“In the Shelter of Words” in St. Paul


“I write. It’s my secret,” the high school student said to me. He was present with other students and their guests celebrating the dedication of their art installation, In the Shelter of Words, in the atrium at Face to Face Academy.

Students who attend Face to Face are teens in crisis. They may be homeless or abused, they may be mentally ill or chemically dependent. The charter school is located at 1165 Arcade Street in the Payne Phalen neighborhood of Saint Paul.

Wendy Brown-Baez, the project director, said, “My mission with the installation is to create a dialogue about youth and poverty and youth and homelessness.”

Brown-Baez is an artist and a performance poet. She started as a volunteer, facilitating writing workshops at the Safety Zone, a drop-in center for teens who are homeless or living in poverty. Seeking grant money to fund continuation of the workshops, she approached Face to Face Academy with the proposal that students receive credit as an incentive for participating in the workshops.

Teens at risk, places that can help

(from Wilder Research, 2008)
• 550-650 young people are homeless in Minnesota on any given night.
• 70 percent of homeless youth had experienced placement in a foster home, group home, treatment center, or correctional facility.
• More than half had been physically or sexually abused and a third had experienced neglect.
• 29 percent to 55 percent cited being locked out of the home as one of the main reasons for homelessness.
Places that can help
Face to Face Health Services 651-772-5555
Streetworks  612-252-2735
The Bridge for Runaway Youth  612-377-8800
District 202    
Project Offstreets 612-252-1200
Avenues for Youth 612-522-1690
Safehouse 651-644-3446
Hopehouse 651-775-5615
Lutheran Social Services 651-642-5990
Safezone, 308 Prince Street, St. Paul 651-772-5555

With the McKnight Foundation Grant provided by the COMPAS Community Art Program, Brown -Baez began the writing workshops at Face to Face in March. Since the school is in session year-round, the students worked through the summer. Brown-Baez said, “More students were coming on Monday so they could attend the workshops.”

Brown-Baez said the purpose of the grant is twofold – to develop literacy and to bring art into the community.

Once the project was underway, Brown-Baez tried to come up with an idea that would get the students writing, yet keep them coming. She thought about making a CD but there were concerns with confidentiality.

“Then,” Brown-Baez said, “I had a flash that I could create a structure.”

She had lived in Israel for three years and her son built a Sukkah on their porch. The Sukkah is a shelter representing the time the Jewish people traveled with tents following the Exodus. In the Jewish tradition the Sukkah is made with found materials and is open to everyone who comes by. In observance of the tradition, Jewish families may build a sukkah and eat or even sleep in it on the holiday of Sukkot, which follows the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Sukkot is observed this year from sundown on October 2 until sundown on October 9.)

Brown-Baez said, “For youth living in poverty that temporary, portable structure can be a symbol where inside you are safe. Because it is open to everyone, everyone is equal within the shelter.”

As the writing workshops progressed, Brown-Baez brought in carpenter Andrew Ehrmann, who taught the students the simple structure of the Sukkah, At this point Brown-Baez began making frequent treks to Menards to purchase the supplies the students needed. Under direction from Ehrmann, the students learned to measure and to build and what angles to use. They drilled holes to put ropes through the sides of the structure.

One student said with pride: “I hope a lot of people get to check out our poems so we can get good feedback… I encourage people… it can help people if you have problems like stress.”

He also talked of the building process, saying, “I did a lot of the cutting of the wood , putting it together.”

A young woman with long, dark hair said that she like to read and to write poetry about her life. She writes about her childhood, which she says was “complicated,” noting that, “It’s easier to write about it. There’s a lot of ways to express it.”

In all about 30 students were involved in building the shelter. After all the preparations, the students began the process of putting the shelter together on September, 9 so it would be ready in time for the dedication.

The grant also provided for the purchase of disposable cameras. Students were given the cameras and told to take pictures of places they feel safe. They made curtains and covered them with the photos they had taken. They covered the shelter with burlap embellished with gold. The “walls” of the shelter are tie-dyed cloths the students made and pieced together.

Inside the shelter are two chairs, and a baby carseat, notebooks with the students’ poetry and a CD player. The students’ voices can be heard reading their poetry on the CD they recorded. The CD is currently not available for purchase, but may be in the future.

Professional photographer Dan Marshall documented the entire building process from start to finish, on a pro bono basis.

In working with the students, Brown-Baez drew on her own life experiences, in which she found that writing poetry was healing after suffering profound losses. She said that, at first, she was unable to write, but after attending a writing workshop she was able to write again.

“My mission with the installation is to create a dialogue about youth and poverty and youth and homelessness,” Brown-Baez said. She said that in working with the students she discovered their great resiliency. Her expectation had been that they would be full of bitterness and anger, but she found them to be hopeful and looking to the future.

She hopes that In the Shelter of Words will inspire people to dialogue about how we can transform the community by bringing more art to those who can’t afford it.

For now, the shelter remains at Face to Face. Next spring, the students will take down the shelter and it will be moved to Plymouth Congregational Church to be reassembled there. Brown-Baez said that she is looking into other potential host sites for the shelter. She is also looking for volunteers to help transport the shelter to the host sites. Contact Brown-Baez at her web site or send an e-mail to poetaluna@yahoo.com

Mary Thoemke (email marythoemke@tcdailyplanet.net), a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, is  a free lance writer for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

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