The write stuff: Burnaby workshop for newcomers fosters community through stories
A Burnaby-based organization recently published a children's story book using tales created in its writing workshop for Canadian newcomers.
Asmita Lawrence says everyone has a story to share, and that is exactly the message she’s trying to share with her organization’s novel approach to writing workshops.
Lawrence is the founder and director of the Burnaby-based Culture Chats BC Association, a non-profit community organization that hosts multicultural and educational activities like dance workshops, craft activities for young children and art exhibitions.
But in the last few years, Culture Chats has developed a new program that allows participants to enhance their communication and writing skills in an unexpected way: A free workshop series on how to write children’s stories.
What first started with workshops on cultural and personal reflection writing has since evolved into a program for any non-native English speakers who want to improve their language and writing abilities.
Lawrence says the shift to children’s stories was a chance to make workshops accessible to non-native English speakers of different proficiency levels, since it’s a style of writing that uses relatively simple language, while allowing for a lot of creative expression and personality.
“I’m personally very amazed at the creativity that comes out of the relatively simple format of writing workshops,” said Lawrence.
Over the course of the program, participants have the chance to come up with their own original story idea, sometimes aided by the help of local children’s book pros such as Burnaby-based Ellen Schwartz. But Lawrence says the benefits go beyond just improving one’s writing abilities.
“It’s [about] creating a supportive environment where they have a safe environment where they feel encouraged to write and express themselves, but equally there’s professional tips of the trade that are handed out as well,” said Lawrence.
“So one key advantage is development of language skills, but another one is also to build connections in the community.”
The past two years of workshops have also resulted in Culture Chats publishing two children’s story books compiled from tales written by the participants.
Their latest book, titled Evergreen Tales, was published this past April, and in the spirit of building a sense of community, participants got to present some of their stories at the Burnaby Canada Day celebrations.
Tanya Kan is a volunteer with Culture Chats, and says the books and workshops benefit from the diversity of the participants and lead to stories with unique perspectives, ideas and themes.
“Last time I heard a story about legumes, peas, vegetables,” said Kan. “I think the beauty of this program is that you can hear so many different stories from [their] personal [life], about sons, cousins, nephews, sisters, brothers, and something that you never expect… And you think, ‘My goodness, the imagination is really limitless.’”
Kan was actually a participant in earlier Culture Chats workshops with before volunteering with them, and says she joined the organization to help others like the workshop helped her. She says she wanted to pay it forward to other newcomers, because when she came to Canada with a passion for writing around five years ago, there were a lot of challenges in finding accessible opportunities to improve her writing.
Kan, who is Uzbekistan-born Korean, said that writing workshops are often costly, and not typically geared towards participants with varying English language proficiencies. But she says these are the kinds of barriers that Culture Chats looks to address with its approach.
“In our workshop we have people with different levels of English, but what we see at the end: They’re all successful in creating their stories. And I think… our books completely prove that they did that successfully,” said Kan.
Kan says that perhaps the most important challenge is helping participants build the confidence to write. And while it’s no easy feat, she said it’s a skill that can lead to a greater confidence in communication, and a wonderful story along the way.
“There are so many people who are hesitating to actually start writing,” said Kan. “I hear from some participants, they think that it’s difficult for them to participate because of their level of English.
“I always say it doesn’t matter because you can put together three simple words, and you can make the story out of it, and make it beautiful.”