteGirl. Founded in December 2001 by Keren Taylor, Writegirl's objective is "to bring the skills and energy of professional women writers to teenage girls who do not otherwise have access to creative writing or mentoring programs." WriteGirl aims to expose and educate teen girls in as many genres of writing as possible. The sessions explore fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, journalism, songwriting, screenwriting, playwriting, journal writing, persuasive writing and more.

Within six months of operation, they had already produced an anthology of teen writing. They have now produced dozens of anthologies and have received over 70 book awards for these volumes. I have known several fellow poets and journalists that have worked with WriteGirl. Over the years colleagues of mine like the poet and novelist Nicole Sconiers, educator Celine Malanum, poet and educator Ashaki Jackson and journalist Connie Ho have volunteered and collaborated with WriteGirl.

Journalist Connie Ho is the assistant editor of Westways (and KCET contributor) and has had several successful years of volunteering with WriteGirl. Her experience there even ended up helping her in her own career. She recently told me how it all started: "I first got involved with WriteGirl after college. I heard about the group from a writer's conference at UCLA. I was still trying to figure out what exactly I wanted to do work-wise. I checked out the group and went to my first writing workshop at the L.A. Times building. The workshop was on journalism and we were each paired with a teen girl. It was great to work with her one-on-one, help her flesh out her piece. But I don't think she really needed my help -- the words spilled out of her pen, and the writing was crisp and clear. At the end of the workshop, other teen mentees read their writing and I was amazed at how courageous they were to read in front of the room -- when I was their age, I was timid and shy and afraid of public speaking. The workshop got me hooked and I've been volunteering with the organization for the past four years. In a way, it helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my own career and writing too - I even met my current boss through the group."

Songwriting workshop with WriteGirl | Photo: WriteGirl Facebook
Songwriting workshop with WriteGirl | Photo: WriteGirl Facebook

A number of other WriteGirl mentors and volunteers have offered similar testimonies. WriteGirl offers many different ways for mentors to work with teens, including providing guidance at regular workshops, gathering with a teen mentee on a monthly basis or even advising her on drafting a college essay. Teen mentees can also approach mentors for questions about work, college life and business protocol. WriteGirl offers many different avenues for teen girls to develop their writing chops and above all they promote critical thinking, creativity and leadership skills.

Amanda Gorman, the current Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, was one of WriteGirl's mentees. In an essay she wrote for the Huffington Post, Gorman spoke of how she overcame a speech impediment through writing poetry and how working with WriteGirl when she was 14 changed her life forever. She wrote, "After the writing workshop, I gained the confidence to read my own work aloud. I learned that writing wasn't about pronunciation, but about style and the author's voice. This lesson helped me grow on endless occasions in my life -- during school, conferences, competitions, etc., convincing me that poetry can possess astonishing influence when taught to teens." Gorman is only one of hundreds of teens that have benefited from working with WriteGirl. On Saturday April 25, Writegirl is having their annual benefit event at a theater in Hollywood. See this link for more information on how to support or attend.

There are many other organizations that work with youth poets, like California Poets in the Schools and the Get Lit Players. California Poets in the Schools sends professional poets to schools across the state. Get Lit promotes teen literacy by having youth recite classic poetry as well as write their own poems. Founded by Diane Luby Lane almost a decade ago, they have been very successful in cultivating youth poets. Similar to the Poetry Out Loud program promoted by the Poetry Foundation, Get Lit sponsors performances with recitation contests like their annual Classic Slam. See this link for more.

There are hundreds of educators and dozens of organizations that mentor young writers and poets. Educators and volunteers with these groups, like Connie Ho, Michael Cirelli, and Luis Antonio Pichardo, find that working with young writers is a symbiotic process where everybody wins. I have found in my own career that mentoring young writers is deeply satisfying. There's nothing more gratifying than witnessing young writers find their voice and gain confidence. Any readers out there that are interested in this process can begin by inquiring with any of the organizations mentioned above.

Salute to teen poets like Amanda Gorman and Laura Davila, and the countless educators and dozens of organizations like 826LA, WriteGirl, Urban Word, DSTL Arts, California Poets in the Schools, and the Get Lit Players for their invaluable work mentoring the next generation of poets in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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