Printing the words after the death of George Floyd — about a century after they first flew over a Manhattan street — helped calm Aakil’s anxiety. Creating art and writing have always been her outlets for processing both trauma and joy. She didn’t expect that when she shared the postcards online, 650 people would order them to write their own messages to send to police, friends, family and legislators.
She printed about 15 more to use for a program she helped organize since the start of the pandemic called #ShoutInPlace, run by the Washington-based nonprofit publishing house where Aakil interns, Shout Mouse Press. Together with programs manager Alexa Patrick, Aakil sent a weekly prompt to Shout Mouse Press’s community of writers, which mostly includes young people of color ages 16 to 24 from low-income communities in Washington.
“It’s been amazing to be in a position of authority and realize that we are experts in our own story,” says Aakil, who also responded to the prompts. In summer 2018, she collaborated with other Muslim American teenagers to write the Shout Mouse Press book “I Am the Night Sky.”
#ShoutInPlace ended in August with 42 writers submitting 345 pieces over 20 weeks. In return for their writing, the authors (many of whom lost paychecks because of the pandemic) were paid $25 to $50 per submission. Shout Mouse Press distributed $9,425 in funding it received from the Greater Washington Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. “We want to make sure that our authors have access to the resources they need,” Patrick says. “We want to make sure they’re good and that they have food and clothing and shelter and money.”
In the first week of July, the #ShoutInPlace prompt asked authors to write letters to whomever they wished. Aakil and Patrick then transcribed the submissions onto the “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” postcards and mailed them for the authors. Najae Purvis, who is 18 and lives in Ward 8, helped write the Shout Mouse Press book “The Day Tajon Got Shot,” about a police shooting of a Black teenager. She responded to the prompt with a poem to send to George Floyd’s daughter, Gianna.
“You are a bright Sun/ Your light shines from/ your beautiful rays/ A random day/ your rays were stolen away,” Purvis wrote. “However…/ The storm doesn’t last forever/...Forever and ever give us your light/ Shine down on the world tonight!”
The weekly prompts helped Purvis stick to her goal of writing two poems a month. Eventually, she wants to release a book of poetry. “It gives me time to reflect on myself and think about life and try to make my words express how I feel,” she says. “Kids have a voice, and adults are here to hear it.”
Other writing prompts asked authors to describe what freedom means to them, what brings them joy, what TV shows or music have helped them deal with the stress of quarantine, and their self-care routine. The latter was a way for Patrick to check in on the well-being of the authors, many of whom are part of groups that have been particularly hurt by the pandemic. Ward 8, where many of the writers live, has lost the most lives of any ward in the District to the coronavirus as of early November.
“This provides a more robust story of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Patrick says. “I feel like a lot of the language right now places trauma at the center of Blackness, but there is a lot of joy. ... I want them to respond to what’s happening right now from a place of power.”
Since 2014, Shout Mouse Press has published 45 books by young authors, with more than 65,000 copies in circulation. Founder Kathy Crutcher aimed to print books that more accurately reflect the diversity of the country. A 2018 survey of new children’s books found that there were more characters that were animals (27 percent) than there were Black characters (10 percent). Fifty percent of characters were White. “It was difficult for me to write when I was growing up because I didn’t see my story reflected,” Patrick says. She grew up as one of the few Black kids in a predominantly White town.
Shout Mouse Press is also an antidote to the highly homogenous backgrounds of the people who make up the publishing world. A survey released in January found that 76 percent of people working in publishing are White. Only 5 percent are Black. “It’s frustrating to see the denial of publishing folks,” Patrick says. “The literary world is portrayed as being pretty progressive, but when they’re confronted with their own biases they tend to drag their heels a little bit.”
The Shout Mouse Press team is considering what to do next with the submissions. They are seeking funding to compile them into a workbook for D.C.-area kids and to set up #ShoutInPlace workshops, facilitated by the writers, to help younger kids process current events.
When Aakil writes, she says she’s inspired by Anne Frank. “She was just a little girl who was writing,” Aakil says. “She wasn’t aware of the impact it would have. In 100 years if someone wants to know what happened, maybe your writing will be the artifact that will let them know.”
Avery J.C. Kleinman is a writer in Washington and a producer for “1A” from WAMU and NPR.