The Sacramento non-profit group 916 Ink is on a revolutionary mission to teach kids to listen, think, question and find their own voices and their own values.
Its headquarters on the campus of the old Maple Elementary School reflect 916 Ink’s quirky, idealistic, and generous world-view. Stepping from the typical institutional mid-century campus into the Imaginarium, as its workshop space is called, is like being teleported into another, more interesting dimension.
The wide-open space evokes an artist’s atelier, filled with colorful and inspirational curios and objets d’art. Inspiration drips from the walls, papered in literary quotes and steam-punk artifacts. A large octopus grips a water cooler. The only ordinary items in the room are the tables and chairs, but they are filled with extraordinary beings: writers in training.
The group has served 3,300 kids and published 78 books of their writings.
On a recent Friday morning a group of teens near the end of a 12-week writing course is sitting at four long tables set in a square, taking turns volunteering to read things they’ve written.
One young woman read a short poem, then looked shyly pleased at the boisterous applause that followed.
“I love how the author just stole the reader’s heart with that,” said Emily Lucero, another workshop participant.
When the group took a break, Lucero, 18, spoke about what 916 Ink has meant to her.
Having been homeschooled much of her life due to medical problems and frequent hospitalizations, Lucero has missed out on many experiences other kids take for granted. For her, 916 Ink has compensated for a good bit of that lack.
“It feels like I’ve found a home here,” she said. Sharing the experiences of other teens has opened up the world to her in ways she never would have expected.
“The world can be a scary place,” she said, listing illness, unkindness, break-ups of families, among other painful experiences.
Writing poems and songs are “how I escape from my bad times,” Lucero said.
“Writing for me is escaping, finding yourself, finding your voice,” she said. “I’m even thinking of being a writer someday.”
The session Lucero was enrolled in was a group of home school students, but 916 Ink serves all sorts of students.
The success of the program appears to derive from a format that empowers, promotes self-expression and brings fun into the mix.
“They have stories,” said Henry Stroud, volunteer and outreach coordinator. “Here, they’re in charge of their own stories. They’re allowed to get creative, allowed to get real, allowed to open up.”
The group began receiving a small portion of its funding from the National Endowment for the Arts last year – a $10,000 grant in a budget of about $650,000, said Executive Director Katie McCleary.
Although 916 Ink can survive without the grant, the loss of it translates to about 90-120 fewer students it can serve, Stroud said.
And downsizing is not the direction the organization wants to go.
The goal -- and it’s a lofty one, McCleary admitted -- is to give the opportunity for a 916 Ink experience to every child within 100 miles of Sacramento. The organization has expanded rapidly in the last couple of years, with the next 916 Ink proposed expansion across the Sacramento River, to a Yolo Ink program.
The non-profit group 916 Ink started as a literacy program, but in the five years since, it’s broadened its focus to “whole child development,” McCleary said. Although the programs’ formats might look like fun and games on the surface, especially to the students who participate, they help develop real life skills.
The ability to write a compelling cover letter, the experience of reading their work to a group, the confidence becoming a published author before graduating from high school, and, possibly most important, practice in flexing their imaginative muscles, all are valuable and transferable skills in the job market.
“Nothing works without imagination, I don’t care what sector you’re in,” McCleary said.
In an economy facing increasing automation, tomorrow’s workers will be well served by creative problem-solving and innovative thinking.
But for 916 Ink, its goals go well beyond the development of job skills. Through creative writing, 916 Ink teachers encourage students to know themselves better, getting in touch with their deepest values and thereby becoming better people.
It’s tough to put a price tag on that kind of outcome, and McCleary doesn’t even attempt to. She sees the proposal to cut arts funding completely as an opening gambit that will ultimately result in budgets slashed in two – with legislators congratulating themselves for their generosity in sparing it at all.
Attempts to abolish the NEA go back more than 30 years, even though the organization represents a miniscule percentage of the nation’s budget. Controversial art works involving material some consider offensive or obscene have been cited among other objections to the agency, but in Sacramento in recent years, NEA funding appears to have gone to significantly less sensational projects.
The Association of California Symphony Orchestras, Casa De Brazilian Folkloric Arts of Sacramento, Crocker Art Museum, and Institutio Mazatlan Bellas Artes de Sacramento were among those benefiting from the federal funding for a variety of educational and artistic projects.
In 2015, the City of Sacramento got a $125,000 grant to fund “River Crossing” a public art project on the east and west banks of the Sacramento River near downtown Sacramento. That year also saw a $10,000 grant for the B Street Theater to fund production of “Bars and Measures,” a play about two African-American brothers, both musicians, struggling to hold onto their relationship after one of them goes to jail.
When attacks are made on funding for arts, as Trump’s proposed budget does, "the arts" are typically cast as some kind of snooty, elitist endeavor out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people.
Arts supporters likewise see arts funding as a class issue, but their take-away message is a little different.
Liv Moe, Founding Director of Verge Arts in Sacramento, said she grew up in a low-income household, and PBS and other public education and arts programs were extremely important to her family and to her development.
The question comes down to, “who has a right to have enlightenment and knowledge and who doesn’t?” Moe said.
When these discussions of arts funding come up, an apparently apocryphal Winston Churchill quote is often thrown in for good measure. While there is no evidence that Churchill responded ‘then what are we fighting for?’ in response to a suggestion to cut arts funding to help the war effort, Churchill, an avid amateur painter himself, did say this:
“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The state owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them…Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.”