CWF_APR

The Creative Work Fund supports artists collaborating with nonprofit organizations to create new works, and ArtPlace funding will make possible four grants — to be awarded in June — that focus on collaboration and creative placemaking. In the meantime, Frances Phillips of the Creative Work Fund is bringing us stories of previously supported Creative Work Fund projects that focused on place and community building.

Demarked by three major railroad tracks, Richmond, California’s Iron Triangle is considered one of the region’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. The characters in Richmond Tales, Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle often play indoors to avoid its dangers. Yet, the stories in this young adult novel ring so true for neighborhood families that in April 2012 — three years after the book’s publication — some 1,800 people came out for the third Richmond Tales community literacy festival.

I asked author Summer Brenner how she was able to portray Richmond so authentically. Her Richmond connection began when she tutored in adult literacy programs and continued when she helped organize a major oral history project. Through those programs, she met Richmond families in their homes, heard fascinating stories, and began to think of writing a novel.

When Brenner and other board members of West County Reads (a literacy organization) met with a new superintendent of schools, he told them that the most important thing they could do was to get families to read together. West County Reads thought of a city-wide reading campaign in which all of Richmond’s children would read a single book; but, when they set out to find the right book, they were stymied. Brenner decided she’d write the book herself.

She wanted the novel to incorporate Richmond’s history and, indeed, characters in Richmond Tales time travel to its past. They also travel to its future, inviting Richmond’s young residents to imagine they can take control of what lies ahead.

Brenner collaborated with the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Fifth grade students were key creative partners: she drafted book chapters and they helped to ensure that characters and incidents rang true.

In 2009, over 4,000 free copies of Richmond Tales were given to fourth and fifth graders to take home for summer reading. Now it’s distributed at community festivals. The Mayor gives signed copies to visiting dignitaries. It’s won an historic preservation award. It’s been used in adult literacy programs and in elementary classrooms. It’s being turned into a musical.

What made it work? Specificity about place has been critical. I asked for lessons learned and Brenner offered: 1.) Find a common theme that can really touch members of different ethnic and cultural groups. 2.) Gather stories across age groups. 3.) Invest in its how it looks. Richmond Tales’ young illustrator Miguel Perez portrayed Richmond-specific images in the cover, and Richmond Tales is a real book—not photocopies. She closed, “I’m driven by the passions of my own childhood—the passion to hold a book, to own a book, to love a book.”

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