The Illinois Storytellers series brings you first-person pieces from distinctive Illinois voices. When Dave (MEDIA ’02) was a senior at Illinois, he lost both of his parents to cancer in a span of six weeks. His subsequent memoir of the years following their passing, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, immediately thrust him into the limelight and earned him a place among his generation’s most talented writers. His prolific publishing career has included bestselling novels, works of non-fiction, and the founding of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house.
It never gets old because it’s always different.
On any given day at 826CHI, a group of kids on a field trip will enter the space on Milwaukee Avenue and take it all in like they’ve just landed on the moon. The building is light-filled and full of books and murals featuring scenes from Marrakech, Tokyo, Mexico City, Paris, and, of course, Chicago. There is a stage. There is a secret chamber. There is a wall of stories written by other kids. And it’s all fronted by the Secret Agent Supply Co.
About fifteen years ago, I was passing through Chicago on a book tour. The year before, some friends and I had started a writing and tutoring center in San Francisco, and because we didn’t want the space to have a stigmatizing name like The Center for Kids Who Need Extra Help, we named it after its address, 826 Valencia.
At 826 Valencia, we initially planned to simply offer after-school tutoring and a safe space for very young authors. But within weeks, teacher friends of ours asked: Why not do workshops? Why not do field trips? What about programming on Saturdays? What about working in the schools, too?
826 Valencia’s scope of work expanded exponentially in the first year, and we quickly went from serving a dozen or so kids after school—most of them living within a few blocks of the center— to working with about a thousand kids all over San Francisco. However varied in form, the majority of the work was centered on making writing accessible—and possibly even fun—for all public-school kids, but especially those for whom English was their second language. Our belief was that for disenfranchised kids, finding their voice on the page could be profoundly empowering. And if their words were then published in chapbooks and professionally realized paperback collections, then they could, in one fell swoop, catapult from feeling marginalized and unheard to feeling central and celebrated.
Because the programs had been working so well in San Francisco, on my next book tour, I told anyone in the audience that if they wanted to talk about replicating 826 Valencia in Chicago, that they should stay after the book signing and we could talk—I had nowhere else to be. So that night after the reading, a bunch of people stayed late (after midnight) and by the end of the night, Leah Guenther and Mara Fuller emerged as the two people dedicated to making a similar center happen in Chicago. Within a year, they had opened 826CHI in Wicker Park, on Milwaukee Avenue—amid what was then a stretch of discount furniture and lamp stores.
And though it was thousands of miles from San Francisco, days after 826CHI opened, it was full of young people and volunteers, and the results were very similar to what we’d seen on the West Coast. Young people were working shoulder-to-shoulder with adult volunteers on their stories and essays and poems, and everyone was having far more fun than would have seemed plausible.
Leah and Mara have moved onto other endeavors at this point, but their legacy remains, beginning with the Secret Agent Supply Co. I forgot to explain that. Because the original 826 Valencia in San Francisco was located on a street zoned for retail, the landlord told us that we could have our nonprofit at the address, but that in the front of the building we needed to sell something. After much deliberation (but not really) we came up with pirate supplies. We would sell actual seafaring goods to working buccaneers.
The ludicrous thing is that it worked. People bought our peglegs and eye patches and parrot millet, and the storefront had the unexpected effect of further destigmatizing the space. Not only was the address the name of the place, but to get their extra help with writing, the students passed through a bizarre— and strangely authentic—pirate-supply retailer. It made the whole thing—for example, spending three more hours on academic work after an eight-hour school day—a lot more palatable.
So in Chicago, they too had a storefront to create and they decided on Secret Agent Supplies. The initial storefront was called the Boring Store—the most bland name they could conceive, given a secret agent would not want to be seen entering a place called the Secret Agent Store. They even had a wry awning written and designed by Chris Ware. A few years ago, 826CHI moved across the street to take advantage of a better lease situation. The storefront was changed a bit, but the theme remains. Because it’s an active retail store open to everyone, it has the added benefit of providing additional revenue to the nonprofit, and allows members of the public to see what’s happening behind the secret-agent supplies.
Which is a lot. I’ve been in the San Francisco Bay Area for twenty-five years now, but I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and many of my friends from growing up (and from U of I) are still in or around Chicago. I come back a few times a year, and am always astounded by the work done at 826CHI. The center is now run by Kendra Curry-Khanna, who started as a volunteer eight years ago, and has brilliantly led the program into crucial new areas. They’ve doubled down on their commitment to equitable access to high- quality literary programs in schools with limited arts resources—dollars, teachers, partners. This past school year, 826CHI served 3,500 students from fifty-two of the city’s fifty-seven zip codes, from Woodlawn to Austin to Rogers Park. They also published 150 books of student writing.
The vast size of Chicago, actually, gave birth to one of the center’s most original and impactful projects. Last year, the 826CHI team designed an intra-city pen-pal program that would both defy the all-digital nature of so much teen communication, and would also connect students from Little Village to those from Andersonville. They engaged sixty-two high school students at Amundsen High School on the north side and eighth graders at Zapata Academy on the southwest side, and then the letter-writing began. Every few weeks for an entire school year, the students would hand-write letters to their pen-pals, each one getting a bit more personal, a bit more inquisitive and empathetic.
“Dear Emily,” one student wrote, “You’re such an awesome person to express my feelings and my thoughts to. I don’t have any fears about expressing them. Thank you for letting me feel that way. I got your letter and I couldn’t take my hands off of it. When you called me your little sister, I was touched, and I felt a way I can’t explain. I feel safe with you.” All the letters were collected in a profoundly moving book called P.S. You Sound Like Someone I Can Trust, which was featured in The Atlantic, City Lab, and the Chicago Reader and culminated in an event where, after ten months, the students finally met each other in person. It was cathartic for all, and shrunk the enormous city of Chicago just a bit.
Whenever these public events happen, where young writers can be recognized and their voices heard, I think of being in fifth grade, and having something similar happen to me with the help of my homeroom teacher, Ms. Dunn. One semester she had us write and illustrate a book, from the copyright page down to the last period—all of it had to be perfect. When we were finished, she thought enough of my book, which was about a young bear who befriends the monster in his closet, to recommend me for a conference of young authors held at, I believe, Southern Illinois University. There were a few thousand kids from all over the state there, and we were all gathered in the basketball stadium to hear Gwendolyn Brooks—who I didn’t know was a living person—address us as fellow authors. It felt pretty good.
And it stuck with me that we adults can and should provide forums where young voices are supported, in the form of tutoring, mentoring, editing, and coaching, and even amplified, in the form of publishing, public events, and opportunities to meet heroes like Brooks. Whether or not kids so recognized become professional authors isn’t the point. The point is taking their voices seriously, and giving them a platform not just inside school walls but beyond them, too.
In August 2018, we held the International Congress of Youth Voices in San Francisco. One hundred young writers from all over the world, from Zambia to Iceland, spent three days hearing from Chimamanda Adichie, Khaled Hosseini, and Jose Antonio Vargas, among dozens more, and just as importantly, they were treated as crucial members of the global community. One current student from 826CHI attended, Esperanza Rivera, as did an 826CHI alum, Chandler Browne. For both, it was their first time to California, and certainly the first time they hobnobbed with the brightest young minds of Nepal, Sweden, and New Zealand. At a time where cross-cultural collaboration is increasingly shunned, where walls are rising all over the world, the Congress, we hope, will provide a necessary alternative to the world’s renewed interest in nationalism and isolationism.
Meanwhile, 826CHI will continue to do the crucial day-to-day work of making confident young writers. The nonprofit is run on a lean budget, and for every one paid staffer, there are about thirty-five volunteers. So, if you have time to give, they will be glad to take any hours you’re free.
Chicago is my voice
BY KIARA D. // GRADE 8
Champaign-Urbana: the place that I call home.
Every time I visit, the place opens with warm hugs.
Farms and land are what bring me joy.
I love being able to run across a field like I’m the
wind blowing softly. They say we’re country,
but I take pride in that.
I grew up in Chicago for a while, and I guess it
became my new home. This is where you hear the
noisy streets honk and yell, and you view downtown
as the pretty light appears. I can definitely say
Urbana is my tranquil place, but Chicago is my voice.
It is where my shouts are heard every day.
This story appears in our latest print edition of STORIED.