Truth, Be Told: Larger Lessons I Didn’t Plan

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient, Kiera Torpie used her funding to pilot a creative writing project for adolescents who have incarcerated loved ones in the summer of 2019. Kiera, Class of 2020, is a junior majoring in Linguistics and International Development.

It has been a long time dream of mine to empower young people who have been impacted by the incarceration of a loved one. These last few months, with the help of the Taylor Center and Upturn Arts, I was given the opportunity to work toward this goal by piloting a creative writing workshop: Truth, Be Told, for this community of trauma survivors.

When I applied for the grant, I hoped it would enable me to fulfill an academic goal to grow as a creative writer, a professional goal to develop my teaching and mentorship skills, and a personal objective to empower a community of trauma survivors who have been long under-served in this incredibly compassionate city. It is difficult to measure the extent to which these goals were met. What I can say is that while I spent my summer writing lesson plans, I learned a few, too. Thus, can speak to the challenges I faced, the lessons I learned, and, ultimately, the ways in which the workshop was formative. Before delving into these takeaways, I’d like to explain why I was motivated to create this program and how it came into fruition in the first place. 

Writing TorpieMy desire to start Truth, Be Told was both locally specific and personally-driven. Since 1986, Louisiana has ranked among the top ten states for the highest incarceration rates nationwide. Although New Orleans non-profits have paid attention to the incarceration crisis in recent years, my research led me to find that the city lacks a program that brings those incarcerated people’s children together in a shared space geared toward creative healing. This is counter-intuitive, considering the fact that about 1 in 12 children in Louisiana have had an incarcerated parent, with black families impacted disproportionately. I found that creative writing projects for those impacted by incarceration have been successful in other major cities, and I figured it was simply a matter of trying here in New Orleans. 

Furthermore, as the daughter of a formerly incarcerated father, I know all too well that the imprisonment of a loved one is a unique and culturally neglected trauma. As last semester’s (Per) Sister exhibit highlights, the impacts of having an incarcerated caregiver include higher rates of depression and anxiety, high risk behavior, and even negative physical health outcomes. That said, I also believe deeply in the healing power of a safe space for creative exploration—especially through the written word. At least this has been the case for me. 

Artwork by Karen Hernandez

So, I started by reaching out. I emailed several organizations around the city with missions close to mine and asked for advice. With knowledge of the Taylor Center’s incredible funding opportunities, my main points of concern were less about financing and more about finding students and securing a space to host the program. Almost immediately, I received positive feedback from a number of organizations who wanted to help in any way they could. Namely, the Program Coordinator at Upturn Arts (at the time) expressed an interest in hosting the project. Over the course of a few weeks, we met many times in person and I accepted an organizational partnership. This meant that they agreed to integrate my project into their growing teen program, help me recruit up to 5 students, and offer me a weekly space.

Between April and June, I focused mostly on curriculum development and recruitment. I read books and developed a detailed syllabus. I hired an artist friend to create a poster and I hung them all over town. I called high schools, counseling centers, similar organizations. I dropped off flyers at community centers and sent more emails a day than I ever have in a week. 

By June, with little recruitment assistance, I had three students registered for the class. A small but promising number, two of these girls had an incarcerated parent, while the third, who I had met at an open house, just wanted to write. I was advised to be as inclusive as possible, considering that it was a pilot and, without name recognition, exposure was my priority. 

Over the course of the summer, however, these challenges continued to grow. In retrospect, I am able to categorize them and recognize that they are typical of non-profit work, mentorship programs, and pilot projects. Specifically, I was confronted with high turn-over, double scheduling, and a lack of local knowledge.

High Turnover

Just before the class started, the Program Director who I’d confirmed the partnership with announced that she was leaving the organization. At this point, I hadn’t established a relationship with anyone else in the organization. Moreover, it quickly became apparent that the director of the organization had not been thoroughly communicated with regarding my place or intentions. I was suddenly confronted with the challenge of forming a new relationship, re-establishing the legitimacy of my work, and creating new and appropriate boundaries. It also became apparent that I was essentially on my own in the wake of a number of new challenges. 

Double Scheduling

For example, I soon found out that two of the girls who registered for my class were also junior counselors at the day camp. Since I didn’t have a strong relationship or common understanding with the person making their schedules, they were often scheduled to work during my class. As a result, the class was rarely the cohesive whole that I’d imagined and planned for. On the contrary, there were usually only one or two girls at a time, with the third coming for half the class or not at all. It wasn’t until halfway through the summer that I was able to sit down with the camp director and come up with a new time that wouldn’t interrupt their work schedules. At this point, however, the girls’ father fell ill, and they were responsible to take turns taking care of him. Thus, although attendance improved after the time change, it remained largely inconsistent. 

Lack of Local Knowledge

Finally, I think a big challenge to the success of the program was my lack of local knowledge. Although I’ve engaged with NOLA nonprofits, this was my first attempt at anything like this. I lacked network, assumed credibility, and internal knowledge. For example, recruitment was painstakingly difficult because I wasn’t taken very seriously by schools and mental health networks. This indicates that I have a long way to go before I can really put my best foot forward as a program creator in this field. 

Moreover, I didn’t really understand the local landscape when I went into this venture. Although each organization expressed admiration for my proposal, many also informed me that they were in the preliminary research stages of creating a pilot project for this community. At the time, I took this response as positive feedback and figured they just lacked the capacity to take something on this summer. It didn’t occur to me, instead, that maybe there is a larger factor behind the challenges I was facing. Specifically, maybe the research these organizations are conducting will explain why it was nearly impossible for me to find those impacted by the incarceration of a loved one. At the time, I figured that since I am a member of the community and I went to high school and visited social workers, those were the spaces I’d inevitably find students. But I am not from New Orleans. I am from a suburb outside of New York. These things don’t always translate.

I also thought that since so many major cities had successful writing programs for this community, New Orleans youth would obviously be interested in Truth, Be Told as well. However, this was an unfair assumption. It is possible that the research many organizations are currently conducting will indicate that even if I found members of this community, a writing program of this nature isn’t an appropriate intervention. 

While this finding wouldn’t discount the immense healing power of writing, it would say something about the specificity of community needs and the urgency to listen carefully before creating a program to address them. 

For example, maybe creative writing would be an appropriate tool, but maybe not as a summer program. Maybe it would do better as a course offered in all charter schools, as it is at Lusher, or as an after school program. Maybe it would do better at the library. Maybe it would do better at the library, but only at one or two specific libraries that are strategically located. Maybe it wouldn’t be writing at all, maybe it would be a visual art or spoken word workshop. Maybe it would be essential that it is created not only by someone with an incarcerated parent, but by someone with an incarcerated parent who is from New Orleans and looks like those who would partake.

My point is that like many community intervention impact reports, Truth, Be Told did not confirm any assumptions I made in my grant proposal, but rather, it forced me to question them with nuance and insight that I would not have acquired without trying. 

Moreover, I think research regarding families of those incarcerated in Louisiana would help guide and promote a more effective empowerment approach. 

So, I learned a few lessons this summer. I learned that it may be better in the long run to work within the wheel before I create my own. I learned that non-profit work will always face unpredictable challenges. As a non-profit creator once said at a PLEN Conference I attended, “Running a non-profit is like riding a broken bike while simultaneously replacing its chain.” I learned to be a more flexible organizer. I learned to be a more adaptable educator. I learned that while this work will always face unpredictable challenges, it is important to listen to them and consider how they may be prevented next time.

Writing TorpieBefore bidding farewell, I’d like to consider the beautiful things that this project did achieve. For example, all three young authors: Sofia Martinez, Trin’Yell Steptore, and Tri’Chell Steptore, had opportunities to speak their truth through the written word. At different points, each student connected with an assignment or exercise. Each student, at least once, felt a weight lifted from their shoulders as they put into words something they’ve never been able to express, let alone share. By the end of the course, each girl can say they spent part of their summer analyzing literature meaningfully, critiquing other people’s work, applying criticism to their own work, and using writing to explore feelings, memories, and experiences.Two of the students even accomplished finished works that will be published in a class zine. 

Thus, lessons planned and lessons learned aside, Truth, Be Told accomplished something very big. In the words of Maya Angelou, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you.” And at the end of the day, all three authors developed an invaluable skill that will serve as an emotional and creative outlet for the rest of their lives. As for me, in all my future pursuits, I will continue to empower young people to let go of this burden by telling their stories through the written word. Because writing is a way of telling our truth. Because it is a way of processing our lives, connecting with one another, feeling less alone. And because I am sure it is a way toward epic healing.