“SpeakOut!” interns, volunteers help jailed writers bash stereotypes — with a pencil

Story by Mary Ellen Sanger

“The only reason I now consider myself a writer is because of SpeakOut! It’s the only constant thing in my life that has been positive. It’s opened doors in many avenues of my life, as well as encouraged so many other people to create and find a glimmer of hope in hard times.”
~Reflection by AZfact, SpeakOut! participant

“AZfact” is a hip-hop artist with the kind of rhythm and rhyme you could expect to encounter at a local poetry slam. Except he is not free to go off the grounds of Larimer County Community Corrections, a kind of “halfway house,” except with a pass or for work. He’s been writing with SpeakOut! for a few years — since he was in jail before this, when he had even less mobility and only a pencil with which to write and draw.

CSU’s “SpeakOut!” program works through the Community Literacy Center of the College of Liberal Arts and the English Department to bring community literacy workshops to men and women incarcerated in the Larimer County jail, and to young people residing in local crisis centers. Each week, teams of CSU students and community volunteers sit for 90-minute sessions to guide confined writers whose only creative outlet might be their time with SpeakOut!

Writers read Naomi Shahib Nye’s poem “Famous” and discuss what they hear in her words. They write about their desires for fame. Or infamy. Or normalcy. They listen to music from Puerto Rico’s “Calle 13” and consider lives outside their own where struggle and resistance are commonplace. They write and read to each other – strong voices, barely audible voices, sometimes through tears or difficult memories.

CSU students have been facilitating community literacy workshops through SpeakOut! for a dozen years. Interns and volunteers have traditionally come from backgrounds in English and literature studies, sociology/criminology and psychology, though students from any discipline are welcomed. The dedicated community outreach volunteers provide each week embodies a philosophy that dynamic literacy work is a key to cultural awareness and a more socially just world.

Six community workshops meet each week to write with up to 15 writers each. The sessions center around three unique prompts the volunteer team brings to the workshop — creating 270 or more new pieces of writing weekly: hand-scrawled paragraphs that work through trauma, imagine freedom or remember love, hurt and triumph. Writers (and facilitators) are often surprised at how good this kind of instant creation feels. What a feeling of accomplishment as writers tame the thoughts in their heads to hold a poem or a rant or a lyric in their hands that didn’t exist before they seated themselves around the SpeakOut! writing circle.

Through the distribution of a professionally bound journal of writing and art (at no cost) to a local, national and international audience at the end of each semester, SpeakOut! student interns and volunteers hold out writers’ creative work to the larger community. In this way, their outreach continually confronts and disarms stereotypes and stigma often directed at incarcerated populations and youth in crisis.

If you are interested in becoming a Community Literacy Center intern or volunteer, please see the application page here, and apply as soon as possible. Join a team that combats social injustice through literacy work – a group that coordinates paper, pencils and great ideas each week to bring more voices to the community table.

SpeakOut! Community Partners include the Larimer County Detention Center, Larimer County Community Corrections, Turning Point, Remington House and Matthews House.