Every Voice Matters: Hounslow Action for Youth

 

As the Women’s Prize for Fiction has recently donated some books to community hub Hounslow Action for Youth, we asked facilitator Jacqueline Crooks to tell us about the work she does with the organisation’s Young Women’s Creative Writing Group, and the its transformative power on vulnerable young women.

Jacqueline Crooks is an award-winning Jamaican-born writer. She writes about Caribbean migration and subcultures. She has been published by Peepal Tree Press, Virago and MsLexia.

I have been developing and facilitating writing projects in the community sector for over twenty years. I am working with Hounslow Action for Youth charity delivering writing workshops for young women aged 13–18.

Many of the young women are in the care of the local authority or transitioning from state care to independent living. We have just come to the end of year one of this two-year project and are writing up the findings of our evaluation, but early indications are that exposure to women’s literature has helped marginalised young women to engage with literature both as readers and writers. Our circle of young women have forged bonds over the beautifully crafted texts of women authors.

At the start of every workshop we read a poem or chapter from a novel, introducing young women to diverse, relatable women authors. It enables young women to read together, explore themes, express opinions, as they learn that every voice matters, including their own.

It is powerful to hear a young woman’s voice in the silence, reading the opening page of a novel. That voice guiding them inside the pages of a book. A call to take up their pen and write.

Many of these young women are very quiet at the beginning of the workshops. American writer Audre Lorde says ‘Your Silence will not protect you.’ And they learn this as, week by week, they open up, inspired by the startling range of writers such as Bernardine Evaristo, Irenosen Okojie, Madeline Miller, Hillary Mantel, Barbara Kingsolver, Sara Suleri and Zadie Smith.

Exploring the powerful words of women writers motivates them to write and later to read aloud their own stories to the group.

After the reading session the young women engage in a series of short writing exercises. Beautiful words are contagious, and by this time, they are all eager to write.

Audre Lord says that she made contact with other women while they examined words, bridging their difference, and this is what happens at these workshops.

Like Sabhreena, who grew up in care and has always written in the isolation of her room. The group has opened up a world of women writers whose words make her gasp as their words take root in her imagination. And she writes in response lines like:

 

“No matter how many times I’ve cried

I’m still breathing

 still writing.

Waiting for the light they say will come

when you need it most.”

 

The books are gifted to the young women and they take them home after every workshop, along with the poems and stories they have written. I always see something different in the way they leave, something hopeful about the way they carry those books together with their writing journals. The books give them something to hold onto until the next workshop.

I have come to see that reading and writing groups are not only transformative, they are one of the safest places for vulnerable young women. These non-hierarchical, peer-orientated spaces empower young women to believe that their words matter and their voices are needed.

 

Photo credit: Jacqueline Crooks (middle) with two participants of the HAY’s Young Women’s Creative Writing Group, taken by Jo Ely