Building community so Dallas youth can "access power and joy of writing"

Faceless: Untold Side Effects of Culture, Race & COVID-19, is now available for preorder. The book was written, edited, and designed by eleventh and twelfth graders at Dallas’s Trinidad Garza Early College High School.


The University of North Texas at Dallas, Big Thought, For Oak Cliff, The Writer’s Garret, SMU MADI, Deep Vellum Publishing, and Paul Quinn College are working to bring an 826 writing center to Dallas. It would be Texas’s first official chapter of the nationwide community centers that tutor students in writing and publish their work.


Cynthia Perez, director of external relations and special events for UNT Dallas, is leading the effort to bring 826 to the city. She said the center will be a pivotal after-school resource that underserved kids need, but traditionally haven’t been able to access.


“Whether it’s for after-school programming, academically, socially, emotionally, it’ll be transformational for students,” Perez told the Dallas Morning News. “It’s not just tutoring kids and helping them with the writing, it’s getting them to express themselves, to share their stories, to amplify their voices—to empower them.”


Allison Lee, director of program design at Big Thought, brings deep experience from her work with 826 in New York. She said one of the fundamental effects of an 826 chapter is that it brings together students from different parts of the city. “Kids are so grounded in their school. That tends to force them into the school being the only place to meet people,” Lee said. “It helps people feel more connected to their city. Kids that would’ve never been able to meet each other [are] able to meet and create friendships.”


Perez said there’s an extensive process to establish the writing center. The 826 Dallas Project must be an independent nonprofit with successful events and programming before it can become an official chapter. She said in two years, she hopes the project will be a fully recognized chapter and the writing center will be built and operational.


One initiative that Perez hopes will prove the viability of 826 in Dallas is the Young Authors Book Project, which compiles students’ poetry and personal essays. In Faceless: Untold Side Effects of Culture, Race, and COVID-19, students shared stories on topics including the plight of essential workers, the dread of staying home during the pandemic and racism. Featured writers are in ethnic studies courses at Dallas ISD’s Trinidad Garza Early College High School, one of the 826 Dallas Project’s partner schools.


For Oak Cliff Executive Director Taylor Toynes said the center is a crucial component to the changes he sees in the southern Dallas neighborhood. “Oak Cliff is kind of going through a renaissance,” he said, “and what every good renaissance needs is great writers.”


826 Dallas Project kicked off its work with students last fall with its participation in The Great College Essay Project. According to the organization’s website, they hosted two successful college essay workshops in which college-bound seniors worked one-on-one with volunteer tutors. These workshops served 114 students from six different high schools, with the support of more than fifty volunteers. They were supported by Project Lead Princess McDowell, whose collection of writing prompts “Life in the Time of Coronavirus” asked students to recognize how their world has changed in response to COVID-19.


The project’s student editorial board organized every poem, short story, and journal entry into one compelling story. Students were the “steering wheel, pedals, and fuel of the project” from beginning to end. Last November, they raised their voices during a Texas Board of Education public hearing on ethnic studies courses. Their activism led to the courses getting approved statewide, and Faceless is the first fruit of that labor. 


An initial investment was made by AT&T. “Now, more than ever, AT&T is committed to finding new ways to empower young people to be change-makers, leaders, and innovators in their communities,” said Mike Peterson, vice president, AT&T External Affairs in Dallas. “We are glad to partner with 826 National to expand their efforts in the Dallas community and help more young people access their rich portfolio of programs and content. We look forward to watching 826 grow here in our hometown, inspiring local young writers for generations to come.”


You can learn more about supporting this crucial work at the 826 Dallas Project website, where you can also pre-order Faceless.