An Interview with 826DC’s Joe Callahan

826DC is a nonprofit organization that provides writing workshops, tutoring, and more to students in the DC area. 826DC operates out of The Museum of Unnatural History, a quirky storefront featuring everything from cans of Primordial Soup to supplements to aid the growth of opposable thumbs.

On Wednesday, January 23, 2013, American University’s creative writing faculty will take part in the annual faculty reading (featuring Kyle Dargan, Danielle Evans, Stephanie Grant, David Keplinger, Elise Levine, and Rachel Louise Snyder). Proceeds from this reading will benefit 826DC.

Café Americain sat down with Joe Callahan, 826DC’s Executive Director and a former American University writing professor, to learn more about the organization.

 

CA: I first discovered 826DC when I happened upon the Museum of Unnatural History storefront and couldn’t resist checking it out. How did the storefront come about?

JC: Ten years ago, when the idea of 826 was just blossoming in San Francisco, the co-founders identified the perfect space at 826 Valencia Street in the Mission District. But the space was zoned for retail, which meant that the tutoring center had to sell something. They decided that what the Mission needed was a pirate supply store. So now they are the Bay Area’s foremost purveyor of peg legs, fathoms, eye patches, and other pirate accoutrement. As 826 spread across the country, each center opened its’ own unique and whimsical storefront. When we opened, we wanted something that represented the city, so naturally we decided to become a museum, but we needed to add our own little spin. The theme itself, the design of the space, and the construction were curated by volunteers.

CA: In upcoming weeks, you’re running workshops on topics including magical realism and Freud. Where do these unique themes come from?

JC: Many of our workshops are created by members of our amazing volunteer corps. However, by being part of the 826 National Network, we also have access to all the resources of the other 8 chapters across the country. These two workshops were featured in “Don’t Forget to Write,” our compendium of 100 creative writing workshops.

CA: What are the most important things that young writers get out of visiting 826DC?

JC: Deep down, it’s the sense that their voice matters, that they have something to say, and that they are smart, creative, and confident.

CA: Do you find that many students continue writing outside of your workshops?

JC: Yes. All of our programs are designed to inspire and engage students, and help them build language-rich experiences outside of the walls of a school or our tutoring center.

CA: Can you share any favorite stories about students who flourished as writers at 826DC?

JC: Rashawnda [826DC’s Young Writer-in-Residence] is a senior in high school. When she started high school, she was disengaged. In the middle of her sophomore year, a teacher suggested she attend one of our poetry workshops. She had never written a poem before, but once she did, she realized it was something special. Rashawnda has grown into a talented young poet and her involvement in 826DC brought her new and exiting opportunities. Last year, she read some of her work and was interviewed by 826 co-founder Dave Eggers at the National Book Festival. As she tells it: ‘While I was reading, I noticed a woman who was crying. Later she told me my poem touched her. In that moment I realized I could connect with strangers and touch others with my writing. Me, a formerly nervous, awkward girl, could affect change.’

CA: How can MFA students at American University get involved with helping young writers?

JC: Come volunteer! Come intern! We have a small staff and rely heavily on the contribution of volunteers.

Learn more about 826DC’s volunteer opportunities and programs at http://826dc.org/. They can be reached at (202) 525-1074 and info@826dc.org. Visit the Museum of Unnatural History at 3233 14th St. NW.

Details about the American University Faculty Reading are available here: http://826dc.org/?p=3456.

Sarah Sansolo

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