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The Dornsife Center: Bringing Voices onto the Page By Kirsten Kaschock, Assistant Teaching Professor, Faculty Fellow, University Writing Program, Department of English & Philosophy
Office of University and Community Partnership

This past June, Writers Room at the Dornsife Center celebrated its first year of programming with a reading and book release. Anthology was the no-nonsense title of the compiled work of the many West Philadelphia community members, Drexel students, faculty, and staff who attended workshops during its inaugural season. Rachel Wenrick (Associate Teaching Professor, Department of English & Philosophy and Associate Director, University Writing Program: Strategic Initiatives) facilitated the 100+ page book and the programming that led to it. She introduced the project this way: “Welcome to Writers Room—here we examine our lives for meaning.”

The first year of Writers Room was dedicated to listening to the ideas and interests of participants and responding with programming that brought those voices onto the page. I was lucky enough to lead a poetry workshop at Dornsife in the spring, one that was based around the poet-laureate of Philadelphia Frank Sherlock’s Write Your Block project. West Philadelphia came alive for me that afternoon, in its rich history of ever-changing sights (storefronts and potted plants) and sounds (smack-talking and street musicians) and smells (honeysuckle and home-cooking). When I came back to read and listen in June, I was blown away by the depth and breadth of the work I heard. So was the rest of the standing-room only audience that attended. In the words of one participant: “To me it exemplified the ideal of what community-engaged work should be—authentic partnership and real relationships between any and all interested peoples.”

A project of the University Writing Program, Writers Room has been able to take root due to the ongoing support of College of Arts and Sciences Dean Donna Murasko, and it continues to grow and evolve based on participant requests and the feedback of a newly formed advisory board comprised of members from the Mantua, Powelton, and Drexel communities. In the 2015-2016 academic year, more workshops will be offered, as well as Side-by-Side community-based learning courses, and open writing hours where all participants can get one-on-one feedback on their work. A visiting writers-in-residence series is also in the works.

One of the most popular events of the pilot season involved CoAS Distinguished Visiting Lecturer and artist, designer, and urban planner Candy Chang, creator of Before I Die, the interactive public art project that debuted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After attending Ms. Chang’s lecture, participants contributed to a newly-installed Dornsife Center Before I Die wall and attended a workshop about voicing what matters to them most. Those concerns will continue to serve as guiding principles as Writers Room seeks to become a center for honest and sensitive discussions about the issues that affect the overlapping and intertwining West Philadelphia and Drexel communities, and for the tending of the language and the relationships that grow out of that crossover.

Writer's Room
Photo credit: Christopher Fascenelli