Writer’s Block, Ink

Draya and CJ from Writer's Block, Ink
Draya and CJ from Writer’s Block, Ink in New London, Connecticut
Writer’s Block Podcast 11/1/2021

This is the first in a series of podcasts that highlight the work of organizations forwarding equity in Southeastern Connecticut (full transcript below). Writer’s Block received a Partnership Grant from the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern CT (HIC) as part of the Collaboratives’ work funded by the Cross Sector Innovation Initiative Grant (CSII). This grant initiative is led by the Center for Sharing Public Health Services (CSPHS) and Public Health National Center for Innovations (PHNCI), with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

Stay tuned for more!!

Writer’s Block Podcast Transcript

CJ Thibeau: [00:00:04] Nations are at war, and we see our adventures brought together by fate, gods and hands of pushing vessels in their own words.

Isabelle: [00:00:11] That’s CJ Thibeau, the research, education and production lead at Writer’s Block Inc in New London, Connecticut. I’m Isabelle Barbour of Truthteller Consulting and the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut. I had a chance to talk with C.J. and with Draya Wilbur, the executive director of Writer’s Block, to learn more about their organization.

Youth at Writer’s Block: [00:00:34] [Chanting on stage] B.L.O.C.K., Block, B.L.O.C.K., Block

Isabelle: [00:00:40] Writer’s Block is a non-profit performing arts program that encourages youth to use writing and performance as tools to address personal and societal challenges. Part of what’s amazing for both C.J. and Draya, is how young they were when they first got started with Writer’s Block. Was a sixth grader.

Draya: [00:01:02] Lo and behold, I walk into Writer’s Block, and at the time it was on State Street, at the B or on top of the Bean and Leaf. So it was just a dance studio with a little room attached to it. And we met the Block captains who were just a group of young 20 year olds who just had a passion for art. And they did skits for us. They did songs, they did everything to show that Writer’s Block was there to accept anybody who just has a passion for making art and making a change. And that’s where I fell in love with it.

Isabelle: [00:01:35] CJ got started after high school, and even though they did theater work in high school, they found something different at Writer’s Block.

CJ: [00:01:43] Like just the level of production, like the fact that they wrote this whole show, that these are lived experiences like this blew out my expectation of theater of like everything I’ve even done, I was like, There’s nothing I’ve done that like compares to this. I was like, truly blown away just because like the dedication and the actual care and want and need to put this on stage. And I grew up as someone who, like, originally wanted to do a lot of theater to be like, Oh, tell other people’s stories. But now it’s like, I’ve gotten into it because I want to help youth to hand them the tools so they can do it themselves.

Isabelle: [00:02:15] This past year, with the COVID pandemic brought a lot of challenges to Writer’s Block, but their unique work with youth really carried them on. Part of this is the attention to identity issues that youth face.

CJ: [00:02:28] You know, this was a summer where we had probably the most to put it bluntly, like queer youth group like, I’d say a majority of our group identified either as trans or gender non-conforming or, you know, gay, lesbian or, you know, some non heteronormative identity of some sort. So talking about stuff like that and like the realities of like our kids, you know, just having like a day where originally was supposed to make art, but like it turned into a day of crying and just talking about what it’s like to be dead named or having parents that do or don’t understand.

Isabelle: [00:02:59] During this hard pandemic year, giving youth power where they could was front of mind.

Draya: [00:03:04] So this year I completely took it back and I gave the reins to them and I said, I want you guys to make a show, but you guys tell us what we need to do. And from there, like we had a group sessions where they would meet up and come up with like a cast of characters or scenes that had to happen. We had another group look up because we were telling a story within a timeline of twenty ten and twenty twenty one, so we had to be accurate. So we had a team of youth that were like, All right, well, we’ll look up the things that affected us during this time. So once you give them the tools, the resources, the directions, they got it.

Isabelle: [00:03:44] I asked Draya and C.J. what advice they would give to other organizations that want to work with youth.

Draya: [00:03:51] Anybody running any organization dealing with youth, you have to understand that at some points you’re going to be the student. They’re going to teach you some things and you have to be humble enough to sit back and, you know, adjust some things according to them. Because if you’re in the benefit of if you’re doing things for the benefit of youth, you have to learn how to sit back and learn some things. We don’t know everything. And just because it worked for our generation, quote unquote worked for our generation doesn’t mean it’s going to fly with the next one.

Isabelle: [00:04:20] Writer’s Block is clear that while youth have fun, the issues that the youth examine are serious.

CJ: [00:04:26] You know, past summers where we’ve done issues on, say, like immigration, looking at stories of actual refugees and immigrants, crossing borders and living in different states, whether here and abroad in the world and stuff like that and what that actually looks like, you know, some of our students even have extended family or friends that have family that know what that process is like.

Isabelle: [00:04:45] Because Writer’s Block focuses on amplifying the thoughts and abilities of youth. Draya and CJ are clear that the productions deserve respect.

Draya: [00:04:55] Writer’s Block is not exactly a hobby, like it’s a commitment, and it’s an organization that just wants to make change. So this is not something that you can just drop your kids off to because you want them to make a cute little song. Like if you want your kids to come back like very radicalized and, you know, more informed on like what’s happening in this world and how they can make a difference, then absolutely bring your kid, but we just need more respect for what we do.

Isabelle: [00:05:23] The Block filmed a production, and they are excited to share it in the near future.

Draya: [00:05:28] We have our editor going through our film right now, you know, just piecing it up so we can have like an actual premiere night make it very fancy. Of course, COVID safe. So that is our upcoming project that we have right now. We are also learning how to do streaming as well as like, you know, uploading to Twitch and other platforms that we can gain followers through there.

Isabelle: [00:05:50] Part of the streaming work might just include a little D&D.

CJ: [00:05:55] Well, the program itself is called Warriors for change. I guess the product we’ll be putting on line is called D&D Ignite. For now, I guess to just put it in the simplest words, I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons with a couple of my students and we’re going to be recording it and putting on YouTube and hopefully Twitch like the stream and stuff like that. Yeah, hopefully we’ll have more information about that and what that will look like for people to watch.

Draya: [00:06:17] So it involves like war and like…

CJ: [00:06:19] War– challenging like binary thinking in the sense of like good and evil or like dark and light us versus them mentalities, I guess, as well. Also playing into the different isms as well and like themes of like exploitation and stuff like that and just fun and adventure to.

Isabelle: [00:06:36] When Draya and C.J. think about the future of Writer’s Block, one thing that comes through is the importance of youth leadership

Draya: [00:06:43] For the future of the Block. I want a full line of students that are ready to make change and like not even know how to do it, but know which direction to go in and their eagerness and willingness to change surpasses everything. That’s what I picture for the Block.

Isabelle: [00:07:00] Draya has ideas for how to foster this leadership. A youth board just might be in the future.

Draya: [00:07:05] What do you want for the future of the Block? What do you want to see us do? Did you not like what we did last summer? Tell us why, and you know, let’s change things up. Let’s come up with things that you guys want to do. So then next summer, you can tell your friends you can tell your family just those kinds of things.

Isabelle: [00:07:22] As part of this youth leadership, Draya envisions connecting with other youth serving organizations in the region

Draya: [00:07:28] Like FRESH, for example. Like one thing I imagine with them is just having like, you know, just having a tour of their garden but also doing like an open mic or something like that. I just have a whole bunch of visions.

Isabelle: [00:07:40] Draya and CJ also have their finger on the pulse of what kids need.

CJ: [00:07:44] One day I have the Block actually be like a home, I guess in a sense. And that’s something that we’ve talked about for maybe the last year or so. And, you know, I’ve been really gunning for and we don’t know what that would look like, but we know that we want to be there to provide.

Isabelle: [00:08:01] Draya was quick to add that getting help to support students mental health was at the top of the list.

Draya: [00:08:07] Anything that can help their mental health while they’re going to school, and while they’re really trying to commit here because sometimes we’ve had a lot of students fall off because it becomes so much and we just don’t have anybody that’s skilled enough or trained enough to try and intercept with that.

Isabelle: [00:08:24] When asked about the impact of Writer’s Block on the community, Draya had this to say.

Draya: [00:08:30] Oh my God, we’ve been here for 18 years now. So like, our impact is huge and I take pride in that, especially because I started in that.

Isabelle: [00:08:41] To learn more about Writer’s Block, you’re invited to go to their website. Writer’s Block Ink with a K dot org.

Youth at Writer’s Block: [00:08:50] [Chanting on stage]The Block. The Block. The Block. Is ho–t.