St. Louis teens create and collaborate through Gateway Writing Project’s OneCity Stories program
Dakota Muller is not used to reading her work aloud. The rising senior at Bayless High School in south St. Louis County is more accustomed to her words staring back up at her from the page, either in her journal or under her byline in the school newspaper.
For her final presentation at the end of three weeks learning and working with other high school students in the OneCity Stories program, though, she decided to step outside of her comfort zone.
Which is how she found herself in front of a darkened community room on the ground floor of the University of Missouri–St. Louis at Grand Center, reading one of her poems to a group of about 50 people on June 29.
“This, to my knowledge, is her first poem,” said Ahmed Barrow, one of the student emcees of the showcase event, while introducing Muller.
Barrow, a natural poet himself, helped Muller find her cadence throughout the program’s three weeks.
“I’ve gotten to check it out, and it’s great. I’m low-key jealous, I must say,” he added, with a laugh.
For the second straight year, the OneCity Stories program brought artistic St. Louis-area high schoolers from all over the socioeconomic and geographic spectrum together to learn about their craft. Sponsored by the Gateway Writing Project at UMSL, OneCity Stories provides three weeks of tutelage in disciplines such as journalism, poetry, fiction writing, radio and television broadcasting, and film to participants who want to make their voices heard.
This year’s group of 14 students – plus two more who went through the program last year and returned as mentors – was chosen through submitted applications and writing samples. Last year, the program earned a $20,000 LRNG Innovators Challenge Grant, which allows it to offer scholarships to promising students who may not be able to afford it otherwise.
“If you go to a particular high school in St. Louis, you may not have much opportunity to interact with other kids from other neighborhoods and areas across the metro area,” said Katie O’Daniels, Gateway Writing Project co-director and one of the OneCity Stories program coordinators. “Our hope was to bring kids from all demographic areas together. The idea is that, if we bring people together to share stories, that’s going to break down some of those invisible barriers that exist in St. Louis.”
Each of the three weeks of the program focused on a different method of storytelling. The first week centered on the written word, with special guests that included reporters from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and UMSL alumnus and published poet Jason Vasser-Elong. The second week featured tours of the St. Louis Public Radio studios at Grand Center and the Nine Network of Public Media, and the third week focused on filmmaking, with help from Cinema St. Louis.
The students also went on field trips to the Missouri History Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Every day, they were asked to take in what they had experienced and create something, either on their own or in collaboration with each other.
They weren’t exactly shy about collaborating.
“They all really meshed together by, like, day two. They were all friends,” said Niara Jackson, an MFA student at UMSL who worked with the participants as the OneCity Stories artist in residence. “It was really great to see how they all worked together on projects. Seeing that energy between them and how they all connect, especially because we’re connecting writers from different backgrounds and school districts that otherwise wouldn’t be in contact, it’s been really cool to see all that happening live, in real time.”
Jackson is on the creative writing MFA track at UMSL and comes from a background of writing fiction short stories. She wanted a hands-on experience with young artists with different areas of expertise.
She, Program Director Diana Hammond, program leaders Mary Baken and Randy Meyer, and Cathy Griner, the Gateway Writing Project assistant director for youth programs, got a daily window into the participants’ processes.
“You really see the genius and the creativity behind these kids, and how this comes out when they get to meet professionals they, maybe, wouldn’t get to meet otherwise,” Jackson said. “They ask questions they wouldn’t get to ask otherwise and really find out what they’re interested in. It’s really great for them, and it’s really great for us to see that, be a part of that and to support and provide that.”
Muller moved to the St. Louis area from Springfield, Illinois, about a year and a half ago. She is interested in coming to UMSL after high school because of how well its English, history and anthropology programs mesh. So talking with Vasser-Elong, who earned his undergraduate degree in anthropology at UMSL before going on to get his MFA, was an especially eye-opening experience.
Her English teacher at Bayless encouraged her to apply for OneCity Stories, but Muller didn’t think she’d make it. At the June 29 showcase, in the midst of her friends and collaborators presenting their poems, podcasts and short films, Muller tried a new medium on for size.
“Ignorance is bliss, they say. True love waits, they say,” she read to the room. “Little girls are taught to have their minds in the clouds. I say the clouds are not where they belong, but on the ground, where they blossom into who they really are. They are taught that good things come to those who wait. I say you have to fight through the bad and work for the good.”
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