When poets Marjory Wentworth and Carol Ann Davis founded the Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts (LILA) 10 years ago, they wanted to do more than just host book signings and poetry readings. They wanted to create an organization that would nurture Charleston's literary culture in every sense — supporting writers, reaching out to readers, and sharing the written word with Charleston's larger community.
Initially, Wentworth and Davis envisioned doing that by setting up a community writing center with workshops and literary events for the general public and quiet writing space for working poets and writers.
Although the writing center never materialized, LILA has had a broad influence on the local artistic and educational community. The group sends poets into local schools to work with students, hosts workshops with experienced writers, and, of course, presents plenty of book signings and poetry readings. They've even worked with local authors to offer literary tours in Europe.
This year, however, things are a little different. For one thing, LILA has hired its first executive director, Deborah Bernard, who is also the group's first paid employee (albeit part-time for now). "I am thrilled about our new executive director," Wentworth says. "She is a lifesaver, and she's already moving the organization in new directions."
Bernard is a former writing and history teacher who moved to Charleston in early 2013. "After we moved, I began to look for ways to serve the community," Bernard says. "[Author and LILA board member] Mary Ann Henry introduced me to LILA. I joined the board, but we then saw that I could serve them better as executive director."
Bernard officially took her post as leader of the organization in July and is working on tightening the nuts and bolts of the group, with the goal of expanding LILA's fundraising capacity. "Right now we're working on doing some strategic planning and applying for 501(c)3 status," she says. "We have some great vision priorities in place. We're looking at financial resources, and as we continue to establish our goals, we'll be in a better place to know what kind of fundraising we want."
At the same time, Bernard remains deeply committed to LILA's programming. Starting in September, the organization launched two new programs that are reaching into different communities.
The first is a series of writing groups for local writers covering all genres, from sci-fi and romance to non-fiction and journalism. Held monthly beginning in September, the groups are open to all writers, novice and professional, who want to connect with other wordsmiths and are looking for constructive feedback on their work.
The second is an educational initiative at the Leeds Avenue Pre-Release Center, a state Department of Corrections facility that helps prisoners prepare for re-integration into society through work training, rehabilitation, and education. LILA is hosting two separate writing classes, one on nonfiction called "Writing Your Own Life Story" and another on poetry.
LILA has offered poetry classes at the Pre-Release Center before, so there was already something of a working relationship between the two entities. That first poetry program was instituted several years ago by LILA co-founder Davis (Davis, who taught at the College of Charleston, moved to Connecticut in 2012).
These classes, however, were organized by Henry, who's relatively new to the LILA board — she's only been a member since March. She wanted to find a way to expand LILA's reach into an underserved community. "The idea of starting another program for inmates seemed natural," she says. She got in touch with the center's warden, Mildred Hudson, who was enthusiastic about the program and put Henry in touch with her volunteer coordinator, Doris Edwards. Over the next couple of months, Edwards and Henry worked to put the classes in place, tapping journalist (and longtime City Paper columnist) Will Moredock and poet Richard Garcia as teachers.
Moredock, who's known for his writing on politics, poverty, and race, has some experience with the prison system — he has corresponded with an inmate on death row since 1984. Since then, he's worked with the inmate, John, on his writing skills. Moredock also used to teach at the College of Charleston, so between the two experiences, he says, he felt comfortable agreeing to teach the class.
The first session took place Sept. 16 with six students. "These are not hardened criminals," Moredock says. "I don't know what they're in for, but most of them — maybe all of them — work jobs during the day and report back to the Pre-Release Center and spend the night."
His goal for the class is pretty simple: help his students deal with whatever issues they might have rattling around in their heads. "We all have our demons and our burdens, and some people drink, some people go to church, some people go to shrinks, and some people write," Moredock says. "If this is going to help them, they will have spent their time well and so will I."
Henry, as the program organizer, sees things from a broader standpoint. "As a writing teacher, I know what can happen when an emerging writer first discovers his or her voice. They connect with something authentic within themselves," she says. "Once a writer makes that connection, no amount of poverty or legal or cultural issues can take it away ... Writing can be restorative. It's not for everyone. But if you're essentially wired to connect to the world — to interpret the world — through written expression, small miracles can happen," she says. Henry hopes that at least some of the students will continue to write once they leave the class and prison behind and remain involved with LILA as civilian men and women.
It's that kind of hope which reveals an integral element of LILA's belief system: the literary arts belong to everyone, from the scholar to the casual reader to the disenfranchised. Davis and Wentworth always envisioned LILA as offering writing programs related to social justice, Wentworth says, and Henry feels similarly. "I think that each of us has a responsibility to take whatever talent we have and share it with the world in some way," she says. "I believe it's part of what we're supposed to be doing, you know, rather than just taking up oxygen."