Giving the marginalized the tools to speak their voices

The Portland Alliance, April 2005

I am a privileged writer. From being encouraged to write as a child through state college and with the current support of family and friends, I’ve easily adopted the moniker “writer” as a part of my identity. Even so, it has only been in the past two years I’ve answered the question, “What do you do?” with “writer” instead of my day job.

I mention this because I want you to consider that if all the privilege I had throughout my life still left me unsure of my “right” to call myself a writer until fairly recently, imagine how people far people less privileged than me must be from realizing their identities as writers.

Local nonprofit Write Around Portland (WRAP) is dedicated to encouraging and publishing writers who have lacked the support systems necessary to develop confidence as serious wordsmiths. For six years, WRAP has been making writing accessible to domestic violence victims, sexual minorities, people affected by HIV/AIDS, people struggling with mental illness and more by helping to foster personal and social connections amongst program participants in community centers, shelters, treatment centers and prisons.

Each fall and spring WRAP organizes a network of concurrent 10-week workshops ending with a community reading, and on Jan. 19, I listened as several writers from Portland’s most marginalized communities delivered readings of poems and stories at In Other Words bookstore.

Every urban bird in the world may have had to learn first hand about the solidity of glass

—Kathleen Mitchell, “Hard Knocks” William Temple House NW

This poem appears in the latest WRAP journal, Everyday Revolutions, available in bookstores around Portland. Another of several short, quirky slices of poetic wisdom shared at the reading by author Mitchell, whose writings are reminiscent of postmodernist poet Kathy Acker: “I’m beginning to believe in myself out of sheer weight.”

I had heard the brutally honest, powerful writings of local writer Rachel Indigo Cerise Baum before at a Portland State University Women’s History celebration. At the time I didn’t know who she was, so seeing her rise to speak at the WRAP event was a surprising delight. True to form, she delivered an emotional wallop of starkly simple and sincere prose, as in the opening paragraph to “I5 Reno Winter Highway”;


Running I-five, Red Bluff. Guy drives an old Bentley. Resembles Ron Jeremy. I try to like him and I don’t care anymore. “Are you hungry?” Now my hopes up. His voice sounds kind. He buys me burger, fries, and I’m nervous when I order the chocolate shake too. Don’t want to push my luck, ask for too much. That truck driver is out on the highway somewhere. Two packs of smokes and five bucks.

Rhea Wolf, Program Coordinator for WRAP, announced after Ms. Baum finished reading that she had received the 2004 Attic/WRAP Writing Scholarship to take a winter workshop on memoir writing with Ariel Gore, founding editor of the popular zine Hip Mama. The Attic is a Portland writer’s workshop and Ms. Baum commented upon receiving the award, “I remember when I first came to town, I saw info on the Attic at Powell’s and dreamed that one day I’d be able to study and write there. My dreams are coming true.”

Besides working to give marginalized people the tools to speak their voices, WRAP’s mission specifically addresses community building through the shared experiences of the writing process. Organizing each workshop series in partnership with social service agencies and community centers creates not only writers with a greater sense of themselves, but also writers with a greater sense of their interconnectedness with neighborhoods and social communities.

WRAP is currently in the middle of its Spring 2005 series of creative writing workshops at various locations around town. Workshops are two hours long for ten weeks and are open to low-income adults, people living with mental illness, people affected by HIV, sexual minority youth, seniors and other socially marginalized people. Pens, journals, snacks and bus passes are provided for participants, so if you’re not taking a workshop and have any of these items to donate, please engage in some post-vernal equinox do-gooding and send them over to WRAP. Their office is located at 917 SW Oak Street, Suite 406, or you can check out their Web site for more information on how to participate as a writer, a resource volunteer, or a time volunteer.


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