Guest Commentary: Finding Humanity with Project Free Write

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 By John Fout

The Yolo County Public Defender’s Office introduces you to Project Free Write, an eight-week storytelling workshop created for system-impacted persons with a mission to bear witness to their voices, their experiences, and their common humanity.

The pilot Project Free Write workshop launched this spring with clients from the Day Reporting Center, a county program that provides comprehensive evidence-based services to men and women on probation, parole, or released from the local jail.

Project Free Write was founded on the fact that every person has a story and every story is worth listening to, investing in, and sharing. The power of written expression plays a critical role for system-impacted persons and the community where they live, facilitating a process of healing.

Throughout the workshop, participants experience different forms and genres of storytelling, such as prose, poetry, photography, and artwork. Two Public Defender Client Advocates, Eliana Swerdlow and Benjamin Hernandez, serve as instructors and guide participants in a discussion about various stories and forms of expression.

The discussions from the workshop yielded insightful and profound lessons to both the participants and instructors. Client Advocate Eliana Swerdlow reflects, “I remember one participant saying that every person he passes on his way to our class is a story—not just that they have a story. We are stories hoping to be heard.”

Instructors often facilitate by asking participants thought-provoking questions, such as: What makes you feel free? What do you think about when you close your eyes at night? Where is home, and what does home mean to you?

These discussions occur every other week. They focus on an example piece’s form, theme, and memorability, leading participants to develop, understand the meaning, and learn from cause and effect.

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Participants spend the entirety of the alternating week’s course freewriting their own stories in any form they choose. Participants often incorporate what they have learned from the previous week’s discussion into their pieces, and instructors and classmates support one another through the storytelling process.

As the eight-week workshop nears its end, participants are invited to publish their stories through the Public Defender’s Office and share them with the community. To tell a story is to take a risk. Just as storytelling can inspire empathy, it can also invite judgment. Participants took this risk by engaging in the pilot workshop.

“We hope that in the distribution of these stories and other works, community members pay attention to our participants’ various identities and concerns,” said Public Defender Tracie Olson. “Past and future storytellers are mothers, fathers, daughters, brothers, dreamers, and more. They are people.”

Public Defender Client Advocate Eliana Swerdlow recently published her story, and a participant will soon publish his story.

The Public Defender and the Day Reporting Center plan to host another eight-week Project Free Write workshop in autumn as it was well-received by participants. Of the workshop, one Project Free Write participant writes, “I highly recommend to anyone wanting to improve their writing skills and creative abilities. Project Free Write motivated my inner writer.”

John Fout is Yolo County’s Public Information Officer

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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