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Writer's Block InK continues to grow through its own process

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Dorothy most famously suggested that "There's no place like home."

And if she wasn't on the business school faculty at Sloan or Tuck, Dorothy's epiphany certainly reflects the strategies and leadership values of the folks at New London's Writer's Block InK. The highly successful New London-based nonprofit, formed in 2003, empowers young people through performing and creative arts — typically focused on serious social and cultural issues. Year-round programming includes dance, spoken-word and performance, creative writing and poetry, theater, visual arts music and more.

In August, Writer's Block InK announced that Juanita Wilbur is their new senior director. She joined Writer's Block InK in 2012 when she was 12 and has stayed active in the organization since then. She succeeds Kolton Harris, who remains on the Block board and is now an arts programming manager for the Connecticut Office for the Arts. Harris, too, is a "homegrown" product of the Block, having participated since youth. And, in turn, Harris took over at Writer's Block InK for Adrian Jefferson, another Block alum who started in childhood. Though Harris and Jefferson "left" the Block for college, they're among a number who have returned and stayed active. Wilbur, who worked under and learned from three directors, has never left.

"I get goosebumps thinking about Juanita, Adrian and Kolton and what's been accomplished over the years — because I was there when they were little children running around (the Block facilities)," says Clarissa Beyah-Taylor, founder and president of Writer's Block InK, who works as Chief Communications Officer at Union Pacific Railroad and as a professor of Professional Practice at the University of Southern California. "Look at them now! I'm so proud, not just of the productions and creativity Writer's Block has consistently presented but also because this has been such a source of leadership within the community."

In that context, Beyah-Taylor explains that Writer's Block learned they didn't have to go very far afield when trying to guide the organization. She says, "It's so interesting that, over time, our search for leaders has resulted in promotion from within. Like a lot of organizations, we'd done large scale and national searches in the past because someone might have ideal experience in working with youth and in how to negotiate the nonprofit world. But at first with Adrian and then Kolton and now Juanita, we realized we'd been creating leaders all along."

The virus

When Harris accepted the job with the Connecticut Office for the Arts and Wilbur was named his successor, the idea of a change in leadership was somewhat hampered by the coronavirus. But, at the same time, the demands and innovations being faced by everyone provided some time for Writer's Block to transition.

"Of course, I'm super excited by this opportunity, and I'd been working closely with Kolton all along during his tenure," Wilbur says. "He is so good at developing ideas and ways of moving the organization forward, and we'd been trying to adapt throughout the virus. Kolton came up with a great plan on the fly for summer activities and programs that not only helped us create art but also use the technology and digital media available to us to do everything from create our own videos and also engage in online promotion."

Wilbur acknowledges she was also a bit nervous as the calendar turned towards fall and she took the reins of Writer's Block full-time. "I've directed productions and am comfortable with the creative side and the activities we present to members. But I'm also learning the ins and outs of the administrative aspect — things like grant writing and communicating with the board of directors. And Kolton came up with a training program to help me with that. He's made me so much less anxious and more confident — and really, that's in many ways what we do here. And the help I've had from everyone here has been just so important. We do it together."

New ideas and concepts

Harris expresses all confidence in Wilbur and says he's proud to still serve as vice-president of the Writer's Block board of directors. "One of the goals of Writer's Block has been to cultivate and develop new leadership in the community. And, maybe unintentionally, we learned we were helping accomplish that from within the organization itself. Juanita is only going to help with that and bring new ideas and concepts."

Indeed, over last summer, Wilbur, Harris and the Block staff — including development coordinator Chelsea Reis, research, education and production lead CJ Thibeau, and creative writing coach Alicia Rosado — oversaw The Block Academy for Art & Social Change. The digital program, designed for students ages 12 to 17, used virtual and digital means to explore poverty, abuse, homelessness and social isolation through the prism of COVID-19.

"We reshaped how we teach, relying of digital media a lot more," Wilbur says. "We also revisited painting, sketching and re-learned singing — diving back into basics that we can do on computers. I want to say that, if Writer's Block wasn't around, our students would be a lot more emotionally stressed. I think our projects and interaction brings a lof of positivity into their day and gives them space to create during the virus. In turn, this situation we're all facing gives the kids a lot to talk about and discuss with each other."

Beyah-Taylor says she marvels over the developments the Block has made over the years but, at the same time, isn't surprised. "I was raised in the era when children were seen, not heard," she says. "It's not that kids weren't creative or didn't have ideas and thoughts; it was a generational thing. What we've learned is that, a lot of times, when kids say something, it's truer than what you'd hear from an adult because they haven't been beaten down or taught to conform. And it's so important to tap into that energy and creativity when they're young."

As more and more Writer's Block InK students grow up and go off to college or take jobs in other communities and states, the very real possibility is that the Block will expand from its New London home base.

"We already have Writer's Block alumni participating from all over," Beyah-Taylor says. "Until recently, we thought our programming would be limited geographically, but not anymore. The digital possibilities and how COVID forced us to be creative has opened so many options, and these younger leaders have the knowledge and ideas to move that forward."

Spring forward

In that fashion, though COVID rages on, the Block has started a new variety of activities and programs. One is a series of free "Winter Workshops" taking place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. every other Thursday. The first, held Jan. 7, explored variations of microaggression through acting and scene-writing. On Thursday, the second workshop is on transforming microagression into positive energy through poetry. Subsequent sessions are scheduled for Feb. 4 (panel discussion and Q&A on actors and filmmakers who are guilty of colorism); Feb. 18 (continuation of colorism through poetry); and March 4 (a collaborative art project inspired by the topic of sexual harrassment).

Other Block projects include the free "Bi-Weekly Check-In," a series that continues Jan. 29 and every other Friday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. through June 11. The Check-Ins provides a virtual space for incoming, current and past students to express themselves about issues important to them. Also, starting Feb. 10 and continuing each Wednesday from 2 to 3:30 p.m. is "The Express Lane," an afterschool program of pan-artistic workshops for students "who haven't experienced WBI's culture." Registration and a $60 fee are required.

Wilbur is confident that the Block provides invaluable experiences, nurturing, and pathway to friendships and relationships some young people might not find elsewhere.

"When I started going to Writer's Block as a kid, I had a friend join me because it was a place to hang out and my cousin was one of the founders," Wilbur says. "Once I began to develop my artistic side, it became my comfort zone. And I knew then I wanted to direct shows and productions — not for myself but to help newer students and Block members to communicate and help in the community.

"Ideally, the COVID numbers will go down and we can be with our kids and put on productions. But if that doesn't happen soon, we're going forward. We've learned and we're learning how to do digital media projects. We'll do video productions, and we're thinking about a digital magazine. There's so much we can do. And we will."

SIDE BAR: KOLTON HARRIS

Early last June, after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, Kolton Harris, then-director of Writer's Block InK, reacted in the most positive way possible: he created. An accomplished musician, writer and speaker, Harris, a native of Groton, and friends/collaborators Jaden Williams, Ryan Parker and Zachary Koval, wrote and recorded a song called the heart-piercing "Another One Dead."

Skillfully and emotionally melding dark ambience and haunting beats with simmering anger and the mournful qualities of a funeral hymn, "Another One Dead" is an incredibly moving and visionary piece of music. On July 4, Harris and Parker, after working in their Groton Lunara Studio with other guest musicians including guest vocalist Moriah Jackson, released a subsequent and powerful five-song EP called "4 Freedom."

The tunes on "4 Freedom" include the title track, "More Than Apologies," "Black Joy," and "Together We Will Win" and comprise a deft , twirling amalgam of styles fueled by social injustice and the sad processional of racism in America. The whole EP is as fresh, powerful and musically competitive as any recording you're likely to hear in contemporary music.

"I want to emphasize that hope is on the horizon and we're turning a corner," says Harris, a devout Christian. "To be honest, a lot of of the content of the music comes from inside; from my fatith. I contextualize from that and that helps fight the feeling that, sometimes, it looks like there's no progress in society. But I believe that, when we ground ourselves in art and creativity, that's what's going to bring us to the other side."

The quick turnaround for the original "Another One Dead" single and then the EP was, Harris says, "a lightning in a bottle experience. The songs came really quickly, and once we got in the studio, our experimental instincts took over. The friendship and creative connection Zack and Jaden and I share is so beautiful."

Response to the music has been very strong, Harris says, and there's more music on the horizon.

"Seeing and hearing people's reactions to the songs made us very proud and helped us realize how a powerful work of art can help bring healing and hope," Harris says. "We were moved by a lot of issues to create these songs. Now, we're trying to be a little patient and let our audience slow down and savor the experience rather than scarf it down. But there's definitely more in the pipeline."

For more information on Kolton Harris or to stream his music, go to Instragram or Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music.

 

If you go

What: Writer's Block InK winter and spring programs

When: Block Talk Workshops, 5:30-7 p.m. Jan. 21, Feb. 4, Feb. 18, March 4; Bi-Weekly Check-In, 6:30-8 p.m. Jan. 22 and every other Friday through June 11; The Block Academy for Art & Social Change Express Lane afterschool program, 2-3:30 p.m. Wednesdays through March 17

How much: Block Talk and Bi-Weekly Check-In free, Express Lane afterschool program $60 per student; registration required

For more information: (860) 442-5625, writersblockink.org.

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