The Gateway Writing Project’s OneCity Stories program teaches high school students to use their voices for social change – UMSL Daily


The OneCity Stories program is sponsored by UMSL’s Gateway Writing Project and brought together 11 high school students from across the St. Louis area to hone their writing and multimedia skills. The three-week program offered tutoring in disciplines including writing fiction, lyrics, opinion, and poetry; achievement; podcasting; and storytelling. (Photo courtesy of Diana Hammond)

Quentin Alimayu surveyed a classroom at Clark Hall in University of Missouri-St. Louis in fits of excitement.

He eagerly explained the role music plays in social change and social justice to a group of 11 high school students from across the St. Louis area.

“Music can be powerful,” said Alimayu, a history teacher at the middle school of Ladue School District. “It can be joyful, but sometimes music can teach you about cultural identity. It can be tied to historical and contemporary events, and it’s power – power between music and life in general.

Indeed, the wide-ranging discussion touched on topics such as The Chicks – formerly The Dixie Chicks – opposition to the war in Iraqdifferences in lived experiences, the origins of protest musicthe police in the United States and even Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

Alimayu ended his lively presentation with a project for the students. They were tasked with thinking about music as action and had a choice of three projects for the day: take a contemporary song and rewrite the lyrics to address a current issue, analyze a socially responsible song from a previous decade, or write a song original to address an important issue for the student.

The session was part of the OneCity Stories program sponsored by the Gateway Writing Project at UMSL. OneCity Stories brings together St. Louis-area high school students from all socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds to hone their writing and multimedia skills and aims to break down divisions in the city.

“If we can bring people together in a room who have very different experiences, the barriers that society builds for us – the physical barriers that we have – we can break down some of them and form a community of support so that children write and learn about each other,” said OneCity Stories director Diana Hammond.

The three-week program offers tutoring in disciplines including writing fiction, lyrics, opinion, and poetry; achievement; podcasting; and storytelling. Participating students were selected through an application process that included writing samples.

In previous years, each week of the program explored a specific medium of journalistic storytelling. However, after returning from a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hammond decided to move the program to a more flexible structure more aligned with student interests.

“What we saw that kids really wanted from the program wasn’t necessarily those expressly journalistic skills, but rather the space and the ability to write different genres,” she explained. “This year, we designed it by first speaking the words, then thinking about adding images to those words, then integrating the sound. You could really take one piece, and it could look different under many different forms, becoming different things, but all of that is rooted in the writing first.

She added that this year’s program uses an activist lens in an effort to show students that their voice can lead to change.

From June 13 to July 1, Alimayu, Hammond, and program leaders Cathy Griner and Randy Meyer guided students through mediums including activist poetry, editorial cartoons, infographics, place-based writing, podcasts, protest music, scripts, slam poetry, instant biographies, speculation fiction and vision boards.

Hammond said the idea was to give students plenty of entry points to spark their creativity, with the goal of producing three polished pieces of work by the end of the program. Students shared their final products via a digital wallet.

Throughout the three weeks, various special guests also spoke with the students. The team worked to assemble a “roundtable” of people using their voices to effect change. This group included changemakers such as Khalea Edwardsan activist and political consultant, who helped found Occupy City Hall STL, advocated for Line 3 without housing and protested in Minnesota.

“We had a few people running for political office,” Griner said. “Then we also had a priest who separated from the Catholic Church.”

The students also took a trip to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park to view the St. Louis Sound exhibit.

Taariq Ahmed, second-year student at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, said being part of a community of enthusiastic writers had dramatically improved her writing over the three weeks. At Ladue, Ahmed enjoys writing for his English and journalism classes, and he contributes to a political blog outside of school.

However, OneCity Stories exposed him to new forms of writing and broadened his perspective on many issues.

“I think my experience has been really, really good,” he said. “I think I’ve learned to think differently and see what it’s like for people who don’t live in areas like me. I met many people from different backgrounds in different neighborhoods of Saint-Louis. It really opened my eyes. Mr. A got us to think about social justice in a different way than I am used to. So he exposed me to a lot of different genres and mediums to express how I feel.

Hammond said it was a joy to see the high school students return to UMSL and bond with each other.

“Older high school kids have had a hard time during the pandemic,” she said. “I think some of them forgot how much they enjoyed and enjoyed being physically in each other’s company. I think the kids forgot the value of coming out into the world. So that was really nice. to see them warming up to each other.

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