A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the poet Allison Joseph. She'd been invited to Notre Dame to give a reading. I knew she was also the editor of Crab Orchard Review, a journal I respect very much. What I didn't know was that she was also behind a project I've come to admire to no end.
A short while after her visit, I received an e-mail from her which asked its recipients to publicize something called Young Writers Workshop. Run by the MFA students at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, the workshop is aimed at high school-aged students who are interested in writing. She also asked us to consider making a donation towards a scholarship fund for interested students who couldn't afford to attend the workshop. I e-mailed her back and asked if there were any way a scholarship could be designated for a Latino/a writer. She suggested a perfect solution.
It turns out the fiction editor at Crab Orchard Review, Carolyn Alessio, teaches at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a school located in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago that was founded in 1996 and whose model is being replicated all over the country. Allison suggested that my donated scholarship go to a Cristo Rey student. What made this such a great idea is that the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) already had a special relationship with Cristo Rey---some of their graduates were Notre Dame students who worked at the ILS. In the end I donated two scholarships and asked Carolyn that there be gender balance when designating them. To my surprise and delight, months later I received very nice e-mails from both of the scholarship recipients and learned something about their family backgrounds and their love of writing. The experience encapsulated, in my mind, one of the most important goals of Letras Latinas: to identify and support Latino/a youth who have taken a serious interest in writing.
What resulted from this experience was the Letras Latinas Young Writers Initiative, which is in its second year. The workshop ended a few days ago on June 30th, and three Cristo Rey students funded by our initiative were in attendance. Here is an interview I conducted with Allison about the workshop. And here and here are two recent related articles, as well.
I'll be writing more about this initiative---specifically, ways Letras Latinas is trying to keep it sustainable. What I especially like about this project is that it is a tri-partnership: the Young Writers Workshop, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, and the Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame. Next year, the workshop will be celebrating its 10th anniversary and be extended from four days to five.