January 20, 2016
Bringing Stories to Those Who Need Them Most
An interview with Karen Thomson - CWA's 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient
By Christina Rodriguez
When you think of book groups, you typically think of a bunch of women sitting around, talking about a book they have chosen to read and their thoughts about it. For some, it’s an exciting experience. To others, it seems like one of the dullest things you can do.
The reality of book groups is that they are for anyone who has an interest in stories and books. Reading is a personal experience that dives into a choice of many worlds. Naturally, writing is also the same kind of experience. Whether you are reading or writing, you want to be able to talk about the stories of the world. There are many under-served communities throughout the country that do not have access to stories or people who want to sit around and talk about stories.
Literature for All of Us is a Chicago-area solution for that. The Chicago Writers Association chose Karen Thomson for its inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award because of her dedication to building communities of readers, writers and critical thinkers in under-served communities in Chicago and Evanston using the book group model for the last 20 years. She will be presented with the award during CWA’s 5th Annual Book of the Year Awards this Saturday, 7 pm, at the Book Cellar in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. All are invited. The event is free and open to the public.
CWA chatted with Thomson and learned about what it takes to run a literary nonprofit organization and what it’s like to balance the roles of writer and leader.
What was the inspiration for starting Literature for All of Us?
I had been a book group facilitator for women’s literature groups since 1981 and had noticed the effect on adult women of reading good books about women’s experiences and having a chance to discuss and reflect on their own lives through the book group activities. Things changed; critical thinking in a supportive circle was powerful. I had years of rewarding, exciting work with literature before looking around for some population that didn’t have access to book groups like the ones sponsored by Barnes & Noble and other book stores.
A friend who had experienced my work in the women’s groups recommended that I do a group for teen mothers on welfare who were enrolled in a GED program and the rest is history. I added poetry writing the first day and realized the combination was incredibly powerful.
What have been the challenges of sustaining a non-profit organization like this?
We have to raise the funds over and over, year after year, while trying to build more programming and staff to do the programming. I have personally been sustained by continuing to actually facilitate at least one group for teens each year. It keeps my purpose strong enough to make the rest of it happen.
What is the most inspirational story or experience that has personally happened to you since starting Literature for All of Us?
Once I was at a “coffee” gathering for people to hear about our work in someone’s house. I had brought a young mother who had been participating in one of our book groups. She stood up to read some of her poetry and started talking about how she had never read to her son (age two at the time) because in one of the many abusive foster homes she had been in, the foster parents had thrown out her books as a punishment and tore up her journals.
She confessed to not “liking” her two-year-old as he was always making a mess, etc. — but that one day she actually took the children’s book I had given her in the group and put him on her lap and read to him, as instructed in book group, and noticed that he calmed down, that she was able to actually feel love for him, and that now when she herself got into a bad mood, her son would go to the bookshelf and get a book, and say, “Mommy, read.” It was astonishing that such powerful change was reported to me that way.
How does poetry play a role in the model of Literature for All of Us? How important is poetry today?
We use poetry as a vehicle for self-expression and for a place to tell (and share) the truth of our lives. Poetry, actually writing in general, can help people put their pain outside themselves and so be able to handle it better. The young people we work with have had many traumatic things in their lives and live in situations that are often chaotic and traumatizing on a daily basis. Writing helps them heal — and cope.
How do you balance running an organization and making time for your own writing?
I try to make time for writing when I can, but I have to confess that my writing has taken a back seat to the many tasks I have responsibility for in maintaining the organization. Poetry still bubbles up and I have writing workshops several times a year. I hope to make writing time a regular part of my week soon. I keep a journal and write letters and occasional poems. I wrote a eulogy for a friend recently, and a poem for my Dad’s funeral, and also reactivated a writing partnership workshop recently. I have hopes.
What makes Literature for All of Us unique from other literacy programs around Chicago/Illinois? Nationwide?
LFAOU is unique in that we combine reading culturally relevant literature with writing exercises that are direct responses to the conversation — a combination that helps heal and empower young people.
How do you make the book group model engaging for youth? What are some future dreams or plans for Literature for All of Us that you can share?
Our program staff does an excellent job of ensuring that the books, poetry, and other literature we read is relevant to the people we serve. We try to have them engage with material that will challenge them but also have connection to their own experiences. We started out serving mostly young women and girls. Now we have men and boys’ groups and are serving young adults in workforce development. Our name is "Literature for ALL of Us"—anyone who could benefit from critical engagement with literature should have an outlet to do so. I hope we can bring this model to those groups.
All about Karen: Tell us something about you, as a poet and writer that often does not get recognition since you are busy being a leader? What makes Karen the poet different from Karen the non-profit founder and professional book group leader? Is there a difference?
Not much difference. I have brought most of myself into the leadership of this organization. Because I have not had time to focus on my own writing, and hire people to write about the program in the past few years, my writing voice has not been as loud as it could be. I look forward to spending more time soon on that important part of myself. I have to write and think like a writer, when my head is not full of details and fundraising.
Since family literacy is a part of the Literature for All of Us program, how much of it gets incorporated into your family life? Is anyone in your family involved with Literature for All of Us?
My children are grown, but support the organization in many ways. My family was always about reading and writing. My daughter volunteered in several ways as the organization was growing and got involved in nonprofit work. All three of my sons volunteer and serve on boards or fundraising for charity. They are all writers in their own ways. One son has finished a first draft of a fantasy novel and started on the first revisions. One son wrote poetry throughout college and now does pro bono law work. My daughter is a poet, highly recognized both in undergrad and graduate school. I am pushing her to publish more. My husband is a professor, but a writer, also, and is working on a book about mass incarceration.
For anyone who has thought about starting their own literacy/literary organization or nonprofit in general, what words of wisdom for you have for them?
Be sure you have a good base of supporters who will work as volunteer staff while you build funds. Be sure you keep accurate records from Day One so possible donors can have trust in how you handle money. Write about everything that happens and look for help from people who have been through the challenges. I had a natural funder and board base from my years of work as a professional book group leader. I could not have done what I have done without that support. I have also had good advice and always have sought advice as I make decisions. I try to work collaboratively and supportively with staff, and seek to listen, always to listen.
Karen Thomson is a professional book group leader and the founder and Executive Director of Literature for All of Us, an Evanston-based nonprofit program that for the past 20 years has used an innovative book group model to build communities of readers, writers and critical thinkers in underserved communities in Chicago and Evanston.
She is also a poet and mother of four. She has practiced the art of leading discussions on literature for the past 25 years, working with groups of women, men, seniors, and since 1996, young people through her work at Literature for All of Us.
Thomson has published articles on book group leadership and Literature for All of Us. She has won awards for her poetry and for her work with teen mothers. She holds the distinction of being chosen as a recipient of the Mercedes Mentor Award from Mercedes-Benz USA. Other honors include the Studs Terkel Humanitarian Service Award from the Illinois Humanities Council and the "Those Who Make a Difference" award from Family Focus of Evanston, Illinois.
To learn more about Karen and Literature for All of Us, visit the organization’s site here.
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