This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“I like all of the classes,” said eight-year-old Jada Lowery of the offerings at Mighty Writers. “I just can’t decide.”
When first entering Mighty Writers at 1501 Christian in South Philadelphia you are greeted by a large red and white "MW"sign with surrounding comic book phrases:
This is the main studio where teens are assisted in SAT preparation by tutors. The studio is neatly lined with tables for the students and their tutors to work. Frames of comic book covers decorate the walls. Shelf upon shelf of books occupy the center of the studio.
Mighty Writers is a nonprofit organization where Philadelphia youth are able to participate in free writing workshops to perfect their reading and writing skills. Each year teachers, journalists, and others volunteer to teach and mentor more than 500 local students. Jada recently started attending. She’s originally from Georgia, and found out about the program from her soccer coach at Chester A. Arthur School.
“I like it here. It’s like school; it’s educational. The teachers here are fun to play with, too,” Jada explained. She was also eager to show me the illustrations of her masterpiece entitled "JK." The main character is a secret agent.
Recently, Mighty Writers began their comic book club. I was lucky enough to observe this activity where students learn the basics of what it takes to develop their own characters and stories. The class, led by Program Director Rachel Loeper, began by reviewing material from last class where the focus was story boarding and thought and speech bubbles.
Jada is involved in this class, and two others: the Garden Reader Program and poetry class. In the Garden Reader Program, students are given the chance to learn about fruits and vegetables. It takes place across from Mighty Writers in a plot given to them for free by Universal Companies.
In poetry class, students learn about the different aspects of poetry, from similes to metaphors. Students write poems about a specific topic, such as a fruit or vegetable.
Engaging high school students
“Writing is an important role in life and school,” said 12th grader Brehe Teweldebrhan. Brehe, like Jada, recently started attending Mighty Writers. He is involved in their SAT prep sessions. Brehe said that a teacher told him about MW. "My favorite activity to do here is called Teen Lounge. You’re able to express yourself there,” said Brehe, a Southwest Philadelphia native who enjoys writing poetry.
Nafeesah Cannady, a junior at Central High school, agreed that the Teen Lounge helps her “express my free spirit.” She started attending after her sister, Kiarah Cannady. Like Jada, Nafeesah finds interest in drawing and painting. Especially painting.
“I’m an outdoors person,” Nafeesah said. “I can literally go outside, set up my easel, and start painting buildings or produce. Mainly buildings.”
Both students see college as an option in their future. Nafeesah has aspirations of attending Howard University, Brown University, New York University, or St. John’s University. Brehe sees himself either attending Carnegie Mellon University or Temple University.
Mighty Writers has also opened up a space located at 641 South Street where free workshops will begin this month and again in September. The workshops will introduce more students to the creative world of comic books and graphic novels.
The retail space, provided to Mighty Writers in partnership with Arts On South, is a haven for youth and adults alike who are interested not only in the written aspect of comics, but also its art. Art by local Philadelphia artists and students from Mighty Writers aligns the walls.
Guests are welcome to purchase the art with all of the proceeds going back towards supporting Mighty Writers programs. And, every Friday new art is displayed for viewing.
“About a year and a half into the program, we had found that the kids, especially the boys, were into comic books,” said Executive Director Tim Whitaker. “They were taking graphic novels home faster than we could get them. That’s why we created the comic book club.”
Maggie Leyman, development director of Mighty Writers, is responsible for finding funding for this new addition to the organization. In fact at the time of my visit, a grant from Citizen’s Bank had just arrived.
“250 kids are our goal,” said Leyman. “We’re hoping that word about us will spread and that once workshops begin, people will start to come.”
South Street was in the news last year and last month for "flash mobs," and just this past weekend when 50 young people were arrested for violating a new curfew set up in response to the incidents. Both Leyman and Whitaker hope that they can help youth on South Street create a safe, welcoming, educational alternative space.