Writing your own future

[WHO] Lachlann Carter, co-founder of 100 Story Building
[WHAT] Helping children and young people explore life through writing
[HOW] Pairing disadvantaged students with authors and publishers

WORDS can soar. They can inspire and bring hope and joy where there was but bleakness. They bear ideas and knowledge. They record and crystallise imagination. Language, surely, is humanity's greatest achievement.

Literacy is a prerequisite of having a chance to thrive, and writing is a fundamental element of literacy.

Education is the clearest and most egalitarian pathway to opportunity. So much inequality and injustice are associated with a lack of education. Children who do not receive a solid education have little hope of ever meeting their potential, and once a child falls behind, it can be devilishly difficult to bridge the knowledge and skills gap.

That gap often arises through no fault of the child. Research indicates, for example, that the literacy of a child from an economically deprived home can lag behind that of a financially privileged child by as much as three years.

Education can also be undermined in homes where parents for cultural or personal reasons fail to insist that their children make an effort at school. A further impediment can be a lack of proficiency in English.

Today's guest in The Zone is the co-founder of an initiative to help disadvantaged or disengaged children and young people explore their potential through creative writing. Lachlann Carter, his partner, Jenna Williams, and their friend Jess Tran have set up an organisation called the 100 Story Building, which will begin operating early next year in Melbourne's inner west.

The central idea of 100 Story Building is to pair children and young people with authors, artists and other creative professionals. The collaborative works will be published.

In our interview, the full transcript of which, as well as a short video, are at theage.com.au/opinion/the-zone, Carter underlines the project's potential importance to people who might otherwise never have an opportunity to fully blossom.

''For these children to have the best opportunity in their world and the best opportunity to thrive in the community they're living in, literacy is just a base-level skill that they need to have.

''Writing can give them confidence and a sense of being part of a broader community where they feel like they can contribute and find all those joys and empowerment that comes from contributing in a positive way.''

The charming genesis of 100 Story Building was Jenna Williams' relationship with her grandfather. They would write letters to each other. Williams would redraft her letters, in effect generating a narrative. She cherished the experience, and would bundle the epistles and fasten them with ribbons and string.

Years later, in 2007, she and Carter, who trained as a teacher, were listening to a speech at the Melbourne Writers Festival by celebrated North American writer Dave Eggers. Eggers' topic was a writing and tutoring centre called 826 Valencia he had set up for children in San Francisco.

It was a turning point for Carter, who had been frustrated as a teacher by the lack of time and resources to give students, particularly those who were struggling, one-on-one support. He pondered how to help students and teachers overcome barriers. Meanwhile, Williams had been wanting to give others the opportunity and happiness she found in her letter-writing relationship with her grandfather.

''Jenna and I were very inspired by Eggers. We had had an idea up to this point of combining forces to do a creative project. We thought this is how we can actually get this done.''

They went to to 826 Valencia and did an internship there for three months, running workshops working closely with children in schools. ''Jen did quite a lot of design work as well as working with the kids there.''

They returned and set up the precursor to 100 Story Building, Pigeon Letters. Jess Tran, 100 Story Building's communications director, was an early volunteer in that project, which involved pairing children and young people with authors and having them create a story by writing letters to each other.

Some exceptional writers were involved, including Michael Pryor and Sally Rippin, both hugely successful authors of children's books. The collaborations have been published in two volumes called Pigeons: Stories in the Post. The effect on the children fuelled the passion of Carter and Williams.

''There was one child who up until that point was very disengaged in writing and disengaged in learning in general. He could see the opportunity there to actually show his work. That helped a change in him. It helped to re-engage him with his learning beyond that project, where he was putting more work into his writing and actually showing genuine enthusiasm for it.''

100 Story Building supercharges the Pigeon Letters concept. It will offer the one-on-one collaborations and group sessions on short-term and long-term projects.

It is a social enterprise, an increasingly popular business model where all profits are ploughed back into the enterprise. It will sell copies of the works produced, as well as offering writing, editing and publishing services.

Part of its offering will be a literary journal called early harvest. And through a partnership with publishing house Hardie Grant Egmont, the organisation will provide a master class for people who wish to write for children called 100 Story Studio.

Another offshoot will be 100 Story Holidays, workshops for children with working parents. 100 Story Building will also run programs for entire classes of students, both at the centre and at schools throughout Melbourne and in country Victoria.

Publishing houses Penguin and Text are also backing the organisation.

The organisation's start-up funding has come from a range of philanthropic organisations including the Ian Potter Foundation, the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation and the Collier Charitable Fund. Social Traders, which specifically assists social enterprises, advised on the business plan and has also provided some funding.

100 Story Building was officially launched only days ago in a packed auditorium at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. The crowd's enthusiasm was palpable, and a number of people were clearly keen to volunteer. While it already has about 40 volunteers, many of them having been involved in Pigeon Letters, it needs 100.

''One-on-one work with kids is the core business of the 100 Story Building. Showing an interest in what these kids have to say, and helping them develop their voice, is one of the most powerful things we can do, and volunteer tutors will be doing this on a daily basis, during school time and after, both in the centre and in classrooms.

''We would love to have people who have a passion for words and feel they can share that passion with the children and young people we work with. We have found that all of our volunteers have found it a very, very enriching process, because that moment when you see the kids appreciating your attention is pretty special.''

The organisation also needs volunteers with skills in administration, business and design.

''We see 100 Story Building as belonging to the community, so we want volunteers to contribute in ways that are meaningful to them. We are open to people approaching us with ideas, if they have skills they think will be useful, or knowledge in a particular area.''

Carter says the hardest thing he has ever gone though was his first days as a teacher. It is an experience that provides some of the impetus behind 100 Story Building. His determination to give children in need a chance is matched by his yearning to see teachers thrive.

''That's what the 100 Story Building is really about - opening up the doors of the classroom and giving teachers the opportunity to draw on the rich creative community that we have and help build their curriculum around that, to help them provide the best opportunities possible to the children they work with.''

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