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Family Voices program creates safe spaces for self-expression, creativity and connection

Four young people in a carpeted community room stand in a row in the foreground, facing the camera and smiling. Other people are sitting at tables and standing.
Alpha Cardenas
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Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community
Family Voices is a cross-curricular and family-inclusive writing program, facilitated by Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community.

Family Voices is a program by Asheville writers in the schools where kids and parents have the opportunity to connect with each other and themselves through writing. Asheville youth and families worked together for 8 weeks earlier this year to create an anthology and a safe space for connection and growth. StoryCraft producer Sharissa Thomason documented the program for BPR, and put together this reflection.

If I was to use one word to describe family voices it would be community. Everyone works together to encourage each other and as we write together we create a community.

I never would’ve associated the sound of laughter with writing until I participated in family voices as an assistant artist mentor. Before it always felt like writing had to have some sort of seriousness to it. My writing had to be profound and inspirational. I always wrote for myself but I couldn't help the expectations in the back of my head. Something about seeing other people express themselves freely makes you want to do the same.

Sharissa Thomason wears a white mask and plum long sleeve shirt while recording a conversation with two people sitting at a table.
Alpha Cardenas
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Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community
Sharissa Thomason (left), is a 17-year-old student at AB Tech, and served as assistant artist mentor during this Spring's Family Voices program.

About 8 kids participated in the workshops this Spring. We’d meet with them once a week and then their family members would join us each month.

My mom Melody and brother Isa were artist mentors too. One of my favorite moments was when the kids would read out loud. When they would get into their reading It always felt so safe and happy. For example when one of the students was reading our mentor text for us, the way he read it filled the room with joy.

What I love about family voices is that we had the freedom to throw away any expectations. We were allowed to write what we wanted and it didn't have to make sense or have perfect grammar. All that matters is that we were writing. And even though we wanted people to feel comfortable enough to share, they had the freedom and support to choose if they wanted to or not.

Most of the time the lessons didn't go exactly as planned, yet somehow it didn't matter. The beauty was the space that was created. Also it was just more fun not to worry whether the activities were going exactly as planned. One of my favorite nights was when we were writing stories from the point of view of an object and it turned into a guessing game.

As the sessions progressed, I realized that it wasn't about teaching how to write but how to use writing as a tool – a tool to build community.

Of course we were still helping the kids write, but it wasn't our main goal. What was important is that they felt safe enough to share and express themselves. The difference I saw in some of the kids was inspiring. For example at the beginning of the after school sessions, one of the participants, Daziyah, was hesitant to write but by the end she had written an entire story.

Daziyah's Story.wav
Daziyah sitting at a table with paper and colored pencils, wearing a pink sweatshirt and braids, listens to artist mentor Melody who is wearing a  mauve headscarf and patterned mask.

I was really proud to see how much she had written and to hear her read her story with such confidence. In the end I'm really glad I worked at Family Voices. It reminded me of the importance of writing as a way to express myself, and build relationships. I hope anyone listening to this takes some time of their day to write - and to share it. It doesn't have to be perfectly proper, it just has to be.

StoryCraft is funded in part by America Amplified, a national public media collaboration focused on community engagement reporting and Buncombe County's Tipping Point grant program.

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