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Anne Hensley and Emily Kastner

What is your official title?

Anne: Co-founder and Executive Director Read and Write Kalamazoo (RAWK)

Emily: Co-founder and Director of Education at Read and Write Kalamazoo.

 

What is RAWK?

Anne: Read and Write Kalamazoo is a non-profit founded to support nurturing creative and intellectual confidence through literacy skills.

Emily: We host writing workshops, reading themed events, summer camps, we publish student work – we currently have three books we’re all so proud of.

Anne: We bring the community in to try and support students and be a community answer to The Promise. We rely on a lot of volunteers — local authors, artists, people in the publishing and design industry, college students and grad students. We have had the great fortune to have a lot of support and volunteers.

Emily: Our main focus is on kindergarten through 12th grade, but we work with some preschool aged kids as well. We started in the end of 2012, so this is the beginning of our third year — we have been so happy with our growth.

 

What kind of projects are you currently working on?

Anne: There is always an event that is coming up.

Emily: Emily: We have monthly thematic workshops, so I’m always prepping for those – planning curriculum, arranging logistics, and organizing facilitators and artists to help. We just did our first Readers’ Theater event yesterday — so much fun!

We have an “Art of the Journal” workshop coming up in March with 3rd through 5th graders. They are going to be taught about journaling – how and why we do it – and there’s a real hands-on element! They get to make their own journals.

Anne: We also have a longer-term project that we are doing with Communities in Schools called Literacy Buddies, which pairs up high school students with elementary aged students. It’s a large project with sixty students involved right now. It’s a semester-long program and at the end we will publish something with them and have a big reading event with the public.

 

Tells us about the event this past weekend — what do the kids do when they come to a RAWK event?

Emily: It was a day-long event with a performance in front of an audience at the end, which was different because generally our workshops are 2-4 hours. We picked out three children’s books that we read together that fit our theme of Black History Month. We had a guest director Marisa Harrington (Director from the Black Arts and Cultural Center and Western’s theater department) come in and she talked about theater, acting, and performing. We played fun games to break them into the idea of performing. They got into groups, created scripts based on the books that they read, rehearsed from the scripts, made a mural for a background of the performance, and then they performed. All in one day they went from picking up the book and reading it to performing something based on their interpretation.

The kids got so into the whole day even though many of them didn’t know what they had been signed up for when they arrive here.

Anne: It was a packed house and the kids were so excited. One kid had been up since 5:30am because he was so excited to come, which is cool and so nice to hear.

 

Can you tell us about your background/passion?

Anne: I’m from the Metro Detroit area. I grew up in the theater. I came here to go to Western and got a job acting in a theater company, The New Vic Theatre Company – I was in their acting company for 15 years. I didn’t end up staying at Western, but I loved Kalamazoo.

My professional background is in design and marketing, but I’ve always written and been involved in a lot of writing workshops. Emily and I got close in some writing workshops and we were both inspired by the organization that we use as our model, 826 National, and thought that Kalamazoo was a great place for that type of organization. Our skills sets together are a perfect fit for this type of project.

Emily: Definitely! I’m from the east side of the state also. I went to Western and got a degree in Education – English and Science – and I taught for a couple years at an alternative high school in Battle Creek. Met my husband, who owned at a coffee shop over near campus, Rocketstar Cafe. I didn’t drink coffee, but I started to when I stopped into the coffee shop one day when it was freezing to grab a tea or something and I just thought – who’s this? My roommate actually ended up giving me his phone number for my birthday and told me that he was expecting a call.

The two of us moved out to San Francisco and I was teaching science out there, which is when I found out about the 826 organization; I was so inspired by what they were doing. Dan and I had our son, moved back to Kalamazoo and I decided to stay home with him. I did a lot of writing on the side, some workshops with friends and had my own blog. I write for a food magazine and my own writing projects, but I missed the specific aspect of teaching and working with kids.

Anne and I were talking one day and she said she really wanted to start a tutoring center and I thought – well that is basically my dream! At first we were like, “Some day we are going to do that together” then a few months past and we were like “we should probably do that now.” We started by writing a grant for some summer workshops and it snowballed from that to where we are now.

Anne: The Vine Neighborhood Association sponsored us and has helped us from the very start. We were able to write the initial grant through them and launch.

Emily: We gave it an official title even though we didn’t know what it was going to become – what else were we going to say? “Come down and write with Anne and Emily”? We wanted the name is have an acronym so that it was fun for the kids – RAWK was the perfect fit.

 

Tell us about your inspiration from 826.

Anne: 826 is a national network of writing and tutoring centers. The first one was 826 Valencia, started by Dave Eggers, the author. It was initially an after school center for drop in homework help. Kids would stop by and get help from a volunteer and then after they were done with their homework they would do independent reading and some sort of writing prompt.

Emily: Dave Eggers really tapped into his network of fellow writers who had time to work with students.

Anne: They rented a storefront out of Valencia and they needed a way to pay the bills. The storefront had this strange structure that made it look like a ship and it was zoned commercially so they got creative with it and made a Pirate Supply Store – you can buy all kitschy little pirate things there: peg legs, parrots, etc. There is a secret door in the store and behind it is a tutoring and writing center. So now that has become their trademark, each of the locations have a storefront and a writing / tutoring program in the back – there is a Robot Supply and Repair in Ann Arbor, The Boring Store in Chicago, Superhero Supply Store in Brooklyn that sells capes and buckets of invisibility – it’s magical – and then there is a secret door that only the kids know about, and behind it they write, do homework and independent reading, have field trips. It’s a clubhouse of sorts.

That is the dream – to have a center with a storefront where the kids will think of it as their place; a safe space.

Emily: 826 has been really supportive about what we are doing in Kalamazoo. We mentored with them and, oddly enough, their national staff has some connection to Kalamazoo, Western in particular. They are also in awe of The Kalamazoo Promise – just as we are.

 

What has been the most rewarding outcome of RAWK?

Anne: Just yesterday a mother came to drop her child off, then she came down the stairs after watching a bit and was really weepy. These aren’t even my kids and every time we do a workshop I get choked up. Students come out with brilliant concise, creative, intimate things that they want to share. It’s really moving. They want an opportunity to open up.

Emily: It’s always moving to have a group of students that come in and they say, “Ehhhh I’m not a writer, I’m not that into writing.” Then they write something and it’s beautiful and they found their voice.

We worked with some students at an elementary school, they were struggling writers. It was hard work to reach them. Most of the time our programs and workshops are outside of school, so part of our goal is to stay true to that fun and carefree environment we’re all about. By the end they typed it up and made a book. Anne and I came back and delivered the finished books to them. It was the last day of school so they were crazy excited, and when we handed the books to them it’s like their eyes just zeroed in. They were so proud. They were showing their friends and had huge smiles on their faces.

Anne: These were all students who were identified by CIS and their teachers as at risk in many ways – and it’s like they were in awe of their accomplishment in creating a real book. I get inspired when we have kids that come in and don’t want to be there but then they start interacting with others and in ways that really surprise us. We aren’t prescriptive about grammar and spelling – we are just about communicating and encouraging creativity.

Emily: Kids are so in the habit of asking for permission, following a pattern and being assessed in school. We have the luxury of taking that pressure away. There is momentum that comes when the students have that realization.

 

What type of feedback do you get from teachers?

Anne: In the workshop that we did last spring we worked with seven 5th graders all from the same class. Both the teacher and CIS site coordinator said that many of those kids never speak in class and never respond to the teacher in class, but they were standing up in front of their peers, reading their work out loud, going back to class eager sharing what they had written. That was the first real interaction we have had with teachers but we hope those relationships continue to grow.

Emily: We have teachers that find out that RAWK exists in general and they are super pumped and start sending kids our way.

Anne: We get feedback from parents too just thanking us for providing this.

Emily: When students leave our workshops, sometimes we think, “Did they really have fun?” But then we get emails from parents saying, “That is all she could talk about at dinner, she can’t wait to come back.”

Anne: One time a parent emailed us the day after her son attended one of our workshops and said that he got up the next morning and started writing poetry. He sat there for a few hours just writing. Which is the best thing to hear.

 

Tell us about the organization you work with in Kalamazoo.

Emily: Communities in Schools is our first big partnership as far as programming goes. We’ve got a lot of exciting partnerships that we’re working on right now too. Bookbug has been very supportive. They host our book readings at the end of the summer and they are just so generous with their space and general support. They make the students feel like real authors.

Anne: The Kalamazoo Public Library and Vicksburg District Library, from the minute we started doing something, have been supportive.

Emily: A lot of local artists. Paul Sizer did a workshop on graphic novels. He did one of our first workshops and the kids were just in awe of him. You know? This real deal artist was giving them feedback on their work. We continue to find people that want to do stuff with us and we love to mix it up for the kids. When there is a community to support this type of organizing that is when it is most successful.

Anne: What is most important about all of that support is that it allows kids to have another opportunity to have a meaningful interaction and relationship with an adult. They realize that people see their value.

 

How can people get involved? How can kids sign up?

Anne: We have a website – readandwritekzoo.org, which is the first place to start. Volunteers – we have a volunteer application. Parents looking to sign up their kids for something should familiarize themselves with the programming opportunities first to see what might be most interesting to them.

Emily: We also maintain a good presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – the kid’s favorite – so people can check us out there.

 

What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

Anne: Emailing. I live in the Internet. I work at Brakeman Design, too. I have a teenage daughter so I make sure I can see her whenever she has time for me. Read. Exercise.

Emily: I have two little ones, and a third on the way. I’m primarily a stay-at-home mom. A day in my life is juggling school pick-ups and drop-offs, playgroups and story times all the while getting my writing, projects and RAWK stuff done during naptime and after they’re in bed. And my day often has a trip to the Sweetwater’s drive-thru for a donut. Anne and I are constantly emailing, Facebook messaging, texting – usually all three at once just to make sure we get ahold of each other, which can definitely be confusing. There isn’t a day that we aren’t communicating every 4-5 hours. It’s on the fly constantly until we do this full time.

Anne: We like to cook, have potlucks, and hang out with friends – we are friends too. We always remember that we are friends first.

 

What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

Emily: I love the intimate nature of our town because it feels big and it feels thriving, but it’s small enough that I can recognize someone going to the grocery store or going anywhere. I love going around and knowing people, feeling really connected. It would be a huge surprise in San Francisco if I ran into someone I know or that I think I know, like a celebrity.

Also, so much stuff is always happening. It’s fun when you see friends doing amazing things. Being able to say “that is my friend and they are doing wonderful things.” It’s contagious.

Anne: Creative energy in Kalamazoo is my favorite. There are always new and interesting things happening. Look at all of these people that are doing cool things that live in Kalamazoo. It is contagious and we don’t have some of the obstacles that people in big cities have. Plus – a great, great place to raise your kids.

 

What can be done to improve our beloved Kalamazoo?

Anne: We recently got a grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to go to a workshop called Understanding and Analyzing Systemic Racism, with ERACCE, so this has been on my mind. I feel like for as diverse as Kalamazoo’s population is, it’s somewhat segregated. It’s obviously one of the most complex issues anywhere, but I do appreciate that there are groups like ERACCE and I hope people are considering inclusivity with all of their ventures.

Emily: That is the first thing that came to my mind. It can be awkward and challenging. It takes people that are really willing to walk into it, so I am thankful for ERACCE.

 

How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

Emily: I love coffee. I just take it with a little bit of cream.

Anne: Black. Fourth Roast. Often.

 

What is next up on your reading list?

Emily: I have an insane pile of books begging for me to read them.

Anne: It’s not a list as much as it is a galaxy.

Emily: I don’t have the time I want to read much right now, but sitting on my table right now is Bad Feminist. I just read Yes, Please by Amy Poehler – I made time for that.

Anne: Moby-Dick. I am working through a lot of classics that I think I missed.

 

If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Anne: Be patient with myself and with everything. Listen. Learn.

Emily: I’ve always been a worrier with everything. I would tell myself to chill out. Things work out.

 

What celebrity would play you in a movie?

Emily: I am the biggest fan of Amy Poehler.

Anne: She would ABSOLUTELY play Emily. It’s kind of funny because a lot of people say that I remind them of Tina Fey. But, my husband says that Jenny Slate, you know, The Obvious Child and Marcel the Shell, would play me.

 

What is your dream for Read and Write Kalamazoo?

Emily: We would love to have our own place where the public is involved, foot traffic is good, it’s near a school, we have a kitschy storefront, and the student just want to be there. I look forward to RAWK growing beyond just Anne and I – more staff and more volunteers to help expand our reach in Kalamazoo.

Anne: We have never had to turn anyone down for the inability to pay for our services. Financially it’s important to us to have that stability where we can offer free programming to anyone that comes. We do offer scholarships but the dream would be to offer what we do for free to everyone.

 

What advice would you give someone that is looking to start something in Kalamazoo?

Emily: Have a clear and realistic vision in understanding that your entire dream is not accessible instantly. You have the dream, kind of like what we just talked about, but it will come in pieces. You work toward that incrementally.

Anne: Find people who are doing what you want to be doing and ask them as many questions as you can. People are very generous with their time and knowledge – you just have to ask.

 

Do you have a proudest moment so far in RAWK?

Emily: Gosh. So much of what we do. Yesterday was just so cool. Every time we do something new it gives me that feeling.

Anne: A student last year did a stream of consciousness piece – write for a minute straight to see what you get down on paper. It was truly beautiful. Emily and I were in awe, and she had no idea that she wrote a poem. She came in the next couple of weeks and was like “I’m a poet”. It’s amazing to see students claiming those titles, claiming their voices.


Anne & Emily, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Anne & Emily on facebook. Be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.