Stephanie Guerra: Stories Unlocked

Rob Ellis, 1/365 I think I've got too much time on my hands? Digital Photograph. (cc) 2011

Rob Ellis, 1/365 I think I’ve got too much time on my hands?, Digital Photograph. (cc) 2011


Stephanie Guerra was awarded an Art Projects grant for her project, Stories Unlocked, an ongoing publication of writing by students incarcerated in King County Juvenile Detention Center and at-risk teens in our region. Here Stephanie shares why she does this work and why these young people are motivated to write.

On any given day, more than 100,000 teens are incarcerated in the United States. Countless more are considered at-risk for incarceration, based on factors such as homelessness, poverty, gang membership, substance abuse, grade retention, and more. Research shows that literacy is one of the most important protective factors against recidivism.

I’m a teaching artist and children’s author, and since 2005, I’ve been running creative writing programs in detention facilities in King County. Currently I’m teaching the teen girls at King County Juvenile Detention Center, and I’m moved and inspired by their writing. Their voices are unique and their stories are powerful.

Thanks to an Art Projects grant from 4Culture and a Youth Arts grant Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, I was able this year to realize a long-time dream to offer my incarcerated students a chance to share their stories and poems with the public. Together we launched, a digital magazine of their work. I invite you to visit the web site and experience the voices of teens whom you may pass on the street, know personally, or otherwise intersect with in King County.

Sometimes we write for ourselves alone, but for many writers, an audience is a powerful motivator. The Stories Unlocked Project brought out a new level of focus and determination in my students. Especially after the initial site launch, I noticed their intense motivation to write more and better.

In their own words (names omitted to protect privacy):

“This web site is really inspiring. It’s true stuff, that’s why I like it.”

“It’s great because we finally get a chance to tell people what it’s really like.”

“People actually listen to us.”

“It truly means a lot to me that you guys are going out of your way to publish our writing. Having someone come in and offer this program to us is amazing because we didn’t realize how others want to hear what we have to say.”

These are just a few examples of the positive feedback I’ve received from the girls. This opportunity means a lot to them; they feel heard. During the Stories Unlocked Project, I’ve seen emotional breakthroughs, friendships built, and stellar work produced. I’m especially moved by the handful of students who’ve committed to novellas and are sticking with a project for dozens of pages. Many thanks to 4Culture and Seattle Office of Arts & Culture for making this possible. Thanks and congratulations to the young writers at the Stories Unlocked Project. I am so proud to share your work with the world.