In the dusty, quiet night While all the birds are sleeping Most of the world is calm My little sister's weeping I think of the violets How they feel at night Without the sun to help them grow Without the sun's light I think about them While sitting up in my bed And when I get sleepy I lay down, rest my head. -Edith Rayfield
"Whatever she learned about writing, she learned at the workshop," said Mary Rayfield of her daughter Edith. Now 12, Edith was one of 18 Southeast students selected two years ago for an after-school workshop conducted by a group of writers committed to helping youngsters improve their writing skills.
The group, the Institute for the Preservation and Study of African American Writing, headquartered at the Lansburgh Building at Seventh and E streets NW, also has begun to catalog the works of local writers. Edith, for example, has been published in an anthology of poetry and short fiction.
A slim budget and a staff of part-time and volunteer workers keep the nonprofit institute on a one-thing-at-a-time focus. For the past three years the institute, with partial funding from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, has devoted its time to conducting youth creative writing workshops in what Executive Director Sheila Crider defined as "culturally deprived" areas of the District.
Teachers, parents and artists of various types make up the staff, which Crider said is committed to "nurturing talent that would otherwise go unrecognized."
"Our target areas are the far Northeast, Southeast, particularly Anacostia, and the low-income areas of Southwest," said Crider.
Seeking out students in these areas who have a desire to improve their writing skills, Crider and institute cofounder Jonetta Barras have contacted teachers and administrators at specially targeted schools and presented their ideas.
They met with success from the very beginning. Browne Junior High in Northeast and Stanton and Terrell elementary schools in Southeast were among the first to allow Crider, Barras and guest lecturers, such as children's fiction writer Eloise Greenfield and local poet E. Ethelbert Miller, to conduct creative writing workshops lasting from one day to eight weeks.
Said Crider: "We conducted our workshops in a relaxed atmosphere devoid of competition; we were interested in developing the students' individual skills. They were responsive."
So responsive that in 1980 the institute sponsored an eight-week workshop at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum that attracted 6- to 13-year-old students from all over Southeast. Parents and teachers drove the children to the museum after school.
One of the students who attended was Natasha Hamilton, then a seventh grader at the Assumption School in Southeast. Like Edith Rayfield, Natasha had work published in the institute's anthology of poetry and short fiction. Also like Rayfield, she was introduced to writing poetry and fiction for the first time.
"I learned how to put it all together," she says today. "I learned how to eliminate unnecessary words in writing. I became sharper and more alert to words and their meanings--it helped me in other classes."
i look out of the window
a violet flower dying
the dusty wind blowing
it is peaceful and quiet
Natasha's poem, "What I See," is an example of her tight writing. Both Natasha and Edith have another thing in common: They want to be doctors.
Crider said the institute is developing a summer program for unemployed youth. A proposal for the project soon will be submitted to administrators of the mayor's Summer Jobs for Youth program.
But for now, the collecting and cataloguing of material goes on at the institute's office. "We want to become a reference source for researchers interested in the lives of black American and African poets and writers. Right now, not only is this information scattered all over the city, but it's skimpy. Within 10 years, we'll be bulging with first editions, bibliographies, videotapes and cassettes--our material will be available to everyone and anyone," said Crider.
Last year the institute sponsored a three-part symposium on African American writing including screenwriting, the novel and short story, and black poetry. It is in the process of planning a similar effort for this summer. A quarterly newsletter is scheduled to come off the press in April. And, of course, more workshops for the youngsters.