826LA seeks to tap the creativity of Los Angeles youth

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Joel Arquillos started his career as a high school history teacher. As much as he loved his job, he never felt as if was able to provide his students with enough one-on-one attention. 

Then, he says, “a small, amazing thing happened.” He learned about an organization called 826Valenicia, which sent volunteers into classrooms to work with students individually on writing projects.

Today, Arquillos is the executive director of the organization’s Los Angeles chapter, 826LA and works hard to ensure that the nonprofit fulfils its mission to support students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, while helping teachers to inspire their students to write.

“My parents are immigrants, which is true for a lot of 826LA students as well, so I relate to the resilience I see in families who are trying to build a life in the U.S,” Arquillos said. “We know how many challenges immigrant families are facing right now, and 826LA positions itself as a safe space where students can be themselves and tell their stories proudly.” 

In addition to writing workshops, the organization’s nationwide programs include field trips, tutoring, in-school programs, publishing projects, and “Writers’ Rooms,” classroom-sized versions of 826LA that take place on high school campuses throughout the Los Angeles area. 

The common thread among all the organization’s programs is writing, and 826LA focuses more on teaching participants how to write creatively, and in ways that help them think outside the box, than in correcting their grammar. 

The organization strives to give its participants the tools they need to become well-rounded young adults in both their academic and personal lives and seeks to create safe spaces where they can feel free to express themselves and connect with each other. 

“I’m proud of helping our participants see their own capabilities, and of providing key tools to help them reach their goals,” Arquillos said. “Sometimes, I’ll see a very quiet student on a field trip get so engaged in a project that by the end of the trip, they’re raising their hand and shouting out ideas. It underscores for me that storytelling is truly transformative.”

While there are other writing and tutoring organizations in Los Angeles that work with youth, what makes 826LA’s approach unique is its focus on one-on-one attention, its innovative curriculum and its relationship with its sister chapters. 

“We’re part of the 826 National network, which means we share ideas and resources with chapters in other cities,” Arquillos said. However, Arquillos is quick to point out that 826LA puts its own original spin on teaching its youth how to write. 

“We are the only organization I know of that operates a “Time Travel Mart,” Arquillos said. “Not only do our stores sell products for ‘time travelers,’ like Primordial Soup and Robot Emotions, but they’re also great gateways to learning for the communities of Echo Park and Mar Vista, where our stores are located.”

While young, budding writers are the primary clients, the organization incorporates parent and teacher feedback. Each year, the organization surveys parents and teachers on the effect the organization has on youth, and each year, approximately 98-100% of those surveyed, reported that youth who participate in 826LA become more confident in their writing, and teachers who engage with program facilitators are inspired to introduce new approaches to writing in their classrooms.

Arquillos is proud that the program encourages interaction between youth and adults during the writing sessions. He often is impressed by the wisdom the students display during the workshops and believes that their model highlights the important idea that teaching is not a one-way street, and that the program is only successful if it has a real and lasting effect on the youth it serves.

“I hope [the] participants (who come through our program) know that their voices matter,” Arquillos said. “I hope they become so comfortable and confident with their words that they can take on a harsh world that sometimes tells them they don’t matter. 

“If we’ve done our jobs, they’ll know the truth [about themselves], and they’ll tell it to whoever needs to hear it,” 

Organization: 826LA

Name: Joel Arquillos

Title: Executive Director 

Website: http://826la.org/

By Angela N. Parker

Contributing Writer