Past issues of the Journal of Ordinary Thought
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Past issues of the Journal of Ordinary Thought

For the past 20 years, the nonprofit Neighborhood Writing Alliance has run writing groups in city neighborhoods, mostly in branch libraries. Operating under the slogan “Everyone is a philosopher,” its volunteer workshop leaders encouraged Chicagoans of various backgrounds to write about their lives and experiences and published their work in a quarterly journal, the Journal of Ordinary Thought.

But on November 20, the NWA’s board summoned the workshop leaders to a meeting in its downtown headquarters and announced that it would be shutting down, effective immediately. Now, two weeks later, the workshop leaders and participants are trying to understand what happened and see if anything can be salvaged.

“It came as a surprise to many of us,” says Carla Jankowski, a retired English teacher who has been running the workshop at the Bezazian library in Uptown for the past four years. “They had a big fund-raising event in the spring. In the past they had a lot of support. They told us there were issues with money and it couldn’t sustain itself anymore and the situation was too dire to do anything. I don’t know how it got to that point. There was nothing untoward. It sounded like the big funders weren’t continuing to donate. The big corporations were reevaluating their funding criteria, and unfortunately, adults are on the low end of the totem pole.”

Jankowski’s group, which usually assembles on Wednesday evenings, didn’t meet last week because of Thanksgiving, but this past week they gathered at the library as usual for a workshop on bookbinding. Between eight and 14 people usually show up, which Jankowski thinks is a nice size for workshopping writing. Jankowski wants to keep meeting for as long as she can.

“It’s a great group,” she says. “It’s so diverse. There’s a Serbian woman who writes in Serbian and then translates into English. There’s a guy from Nigeria and a woman from Ukraine. There’s a mixture of ages and races. There’s one man who had prison in his background. His writing is very basic. But his ideas! They’re all passionate about having their voices heard. I can’t leave this group right now.”

The other three groups, which meet in branch libraries on the south and west sides, are no less diverse and active. The Chicago Public Library has agreed to allow them to continue using library space for the next six months. “We would have loved if they’d been able to take us,” Jankowski says, “but they’re strapped, too.”

The announcement of NWA’s shutdown was unexpected, but over the past few years the program had been faltering, despite the support of prominent local writers and artists, including Alex Kotlowitz, Achy Obejas, Elizabeth Berg, and Tony Fitzpatrick. (In the early 2000s, before her husband’s political career really took off, Michelle Obama served on the board of directors.) As recently as 2010, there were nine workshops, including one at Saint Leonard’s House, a halfway house for ex-offenders. But last spring three group leaders left for grad school and were not replaced. It was a reflection of issues among the NWA staff. Carrie Spitler, the organization’s longtime director, left for another job. Sue Eleuterio, a workshop leader, stepped in as interim director.

“We thought they were searching for a permanent person,” Jankowski says, “but then the money ran out.”

(I’ve tried to contact members of the board of directors. The chair, Ann Stanford, a professor at DePaul, is currently out of the country. Several others resigned before NWA decided to shut down. I will update this post if I hear back from anyone.)

Jankowski and her fellow workshop leaders hope to continue meeting with the writers for as long as they can. They also hope they can continue to publish the Journal of Ordinary Thought, even if it’s only online, with corporate funding or arts grants.

The most important thing, though, says Jankowski, is the writers.

“Do we serve thousands?” she asks rhetorically. “Not exactly, but certainly hundreds. We’ve helped them change their lives in certain ways. A lot of people suffer from mental illnesses. Writing keeps them sane and working toward something.”

About 30 of the writers came to the meeting downtown to hear the announcement that NWA was shutting down. After the board left, Jankowski, Eleuterio, and the other workshop leaders held an open forum and asked them what the program meant to them. They wrote down the comments, which filled three typed pages. All of them were positive. They talked about the camaraderie of the workshops, about getting a chance to improve their writing, and about the joy they took in getting published.

“It was a unique program,” says Jankowski. “It’s writing from ordinary people. You didn’t have to be a ‘budding writer.’ They are writers.”

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.