Over the past couple months I have been digitally cataloguing articles and press coverage that the Neighborhood Writing Alliance has received since its inception. Some may find this a tedious task; indeed, I thought it was going to be. I was overwhelmed with the thought of pawing through every yellowed newspaper stacked in our office for mention of NWA, the Journal of Ordinary Thought, or an individual who writes with us. I was initially discouraged by the amount and pace of the work, yet I soon became entranced. With each consecutive year logged, I was given a glimpse into the past, this history of Chicago, and the history of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.

The logging began with 1994. The “Tempo” section of the Chicago Tribune ran a story about small writing workshop that was started on the West Side of Chicago. Soon after the group formed, they were lobbying for an abandoned building near a school in their community to be closed and patrolled in order to deter illicit drug sales. Around this time, Hal Adams, one of the founders of NWA, wrote a short article in Democracy & Education to explain the philosophy and goals of these writing workshops. Included in these goals were expression, community-development, dialogue, and action. These early years (’94–’96) contained a few articles per year. I took this to be evidence of the successes of the writing workshops and an indication of a growing community beginning to recognize the relevance and utility of these writing workshops.

Suddenly, around 1997, there was an explosion of exposure in Chicago newspapers and journals. Most of these listings were to “get the word out.” They listed where, when, and how individuals could participate in a workshop. By 1998 we had eight workshops in Chicago. Some were open to the public, and others catered to a more specific population. We supported workshops for black men in the South Austin neighborhood who felt vilified by society, and parents at Fiske Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side who were looking for an outlet for expression. This burst of NWA media coverage seemed to culminate in 1999 when an aptly named play, The Journal of Ordinary Thought, grew out of the weekly writing workshops. A Chicago Sun-Times review reported that this play “continually reminds its listeners that the sublime and the revelatory are, more often than not, rooted in the everyday.” Once again, newspapers from all over the city of Chicago were complimenting NWA writers for their insight into emotions, communities, the city, and the sublime.

After the initial explosion of press coverage in the early NWA years, coverage of NWA was more moderate, but steady, from 2000–2009. But, for the last three years, one thing is for certain; NWA is still alive and is as strong as ever. The last three years have been filled with news items that seem to show a new beginning for NWA. We have jumped on the new media bandwagon and our blog was listed as a “Nonprofit blog to watch” by the NP Communicator. Recently we pushed traditional artistic and journalistic definitions by offering workshops, in collaboration with Quraysh Ali Lansana, on verse journalism, which were featured on WBEZ throughout April. And, though not mentioned in the press coverage that I have logged (yet), we debuted a short film at the Indie Boots Film Festival. (You can watch it here!) Not only do these articles feature writers and their work, but they also feature a diversity of events where writers and communities have explored new horizons.

All of these articles have opened my eyes to the impact that writers and the Neighborhood Writing Alliance have had on not just me, but all of Chicago. I am fascinated and inspired by the groups of individuals who have created so much change through writing and dialogue.

  • dee johnson

    This is a well-written piece and I so loved learning this history of NWA. I feel its relevancy to community and I am thankful that an avenue was paved for “ordinary people” to express themselves–to pile hefty amounts of their realities onto empty plates. Great things emerge from ideas and action!! Thank you so much for this uncovering–this reminder that NWA is purposeful, valuable and quite necessary. It makes me more appreciative and quite frankly, it gave me a boost! You see, I am part of the “ordinary people” who is an NWA member and although life happens, I must find a way to block out, set aside and otherwise navigate around those other things that sometimes usurp my time. Thank you again for this article. I love it!!!