Lessons From a D.C. Nonprofit

April 2020
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Almost every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., I’ve had the pleasure of working as the deputy store manager for Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Company, the official storefront for local literary nonprofit 826DC. All sales from the “magic supply store, illusionarium and de-lux haberdashery” support 826DC’s free writing programs for Washington, D.C.-area students, ages 6-18, who are mostly people of color.

The award-winning youth writing and publishing nonprofit believes that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that all youth deserve the opportunity to share their stories widely through writing.

826DC, which has served students since 2008, is a model for how PR professionals can successfully engage diverse audiences. To help explain this, I recently talked with Andrea Nelson, the director of education at 826DC, who has spent her career working with, and on behalf of, young people as a teacher and partnerships expert. 

What are some communications barriers that often occur when working with students for the first time?

Building relationships and developing trust takes time, no matter what age you are. Some young people take time to feel comfortable communicating with new people. It is our role as caring adults to give that space, patience and encouragement.

How does 826DC manage challenges with parents or students?

Relationship-building is the center of all work in education and that absolutely holds true for us at 826DC. It remains at the forefront, particularly when challenging situations arise. Before any solution can be proposed, it’s our role to ask questions to understand the challenge first and then propose a path forward that aligns with what we’ve heard.

How do you motivate students who struggle to believe in their creative talents?

“Third spaces” like 826DC are incredibly important tools for motivating students to engage in their creative side. Having a space that is outside of home or school can allow young people to explore things they might not otherwise.

Across our programs, we work with students to develop community norms together. Building space in programming for social-emotional learning is an essential foundation to making students feel safe enough to take risks in expressing themselves in writing and to build the self-confidence to believe that their voice has power.

What tools do you use to train volunteers for working with students? 

Through our partnership with other 826 chapters across the country, we’re able to provide volunteers with a deep bench of resources on developmentally-appropriate writing coaching, student-first and person-first language, strategies for redirecting student focus, and of course, tips to celebrate and encourage young writers.

826DC’s work centers around the incredible impact that caring adults in a small group setting can have with a young writer, so we also train our volunteers to be respectful, present and encouraging as they build relationships with, and support, students. Young people, just like adults, know when someone is being genuine — honesty can and does go a long way.

What do you think is the key to giving young people of color the space to create?

Knowing that your words are truly heard is empowering. Our society doesn’t often listen deeply enough to what young people — and in particular, young people from historically marginalized groups — have to say. We’re working to change that. Our programs offer dedicated space to build out what they want to share, and our publishing opportunities help distribute their stories through channels that are often otherwise held by adults and other privileged groups.

The difference that 826DC is making in this community, equipping young people with the tools to share what they already have to offer, is what inspires me to make sure that Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Company is always at its best. Together, we’re making the District a little more magical — for everyone.

photo credit: 826DC

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