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Asheville Youth Find Voices Through Word on the Street

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Every other Thursday during the school year, a dozen or so teenagers of color meet in a repurposed classroom at Asheville’s Arthur EdingtonCenter.

With a few adult advisors guiding their paths, they write stories and poetry, take photos and produce video--and it all goes into an online magazine called Word on the Street.

“We feel like we should be heard more,” said Quantasia Williams, an 18-year-old who graduated last spring from Asheville High School. “There’s a lot of talented members in here, and we’re trying to let everyone express themselves.”

Williams is the most senior member of these teens, who come from five of the city’s middle and high schools.

“It’s kinda helping youth of color get their voice out within the community,” she said. “We’ve all noticed there’s a problem, and we want to go at it and fix it, or try to.”

Fixing community problems isn’t quite how the program’s founder frames it. Tamiko Ambrose Murray is a writer, teacher and community activist who co-founded the magazine under the umbrella of another nonprofit, called Asheville Writers in the Schools.

Both are platforms for people of color to find their voices and tell their stories.

“We are doing this work to give the extra lift to young people of color who would otherwise not have access to creative programming outside of school,” Murray said.

Murray has a master’s degree in social work and for a while taught freshman composition at UNC-Asheville. She also writes poetry and short stories, and she grew interested in the role of the creative process in healing and transformation.

“I had a very challenging childhood,” she said. “The space we strive to create is one we all needed as developing writers and artists.”

Murray and fellow writer and teacher Janet Hurley launched Word on the Street just last year. They and other adult mentors guide the students with writing prompts or advice about how to give birth to what they have in their minds.

“We tell them when we’re free-writing not to worry about spelling, not worry about punctuation, not to let those voices that stand in the way to be creative,” Murray said. “Our methodology is to silence those voices and to get them to create from their lived experience.”

Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News
Serenity Lewis (left) and Donovan Spencer with Word on the Street Magazine.

There’s a sense of chaotic energy to these Thursday gatherings--kids working alone or in small groups on any number of tasks--and that’s reflected in the magazine, itself. The home page is a hodgepodge of links in a kaleidoscope of colors to poems, autobiographical stories, galleries of paintings and photos.

Everything is presented in English and Spanish, and the translations always add considerable time to the process of posting new work to the site. The students aren’t sure who’s seeing or reading their work, but they say that’s beside the point.

“I’ve been wanting a place where youth can just be themselves,” said 14-year-old Serenity Lewis. “Even those it’s digitally, it’s still somewhere we can kinda go and our mind can escape to.”

Lewis came to Word on the Street last year after her mother insisted she apply for the program rather than play basketball. She says it’s helped her discover her talents for writing and photography.

“I want to show I’m here, that I’m real and have a voice just like anybody else does,” Lewis said. “And I need to have just as many resources as an adult does.”

These kids become family. Recently, they grieved over having to say a sudden goodbye to a bright, outgoing 15-year-old named Melani, who went along with her mother, who was being deported to El Salvador, while her brother and father remained here. There’s talk of Melani still contributing to Word on the Street from El Salvador.


Murray sees the greatest challenges, and reward, are model the collaborative spirit and shifting relationships with the written word for young people who struggle with literacy. And at 45, Murray believes she has found her life’s work.

“Word on the Street / La Voz de Los Jovenes is, itself, the project I’m most proud of being part of my whole entire life,” Murray said. “This is home.”


Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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