Speak Up Mississippi

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write for mississippi.pngAfter the election, a friend shared a Facebook post with me about a GoFundMe campaign to bring writers into high school classrooms in Mississippi to inspire young people to think about change. The campaign was created by a native Mississippian “in light of the recent political turmoil and deep historical burdens.” The idea was simple bring writers into all the high school classrooms of Mississippi to to generate poems, stories, and essays around the prompt “What’s a problem in your community? How could you try to fix it?” and then to publish the best of the resulting pieces in a book that could be redistributed across the state.

Disheartened by the climate in our country, this one person believed she could be a force for change beginning with her native state. The fund raising campaign was called, “What Can We Do for Our Country? and Katy Smith, the creator of the project she called, Write for Mississippi, raised almost $5000 online. Then she was able to get many high schools on board and recruit an outstanding group of writers in just a few short months. Just look at the line up of writers she was able to pull together – 39 writers from our state including Curtis Wilkie, Beth Ann Fennelly, Kiese Laymon and Rheta Grimsley Johnson. Students from throughout the state are already submitting their work for the anthology scheduled to come out later this year.

When I heard about Katy Smith‘s Write for Mississippi, I immediately donated and contacted her. Because I believe in the power of the written word and the importance of giving our young people a voice, I wanted to help.  My job with Writers in the Schools here in Houston takes me into schools all over the city encouraging students to write and create.

After several emails, Katy sent me to Baldwyn High School in March. I was already in Mississippi for another event, so it was my pleasure to spend the day in this wonderful high school. The students gave me hope in the future of Mississippi as we talked about problems and solutions. Together with the students, we read an excerpt from Sherman Alexie‘s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. We talked a lot about a quote of Alexie’s, “Don’t live up to your stereotypes.”  Then we made a list of problems they saw in their community.  These problems ranged from bad cafeteria food to interracial dating. The students weren’t afraid to speak up and nor did they hesitate to put their thoughts on the page. The prompt was: “What’s a problem in your community? Where do you think it came from? How could you try to fix it?”

I have not yet seen their work because students revised and wrote on the computer in the days after I left the classroom, but I know they wrote personal essays, fiction, poetry and even a rap song. And many of these juniors and seniors shared their work with me while I was there. Their words were strong.  I know these young people will make a difference in the future of our state. But the most amazing thing is that one writer Katy Smith, a published novelist and a product of Mississippi public schools, created this opportunity to give our young people a voice. Thank you, Katy.

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