Arlita Bailey started writing two years ago—in sixth grade. Now 13, she published her first novel thanks to the passionate dedication of the team at Chapter 510, the Oakland nonprofit that connects kids to the magic of storytelling captured in real books we can hold in our hands.
During a visit to the Dept. of Make / Believe, Chapter 510’s new space at the historic Swan’s Market in downtown Oakland, I met with Arlita. When asked about how people are responding to her work, she described her friends getting interested and wanting to do it, too.
“Because they’ve seen your book,” I said.
“Yes,” she responded, with a smile.
“When young people write and get published, transformation happens,” said Margie Chardiet, program and publications director at Chapter 510. “It’s really powerful to not only see their own work on the page, but [to] share their work with the world in a way where they can kind of perceive how they’re received by people that recognize the brilliance of their own creativity.”
Arlita is one of eight students at the Westlake Middle School Writer’s Room in Oakland to have written a novel this fall in the Chapter 510 in-school workshop. I had the privilege of reading her book. It is beautiful. “One thing we always do [in our novel-writing program] is we work with local illustrators of color,” Chardiet said. Each student also gets a mentor, a working writer of color who guides them through the writing, editorial and publishing process. “It’s also sort of a window into this professional world in this cool way … with mentors of color and illustrators of color who are succeeding in their own lives,” Chardiet added. “To have that modeled for [the students] is a really powerful experience.”
Jahan Khalighi, Chapter 510’s program and events director, said, “A big part of our mission is to support Oakland youth to write with confidence and joy … . You know, I think it’s an opportunity for them to develop their confidence in their capacity to write, to say, like, ‘Wow, my story is really valuable, and look what it can do in the world or at my school.’ [T]he joy of just being a part of the creative process of making a book, I think is fun for them to see. You know they kind of light up, they’re like, ‘What? This is actually happening?’ So it’s a real boost.”
Janet Heller, Chapter 510’s ever-enthusiastic executive director, led the charge to create this new home in downtown for the young folks of Oakland. “Space is important,” Heller said. The first space created strictly for student writing was Westlake’s full-time, in-school writing room. She described it as “the space Arlita needs to access her own thoughts and feelings.”
Now the organization is bringing that vision to downtown Oakland. “We want to make a beautiful space for Oakland youth to come and be together, be safe and belong,” Heller said. “And to be inspired.”
I can attest that the space is more than “just” beautiful. Abstract murals flow wildly across the walls and floor, a fully functional vintage book press decorates the space, a stage handmade from reclaimed materials sits ready for the brave of heart. This space is like Imagination’s secret fort, fiercely creative and encompassingly safe. The reading room was so appealing, I almost did not make it back to the interview from my tour.
Arlita said creative writing was special because, “instead of doing an essay where [what I write is] something that is chosen by my teacher, I get to figure out what I want to write, how I want to do it and, like, put my time into it so that I can get a good project out of it.”
“So, do you have control of the whole process?” I asked, ever the classic writer. In response, Arlita gave some examples: “It feels like I have ownership because … whenever I’m feeling like [I’m stuck] on something, they help me figure out different ways to resolve it,” and, “I got to have ownership, write it myself, put in the time to do it, while still getting help.”
There were three writing sessions a week. Arlita quickly learned time management to balance the book with homework, sports and school.
“It’s teaching us time management, because … when I first started, I wanted to do everything [at once, then I realized] I’m gonna have to manage my time now,” she said, before adding, “It was a lifelong skill, ’cause now I know how to manage my time more than I did before.”
It all shows the power of a creative project. By taking on this work with the space and support to fuel her and her cohort, Arlita demonstrates to others what can be done; the heights a student can reach. In short, the Chapter 510 program helps Artila set a good example.
“She’s a model, for sure. She inspires me,” Heller said.
The in-school writing programs serve 100 students right now, in 4 different schools. Students workshop poetry, college essays and fiction.
This spring, students in one workshop will build an oral history of Swan’s market, the downtown community where the team at Chapter 510 are planting their seeds. “This program is going to also help us kind of deepen our relationship to this historical building and this neighborhood [so they can influence] how we can be a space for Oakland youth,” Heller said.
That is just one of the many free youth-writer workshops offered at the new location, which actually houses several Chapter 510 spaces, of which the Dept. of Make / Believe is only one.
The workshop that caught this writer’s eye is the Native American Youth Poetry Workshop, hosted in partnership with Nomadic Press, which runs every Tuesday from 4–6pm starting on Jan. 4. It is free.
Arlita Bailey is now a writer. She can prove it. Sometimes we don’t know it until we really see it out there in the world.
“Also, it looks good on a resume,” Arlita added.