Thursday, February 22, 2018

Organizer Interview: Laura Pegram on Kweli Conference

Laura Pegram, Kweli Journal Executive Director 
By Traci Sorell 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I am honored to showcase Kweli Journal and its Executive Director, Laura Pegram, on Cynsations.

Kweli’s The Color of Children’s Literature Conference for Native/POC emerging writers and illustrators will take place in New York City on April 6 and April 7.

I first attended this conference in 2016 just after I sold my first picture book. Meeting the legendary Joe Bruchac, who was on faculty that year, as well as other emerging Native/POC writers like myself gave me a community that I could connect with all year long. I’ve been a cheerleader for the conference ever since, especially for the networking and the information shared by faculty.

Last year, Cynthia Leitich Smith gave the keynote with even more Native writers in attendance. But this wonderful event does not happen without Laura Pegram and her vision to create a welcoming environment for Native/POC writers to learn, ask questions, network and celebrate together.

Native authors at the 2017 Kweli Conference. Back row: Brian Young (Navajo), Renee Sans Souci (Omaha Tribe of Nebraska), Alia Jones, Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho Chunk) Front row: Traci Sorell (Cherokee Nation), Kara Stewart (Sappony), Anna-Celestrya Carr (Métis), Carole Lindstrom (Métis/ Ojibwe) Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee), Murriel Borst-Tarrant (Kuna/ Rappahannock Nations), Marcie Rendon (White Earth Anishinabe)

Laura, Kweli Journal focuses on supporting writers of color in a variety of genres. How did the idea of having a national conference specifically for Native and POC writers and illustrators for children and teens first come about? How long has the conference been in existence?

As an education activist and a multidisciplinary artist, I have always been guided by the NACW motto “lifting as we climb.”

Once I met with folks at Dial Books for Young Readers and had my first book contract in hand for Daughter’s Day Blues, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (2000), I looked for ways to give back to the community.

As the Acting Director of the John Killens Young Writers Workshop, I created curriculums for young children and teens enrolled in Saturday enrichment programs in Brooklyn using interdisciplinary arts (poetry, music and dollmaking, for girls and boys, to study the history of Black Cowboys and Black Indians). The program culminated with a field trip to Dr. George Blair’s New York Riding Academy on Randall’s Island and a horseback riding and grooming lesson.

As an instructor at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Manhattan (now defunct), I designed workshops for emerging children’s book writers of color, modeled in part by the children’s literature course I took with June Jordan as an undergraduate. Notably, June’s reading list for the course was global and inclusive, a first for me. It served as a beautiful and inclusive model for Kweli years later when I was newly disabled and adjusting to life in a wheelchair.

I have autoimmune disease, and it’s on the rise in the black community. After my discharge from the hospital, I tried to be optimistic about my prognosis. From my fifth floor walk up, I joked with my at-home nurse and at-home physical therapists and listened to second-hand accounts from friends about the arts world that was now in my rearview mirror.

Then one day I realized that it didn’t have to be behind me; I could create an alternative arts community from my living room. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, I gathered three of my former students from Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center (FDCAC) to serve as editors and readers and four friends and colleagues from FDCAC to join our founding board of directors. We had our first board meeting in a Harlem brownstone, with donated food and space, wholly owning our vision for a multicultural literary community.

In December 2009, we happily pushed Kweli out into the world after a hard labor. Over the past eight years, a small army of volunteers has helped Kweli grow from a biannual journal to a thriving community organization.

Scenes from the 2015 conference with some speakers appearing via Skype.
Our first tentative steps are noteworthy. Our online literary journal and free Reading and Conversation series, presented in partnership with Black@NYT, have allowed bold new voices to share both page and stage with Hodder Fellow Cristina Garcia, MacArthur Fellow Edward P. Jones, and other notables.

In addition, our Annual Writers Conference provides emerging writers of color with tools for success as well as access to industry insiders. For those with limited resources, our scholarships provided local writers, as well as those living around the country, with tuition-free writing classes and mentorship.

Joe Bruchac (Abenaki) talking with attendees at the 2016 Kweli conference.
In 2012, we offered our first mini writers conference at La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem (now defunct). It was a multigenre conference that catered to writers of color working on books for children and young adults, as well as writers of adult fiction and poetry. But I found that children’s book writers were being given short shrift during our early conferences.

Debbie's blog.
In September 2014, I reached out to Kweli contributor Dwayne Martine (Jicarilla Apache/Navajo) about Kweli’s First Annual Children’s Book Writers conference at Poets Den Theater and Gallery in East Harlem and specifically, Kweli tuition scholarships for Native and First Nation writers.

Dwayne introduced me to Debbie Reese and she was enthusiastic. As a result of Debbie’s introductions, five Native writers were able to virtually attend our 2015 conference: Brian Young, Kara Stewart, Sarah Cortez, Kim Rogers and Andrea Rogers. Heid E. Erdrich was scheduled to join us as well but she had a conflict.

Registration fees for our Annual Writers Conference and tuition costs for our writing and photography workshops can be quite prohibitive if you are a high school student from a large lower to middle class family in East Harlem or Brooklyn, or a mother of three living in a tribal town in Oklahoma.

Attendees at a previous Kweli conference.
Kweli is committed to serving writers of color from lower to middle class income neighborhoods throughout the country.

The overwhelming number of writers who receive financial support from us to cover conference registration fees or tuition costs for workshop are mothers with young children, underemployed single women and retired women working on their third chapter in life as writers.

We also provide financial support to high school, college and graduate students. We have offered full and partial scholarships to girls and women since our inception.

What has been the most rewarding part of the conference?

It is a joy to hear writers speak to the community they have found at Kweli conferences, and to see the deep and lasting connections they have made at Kweli lead to these beautiful expanded families. It is also a joy to see our writers gain representation by literary agents as well as book deals.

This year we will have three writers who attended our 2016 Color of Children’s Literature Conference returning to #Kweli18 with debut books:

Each of them will sit on #Kweli18 panels and/or teach workshops so they will be “lifting as they climb” as well. These full circle moments make my heart sing.

The most challenging?

Kweli is run and operated by a small circle of volunteers. Grateful for each and every one of them, but sustainability is a real issue.

2018 Kweli faculty Nic Stone
We operate on small grants from Poets & Writers, NYSCA, the John Blackmon Foundation and the kindness and generosity of Victoria Sanders & Associates, friends and family. They keep us going. But nonprofits are fragile.

It is a challenge for most executive directors (of non profits), particularly in this political climate. I am disabled and live on a fixed income. For years, I have used my personal funds to cover Kweli deficits so I could honor my word and pay Kweli contributors. That is hard to do when you are able bodied, but difficult to do when you live with autoimmune disease and have spent your adult life in and out of the hospital.

With autoimmune disease, there is this ongoing fight to keep inflammation at bay. I can be fine one minute and in the hospital the next. Grateful to my doctors: they keep me going so I can keep Kweli going. But it is not easy.

Is there a general theme for the conference this year? If so, what is it and why was that chosen? If not, what will be some central areas the conference will emphasize or educate participants about?

2018 Kweli master-class faculty Rita Williams-Garcia
As a new midlist author, I often found myself stumbling in the dark about how to navigate a disproportionately white publishing industry, how to protect my voice and promote my first book while working full-time, etc.

There was no guide for writers of color like myself on navigating this new world.

The central guiding theme for Kweli is lifting as we climb: lifting up our narratives and our voices and our histories. That guides us year in, year out. Each year we try to provide concrete takeaways for emerging POC and Native writers and illustrators and we make a concerted effort to improve upon the offerings from the previous year. This year is no different.

For #Kweli18, we are offering a panel discussion on Global Storytelling moderated by Namrata Tripathi, the publisher of Kokila, a new imprint at Penguin Random House  that will focus on diverse books for children and young adults, adding “depth and nuance to the way children and young adults see the world and their place in it.”

Another panel will focus on moving the discussion from diversity to inclusion, inclusion to justice, using an article written by Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich as a starting point ("Say That to My Face: On Teaching and Learning Diverse Literature for Empowerment and Transformation").

During the conference day, we will also outline specific steps on developing a platform for published or soon-to-be-published authors in the panel, Beyond the Book Birthday. We will also be offering perspectives from authors and illustrators on their distinct approaches to revising the novel, and plotting, creating a picture book. Concrete takeaways are key.

What are you most excited about at this year’s upcoming conference on April 7th?

Angela Johnson
A number of things excite me about #Kweli18. The keynote will be delivered by Angela Johnson, a writer I admire for the lyric in her lines as well as her brave approach to storytelling.

We have more workshops for advanced writers this year, so there is full spectrum of information for artists just beginning their journey to those who are a few steps along on the path.

We will also be offering Master Classes for the first time with Angela Johnson, Rita Williams Garcia and Bryan Collier on a Friday half day.

This will be our largest conference to date and I am excited about the new venue at The Graduate Center CUNY and the opportunity to help more writers and illustrators. Last year a lot of folks had to be placed on a waitlist.

You are a published children’s book author yourself. What do you hope someone attending Kweli learns that you wish you had known about the publishing industry or craft when you first started writing and later submitting your work?

I hope that they learn how to protect their dignity and their voices. I hope that they see the beauty and benefit in reading widely and critically. I hope that they see the value of a global community like Kweli and the importance of lifting as they climb.

I also hope that they see the sky as their ceiling. That is something June taught me when I was a shy undergraduate still searching for my voice. The sky is your ceiling.

Cynsations Notes

Visit Kweli Journal’s Color of Children’s Literature Conference for registration, speaker bios, and schedule of events. Early bird registration ends March 11th! Find Kweli Journal on Twitter and Instagram @Kweli.journal.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures. In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

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