Through Sydney Story Factory, Catherine Keenan has set out to help disadvantaged children find their voice.
It’s 4pm on a blustery Thursday in Redfern, Sydney. Redfern Street buzzes with afterschool traffic and the beginning of a post-work commuter shuffle from the nearby station. There’s one spot on Redfern Street, however, where I find unexpected calm. A fluorescent green sign beckons passers-by into the Martian Embassy and Gift Shop, where shelves are laden with alien specimen jars and all your space travel needs. Past the displays, purple light bounces across curving, twisting, book-covered walls and desks, welcoming visitors into an intergalactic-themed literary haven. I’ve entered the home and heart of the Sydney Story Factory.
This dynamic, non-profit organisation runs afterschool creative writing workshops for primary and secondary students, often from marginalised or non-English speaking backgrounds. However, it’s the story behind the leader of the Story Factory that has inspired me and lured me into the Martian Embassy today. On 26 January 2016, its co-founder Dr Catherine Keenan was named the Australian of the Year Local Hero.
It had been a Ted Talk lecture given by American writer, Dave Eggers, which inspired Keenan to turn away from a journalism career. In 2002, Eggers had co-established 826 Valencia, a non-profit organisation aimed at supporting and improving the creative writing skills of under-resourced children in San Francisco.
Keenan was working in Sydney as a journalist, arts writer and literary editor and along with colleague Tim Dick was taken with Eggers’ work and philosophy. ‘We just loved the idea and we loved the way [Eggers] spoke about it and the impact it had on the kids’, she says. Following this model, they founded the Sydney Story Factory in 2012.
With a doctorate in English literature from Oxford University, Keenan is a strong advocate for the benefits of storytelling, inside the classroom and beyond. ‘As the students’ writing skills improve there’s this real sort of confidence that comes. You can see how they sort of look taller and they look you in the eye’, she says. ‘When they go out of here we hope that they’ve got the skills and confidence to engage with their education but also to present themselves to the world in a bigger way.’
For Keenan, the development of communication skills can also be a social equaliser. ‘If you can’t articulate what matters to you and what you think then you can’t engage with the world’, she says. Throughout the writing process, from drafting to editing, students work closely with their peers and volunteer tutors planning how their stories will unfold. ‘They learn skills about cooperating and collaborating and bouncing ideas off others.’
2015 saw the Story Factory expand from its classes in the Martian Embassy to include:
• in-school workshops,
• involvement with community groups like the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence,
• increased work throughout Western Sydney
• and a regional program.
The ages of participants in the afterschool workshops have also changed from a predominantly primary school student base to a 50/50 split of secondary and primary school students.
Nowhere has the Story Factory been more welcomed than at Sydney’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Primary School, Waterloo. Every week SSF volunteers take over the classroom, helping students one-on-one with writing activities and building creativity and friendships in the process. Volunteers work with a set class for a term, focusing on a different genre of writing such as poetry, narratives, fairy tales and letter writing. According to Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s principal Kelly Bouris, benefits for students of writing with a mentor by their side endure long after the end of a workshop.
‘That one-on-one time often builds a child’s confidence so that when it comes to their class writing they’re a lot more confident to have a go and they have skills to organise their ideas’, she says.
‘It’s lovely for the students to have the opportunity to have one person work so closely with them, chat with them, help them develop their ideas, be a sounding board for their ideas, help them with their spelling and grammar. They really enjoy the experience.’
Yet the opportunity to work with a mentor hasn’t only built up writing skills. The experience itself has taught students first-hand the Catholic values of dedication to others and having faith in each other, helping them realise how the most important gift one can give is their time.
‘I think our students are very aware that the volunteers are giving up their time for them so they’re very appreciative of that’, Bouris says.
‘They understand that these volunteers have jobs, families and commitments, or some of them are studying, so the fact that they give an hour or two hours a week to come and sit with us is a very special gift and something we shouldn’t waste.’
For student Niamh, her SSF poem took her beyond the classroom to win Red Room Object’s national poetry competition. Bouris says the award brought together the school community.
‘We had an assembly and the whole school was proud of her. It was a lovely opportunity for us all.’
This excitement that writing can generate is not unfamiliar to Catherine Keenan. For her, it’s immensely satisfying to watch the students’ personal development flourish through their engagement with the written word.
‘There’s a huge sense of pride and you just feel so happy for them’, she says. ‘It’s really nice to see that they feel happy in themselves and they look more comfortable in their own skin.’
Find out more at www.sydneystoryfactory.org.au.