Anisfield-Wolf Fellow Zachary Thomas has sparked an idea that is igniting across Northeast Ohio.
In 2016, as a sophomore at John Carroll University, Thomas pioneered a creative writing program for youth incarcerated in an Ohio juvenile detention center. Writers in Residence began as an idea to reduce recidivism by bringing adolescents behind bars together with college students to build long-lasting relationships and build up self-expression.
The idea germinated from the example set by Carroll Ballers, an older student initiative using basketball as an entry point for fun, food and mentorship among the residents of juvenile detention facilities and undergraduates.
Inside these centers, Thomas quickly learned that residents had few chances to write. Authorities allowed no pens or paper in private quarters. If a resident wanted to put down a thought, a prison staffer would hand over a crayon.
After Thomas’ mother died, the 18-year-old Washington D.C. native turned to writing to uncover “what my heart needed to feel, what my mind needed to understand.” Thomas thought it might work as a similar catharsis for young residents bottled up in a place where emotions run high.
So Thomas enlisted the help of trusted allies at John Caroll: professor Philip Metres, and friends Anthony Shopolik, Rachel Schratz, and Michalena Mezzopera. Together, they cooked up a pilot writing workshop to see if the idea had legs.
The first session got off to a bumpy start. “No one talked. That was really scary,” said Thomas, now 23. “But they were seeing what we were about. Which is fair, because we’re coming into someone’s home, so to speak. We’re strangers, so they have to vet us.”
The program began in earnest in spring 2017, with two groups of John Carroll students converged on two different facilities, working with male and female residents at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility.
“We go for 12 weeks and by that ninth week we’ve gotten so close to the residents that we’ve become a family together,” Thomas said of the weekly sessions. “That puts us in a place to empathize, but also see them for who they really are.”
The student volunteers and incarcerated peers spend their 90-minute sessions discussing short pieces of literature, connecting the art to the one another’s lives. The offenses are sidelined, unless the residents themselves volunteer why they are locked up, Thomas said. “I don’t know why they’re in there. I’ve never asked. That’s not my priority. I’m more interested in who they are.”
To build trust with the residents, the program requires a strict commitment from volunteers, ensuring that the same faces show up week after week.
“We want people who are going to be reliable forces,” Thomas said. “For a lot of the residents, they don’t have a lot of that. They build their day or week around it. For you not to come, you disrupt their whole world.”
The residents themselves have found value in the program. “It lets us open up with what is easy to write rather than say,” one wrote in the post-workshop survey. “[It’s a] respectful environment where we can speak openly.”
Toward the end of the 12-week program, residents see some of their writing published in a chapbook, available as a free download on Writers in Residence website. (A physical copy is also available for sale.)
“The first time we [published the chapbook], one of the residents read his name and said, ‘This is regal,” Thomas said. “His work was on display. That act of being published gave him the realization. It’s a good feeling to have. It’s your own hard work.”
The spring 2019 chapbook features Lucille Clifton-inspired poems and a smattering of “six-word memoirs,” among other short pieces. In one of the poems, a resident writes: won’t you celebrate with me for I/ have been taking care of and raising/ babies since I was six and being in/ here is the only break I’ve had.
Another offers: I don’t know how to begin this/ Life is a gamble.
Writers in Residence expanded this spring to Oberlin College, embedding the program in the Lorain County Juvenile Detention Home. It will encompass programs based in three more colleges during the fall semester: the College of Wooster, Youngstown State University and Hiram College.
“It was a lucky day when professor Phil Metres left me a message asking if the Cleveland Foundation might help with a program in the Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “That led to meeting Zach Thomas and attending one of his Writers in Residence sessions. I was floored by the authentic friendship and joshing vulnerability among the young men. And I was struck, as a literary critic, that the writing they did together was of such a high caliber.”
Thomas, who draws a salary through a Cleveland Foundation grant, will work as the liaison between the schools and the detention centers. He wants to ensure the expansion programs stay laser-focused on the youth they serve.
“[The residents] have a strong BS meter,” he said. “A lot of people can talk, but you have to come through with some action.”