Aliya Hall, 16, and Maeve Willbourn, 17, were among 100 students selected from around the world to go to the inaugural International Congress of Youth Voices in San Francisco. They have both been students of the Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center (CYC), a nonprofit focused on writing, for about a year now. At the event, they learned new ways to inspire their writing, activism and change making.
GR|MAG sat down with them and the CYC’s program director, Brianne Carpenter, to talk about the experience.
GR|MAG: How did you find out you were going to the event? How did it make you feel?
Maeve Willbourn: I found out from Brianne while I was here at the CYC. I was really excited because I love San Francisco and that’s a great place to have a youth conference. I was excited to go to all of these talks and meet all of these people.
Aliya Hall: Brianne also told me I was going. On the inside, I was very emotional and very excited. It was emotional for me but also good…I have never been away from my mom and on the way to the airport, I started to tear up. She’s usually with me when it comes to my writing because she helps to guide me. That was hard for me [to be away from her] but it was tears of joy that I was going and doing this on my own and learning new things.
GR|MAG: What kind of things did you learn at the conference?
MW: I learned a lot about taking action and doing what’s right.
AH: The most important thing I learned there was what [U.S. Representative] John Lewis told us, that if we see something that’s wrong or not right, you need to say something. If you’re sticking up for somebody that is getting bullied, don’t worry about the consequences because you are doing something good to help. That’s good trouble and that’s necessary trouble. I really took to that because I know I could use that in a lot of situations that happen here at home.
GR|MAG: How was it to meet those other students from around the world?
MW: It was really awesome. We didn’t get as much time to talk with each other as we would have liked and we didn’t meet everyone, but I met some really cool people there, doing some awesome stuff.
AH: It was really good because I saw a lot more people like me, who were my race and they could only understand certain things that we could talk about. I met people from Africa and it was nice to have conversations with them and talk to them about what their everyday life is like. It was really good for making new friends and learning new things.
GR|MAG: How does your writing process go? What things inspire you to write?
MW: The current political climate for sure; good or bad things that are happening. I tend to think about those things a lot because they affect me and I can help change the world. I will just think of something and I will just write it down.
AH: I can be a huge procrastinator. I’m working on it though. When it comes to my writing, usually when an idea pops up in my head, I try to make it up into a song so I can remember it. But my process to really sit down and write a book or story takes me forever. Not because I’m procrastinating but because I have so many ideas coming to me at once.
GR|MAG: All of the students came together at the conference on the last day and wrote a manifesto. How was it to come together and write that with everyone? It was a very powerful read.
MW: It was a lot of brain power. We split off into groups and wrote our own little manifesto and then put them all together. My group was kind of large, about 15 people. It was a lot of thought on all accounts. My group talked about making a global network so we could get in touch with each other and do things everywhere. The manifesto turned out really cool.
AH: It was really cool [to come together] because we all had our own little parts. I liked how a lot of us came up with creative ways on how to say what we wanted to say. Eventually, by the time I had to do the manifesto, I was with a group of people that I didn’t meet yet and we wrote it on the last day.
GR|MAG: Maeve, you are a big fan of female rock bands from the 1970s, do you put a lot of that into your writing?
MW: It depends. I think it is a really big influence. I read about The Runaways, who were the first commercially successful female rock band. They were doing things that no female rock band had done before. There were things that women weren’t supposed to be able to do and they did them anyway. I think that’s an inspiration when it comes to confidence and stuff like that. When I write about some things, that stuff will come through, but it just depends on the story.
GR|MAG: Aliya, I read that you are a strong advocate on trying to abolish racism. Do you put a lot of that into your writing?
AH: A majority of my work that I started to do now does. I’ve always written about it but I threw it away before. I was actually racially profiled at a really young age and I knew exactly what was going on because my mom talks to us about that stuff.
GR|MAG: What do you plan to do after high school?
MW: I’m not exactly sure. I might want to do something with writing but maybe also interior design. If I want to do something like that though I will have to jump on that and look at completely different schools.
AH: I plan to go to college. Then after college, I plan to write and be a business owner. Also, someone who helps the homeless and to be an author.
GR|MAG: Any last things you want to say that you learned from the conference?
MW: Something that keeps going through my head that I learned there was we will not be silenced.
AH: Really, don’t judge a book by its cover. You can’t judge people just by their looks.
Question for Brianne Carpenter
GR|MAG: How do you inspire the kids to write here at the CYC?
Brianne Carpenter: I wish people reading the article could see the space we are sitting in. The CYC has an adventure theme and we believe that reading and writing is a way for you to explore and travel even though you are physically staying in one spot. This space is set up to foster creativity.
We work with a variety of wild and wacky prompts. We believe that every student has a myriad of stories to tell and that every student is a writer, and sometimes it’s just about having the freedom to write whatever the thing is that comes to mind. We do all sorts of stuff. We do tactile stuff, we do collaborative storytelling, and sometimes we have visiting writers come in. I would say that we are not short on imagination around here.
The Creative Youth Center is located at 413 Eastern Ave SE. It works primarily with Grand Rapids Public School students but is open to any student living in the Grand Rapids area. All of its programs are offered at no cost to families.
The International Congress of Youth Voices was a three-day event that took place on Aug. 3-5. It was founded by Dave Eggers, who also co-founded 826 National, a nonprofit helping to improve students’ writing and reading skills. For my information on the conference visit the International Congress of Youth Voices website.
*Photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center