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The Light Bulb Effect: Transforming Youth through Creative Writing Workshops

Zachary Thomas is the co-founder of Writers in Residence, which facilitates creative writing workshops for the adjudicated juvenile residents throughout Ohio. Read his introductory essay on his work with youth and download his sample curriculum on Jericho Brown’s “The New Testament.”

“What’s the difference between being gay and incarcerated?”

That question doesn’t tee-up a joke’s punchline. Instead, that’s the exact question I asked a dozen youth who were incarcerated at the Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility during a Writers in Residence creative writing workshop.

We had just finished reading Rabih Alameddine’s “Break” popcorn style around our circle and their squirrelly body language suggested their confusion, disengagement, and discomfort with the protagonist’s gender and sexual orientation.

Immediately, a resident said: “What are you talking about? It’s completely different.” Most of the residents nodded in agreement but only a few started re-reading the short story silently to find their own answer.

I asked them for a summary. Collectively, they told me that the protagonist traveled from Beirut, Lebanon to study at Yale, became a woman, married a woman, and her family disowned her. I asked for textual evidence of their claims. “My mother decided that I was dead—no one was to talk to or of me, not my father, not my siblings. She killed me,” one of them quoted.

“So raise your hand if you feel or have ever felt like your family or friends have disowned you because you’re locked up?”

One by one, almost every resident raised their hands. “Dang, I see what you did there,” one of them blurted. Harmonious grunts and hums ensued along with personal accounts of calling family and friends who don’t want to talk to them, especially when they believed that they would be there no matter what. “Don’t nobody call me or write me. I’m alone in here,” another added.

After teaching creative writing workshops for three years with Writers in Residence, I’ve learned to facilitate discussions similar to the one above, ask the right questions at the right time, and listen with my ears and eyes. In jails and prisons where I would compare the environment and culture to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” many apolitically correct beliefs and behaviors perpetuate amongst the youth and staff because any indication of difference may be seen as weakness, and weaknesses are exploited.

Take, for instance, a male resident who identifies as LGBTQ+. He is ridiculed, isolated, and targeted whereas a male resident who identifies as a heterosexual is rewarded, accepted, and favorited. In other words, toxic masculinity manifests itself behind bars.

Through literature, Writers in Residence addresses issues of sexual assault, racial discrimination, and a lack of education. “More than 15 percent of juveniles behind bars in Ohio reported being forced or coerced into sexual activity with another youth or staff member.” More than 65% of youth incarcerated in an Ohio juvenile prison identified as Black or a Person of

Unlike jails and prisons that define right and wrong with rules, we create expectations for our residents and student volunteers to read, write, and discuss together while having, for example, “an open mind to different thoughts and beliefs as well as outlooks on life” because the world
operates in a spectrum of greyed nuance rather than black and white binaries.

Occasionally, a resident will experience what I call the “lightbulb effect”: a complete transformation of an individual’s thoughts and behaviors from understanding themself, their peers, and the system. By creatively self-expressing and critically self-reflecting in our creative writing workshops, eventually our residents think “ah-ha!” That’s my hope because those
residents change to achieve freedom.

In “Woke Up,” Tevin realizes that he has grown and changed into the man he wants to become. However, those around him and the criminal justice system that oppresses them remain the same:

I woke up to the fact that
I am a new man that
I have a new mind and everything
inside feels brand new older
in a way but in others everything is
the same I walk these halls
leave the childish fights in my
wake all because I now have
learned that most things in
this place are truly fake plastic
stuck in place like little pawns
in a big a*s game played
by this system the puppets to
the man and all of the people
here are his fans his smile is
fake painted on a porcelain vase
I have to realize that I’m
stuck here ‘til I walk
through those gates and see
my father’s face finally free

When we read Sonia Sanchez’s “Haiku [for you],” we express love in a 5/7/5 arrangement.

When we read Marilyn Chin’s “How I Got that Name,” we write or rewrite our names’ histories.

When we read Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son,” we learn to persevere through adversity.

And when we read Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” we indeed celebrate our lives with her.

The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have recognized these authors with a book prize in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and a lifetime achievement contribution to our understanding of race and human diversity. Writers in Residence embodies the founder’s legacy by exploring and celebrating our humanity through literature with our youth whose dignity has been stripped bare and whose lives have been devalued to nothing.

Download lesson plan