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A conversation with: Writer and arts education advocate Gaby FeBland

The number 826 has had an impact on former New Yorker Gaby FeBland. As a child, she would pass a superhero-themed storefront bearing those numbers every day. So, it was a natural fit that when she moved to Chicago that she took a job as communications coordinator at  826CHI, a non-profit creative writing, tutoring and publishing center dedicated to amplifying the voices of Chicago youth. It is the Chicago branch of that same New York store.  As communications coordinator for the past three years,  FeBland has supervised all external communications and has overseen all of their content for the website, social media, press and campaigns.  

FeBland talks about how the organization benefits the city and what inspires her every day:  

Why were you interested in working at 826CHI? 

This job is the perfect marriage of my beliefs in arts education. I’m a product of public arts education, and I wouldn’t have become a writer if I hadn’t had incredible teaching artists investing in me. I love to support equitable access to arts education on a daily basis, to help amplify the voices of Chicago youth and to get our students’ work out of our musty basement and into the world.  

What is your favorite part of your job? 

I love any time students get to see their work in print for the first time, and feeling the weight of that work. Any release event is an incredible day and is super rewarding. Also, all of our students’ publications end up on the shelves of Chicago Public Libraries as well. So, when we tell students they can go to their library and see their book, it’s always deeply rewarding. 

What does this program offer kids for the future?  

A lot of the kids we have in our program have kind of broken up with the school system at one point, or haven’t had a positive authority figure in their life. When we bring kids into our space every morning on field trips, we’re providing them a third space where they’re invited to share their voice. We invite them to engage in conversations that are more personal or difficult than they’re able to have in the school day. We are a safe place and a creative outlet for thousands of students who are entering our space through any of our programs.  

It’s not just creative writing; there are also social and emotional gains that come from our program, especially with the students who are with us for a longer period of time. All of these students are learning how to talk to adults and ask for help. I think confidence in their writing results in academic self-confidence. We hear a lot from students that this program has helped them participate in class more and help them voice their concerns to adults more.  

What does a day look like for a student in your programs?  

We have several different types of field trips for kids ranging from memoir writing, to STEM field trips that involve superhero writing, to more investigative writing about Chicago. Our field trips run the gamut, but all of the students are encouraged to write, have hours to do so and are given individualized attention from volunteers and staff. All of the students who go through our program leave a published author in some way. 

Are there any field trips or programs 826CHI offers that promote journalism? 

Yes, specifically with music journalism. We have a Pitchfork writing camp for high schoolers. Kids in that camp get a press pass to Pitchfork music festival and they get to interview artists and write profiles that get published. We also have journalists come in for a writer’s workshop series called “Fresh Ink.” We’ve had Rick Julius before to teach about how to pitch and just give an overview of the media in Chicago. 

We’re also doing something new with our teen writers series with more professional development. Students now get to opt in to one of three tracks—editing, teaching artist or communications. I oversee the communications track, and I have been bringing in journalists every month to talk about what they do with these kids who have expressed interest in journalism and communications so they can have that professional development opportunity.  

Is there a student who has impacted you? 

The cool thing about being at 826CHI for three years now is you get to see students grow up in the program. There’s one student, Michaela, who I’m very close with. I remember when she was younger she was so shy about sharing her work. She would kind of whisper into the microphone at chapter book release events for the after school writing and tutoring program. 

Now, Michaela has emceed multiple events for us and is one of the most self-assured students in our program. She’s in the teen writers studio communications track and she co-wrote one of the spring appeals that we do for a major development campaign. She has also interned in the communications department with me. She’s such an outspoken advocate for our work and for arts education access now. I just know she’s going to burn things down.  

How can people get involved with 826CHI?  

We are always looking for volunteers. Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization and it’s very easy to get involved as a volunteer. You can go to our website where you can fill out the new volunteer form. From there, you’d come to our location for the new volunteer orientation, we hold two of those orientations every month. Volunteering with us is super flexible, and you can participate as much or as little as you want. If you want to be involved, I assure you there is a way.  

This story has been edited for clarity. 

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