Art Works Blog

Grant Spotlight on the Care Center

According to Anne Teschner, executive director of the Community Adolescent Resources and Education Center (The Care Center), the young women enrolled at the Care Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, gain confidence in themselves through the Paper City Poetry Project's Readers and Writers Series—a project established through the Care Center’s collaboration with the Smith College Poetry Center. The project not only gives teen mothers the opportunity to read and discuss works with poets and take part in the community dialogue, but it also empowers the women to write and share their own work. The Care Center, which has served the Holyoke community for more than 30 years by working with young mothers and their families to continue their education, received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support the Readers and Writers Series. We spoke with Teschner via phone about poetry as a source of empowerment, the community impact of the Readers and Writers Series, and the importance of NEA funding to the success of the Care Center’s mission.

NEA: Can you tell me, in your own words, about the work of the Care Center, and what the organization aims to achieve?

ANNE TESCHNER: At the Care Center, we work primarily with pregnant and parenting teen moms. They’ve all dropped out of high school, and we’re working to help them pass their GED and go on to college. We are working with the constraints of welfare reform, and we had to figure out a way to jumpstart people’s interest in education and their own intellectual capacity. It was the arts and humanities that really jumpstarted this 15 years ago, but continues to jumpstart students every day and every year here. It really is the place where students go from, “I’m not a good student” and “I’m not very smart,” to “I’m interested in the world and I want to be part of the public dialogue.”

NEA: Can you please describe the Paper City Poetry Project's Readers and Writers Series.

TESCHNER: There are three main components. We’re working on enhancing literacy, reminding these young adults that they need to be ready to take over the reins of the world, and that there’s a way in which they can best do that by engaging with other thinkers and writers. With those goals in mind, six to eight poets every year come and speak at the Care Center. The students receive a copy of the poet’s work weeks beforehand, [so they] are studying the work intensely, and also writing poems in response to the work. You’ve got this virtual dialogue going on that then manifests in these unbelievably great poetry readings where the poets come and talk to the students. Many poets come from a link we have with the Poetry Center at Smith College. Those folks are pulling in unbelievably wonderful poets throughout the year. These are the poets of America—Terrance Hayes, Nikky Finney, Naomi Shihab Nye, Robert Pinsky. For the staff, it’s amazing as well to be able to engage with the poets in this intimate way. I have this vision in my head that when the students are 40 years old they’ll look back and go, “Wait a minute, Sharon Olds came to my school?” And be amazed. They’re amazed already, but I think the magnitude of it will continue to unfold.

NEA: Can you talk about how how the collaboration with the Poetry Center began?

TESCHNER: We reached out to the Smith Poetry Center and said, “You have some really great poets. Would you be willing to work with us?" And to their credit, Smith College said, “Yeah! That sounds like a really great idea.” I have a sense that this gets discussed amongst some poets. This is a powerful thing for them to do as well. In terms of geography, Smith College is ten miles away over the mountain, so it’s nearby. I think the colleges often are trying to find deep and meaningful ways to connect with communities. I think for Smith, this counts as that. One of their interests is, how can they bring the riches of the college into, in this case, a pretty poor community?

NEA: How do the women in the Care Center community benefit from the Readers and Writers Series?

TESCHNER: There’s a way in which the scale of poetry, but also the depth of poetry really pulls people in. We see it over and over again. Often, there are three key projects that go on here at the Care Center and students are hooked in by one of them: poetry, rowing, and photography. Those are the three big curriculum hooks that allow women to see themselves as thinkers, as writers. There’s a deliberate effort to create this dialogue with the poets. And in turn, it provides a way for students to be part of a bigger public dialogue. Their whole sense of self enlarges, and it’s poetry that does it. There’s a spiritual aspect to it, there’s an intellectual aspect, and then there’s the mastery to go from, “I can’t write anything,” to “Hmm, I can write,” to “Whoa! I can write really well!”

NEA: How do you think poetry empowers those enrolled at the Care Center, and the Holyoke community as a whole?

TESCHNER: We hold the Readers and Writers Series at this beautiful museum across the street [from the center]. It’s open to the public, and the public does come. Another way that the public is involved is that the women themselves are deeply enmeshed in the community. Before the poets come, the students get a copy of some piece of work, so this becomes the beginning of their at-home library. Students talk about bringing the books home and reading them aloud to their boyfriends or their moms. I think there’s a way in which, when you’re living in poverty and you’re in the middle of some pretty profound human experiences, poetry can help people make sense of it, and sometimes distance themselves from it, but also understand that their experiences are important to the bigger discussion in the world.

NEA: There are a number of writers lined up for 2019, including Duy Doan, Carmen Maria Machado, Ari Banias, Layli Long Soldier, Uchechi Kalu, and Cheryl Boyce. What do you think these particular artists will bring to the community?

TESCHNER: We’ve [already] had the first three [writers] and it was amazing to have these brilliant thinkers be in our midst. The most recent was Layli Long Soldier. On the one hand, you think, what does a Lakota woman have to say to a bunch of Puerto Rican girls in the welfare system? One of the Care Center students said, “Would you talk about ‘Diction,’” which is one of the longer poems in the collection that we were reading. Layli went off for a good 40 minutes discussing and reading that poem. People were transfixed with her story—her experience of being chided for her diction, which all began in a college course—and just being outraged while declaring, “Wait a minute, you understand what I’m saying. It might not be the way you would say it, but you understand me. How dare you tell me I have to talk like you!” This really resonates with Puerto Rican girls who are largely bilingual—some lean towards more Spanish speaking. There was a moment of true human, woman-to-woman connection. It was powerful. She was interested in their work; they were interested in her work. That very earnest exchange is powerful. It’s electrifying. You feel it in the room.

NEA: How important is funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to this project? What does it make possible?

TESCHNER: We wouldn’t be able to do [this project] without it. It allows us to give poets a stipend and buy copies of the books so that people can have them. The endorsement of the NEA is huge. It is a small community—Holyoke is 40,000 people and I just learned the sixth poorest city in the country. Having the NEA support this and embrace this is huge. It says the work is important. People know the NEA even in little Holyoke. They recognize it—that not only is it a source of money, but that it’s an endorsement.

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