Acclaimed Bay Area author and founder of SF-based publishing house McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers, remembers the moment when his writing transformed from “night” to “day.” He was a junior in college going over a story word-by-word with a more experienced editor.
“As a journalist early in my career, I remember how transformative it was to have somebody on my side for two hours editing an 800-word feature,” Eggers told The Standard. “Oh my God, every single word: ‘Why are you using this? Why are you choosing this? Oh, this is good. I think we need to look at this. Did you prove this?’ … It was like night and day from writing beforehand.”
That model of individualized writing help is replicated at 826 Valencia, Eggers’ nonprofit youth writing and tutoring center, which he co-founded with educator Nínive Calegari in 2002. The organization serves under-resourced youth from across San Francisco through free volunteer-based writing programs and workshops at the center and local public schools. It takes its name from the street address where it was born—826 Valencia St.—and has since inspired the creation of two more San Francisco-based writing centers in the Tenderloin and Mission Bay, respectively, eight affiliated 826 chapters across the nation as part of 826 National, and like-minded youth writing centers around the globe.
While each 826 writing center has a different theme—826 Valencia sports a storefront that casts itself as a “Pirate Supply Store” for “working buccaneers”—the core of 826’s curriculum is uplifting student voices through the creativity of the written word in whimsical, playful spaces.
“Writing should be joyful and strange, and the weirdest ideas you have are probably your best ideas. Every time any kind of system or how-to book or whatever tries to step on and squash the strangeness, the weirdness, that’s a shame,” Eggers told The Standard in an interview at 826 Valencia’s pirate-themed writing center on its symbolic birthday last Friday, “8/26 Day.” “I think that the kids can sometimes experience that in one context or another, that it’s a rule-driven process, and it has to be this number of paragraphs and you have to worry about the grammar first and all of these things that take all of the fun out of it. We’re trying to put it all back in.”
On Saturday, 826 Valencia celebrated its 20th anniversary with a block party outside its Mission storefront. On the eve of the birthday bash, we spoke with Eggers and 826 Valencia Executive Director Bita Nazarian about the organization’s 20 years in San Francisco and how it became a “Pirate Supply Store.”
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Bita Nazarian: This awesome person, Dave Eggers, and his co-founder, Nínive Calegari, founded 826 Valencia 20 years ago with this idea around our teachers needing help, and this focus on writing and a really wild storefront that sells supplies for pirates.
The idea was enlisting the help of the broader public as volunteers, who’d sit side by side with our students and coach them on their writing and eventually publish young people in these beautifully made books where they go from thinking, ‘Wow, I might not be a writer. I can’t write,’ to, ‘I’m a published author.’
Dave Eggers: Educators like Bita kept telling me that they needed more one-on-one attention for the students that were falling behind, especially English language learners. And so I thought, well, I know a lot of people with expertise in the written word: journalists, copy editors, novelists that had extra time, that had flexible schedules and might be able to give an hour here and there.
And so now we’re 20 years on, and Bita’s expanded the program into the Mission Bay and into [the] Tenderloin with whole freestanding second and third centers. And the demand is still there because there’s always going to be students that need that one-on-one attention.
Eggers: The pirate supply thing originally was this obligation to zoning.
We were looking for a space that would combine the publishing house [McSweeney’s], which actually used to be a few feet from where we are now, and the writing center.
And in Brooklyn, we had done a little bit of that, working with young people at PS 51, but here the idea was to put both in the same building and have the students be able to access all of the skills and help of our staff and freelancers. And that was supposed to go all the way to the front window and the sidewalk. But that’s when our landlord said, ‘You can’t just have a nonprofit closed just to students. You have to have it open to the public. It has to be retail,’ and that’s when the pirate supply idea happened.
It took us a year or so to get the nonprofit status and a business permit and all that stuff because you have to keep on writing to the IRS that you’re selling pirate supplies. It’s very confusing to them.
But what ended up happening is it became a very welcoming way to say, ‘There’s no stigma here.’ When you come here as a young person, you’re coming through this goofy, whimsical pirate atmosphere.
It feels looser. It feels more homey than some kind of clinical, sterile, typical tutoring center. And of course, it’s free, but because the public is invited in too, because of the retail thing, they get to see what’s going on.
Eggers: It took a second … I remember we had a sandwich board out front. It had a goldfish on it, I think. And it said, ‘Free after-school tutoring,’ and it was mostly the McSweeney staff at that point that was sitting here. The parents were a little skeptical because it didn’t look like a traditional tutoring center, and that’s when Nínive Calegari came on. We started with this sort of vague notion, and Nínive made it real.
Eggers: Early on, in the early 2000s, No Child Left Behind was still a big factor in a lot of teachers’ lives. Here, and elsewhere in the country—because this spawned a lot of centers around the world and around the country—a lot of teachers came to us to give them a little bit of cover and a little bit of an opportunity, a safe space to have writing be the focus and to create a project that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to fit into the tight constraints of No Child Left Behind and the testing-based culture. We often were that safe haven for a place where they could do an extended project or even just a one-day project, whether it’s a field trip or a different kind of customized program with them. There’s still not enough attention given to writing.
Nazarian: Writing is core to every single discipline right now. Businesses lament the fact that their newest employees can’t write when they join. Colleges say the same thing. We use writing for every single type of communication, whether it is to get people to buy a product or to build a movement or explain science.
It is really hard to teach writing, and it is really hard to assess writing, and so it falls by the wayside, and yet it’s so important.
I think we need to bring writing to the center. If we do that, what we’ll see is that the students are then having the power. One of our colleagues said that ‘reading is knowledge and writing is power.’ When you put the pencil in students’ hands, and they’re expressing who they are, they’re telling their truth, you’re really creating a new narrative for the nation.
Eggers: Once you give them a piece of paper and the time and a spotlight of a caring adult sitting next to them, suddenly it’s there and it’ll be there forever. So having just that moment, a few hours, or even half an hour, you have to carve it out because there’s nothing that’s more crucial to the self-empowerment of any human or citizen than to be able to express yourself and your thoughts about your society.
Eggers: I think that we both have met so many kids that say, 'I’m not a writer. I can’t write.' And they’ll say it at eight. How do you make that judgment when you’re in first grade? It’s the number one thing that minute one if we hear that, that we have to disabuse them of that. Because even if they’re not going to end up being a novelist by profession, they’re going to need to write. Anybody can be taught to be a highly competent writer, anybody.
Nazarian: I have a different response, which is that for me, the importance of self-identifying ‘I’m a writer,’ is not as important. I personally can write and I could write well, but I don’t identify as a writer. However, what I want is every single student to be able to use writing as a tool to do whatever they want to do. We say, ‘Use writing as a tool to write their own future, make an impact either on their own lives and just do better in school or go to college, but also to use writing as a tool to help their families.’
Eggers: The greatest thing I think is that the students have absorbed all of this time that they benefited from volunteers. And you find a really high percentage of the students that come up through our programs end up giving back a lot.
And they come back, and they give whenever they can. I think that there’s only so many places that have that kind of… I don’t know, something seeps into the bones…
None of it would be possible without this army of volunteers because you couldn’t pay a thousand people to do it. We have at any given time, over a thousand volunteers on the roster who are available and that two, three hours that one volunteer will give one student is transformative. Just those hours. You can be the first person to introduce the comma to a student. You can be the first person to say, ‘Wow, you really have a gift. You have to keep writing.’ You can be first person to say, ‘Have you ever tried writing poetry?’
Nazarian: 826 Valencia actually has what we call a ‘big, hairy, audacious goal,’ which is in the next 20 years, every under-resourced child or student in San Francisco has the writing skills and publishing platforms they need for positive impacts. So, it’s super wild if you think about the numbers of students and the level of support that they need to make the impact. That’s our big goal. and it’s hairy, and it’s audacious.
Eggers: I think we’re in the sort of old school category of San Francisco when it was weird and wild and woolly and human. My hope is always to keep it strange and to keep it human. And there’s no more sort of vibrant and indicative of all that’s great about this city neighborhood than the Mission, and Valencia, and this part of Valencia that we love so much. And we wanted to be able to still have that indelible character, that idea that the second you’re on this block, it couldn’t be anywhere else in the world. I think that we have to fight to make sure that San Francisco stays strange and stays idiosyncratic and stays handmade and irregular … and random and compassionate.
Christina Campodonico can be reached at email@example.com