MillsDavis Foundation Awards Wordcrafters Vital Funds to Expand Writers in the Schools Residency Program

Wordcrafters in Eugene is the recipient of a $15,000 grant from the MillsDavis Foundation, a private foundation that contributed $570,246 to various organizations in 2021, particularly those which focus on Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. 

The funds will be used to support Wordcrafters’ Writers in The Schools (WITS) residency program. These residencies enable at-risk students to experience and practice the entire creative writing process by working with a professional writer through a model highly regarded by program schools. 

The WITS (Writers in the Schools) Alliance is a professional network of literary arts education programs, and has developed the WITS methodology, which has been continually evolving through testing and refining since 1983. This methodology asserts that intensive literary arts classes provide a more rich and engaging public school environment for students, and gives them the chance to practice and develop their communication and critical thinking skills, which results in young people who are more prepared in adulthood to use these skills for whatever future endeavors they pursue.

Residencies funded by this grant will be taught by award-winning poet/performer, Jorah LaFleur. In each residency, students will develop their own spoken-word pieces and be guided by LaFleur through the entire writing process, culminating in a class chapbook, poetry art pieces, or poetry reading. 

“Jorah teaches students not only the power of words, but the pleasure of playing with words! Jorah comes to the classroom with copper keys to unlock the doors of students’ abilities to connect with language and poetry,” says Rena Dunbar, teacher.

Why focus on spoken word and not on non-fictional writing, such as essays? 

Spoken word is to writing what colored pencils are to visual artwork. Anyone can use spoken word, just as they can use colored pencils, to weave a story from their imagination. It’s a medium that requires you to be in touch with your emotions while focusing on controlling how you convey those emotions and thoughts in an organized, creative way to paint a cohesive picture with your words, tone, and body language.

Spoken word is also the medium Wordcrafters has found at-risk students primarily respond to, and it happens to be in line with teacher goals.

 “My most reluctant writers have made the largest gains in this program…My students have gained skills, confidence, and an identity as a writer, all of which makes the ideas of college more accessible,” says Kris Olsen, Kalapuya teacher.

This grant will directly fund WITS Residencies that will serve 240 students at three programs: Kalyapuya High School, Elmira High School, and the Phoenix Treatment Program.

At Kalapuya High School, all students come from lower-income households, and are often labeled “at risk” due to living in an area of Eugene dubbed a “poverty hot spot” by the state of Oregon. 

Elmira High School is in a rural area of Eugene, and faces a common issue in education: schools in rural communities tend to have less opportunities to engage in fine arts and creative programs and classes, often due to low funding.  

Wordcrafters hopes to extend WITS residendies to other underserved rural schools, whose students face many of the same issues: limited financial resources due to their families’ economic status, poor school funding, and limited transportation.

Elmira teacher Shannon Hart says,  “The Writers Residency Series has and will provide students with an immersive arts experience that few would otherwise have access to. It will help strengthen their writing skills and their sense of educational engagement.” 

The Phoenix Treatment Program is an education program in Lane County that serves incarcerated students. Unlike a regular classroom setting, the student population in the Phoenix program changes over time due to new students entering and other students leaving. Because of this, Wordcrafters has adapted WITS Residencies to take a one-on-one approach, where each class is devoted to some group writing activities along with individual project time. 

Through these residencies, Phoenix students not only learn how to improve their writing, but also how to use creative outlets, such as spoken word, to relieve stress and blow off steam when dealing with conflict.

“WITS offers our students a truly unique opportunity to develop their own voices and believe in the power of the written word…we are excited about continuing the process with WITS,” says Steven Willow, teacher.

The most important thing students learn through these residencies is that they have a voice, and writing is a way for them to express that voice and gain power over their narratives, simply by creating something external from themselves that expresses who they are. 

This grant makes it possible for students in all three of these programs to hone their writing skills alongside personalized, professional instruction by an award-winning teaching artist. 

More importantly, this grant provides an opportunity for students from three underserved communities to find their voices and share them with others through spoken word. 

Wordcrafters can’t wait to experience the many beautiful worlds these students weave through their words!

See WITS in action

In the Spring of 2023, Wordcrafters in Eugene brought a collaborative residency to students at the John Serbu Youth Campus (Detention, Phoenix Program, MLK School). Wordcrafters teaching artist Jorah LaFleur worked with Serbu art teacher Trish Robison to co-create a mixed media project, combining poetry and printmaking.