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Strangers Connect Over Powerful Stories at Boston's First Write-In
The first ever Boston Write-In took place on May 19th, 2017, in partnership with the Boston Public Library and Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit focused on social justice education, and with the support of co-sponsors The William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass Boston, the City of Boston’s Office of Immigrant Advancement and Office of Arts & Culture, WriteBoston, The Drum Literary Magazine, and the International Institute of New England.
The morning of the Write-In, the sun peeked out after weeks of rain, which I took as a good sign. A small army of volunteers from GrubStreet, Facing History and Ourselves, and all of the co-sponsoring organizations, gathered for training and to set up shop on the steps of the BPL’s McKim Building in Copley Square, a storied place fittingly called “the palace for the people” when it opened in 1895. We laid out eight antique typewriters in their cases along the steps, placing blank paper in each one. The Drum literary magazine set up their portable sound booth, filmmaker Desmond Hall tested his boom, and we placed speakers and a microphone at the edge of the steps facing the Square. We had scheduled a short program with five speakers followed by an open mic, and looking over at the empty space in front of the microphone, I hoped an audience would gather before we took the stage. But wondering what would happen when we opened the floor to the public made me even more nervous. Would anyone step up? Tell a story? Read a poem?
Filmmaker Desmond Hall takes in the antique typewriters.
Hosting a city-wide civic event is new territory for us as an organization, and so my sleep the night before had been interrupted by a parade of potential disasters: no one showing up, lots of people showing up with the exception of recent immigrants and refugees, forgetting something essential, a May snowstorm…
Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley speaks during the opening program.
We had two aims for the day: First, to shed light on the stories of recent immigrants and refugees, and second to celebrate the role of storytelling and narrative in reaching across divides and uniting people. But this was a public and largely unscripted event; we had no idea how the day would unfold.
Once everything was set, we waited. The sun beat down.
Eve Bridburg addresses the Write-In crowd.
Gradually, passers-by, tourists, Bostonians on their lunch breaks, and others who had read about the Write-In, began to slow and stop, drawn to the typewriters we’d scattered on the steps. Something about the novelty of them, the muscle required to get the keys working, made people smile. One woman wrote: “My mother typed on one of these for years. This is the sound of my mother’s love. An iPhone can never sing like this.”
Facing History had arranged transportation for students from the Boston Community Leadership Academy, so they could attend the event. Their arrival brought new energy, and the pace picked up. They huddled with our volunteers and began to write their stories on paper, at the keyboards, or on large yellow stickies. More and more people joined in. Soon, we were working on stories with people from the Sudan, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, Somalia, Syria, Ireland, China, and beyond.
A participant with a Write-In volunteer outside the Boston Public Library.
People began hanging their stickies on the library’s outer wall:
- If the American dream really is real, then why isn’t it my reality?
- You want a better future? Learn about the past.
- Being a refugee or not (or a survivor or not) is most of all a matter of luck.
- My grandparents came here illegally from China. I owe them everything.
- My identity: Mexican. American. Immigrant. Advocate. Spanish speaker. Latinx. Public Servant.
- My Grandfather left Ireland at age 14 by boat to Canada. He walked to Boston. His dream is my dream is your dream. TOGETHER.
- My family immigrated from S Korea and Italian-American neighbors helped us, some of them became my honorary grandparents—the beauty of America.
- I’m afraid to go back home to Sudan because then I might not be allowed to come back to my home in the US.
Participants write messages on sticky notes and pin them to the Library wall.
Volunteers and participants were deep in conversation. A few mothers had stopped at the typewriters and were teaching their children how to hammer away at the keys. Teens in flowing skirts and t-shirts sat against the library walls, writing in their journals. Ten minutes before we were due to kick off the open mic, Cheryl Hamilton, the director of the Lowell office of the International Institute of New England and our Master of Ceremonies, approached me to report that only two people had signed on to read. Our hearts sank. We had scheduled an hour. We decided we had no other choice but to get started, hoping others would be inspired and join in.
A woman teaches a young girl how to operate a typewriter.
As the first reader, a twelve-year-old Indian-American girl, took to the stage, a crowd circled around her. She read a poem she had written for the occasion. Her mother followed her to the stage to tell us how the company she worked for had sought out and hired a Syrian refugee who they saw on television expressing a desire to work for them. She pointed to the Hancock Building. “My company is just there. We need to do more.” When the girl and her mother finished, there was a pause—no readers stepped up—and so, with great skill, our Master of Ceremonies began educating the growing crowd about the scale of the current refugee crisis. An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
Before long, a teen from the Boston Community Leadership Academy took the stage, and from that moment on, testimony flowed without pause. One woman sang a South African freedom Song; a middle-aged man spoke about how hard it is to build a life in this country without papers. A young woman spoke about the pain and hardship of living and building a new, better life in America without her parents. A young man talked about hard work and his optimism about his own abilities and the future of the country. Each time someone left our makeshift stage, there were handshakes, pats on the back, hugs.
Speakers tell their stories in the open mic.
As the afternoon wound to a close and the last readers left the stage, I felt that we had succeeded in highlighting the stories of immigrants and refugees. But we also accomplished more. On the steps of the People’s Palace, we managed to bring the human connection, the respect for one another’s stories and humanity we see in our classrooms, out into the public square. I couldn’t be prouder of the afternoon, or more grateful to our partners and volunteers for helping us pull it off. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be sharing some of the incredible stories, ideas, and poems we collected during the Write-In. For now, I offer you this note, left anonymously in one of our typewriters:
It is up to us, we the people, to introduce ourselves to the unfamiliar and learn the stories of the other. We the people are the change.
Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse by expanding offerings to better educate and equip writers in the digital age, launching new, innovative programming for advanced students, and significantly expanding scholarship opportunities to ensure access. Eve curated GrubStreet’s NEA-funded Publish it Forward lecture series and our innovative Launch Lab, led GrubStreet’s Diversity Task force, laying the foundation for GrubStreet’s next chapter, and was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston. Eve’s work has been recognized by Boston Magazine, who named her one of Boston’s 50 most powerful women in 2010, and by BostInno Magazine who gave her their 2014 Arts and Entertainment Award for driving innovation in Boston. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on publishing, the future of publishing, and on what it takes to build a literary arts center at numerous conferences, including AWP, O’Reilly’s Tools of Change, GrubStreet’s own The Muse and the Marketplace, Whidbey Island Writers Conference, The Sanibel Island Writers Conference, and Writers at Work. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.See other articles by Eve Bridburg
- New Barr Award will Amplify Narrative Arts in Boston
- You Can Make a Difference: Support the Narrative Arts Center
- "Grub is Like Hogwarts" and 4 Other Reasons To Give
- 20 Years On, Grub's Still Write Down the Street
- Getting it Out On Paper Begins the Healing Process: An Interview with Brookview House CEO Deborah Hughes
- [Boston Globe] In Copley Square, the write time for stories of immigrants
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