Janet Heller is the co-founder of Chapter 510, a youth writing center in Oakland. The nonprofit, founded in 2013, offers free writing workshops, tutoring services, book publishing and field trips, and gives K-12 students the opportunity to write, publish and perform their own work. Chapter 510’s retail storefront is the Dept. of Make Believe, a “magical bureaucracy” where you can pick up items like a License to Dream. Heller, 54, lives in Oakland.
J.: What inspired you and co-founder Tavia Stewart to launch Chapter 510 in 2013?
Janet Heller: We wanted to create a safe, creative space for Oakland youth where they could be together and be different. I was a teenager who had many struggles, but writing saved me. As an Oakland mom and as part of the Kehilla Community, I was aware that there were a lot of kids interested in writing, but they had very few opportunities in school. I’ve been a community arts founder, writer and teacher, and I wanted to have a space that embraced all kinds of kids in Oakland, across neighborhood, across class, across difference, and to have youth voices heard.
J.: What do you want the students to get from this program?
JH: Because we serve a wide range of youth, from ages 6 to 18, I hope that the elementary students find joy and confidence, and that they discover that writing can be fun. For the older students, I want them to take their experiences and advocate for their beliefs. For a high school student who is interested in academia or a particular career or policy change, they need to be able to communicate in writing, because writing is an agent for change.
J.: Tell me about some of the more interesting storylines you’ve seen.
JH: We’ve had a lot of students who write about prison. There are animals who get sent to prison, animals who have to face trauma. As a writer, you can experience the power of creating story, and many of these students have experiences with loss, violence, mental illness and poverty. They use narrative as a tool to see their own future through another character.
In the summer of 2014, a ninth-grade student wrote up 10 interviews about border crossings. One kid named Rashad, who has been with us since he was 5 years old, read his book for Black History Month at his school and said, “Mom, I am Black history!” You see an elementary school student now included as [part of the] African American story.
J.: Do children know more than their parents?
JH: I think children have different forms of intelligence, are in touch with the spirit of their imagination and can get outside of themselves, which is why they enjoy fantasy. However, I think the world needs a mature intelligence and needs a young spirit. Our children need protection.
J.: Who are some of the prominent people you have worked with at Chapter 510?
JH: It’s been an honor to meet [writer Jacqueline] Jackie Woodson, who is a hero of mine. [Rapper and film director] Boots Riley is a spirit and a force who has the right to talk about Oakland, particularly as Oakland becomes more and more a character in novel and film. He believes that Oakland youth and young adults are the writers and the tellers. [Journalist] Jeff Chang has spoken about issues around hip-hop and diversity and creativity. The kids are inspired by and want to be these people. In meeting [poet and playwright] Chinaka Hodge, they see that she is a committed artist who has been published by City Lights and they think they can do the same thing.
J.: I interned with you two years ago. What happened to that poetry book we were putting together?
JH: You and I worked on “The Biography of Water” poetry book at the North Oakland Community Charter School during Ramadan, and we had a student who was fasting and was Arabic-speaking at home. When we released the book, the family wrote to us about how it was so important that the work was published in English and Arabic during Ramadan, and that it shined a light on their culture.
J.: What is your Jewish story?
JH: I grew up in a Jewish household in Florida in the 1970s and was confirmed. When I went to Tulane University as an undergrad, I began to be involved in the politics and organizing at my school and became an editor of the literary magazine. I then worked in rural Louisiana with children whose parents were in the KKK, and I wanted to bring those forces together. But as a Jewish person, I would find a swastika on my blackboard. That inspired me to teach “To Kill a Mockingbird” and social justice. I was 21, so I was a very young teacher who was naive enough to think that I could bring the literature canon into rural Louisiana and the kids would accept me and want to learn.
After that, I got my master’s in fine arts in poetry at Florida State University. I worked as a teacher of writing and I came out to San Francisco and founded WritersCorps. I wanted to find my people, who were queer lesbians, and to build a queer-friendly Jewish family. My kids are now active in the Kehilla Hebrew school and my daughter will be bat mitzvahed soon. My root family is in Oakland, and that’s what helped me build a home and a life, finding Jewish families who embraced social justice, inclusivity, and could be spiritual deeply and live a life committed to equity for all.