The West Side Writing Project moves to Austin

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The Westside Writing Project has a new home base: Austin.

It’s now working out of the Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center at 5820 W. Chicago Ave.

Executive Director Frank Latin said the program gives middle and high school students a platform to discuss the issues on their minds. He said students have produced articles about a range of topics, from too much trash in the neighborhood to school closings and the need for libraries.

It’s important that youth be able to “talk about things that impact their lives,” Latin said.

“We want this program to be interesting to students,” he said. “So why not let them talk about things that they’re knowledgeable about and that they have some expertise or interest in.”

Since the program launched in 2007, it has transitioned to digital media, with the youth producing video podcasts and a half-hour news cast on CAN-TV that started July 7.

Last year, the project received a $25,000 grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which Latin said is the project’s current funder. With the grant they were able to purchase video equipment and laptops, and the students receive a stipend for transportation and the work they complete.

“Whatever’s going on, we’re reporting on it from a youth perspective,” said Latin, who has a background in economics and has long had an interest in community development.

Eight students are working with The West Side Writing Project, but Latin said he hopes to get the number up to 10 to 15 participants.

Near West Side resident Gwen Pepin, 19, started participating when she was 14 and is now an alum of the group but has stuck around to help the program grow.

Pepin said she wants to be a broadcast journalist, and the program has helped her develop skills and expose her to more media experience.

Before the program moved to Austin at the end of May, Pepin and other participants worked out of different community centers. Having their own space helps.

This summer, the program is focusing on news literacy – teaching students about fact versus opinion, and the importance of using valid sources.

Richard Marion, a 19-year-old Austin resident, is another alum of the writing project. Marion said he’s still involved with the group because video production is something he wants to do professionally and because most of the media reports about Austin focus on the negative.

“There’s something inside of me that makes me want to continue to do this because if we don’t report the good stuff in our community, then who will?” Marion said.

For other students, like DJ Wilborn, 16, and his younger brother Deandre Wilborn, 12, it’s their first summer being involved.

DJ said he’s been learning how to work video cameras and get experience interviewing people. He hopes to one day  be involved with a broadcast sports program doing something on air or possibly producing.

“This is a good chance for me to try something new and stay out of trouble,” he said.

That’s one reason Latin hopes more youth get involved.

“We’re just moving into the space, so we’re looking forward to utilizing this as a safe haven and keeping kids safe and out of trouble, and at the same time providing that exposure to media-oriented fields,” Latin said.

The Westside Writing Project will host a community event July 25 about the impact of the drug war on Austin.

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