I wish all teachers of writing could have been with me at the Hazhó’ó Hólne’ Writing Conference, held in late March in Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation and centered around the theme of Revitalization. A project of the Bread Loaf School of English Teacher’s Network and funded in part by Ford, the conference brought together students and teachers in Next Generation Leadership Network (I wrote about the NGLN in a previous post) groups from Massachusetts, Kentucky, Vermont, Georgia, South Carolina, and the Navajo Nation to share the work they have been doing during the last year in their home communities and to write and perform together. This is the third iteration of this conference and it has been a true honor to participate.
The Conference was convened by distinguished Navajo poet and community activist Rex Lee Jim and welcomed by Navajo President Jonathan Nez as well as by Bread Loaf School of English Director Emily Bartels. Each day featured three “breakout” sessions that offered interactive workshops on How to Sing Stories, Telling Our Stories through Theater, Youth Voices via Multimodalism, Teachers as Writers, Imagery and the Sensory, Spoken Word, Writing for Healing, Story Circles to Build Community, Art Therapy through Writing, and much more. I learned so much more in two days than I can possibly express—experiencing the embodied Navajo songs and prayers and dances that stirred my spirit as the descriptions of community project and research-based efforts to improve conditions in local schools and communities kept me on my mental toes hour after hour after hour.
Hearing young people (most of them young people of color) talk about food literacy programs that are helping communities work toward sustainability, about free after school writing and sports-based programs for elementary schools, about oral history projects that are capturing the long-ignored history of African-American Atlanta—well, you can see why I came away with hope for our future, even in these dismal times.
Of all the projects I learned about, none was more important than that of Navajo youth reporting on the kidnapping of indigenous women. The student researchers shared horrific statistics—over 500 women missing or murdered in 71 locations just for a start—and showed how little has been done to address this epidemic. Most impressive was their grasp of the complexity of the problem, their understanding that there can be no quick fix. Rather, they are engaged in the slow, tedious, meticulous work of documentation and of raising awareness among those in power at the same time that they look for concrete ways to protect indigenous women in their communities.
Each day of the conference concluded with an open mic session as writers lined up to take the mic and share their work. Many read/performed pieces they had written or begun during the weekend, like a piece called “Pam Can Dunk.” This poem about a small town local hero who lost her life in a car accident a couple of years ago told the story of Pam, who loved basketball more than anything but whose father and coaches continued to tell her that “girls can’t dunk.” Beautifully rendered and delivered, this poem builds in intensity to the conclusion when Pam shows them all with an unexpected but totally powerful slam dunk all her own. The writer of this piece is still revising and polishing, but he plans to publish it locally as a way to honor the memory of this young woman whose story will now live on.
There were many moments like this one—not only poems but also short prose pieces, original songs, an amazing a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and even line dancing and singing that everyone could join in on. So a lot of pure joy mixed in with loss, heartache, grief, and, always, learning about and celebrating language and words, both written and spoken.
During one of our breaks, I spoke with a student who said she didn’t much like school (“it’s just all about tests”) but who loved being part of NGLN: “That’s where we get to write all the time!” she said. And this writing all the time had kept her engaged in school as well, even when she didn’t much want to go. I know how hard most high school teachers work to engage their students, to get them writing “all the time” in spite of administrative obsession with numbers and tests. It’s an ongoing struggle. That’s just one reason I’m so glad that groups like NGLN (and lots of others) exist to help out, to allow student writers/researchers/speakers/performers to do real, concrete work to improve their lives and the lives of their communities.
As this description suggests, NGLN’s central activity is the “organization and networking of youth-centered think tanks, where youth and their mentors gather, both digitally and in person, to design and develop strategic plans for individual and collective social action.” You can learn more about this vibrant, vital program on their website and check out the videos that are posted there as well.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2607131 by StockSnap, used under the Pixabay License