Neighborhood Writing Alliance and the Journal of Ordinary Thought

King Branch Library writing workshop

King Branch Library writing workshop, Neighborhood Writing Alliance. Click on the photo to visit the Alliance's Flickr page.

We’ve recently been made aware of  a wonderful Chicago-based organization that brings together popular education theory with participant-based engagement in the arts. They work to envision, as their mission statement says, “a society where adults connect through creative communities in which writing, discussing, and publishing personal narrative leads to civic engagement, neighborhood vitality, and social transformation.”

Radmila Lunic, Bezazian Branch Library workshop

Radmila Lunic, Bezazian Branch Library workshop. Image by Cristina Rutter

The Neighborhood Writing Alliance creates opportunities for adults in Chicago’s under-served neighborhoods, leading writing workshops where participants write, publish, and even perform, works about their everyday lives. The participants’ writings are published in the award-winning quarterly Journal of Ordinary Thought.  Founded on the premise that ‘”every person is a philosopher,” the journal is a “vehicle for reflection, communication, and change.”

Creative Resistance_06

Artwork from the 2011 summer workshop, Testify: JOT Writers on Creative Resistance: Art as Activism"

Like much of participatory-based education and research, the journal is based around the theory that when adults have the space and encouragement to write and communicate about their own lives—in their own words— they can work together to envision and create lasting solutions to pressing problems and re envision a more holistic existence for both themselves and their larger communities. The writing process can acknowledge and expose vulnerability. Yet in this vulnerability lies immeasurable strength.

The Neighborhood Writing Alliance originally began in 1996 as was an initially an outgrowth the Journal of Ordinary Thought, rather than the other way around.   Writing in an email, folklorist and workshop leader Susan Eleuterio notes that from 1991 to 1995 the JOT was sponsored by the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Over the years community support has grown and more than two thousand Chicago adults have participated in the writing groups in public libraries and public schools (with parents), social service agencies, public housing projects, transitional housing facilities, park district field houses, and churches.

One of the wonderful things about the Alliance is the lasting role it can play in both the larger community and individual lives.  Many of the writers go on to the “master class” where they work with seasoned, professional writers and have the opportunity to hone their craft.

Akbar Beya, St. Leonard's House

Akbar Beya, St. Leonard's House Photos by Sheila Barabad

The journals are thoroughly placed -based and reflect  the beauties and concerns of the neighborhoods in which the workshops are held.  Some of the journals are also theme-based, tackling conversations like “Formal and Informal Education,” “Our Environment,” “Testify: JOT Writers on Creative Resistance,” or “Where I’m From.”  The latter is an examination of how we conceptualize, formulate, and interpret our own sense of place and identity and how we communicate this to ourselves and others. These place-based discussions open the doors for conversations across neighborhoods and collective solution building.

You can find many of the writings, as well as extended discussions about the published pieces, on the journal’s blog, The Front Porch.  Assistant Director Hollen Reischer pointed us to this piece by Earlene Strickland, which, she says, “directly speaks” to the organziation’s larger mission.



My Walk Around the Sun by Earlene Strickland

As of writing this
My walk around the sun has been 42 years,
6 months, 7 days, 23 hours and 14 minutes
My walk has created The History of Earlene M. Strickland

The main story happens to be my life
My African History
My American History
My Woman History
My History
All mine

The choice of what I like
The choice of what I believe

As I tell my sacred story
Others want to discount it, reword it, rewrite it,
But I need to demand recognition for my point of view
Because the right to tell my own story means power

My walk
Tells that I exist
That I am important
That I matter

Who chooses who matters?
I take that privilege out of their hands.

The Roman Empire, the great Pyramids
Some kings walk separate, some overlap
Napoleon’s walk, Caesar’s walk
Who chooses why
Their stories are more important than mine?

To learn more about the Neighborhood Writing Alliance visit them online here. 

There are so many wonderful and moving portraits on the Alliance’s Flickr stream and here are just a few.  To see more click here. What are some of your thoughts on the role of writing and the solutions the process can help bring about?  We’d love to hear your thoughts and hear how writing plays a role in your own life or community! 


Pennie Brinson, Mabel Manning Branch Library workshop

Pennie Brinson, Mabel Manning Branch Library workshop Photo by Cristina Rutter

Leticia Jimenez, San Lucas Church

Leticia Jimenez, San Lucas Church Photos by Sheila Barabad


Mayi D. Ojisua, Bezazian Branch Library

Mayi D. Ojisua, Bezazian Branch Library Photo by Cristina Rutter