Heart and Action: Virtual Family Literacy Night Brings Youth Network Together

May 21st, 2020 | By | Category: BLTN NextGen, Spring 2020

In early March, as COVID-19 was making footholds in the U.S., Bread Loaf and Bread Loaf Teacher Network administrators made the difficult decision to cancel an annual gathering of BLTN-connected youth at a writing and healing conference hosted at the Navajo Nation. The “Hozhó’ó Hólne’” convening has become an annual high point for youth involved in BLTN’s Next Generation Youth Leadership (BLTN NextGen) collective, which connects youth at seven key BLTN sites across the country through literacy and social action initiatives. 

By the first week of April, after the cancellation of another important BLTN NextGen event (“Be Happy, Be Healthy,” an elementary school health and writing conference in Lawrence, MA,) BLTN NextGeners began what has become a healing ritual during the pandemic, gathering online  to write and share together. 

BLTN NextGen’s Lawrence (MA) site, through the longstanding Andover Bread Loaf (ABL) network, has been sharing its practice of Family Literacy Nights, across the seven-site BLTN NexGen network. At Family Literacy Nights, multiple generations of participants attend and write (often in several languages) in response to prompts and with generous guidelines for writing and sharing.  What ensues is a kind of “celebratory literacy” that forms bonds and opens pathways for communication and the building of community partnerships. 

Led by Lawrence’s poet, activist, and NextGen site mentor, Nathan Baez, BLTN NextGeners from the Navajo Nation to South Carolina to Vermont gathered by Zoom the first week of April to write and share in response to prompts about gratitude and peace.  Young people wrote about finding peace and gratitude in their self-conceptions, in their love of family and friends and laughter, including “that my-sister-made-Kool-aid-come-out-of-my-nose type of laugh.” “I need to make sure everybody’s good,” wrote one high school participant, “My peace is everybody’s peace.” 

“Peace looks like you and me,” remarked one writer,  “a 15-gallery view in Zoom, people writing and sharing in virtual spaces connected through the airways and our hearts.”

Part of the power of NextGen, on clear display in this gathering, is the sharing across generations. High school students wrote with each other, teachers, poets, and professors. Participants write together, not to workshop or critique, but to write, respond, share and appreciate. “I find peace in the hearts and souls of the people in the ABL network,” wrote one participant, “who transcend the boundaries of race, class, gender, and religion.” Navajo poet and BLTN leader Rex Lee Jim called on the traditional stories of Navajo people to ask us to consider, “What is health without honoring the struggle? What is peace without turmoil?” 

It is this connection among hearts, created uniquely through these expressive and supportive gatherings, that bonds and energizes a network of young community advocates. While the pandemic has called for a change of venue, the NextGen crew seems to be thriving through the struggle.  “Peace looks like you and me,” remarked one writer,  “a 15-gallery view in Zoom, people writing and sharing in virtual spaces connected through the airways and our hearts.”

Editor’s note: Since this first gathering, Family Literacy Nights via Zoom are happening in all facets of the BLTN. See the related piece on the ABL Peace Literacy Network’s gatherings in this issue, and listen to Gladdys’ remarkable free write in response to a prompt about what family tastes, smells, feel, and sounds like.

Gladdys Jiminian, sharing a free write, “My Papa”

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