By Darlene Donloe
The art of writing well and doing so effectively is the goal of 826LA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills. It also works with teachers who are interested in learning how to inspire their students to write.
826LA, which has locations in Mar Vista, Echo Park and Valencia, provides a variety of free programming throughout the week for students designed to challenge them while strengthening their writing skills. Programs include tutoring, which provides one-on-one assistance with homework and writing.
There also are field trips, which help students write stories or essays and publish original books at their centers.
The various workshops range from journalism, Dungeons & Dragons, screenwriting, puppetry, songwriting and more taught by community artists. The organization also hosts Personal Statement Weekend and Scholarship Day to help students prepare their college essays and earn tuition money with intensive support from tutors.
Writing, an important part of communication, is the primary basis upon which one’s learning and intellect will be judged. Having writing skills equips people with communication and thinking skills and fosters the ability to explain and refine ideas to everyone.
826LA is part of a national network of 826 chapters, founded by educator Nínive Calegari and author Dave Eggers.
The number 826 is the original address of the organization’s first location in Valencia in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. There also are chapters in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Minnesota and Boston.
LaTesha Knighten, a Los Angeles native who studied Black studies and English at UC Santa Barbara, is the in-schools program manager for 826LA.
“I wanted to work with 826LA because I resonated with the mission to work with schools in urban settings and help improve overall literacy and writing skills,” said Knighten, who has worked with the program for almost five years.
“Writing is important because it’s a form of self-advocacy and when students learn to write their own story or about their own experiences, it’s a form of self-discovery and self-reflection and self-advocacy. Life experiences contribute to who you are. You can approach life with more understanding. In finding your story, you help connect other people to their stories.”
The local 826LA chapters focus on creative and expository writing.
“We are doing analytic and argumentative and memoir writing,” Knighten said. “As an organization, the benefit we provide is that we make writing feel and seem easier. We get feedback from students. They say they feel more confident because they work with us.
“We validate their experiences and what they are writing about. By taking advantage of the program, they are writing concisely and efficiently. We want students to know that writing doesn’t have to be hard.”
The organization, which focuses on one-on-one attention and incorporates parent and teacher feedback, has programming for all students. There are various programs for each age group. After-school tutoring is available for younger students.
Founded in 2005, 826LA goes into schools and works with teachers to bring in volunteers to help with writing assignments. The free programs, which are open to all students in an LAUSD school, look different for all age groups.
The programs are held at centers in Mar Vista and Echo Park and at Writers’ Rooms at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles and Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights.
Services are structured around the understanding that effective learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.
There are also field trips available that allow schools to go into writing centers and engage in poetry writing and storytelling.
Students can also learn the bookmaking process.
In 2020, 826LA worked with 8,770 students from under-resourced communities, partnered with 221 teachers and produced 208 student-written publications.
“Students are doing the program as an exercise to improve skills,” Knighten said. “Most are present because their teacher signed them up.”
Knighten champions the work 826LA is doing in the schools.
“I have a desire to help underrepresented groups,” she said. “The satisfaction and joy I feel when students find their voices is priceless. In history and over time other people get to write stories about us, about various populations. I think the stories that come from a particular group about their own experiences are self-satisfying. We want all students to know their experiences matter.”
Knighten said 826LA cares about the student experience.
“I have worked for other nonprofits that work with youth,” she said. “But, the care and concern we put in students and making sure they feel heard and seen are important. They can feel safe in our spaces. We also try to practice that among the staff.”
An important element of 826LA is the College Access Program.
“We do a lot of work and partnerships with schools surrounding college access,” Knighten said. “Seniors in under-resourced schools are getting support. We work with hundreds of seniors every fall.
“We help them work on solid personal statements for college applications. We do it during the semester and on weekends. They can have up to five concentrated hours to work with a volunteer on their individual applications.
“In the spring, we do a scholarship guide and show students how to take personal statements and turn them into a college essay to apply for scholarships.”
On its website, 826LA states that its job is to “give students the tools they need to tell the stories that only they can tell.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.