Featured Grantee Q&A
Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, the Lighthouse Writers Workshop is helping us kick things off for 2018.
A sidewalk poem inspired by the questions “Who is a Citizen? What is a Citizen?”. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
Lighthouse Writers Workshop is the largest nonprofit literary arts center in the Rocky Mountain West. Our mission is to provide quality education, support, and community for writers and readers of all levels and backgrounds while also promoting the belief that writing and reading lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves and others, encouraging compassion and empathy.
Crowd at Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s kickoff for their NEA Big Read. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
Lighthouse serves readers and writers of all ages and backgrounds through a mix of classes and workshops, public literary events, and community outreach efforts. We strive to promote the literary arts throughout the metro-area, sharing the benefits of reading and writing with people who might not describe themselves as readers or writers. We lead free writing workshops for veterans, seniors, kids and teens, the recently incarcerated, and people experiencing homelessness, encouraging participants to tell their stories and get creative. And we commission local artists to create artwork from the writings that come out of these workshops, which we then install around town. We’ve put poems on parking signs and painted murals on buildings. It’s a great way to share stories and build community.
Word tiles for a sidewalk poetry event during Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s NEA Big Read. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
Children creating sidewalk poems during the event. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
What makes your Big Read unique?
For our Big Read, we wanted to go really big. Citizen: An American Lyric is a powerful book that’s asking important questions, and we wanted to have a conversation not only about its themes but also about its relevance to Denver, the things we could work on as a community.
We teamed up with the City & County of Denver, Denver Public Libraries, Denver Public Schools, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and 36 diverse arts and community organizations to make sure we engaged with as many people as possible, with a wide variety of backgrounds, interests, and ideas. We held book talks, but we also led community forums, letter-writing activities, and art-making events, to get people engaging with the book and its themes on multiple levels.
We capped everything off with a two-day visit from Citizen’s author, Claudia Rankine. She participated in a free on-stage talk with Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, giving an amazing keynote and then sticking around afterward for an audience Q&A and book signing. She visited Denver’s Auraria Campus the next day to talk with high school and college students, then taught a craft class at Lighthouse, and talked about race with Denver’s first responders. Claudia’s a professor at Yale and a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, and her participation in all this—along with the huge response we received from metro-area residents—really made our Big Read feel special.
Denver Talks reader holding a copy of Citizen: An American Lyric. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
Through a series of vignettes, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric combines poetry with commentary, visual art, quotations from artists and critics, slogans, and scripts for film, laying bare moments of racism that often surface in everyday encounters.
With all that’s been going on the last several years—from Charlottesville to the Black Lives Matter movement—race and social justice have been a huge part of the national conversation. We wanted to help bring that conversation home, and Citizen did that. The book sparked meaningful discussions among our community members about a very difficult subject. Discussion facilitators told us, repeatedly, how excited people were to have an easier way into these kinds of conversations, how the talks went deeper faster because the book had laid the groundwork for a more intimate discussion.
Copies of Citizen: An American Lyric at the Denver Talks program kickoff. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
What aspect (event, discussion questions, audience outreach, etc.) of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?
It’s incredibly hard to choose just one, but Claudia’s on-stage conversation with the mayor was a huge asset to making our Big Read a success. It was an excellent way to encourage people to participate and to keep them engaged all the way through to her talk. The mayor’s participation was also impactful. It was invaluable to have the city backing this, saying “This is an important book and an important conversation.”
Claudia Rankine in conversation with Mayor Michael B. Hancock at Boettcher Concert Hall. Photo taken by Amanda Tipton.
Claudia Rankine at her Denver Talks keynote visit. Photo taken by Amanda Tipton.
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
Community buy-in was so key for us. Not just from the mayor and the city, but from all of the arts organizations and community partners we worked with. They hosted events and encouraged their audiences to attend Claudia’s talk, and we tailored programs to meet their audience’s interests. We could have bombarded everyone in the city with advertising for this—and we did, to an extent!—but the real difference-maker was the enthusiasm all our partner organizations brought to the table—and passed on to the communities they serve.
An enraptured audience at Denver Talks: Mayor Michael B. Hancock in Conversation with Claudia Rankine. Photo taken by Amanda Tipton.
Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?
Our community partners were a big help with this part. We knew we wanted to go beyond book talks and engage with participants on multiple levels. So we reached out to a local theater troupe and they staged the play version of Citizen. We talked to a ballet company, and they performed a duet based on the Trayvon Martin case, followed by a free-write. Two of our partners were a nonprofit art school and a community gallery, so we worked with them to create programming that would appeal to their audiences. One wound up creating a Citizen-themed mural, and the other led a poem box workshop (which was actually an idea one of our volunteers brought to us—she’s a huge Citizen fan and had been making poem boxes for years!). We just find that people love to participate and create, and we wanted to give them the opportunity to do that.
Empty stage set for Curious Theatre Company’s performance of Citizen. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
Curious Theatre Company mid-performance. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
It’s hard to narrow it down! Claudia’s talk drew 1,800 people, and she received a standing ovation when she walked out on stage, which was powerful to witness. And so many of the community events were uplifting in the best way. One night, we participated in a program called Moveable Feast, where participants ate a locally produced dinner in an urban park, wrote responses to Citizen-themed prompts and then took turns reading what they wrote in front of everyone. Most of the people there didn’t know each other, but by the end of the night, everyone felt closer, having shared food and this experience.
Poem box from community event at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
Cleo Robinson Dance performing Uncle, choreographed duet depicting a nephew discussing with his uncle his concerns about being attacked by a police officer, created in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. Photo courtesy of Cleo Robinson Dance Studio.
Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection? I have always loved this one, mostly for its twisty, concise complexity. She has this fantastic ability to pack a gut-punch revelation into one sentence:
“That’s the bruise in the heart the ice in the heart was meant to ice.”
–Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Community contributions during the Denver Talks NEA Big Read kickoff. Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Writers Workshop.