MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
With a name like WriteGirl, it stands to reason that it’s a creative writing organization for teen girls.
But once you talk to its executive director and founder, Keren Taylor, it’s readily apparent that it’s so much more.
Like a proud mother of hundreds of girls, Taylor beams when she talks about how the organization she founded in 2001 not only mentors but promotes creativity while encouraging critical thinking and leadership skills in an effort to empower teens.
“I think I really was sparked to start it after leading songwriting workshops,” said Taylor a former singer/songwriter. “Also, from seeing how much young people hated writing in high schools. I wondered, how can this be? What can I do to inspire them?
“Writing is like water, it should pour out from them. Their creative voice and perspective are critical. To write them down is essential no matter what job they have.”
A major benefit Taylor hopes the girls get out of the program is confidence.
“What we do as a community is flood them with positivity,” she said. “Give them all they need to go forward in life. We are here to turn around the limitations some people put on them.
“We are also about building the specific skills of being able to write and articulate what you think and feel about something. Think critically as you read things.”
WriteGirl participants are 13-18-year-old high school students. Taylor said at 13, they have “some writing skills under their belt.”
“It’s all about identity and helping them in their formative years,” she said. “We want them to have that sense of self. We need to raise our voice louder and break down those walls.”
Taylor is proud of the program, and even more proud of the program’s alums, whom she calls “beacons.” One of those beacons is Amanda Gorman, who was 14 when she began her three-year stint in WriteGirl. In 2017, Gorman was named the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States. She went on to captivate the world when she read her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration last January.
“When she was with us, we encouraged her to find her voice,” Taylor said. “We encouraged her to identify as a writer. We helped her get to Harvard. To see her rise to that level and to know we were part of her early years, she was always a bright light.”
Taylor said there are other alums working as lawyers, doctors, poets and at film companies.
“They are all doing amazing things in the world,” she said. “They want to give back to their community. It’s my greatest joy.”
WriteGirl, which runs nine months during the year, concurrently with the school year, has an open-door policy and welcomes teens no matter how they found out about the program or their level of need.
“Some of the girls can’t really tell you what her need is,” Taylor said. “We recruit from high-density areas. We have relationships with teachers and we reach out to neighborhoods that don’t traditionally have access to mentorships.”
WriteGirl mentors are put through a rigorous application process.
“These are women who identify as writers and strong communicators that have a willingness to give time and expertise,” Taylor said. “They go through an intensive training program.”
The teens are paired with volunteer mentors who not only guide them in their writing skills but also work closely with them to provide opportunities to think about careers and a college pathway program.
“Once a month we do a full group workshop for volunteers and the girls where we focus on a different genre,” Taylor said. “One of the monthly workshops is setting up college programs to help the teens. We may have poetry one month, songwriting the next month. By the end of the season, she has explored a wide range of genres. To broaden her horizons, we bring guests in, including some actors, directors, poets and songwriters, who provide inside tips.”
WriteGirl, which boasts 100% of its graduating seniors entering college on scholarships, recognizes that not every girl who enters the program is looking to become a writer.
“I don’t think they always know what they want out of WriteGirl,” Taylor said. “Those that want to be writers — we encourage that. Those who don’t know they will get skills that are translatable. It’s about having confidence. Here, there are no contests, no competition. Within our community, we do not shine a light on one girl. We need all of them to understand their value.”
Some of the girls in the program have faced abuse, neglect, depression and more, finding solace at WriteGirl.
“The value is wider,” Taylor said. “It’s more than just about writing. It’s powerful. They feel comfortable and welcomed. It’s about their well-being and their mental health.”
Before Taylor launched WriteGirl, she had her own band. The Los Angeles native enjoyed music but realized after 15 years in the business that she wasn’t in her lane and was not where she really wanted to be.
“To get started, I really just sent a letter out on the internet asking for writers to join me on this adventure,” said Taylor, who majored in international relations at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “At that time, I was laid off of my .com job. I really wanted to do something for young girls. So, 13 women put a plan together to launch this program.”
Taylor said in some ways WriteGirl, which does some work with boys through the Bold Ink Writers program, is “remarkably the same as when we started.”
“The core hasn’t changed,” she said. “We have grown a lot. We still publish books. We have more than 30 anthologies of teen writing — online and in print and with partnerships. In the book, ‘Threads,’ they wrote amazing things.
“I remember when the book first came out, opening the box in the parking lot. I just started crying. We have really grown. The biggest difference is we have expanded programming and exceeded what I expected it to be. Now we have international programming and national programming. We have some girls who found us from different countries.”
It’s been 20 years and Taylor “still feels the same feeling today” that she did when WriteGirl started.
“I’m passionate about creative writing and how valuable it is in your life,” said Taylor who writes whenever she can and also makes jewelry. “Teen girls need to know this is a resource. They need to write down their ideas. Write themselves into situations. Teenage girls are ignored and invisible.”
Taylor’s passion for teen girls excelling comes from personal experience.
“There were many incidents in my own life,” she said. “I always felt discriminated against as a woman. Not listened to. Not having my ideas valued.
“There was this constant feeling of not being as worthy as men. Twenty years later, I didn’t think we’d need WriteGirl. But we are still small percentages in board rooms, and as writers and directors. It’s all out of balance in not honoring women as leaders.”
When you talk to Taylor, her excitement about WriteGirl drips off her every word.
“I’m thrilled,” she said. “I’m inspired every day. I wanted to create a world I wanted to live in, a community I wanted to be a part of. I feel fed. I have a wonderful world of people around me that are surviving and thriving far beyond the boundaries.”
“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.