Literacy Week: Kids in the Hall Find ‘This Beautiful Thing Called Writing’

For incarcerated youth and adults literacy is about more than spelling words “correctly.” It's about believing you have something to say and learning that people will listen.

By Peggy Simmons, Library Assistant, Elmhurst Branch 

“When I’m locked up, I see a pencil and paper as my best friends …. I’ve been locked up over 18 times, and writing is one of my strongest traits.”

– Pengo in The Beat Within. Read his entire article, “Why I Write,” here.

Cover of The Beat Within magazine

When Pengo was 11-years-old, The Beat Within, an arts program that publishes writing by incarcerated young people, came to the juvenile hall where he was locked up and “turned him on to this beautiful thing called writing.” Pengo writes so clearly about how writing helps him deal with the situations he is in. He is also very clear that he needed help and encouragement to believe in himself as someone who writes.

For Pengo and others, literacy is about more than being able to spell and read “correctly.” Literacy is about believing you have something to say and learning that people will listen.

Beyond Walls

I am a Library Assistant for the Oakland Public Library at the Elmhurst Branch in deep East Oakland. I have had the honor and privilege to volunteer with The Beat Within for 7 years, most recently as part of Oakland Public Library’s community outreach programs. I help run weekly writing workshops at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center (the county’s “juvenile hall”) and then type, edit and respond to the writing for the biweekly magazine.

For the last two years, leading up to the annual deadline of the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program, I have also facilitated Amherst Writers and Artist workshops and provided one-on-one support for about 20 incarcerated teens, partnering with Alameda County’s Write to Read program.

Oakland Public Library is committed to making sure kids in the hall have the opportunity to participate in Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate program. This year, two youth applied. One of them, a 17-year-old named Ronnie, was introduced to poetry in my workshop and immediately fell in love with it. He then read a lot of poetry and worked really hard on his writing both inside and outside of the workshop. After three months of hard work Ronnie applied to the Laureate program and was named one of ten finalists, competing against many young people who had had much more experience and mentorship. Just before the final round of judging, he received his sentence. He was going to remain locked up for the coming year and had to drop out of the running. He was still proud and felt that the experience changed his life. Ronnie now sees himself as a writer -- a young man with something to say. And people listen.

Through Write to Read, the author Coe Booth came to speak at juvenile hall. Ronnie was invited to go with her and speak to other youth. He talked about getting involved with poetry and how it helped him. He talked about how there are resources at juvenile hall and why it’s important to take advantage of them. He told the younger kids that if he knew at their age what he knew now, he would not be in jail.

Like Pengo, he discovered the beauty in writing.

I’ve learned a lot from the young people I work with at the hall, and this is one of the biggest lessons: Developing a love of writing and reading changes lives – regardless of whether you spell things correctly or learn perfect grammar. The path to literacy begins with the courage to write something down in the first place.

Oakland Public Library is committed to literacy programs that encourage incarcerated youth and adults to realize they have something to teach the world. We are honored to partner with The Beat Within, Write to Read, numerous adult re-entry programs, and – most of all – the students who teach us as much as we teach them.

The National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, September 21-26, is sponsored by the National Coalition for Literacy. @NLCAdvocacy