Mighty Writers, the nonprofit where I serve as executive director, was on quite the roll when Covid hit.
Our “think clearly, write with clarity” mantra had taken hold. We had five writing centers for kids going strong in the city. We had established ourselves in Camden, NJ, and we were teaching literacy skills to the children of farmworkers in southern Chester County.
We were also making weekly trips to Atlantic City with the intention of opening a writing center there and convincing the casinos that a city of bright and literate kids would be good for business. Soon after, we’d look at Trenton, then Newark, then New York City. We were feeling the Mighty.
What’s the old Yiddish expression? Make plans, God laughs?
Come Covid, we shut everything down and immediately made all our writing workshops virtual. Because our centers are embedded in the communities we serve, we saw how families were coping with the onslaught of the pandemic.The short answer, in most cases: not so great. And, most often, worse than that. Jobs were being lost, schools and daycare centers had closed, kids were home and needed to be watched. How was that supposed to work? Both the short and long term future was looking increasingly ominous. Help was needed.
We stepped in, best we could, reorganized our staff, began distributing food, then diapers, masks, wipes, books—always books—at all our centers every day. Food distribution was suddenly a major part of our operation. It still is, and will likely remain that way for some time. We feel good that we’ve been able to be a help to our communities—considering, because if you don’t include the “considering” qualifier into every positive story you tell in the time of Covid you’re just not speaking truth.
“Being back in person, as the phrase goes, even on a rationed basis, will surely be a wonder. In our case, it’s the chance to see Mighty Writers kids in the flesh again; to hear them laugh, tell their tall tales, write what they feel and be their naughty by nature selves.”
But now that there appears daylight for a future that will at least echo what went before, it feels safe to begin to acknowledge, even with all the darkness, the good that has come from our virtual work environment. In my case, and in the case of Mighty Writers as an organization, there has been much good in virtual life.
For starters, we learned to collaborate and strategize; to listen to each other; to mull, singularly, together, and mostly wisely. We got smart about streaming, and realized it was going to be an integral part of our future. Our full schedule of Zoom meetings with staffers and multiple partners has had occasional disorienting impacts, like those moments, speaking only for myself here, when I would lose myself in the computer screen—What’s the topic? Who are these people? Why am I here?
In those times, I would break free of Zoom, jump in the car and drive, mostly aimlessly, but always somehow riding past closed basketball courts, once my lifeline to exercise, where I’d stare mournfully at the rimless backboards. I would try to find solace in the Billie Holiday and Junior Walker playlists that lived on my phone.
Mostly, though, periodic breakdowns aside, Zoom life has kept me, much as it feels weird to say it, connected. It has drawn me closer to people I work with, some of whom in our previous states I saw not nearly enough and then only on the fly. In Zoom meetings, I got to see faces close up, and at all times of day. I learned people’s biorhythms, what made specific colleagues laugh, and learned what they did to feel restored. I could see when exhaustion was taking its toll and learned to bring the temperature down and try hard to stay supportive in those moments. After all, we’d been growing a business together day by day, hour by hour, while taking this dark, bleak journey together. Respect for that need be paid.
Being back in person, as the phrase goes, even on a rationed basis, will surely be a wonder. In our case, it’s the chance to see Mighty Writers kids in the flesh again; to hear them laugh, tell their tall tales, write what they feel and be their naughty by nature selves. It will remind us why we believe so deeply in teaching and promoting the power of the written word. In the meantime, we’ll be keeping the Mighty alive virtually. It really isn’t so bad, considering.
Tim Whitaker is the executive director at Mighty Writers.