Young Writers & Leaders

Young Writers and Leaders

Young Writers & Leaders

The Telling Room
225 Commercial Street
Suite 201
Portland, ME 4101
Phone: 207.774.6064

Focus: Humanities, Literature

Annual Number Participating: 30

Ages: High School

Annual Budget: $66,900

Partners: Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland; Multilingual and Multicultural Center; Portland Public Library; Portland Public Schools

Funders: Edward H. Daveis Benevolent Fund; Maine Arts Commission; Maine Community Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts

When Sahara Hassan and her family arrived in Maine after fleeing war-torn Somalia, one of the greatest challenges the young Muslim faced was that she spoke no English. At school, Sahara couldn’t explain the hijab she was wearing to the “blond-headed girl who looked me up and down.” In the library, recalls Sahara, “I would open a book and just see a bunch of words that I’d never seen before and stare at it. I thought, ‘Can this really get worse?’”

Thanks to a pioneering Portland-based writing program known as Young Writers & Leaders (YWL), Sahara and dozens of other immigrant and refugee youth have improved their English-language proficiency, while developing sophisticated storytelling skills that give their peers and the community real insight into who they are.

Each year, YWL selects 15 immigrant and refugee teens for its program, which meets weekly throughout the school year. The sessions begin with an introduction to literary study and analysis. The participants read and discuss biographies, fiction, and other written materials that tell the stories of people new to this country. Next, students are paired with a writing coach who helps them develop a narrative, based on their personal experiences. In the program’s final months, the young writers also learn storytelling techniques that incorporate digital media.

While some of the students’ accounts deal with themes common to teenagers everywhere—love, belonging, sibling rivalry—others capture experiences “most Americans will never have to go through,” explains Heather Davis, executive director of The Telling Room, which developed the program. Michée Runyambo recalled the day soldiers rampaged through his Congolese town and executed a neighbor, before his eyes. Burundi-born Judica’elle Irakoze used telling details to describe the day she fled to the United States, alone, at age 17: “I brought one suitcase with me. In it was my pink diary, some of my favorite dresses, a photo of Mamoutchka, my Bible, and scented oils.”

The story-writing process helps young people come to terms with their immigrant experiences, while gaining skills and confidence that help them at school and work. And, as they share their stories through public readings and other media—including Maine’s public radio network—the teens help the larger community see “the beautiful, talented” young people who are part of the area’s rising immigrant population, Davis adds. “We hope that has an impact on everybody, in the long run.”

Students write and perform pieces that give tribute to their home countries; the resilience of family members; and the confusion about, challenge of, and pride in being an immigrant or refugee in Portland, Maine. By working with mentors through Young Writers & Leaders, students grow to see themselves as storytellers, leaders, and advocates—not in spite of their status as language learners, but because of it.

Mallory Haar teacher, English as a Second Language, Casco Bay High School, Portland, ME