Cultivating creativity in children

IN 1992, COLIN Duffy was profiled by Susan Orlean in Esquire magazine about his thoughts on wealth, consumer products, recycling and abortion, among other issues. Yet he was not a celebrity, or politician, or anyone famous. When 'The American Male at Age 10' came out, it was groundbreaking writing, a piece in a national publication about the likes and dislikes of an ordinary kid, written with the same focus of intensity and analysis as an interview with the President. Duffy liked Nintendo Game Boys, sour lollies called Crybabies, and building enormous spider webs in his backyard with fishing line. He had a wild imagination and dreamed of winning the lottery.

This profile might have seemed navel-gazing and indulgent, but the idea that a child should be taken as seriously as the adult he or she will become is not a new one in other cultures. Last year, Elizabeth Kolbert from the New Yorker reported on an anthropologist who spent several months with the Matsigenka tribe of the Peruvian Amazon. Carolina Izquierdo observed a girl, Yanira, who had asked to join another family on a five-day leaf gathering expedition down the Urubamba River. Although she had no clearly defined role in the group, Yanira found ways to make herself useful. She cleaned sleeping mats, helped stack the kapashi leaves; and fished, cleaned and boiled crustaceans which she served to the others. What was remarkable to both the anthropologist and the journalist was that Yanira was only six years old at the time. Izquierdo recalled that calm and self-possessed Yanira 'asked for nothing' during the trip. In contrast, Orlean reported Duffy's opinions on everything ranging from the Eurythmics to AIDS.

The idea that the preferences and thoughts of a child – as separate from what he or she has learned from their elders and applied, or what he or she has to offer the community in skills or expertise – should be taken so seriously is also not a new one. Think of the next Dalai Lama or the dauphins of pre-revolutionary France. At the same time, we also know that there are other children out there, whose lives are not so documented. As Orlean makes clear from the beginning of her story, Duffy, a middle-class boy from 'a serene and civilised old town twenty miles west of New York City', is not representative of a boy in Spanish Harlem, or the Bronx, or South-Central Los Angeles, or 'other, grimmer parts of the country where a very different ten-year-old American man is growing up today.' So is the idea of taking serious regard to a child's imaginings only a first-world luxury that few in less privileged circumstances can indulge?

What if we focused on an average Australian child growing up in one of the most disadvantaged suburbs in the state of Victoria, and took the same serious regard to that child's aspirations as Orlean did to Duffy, while imbuing them with the same work ethic as Yanira? This is the story of three remarkable people who endeavour to do just that for children in Melbourne's western suburbs. But it is also the story of how cultural capital is gained, and the challenges of entering a different culture to effect positive change, without eradicating the sense of belonging kids have to their families and communities.

BRAYBROOK, HOME TO around four thousand people, is currently the fourth most disadvantaged suburb in Metropolitan Melbourne in the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA). The SEIFA compares areas in terms of relative advantage or disadvantage in accordance to people's access to material and social resources and their ability to participate in society. Braybrook has an Economic Index for Area (EIFA) ranking of 801.1, compared to 1020.3 for Greater Melbourne. It is also one of the most linguistically diverse suburbs in Victoria, with the main languages other than English spoken being Vietnamese (22.6 per cent) Cantonese (7.1 per cent), Somali (2.7 per cent) and Mandarin (2.6 per cent). Braybrook also has the highest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents for the municipality of Maribyrnong. More than 17.4 per cent of Braybrook households are single parent households, while a fifth of its population rents social housing, and almost a fifth of Braybrook's households do not own a car.

Braybrook also has high levels of unemployment – 12.5 per cent compared to 5.5 per cent for Greater Melbourne. More than 10 per cent of Braybrook's fifteen to twenty-four year olds are not employed or studying, and 53.3 per cent of the residents do not have a university or TAFE qualification. Only 47 per cent go on to complete Year 12. Only one in five households owns a computer.

But these are just numbers that don't mean very much when you live in the area and grew up in such a community. We begin our story with an average profile of the multicultural and multilingual children in the neighbourhood whose duties at home in the urban jungle are adult in nature. They translate for their parents at doctors and health clinics, interpret telephone calls with utility companies, fill in their own school enrolment forms, look after aged grandparents, do the grocery shopping, cook, launder and take care of younger siblings, sew clothes, build fences, or help serve customers at the family business. I know this area well, because I went to the local state school; and these were all after-school duties my friends and I performed.

Footballers from the then Footscray Bulldogs AFL team would often come and serve us breakfast and give us stickers. We felt very lucky in our primary school years. A teacher named Miss Higgins let us have 'working pills' (Smarties) before we had to do hard maths and bought us toys for Christmas. A beloved emergency teacher named Mr Galloway used to say to the good writers, 'You'll burn a hole through the page!' Mrs Burgess from the library encouraged my best friend in her dream of becoming a fashion designer by giving her Women's Weekly magazines. Mr Horton let us have an ant farm in the class, and lessons outdoors.

I did not know, until I was an adult, that the footballers came because our school was disadvantaged. I did not notice that as the years went by and more and more refugees moved into the neighbourhood, the school became increasingly multicultural. When I was eighteen, I saw my local primary school in the local paper, not for any special achievement, but because it was falling apart, with one angry parent quoted as saying, 'I wouldn't even let pigs go there.'

Yet I don't remember the school being so bad. I remember the good teachers, because these were the people who shaped me into becoming a writer. I came to school not speaking a word of English, with absolutely no common cultural capital. The only literature my mother read was the Safeway and Bi-Lo ads that came every Tuesday in our letterbox. The rest of the time, she was in the back shed working. My grandmother once asked me to help her read two words in her insurance policy, because they were next to a particularly large sum. I refused. 'All that schooling, and you're completely useless!' she scoffed, 'I'll ask your father when he returns.' Of course I knew what the two words were, but I did not want to upset her. The two words were In Death. I knew a lot about death because the adults in my family would never stop talking about it. 'Remember Needle?' they would say over dinner. 'She was so talented on that sewing machine. Too bad that she got smashed.' My family were survivors of the Cambodian Killing Fields. Like Yanira, my cousins from Cambodia were working in the fields when they should have been in school. They were foraging for food to ward off starvation, and the first time they tasted ice they thought it was 'hot'.

Our parents obsessed over cleanliness and comfort. Their greatest dream was that one day their children would get comfortable jobs. This is the motif of every migrant parent's aspirations for their children, one that is unequivocally tied with the idea of the Great Australian/American/Canadian Dream: build a nice house in the outer suburbs and get a nice car. Have a job where you sit at a desk during the day instead of burning your back in the sun, where the greatest occupational hazard is getting a papercut, not being mauled by machinery. In essence, don't suffer as your parents have.

It is then understandable why this would be a dream that is diametrically opposed to a career as a dancer, a non-classical musician, scriptwriter, cartoonist, journalist or artist. Creating art means taking risks. Taking risks means you deliberately put yourself in danger of economic uncertainty, loss of public regard, and the prospect of failure. Parents who have been safely settled in Australia for generations might see the value of cultivating creativity in children because they do not see life as only giving you one chance or shot at something; but refugee or migrant parents might feel less inclined to entertain that risk because it is either too hard – their children have to inhabit and learn the language and ways of a whole new culture in order to create its art – or feel that they are simply too far behind to even reach for such lofty ideals. Better to reach for the low-hanging fruit of career security.

But here in Braybrook were kids who knew about death (it was discussed almost on a daily basis), the adult world, the developmental stages of babies, conflict, the real value of a Barbie doll (three weeks helping mum iron interfacing into shirt collars, or three hundred shirts, if we were using the currency of the Chinese and Vietnamese friends of my youth). Imagine listening to the voices of such kids. Imagine hearing their opinions on pop culture, or the silly foibles of their families, or the tales of their elders. What pop stars would they look up to? What do they think about their siblings? What do they think about ghouls? What warnings did their grandparents give them about (real) pirates?

Imagine if their parents could see what a difference it made to their children if they developed the ability to communicate with not only their peers, but other adults. Better yet, imagine that they took all this cultural capital and not only talked about it, but wrote and edited books illustrated by professional artists, to be published professionally and sold in stores.

THIS IS WHAT Lachlann Carter, Jenna Williams and Jessica Tran of the 100 Story Building understand about children and writing – that it has the potential to cultivate a thousand Colin Duffys. Children who were traditionally the most voiceless in society, except when they were acting on behalf of their parents and learning the adult voice, are now writing as children again – about zombies, strange animals, secret trapdoors, scary monsters and sea creatures. They write about mischievous wanton destruction and great acts of valour.

The 100 Story Building is in the Barkly Street Mall in Footscray, a place where I spent many childhood afternoons loitering with my brother, before it became a place where drug deals were conducted with blasé open regularity. But now it is a busy pedestrian mall again on this Monday afternoon. The building is right next to the Commonwealth Bank, and the boarded-up skeleton of the former Forges Department Store. It used to be a retail space, but now has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books plus an assortment of strange curiosities: jars labeled with 'Word Count' (Scrabble letters), 'Royalties' (plastic coins) and 'Recipe Ideas' (small toy farmyard animals). Lightbulbs hang from the ceiling in cork-stoppered glass bottles. The tables are made from reclaimed old-furniture wood, and there is a secret revolving bookshelf that has a room behind it.

Lachlann and Jenna, who are a couple in their private as well as professional lives, had asked the kids to help them with designing the fit-out of the 100 Story Building space. The kids came up with some ideas such as: a romance-novel writing room with heart shaped cushions, cakes and biscuits, and a man playing a piano; a 150 kilograms weight above the front door, to drop on baddies; a garden of faces; and a secret door hidden in a bookshelf.

In the end, they settled on the secret door.

In one corner of the room is the conceit of the building – a sealed trapdoor with DANGER! CONSTRUCTION ZONE tape and signs all around. This trapdoor leads to the other ninety-nine storeys of the building underground. There is a noticeboard next to the trapdoor, with messages such as:

Level 42 has a spare golf buggy. Contact Gini.
Fenwick Abernarty is looking for love. Level 70.
Attention! Danger! Level 22 is currently overrun with rabid adjectives.
Do not approach.

Lachlann, a trained primary school teacher and CEO of the 100 Story Building, is running a school holiday Zombie zine-making workshop on this sunny summer day. The room is filled with children aged from five to fourteen. 'I didn't spell something right in my character's speech bubble,' confesses a six-year-old boy with corkscrew curls, looking down at his 'Exquisite Corpse' – a picture composed by multiple artists, each drawing a different part of the character without seeing what the person before them has done.

'Don't worry, that's how your character speaks!' Lachlann proclaims, 'the character speaks with incorrect spelling!' The kids erupt in friendly laughter.

Lachlann is everthing a primary school teacher should be: he does not offer unwarranted praise (it has to be meaningful); he does not treat the children like cute things; he tells funny stories about when he first learned to shave at the age of five with toothpaste and his dad's razor and cut himself, and he understands his role is not to teach but to help kids unleash their creativity.

WHEN I FIRST met Lachlann and Jenna in 2012 in a café in Melbourne, the first thing I noticed about them was how crazily enthusiastic they were, admittedly to the point where I became a little worried about how long this energy could last. The social workers in our youth were the bedraggled-looking, kindly Les Twentymans; but these were the guys who stuck around, who knew the area inside-out, and to whom nothing was a surprise: kids eating school lunches from bins, drugs, insular migrant families who would suddenly disappear as soon as they appeared, family incest and so on. The biggest priority during the school year was to make sure the kids remained safe and able to come to school. People came in and out of the school and our lives for a day, or a week, or maybe even a full term, to make the lives of children in Braybrook more fun. But often they did not stick around unless they were local. Generally, locals did not see the kids of Braybrook as some sociological study in disadvantage, just as local kids who needed a bit of a hand.

Lachlann and Jenna tell me that they started with a program called Pigeons – Stories in the Post, partnering primary-school aged children with established writers in an epistolary relationship that involved the children writing to the authors, introducing themselves, and sending along a story they had written. The author would then help the student shape, draft and redraft the story until it was fit for publication in a lovely professional volume – the kind of book you would buy in a shop. Their second major project was Early Harvest, a journal of young Australian writing, run in partnership with Davina Bell of Harvest Magazine and Emma Hewitt. Early Harvest was a culmination of a sixteen-week program designed to give children a space where their writing could reach a wide audience. Early Harvest consisted of an editorial board of fourteen upper-primary school children responsible for seeking submissions, selecting and editing content and commissioning artists. The artists and authors are both children and well-known writers and illustrators like Terry Denton and Sally Rippin.

'Children respond wholeheartedly to the creativity of other children,' Jenna tells me, and when I ask her to explain, Lachlann recounts a story. 'When I visit schools,' Lachlann says, 'I take some books in to show the students, among which are a few copies of Early Harvest. I read some of the stories out, and then tell them that these were written by kids like them. Every time, the kids will always want to hear stories written by other kids.' Lachlann refers to the contributors in Early Harvest as authors. 'That's how the kids identify themselves too.'

I then realised Lachlann and Jenna were serious about their 100 Story Building project, and of having a building for kids to see how the writing, illustrating and creative industries worked. Seeing a talk by Dave Eggers about his own program, 826 Valencia, which he developed in San Francisco in 2002 with educator Nineve Calegari, inspired Lachlann and Jenna to go and do an internship there. 'It was the catalyst that started us on this journey,' says Jenna. Because the space was zoned for retail, Eggers and Calegari decided to open a pirate shop at the front, with the back of the store turned into a writing lab. Here, students from the surrounding disadvantaged neighbourhoods could come in and get mentorships, help with their writing, and work with established writers, artists and publishers.

'We want kids to get an understanding of the work involved,' explains Jenna, 'and to dissect the creative process. No matter who you are, there is a creative process.' At the 100 Story Building, there is a wall of framed draft manuscript pages from authors like Sally Rippin and Andy Griffiths. These pages are heavily marked up with red ink corrections or pencil edits.

Lachlann talks about teaching the kids to honour the work. Every workshop he conducts is not necessarily focused on praising the quality of the completed writing piece. 'In our second program, kids were asked to not do just one draft of a piece of writing, but to submit draft after draft – five or six drafts,' Lachlann says. 'Of course, they weren't keen to do this. Some of them were complaining, awww, do we have to do this? But then the more drafts they did, the more they felt connected to their work, and the more pride they had in it.'

Lachlann feels that this is what he has always wanted to do. 'Everything I've done since high school has been related to working with children and writing,' he says, 'As a kid, I was involved in buddy programs at school. I studied writing for children. I trained as a primary school teacher and worked a number of years as one, but I wanted to be in educational spaces that were not necessarily classrooms. I was already volunteering for the Melbourne Museum in their children's program, and I also worked at the Polly Woodside (historical maritime museum) as a pirate.'

'I've never questioned the link between kids and the necessity of creativity to their development,' confesses Jenna, 'because when I was younger, I participated heavily in the arts, in theatre groups. What 100 Story Building hopes to achieve is access, to reinforce the creativity of children with opportunities inside and outside of school.'

I was beginning to understand what Lachlann and Jenna were seeking to accomplish. It was grand, but not far-fetched. It was ambitious but not unrealistic. Most of all, it was about real hope and not false dreams. They were trying to give children mentors, and ensure that they saw the creative life as a very real possibility. Just as those visiting footballers gave the boys of our primary school pride and esteem, and the conviction that they could be just like their heroes someday in the future, Lachlann and Jenna hope to give these kids a conviction that they could betheir literary heroes if they understood the process and worked at it.

The third founding member of the 100 Story Building is Jessica Tran, who quit her job in a well-regarded Melbourne publishing house to become the development manager of 100 Story Building. Jess had worked in publishing with Jenna, and also in children's publishing, in every conceivable role. 'A publishing jack of all trades,' she says self-depreciatingly, making light of her extensive experience. This means that at 100 Story Building, she still does everything with her characteristic calm and steady drive: fundraising, business development, grant writing, developing programs, marketing and communications, and community engagement.

She describes the venture as 'a social enterprise, offering a number of products and services that support our free programming for children and young people from marginalised backgrounds.' These products and services include holiday workshops (100 Story Holidays), writing masterclasses for adults (100 Story Studio), and school consultancy work. This work currently makes up around 10 per cent of 100 Story Building's overall income, with the majority of funding coming from philanthropic sources. But the 100 Story Building's goal is to increase these sources of revenue so that within five years revenue will make up over half of their overall income. To put it simply, the writing and publishing programs you enrol yourself or your children in will help more disadvantaged kids in the west get access to the free programs. And the writers and publishers teaching these workshops are award-winning authors including Tony Birch and publishers like Penguin Books and Hardie Grant Egmont.

I ask Jess about the types of students that attend the holiday programs. 'When we first did the holiday workshops we sent around to local schools saying if they had students who wanted to come, it would be free,' she explains, 'and we got a diverse group of students from all cultures. I think it does depend on how they are approached with it. So if the teachers sent home the information saying it was endorsed by the school, then that might have made a difference. We want to show that what we do is completely different from sending your kid to Kumon, that it has value for their education and future achievement, and that it won't detract from all the other things they are doing.'

Jess understands the mentality of some parents who might not be so amenable to sending their kids to a creative workshop: 'I always think about my old school friend when I was growing up, she in some ways had a similar background to me, but both of her parents were Vietnamese.' Jess's dad is Vietnamese and her mum is Anglo-Australian. 'Her parents had very limited English skills so she ended up translating a lot of stuff for them, and going back and forth about things. She didn't get any of that imaginative encouragement from them because they obviously wanted her to succeed and do well at school. It was just an opportunity she didn't have, even though we all went to the same school. It was just that cultural barrier of "that's not how you did things".'

'I always think of that,' Jess continues, 'because I always had the opportunity to understand that that was only part of my culture, and that there were other options and opportunities open to me. You know, my grandma would have loved me to be a doctor and dentist.' She laughs. 'But both my parents were open to me making different choices. After all, my father made a different choice as well, by marrying someone who wasn't Vietnamese. It is great for kids to see that all your teachers don't have to be a certain type of person, all shopkeepers don't have to be a certain type of person. We've had people come in off the streets, and they've just been curious. All we do is show them around, give them a tour, tell them they can't go down to the ninety-nine levels below because we have lost the key.

'We wanted to make sure that every time we are communicating with anyone we are saying, "You're welcome here, that's what we're here for" and people have reacted very well to that. I hope that there would be no one who walks past and thinks, "oh, that's not for me". And we will keep working on this.'

Despite my initial – and very short-lived – scepticism, I was completely welcomed by Lachlann, Jenna and Jess from day one. They were true to their word about community engagement. They established friendships with all the local businesses. Even though they are a registered charity, they made contact with the Footscray Traders' Association. Lachlann and Jenna moved to the western suburbs, and Jenna now works at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.

She talks about the challenges of language, different cultural values and understanding of education, as well as how families understand the role and purpose of education. She stresses the absolute importance of family connection and schools to the success of the enterprise. 'We've been working for five years in the west,' Jenna explains, 'I am trying to not have preconceptions about the area, or accepting that I do and trying to put them aside where I can. This is an ongoing process.'

Jenna says she hopes that they will incorporate story structures from other cultures. 'It is also about understanding the multitudes of community a person can have.' She talks about helping kids learn 'ways to open up inhibitions' and Lachlann mentions helping them take positive risks in learning. There is a whole pedagogy behind the ethos of 100 Story Building, which is why Melbourne University education professor Pam MacIntyre is on the board of directors, as is Michael Short, writer for the Age. The respected director Dave Nguyen, legendary for his theatre work with marginalised children and young adults, is an adviser on the programming and evaluation subcommittee.

TWO YEARS AGO, Lachlann was running a program called In Other Words, and invited me to speak to a Year 1 and 2 class in my old primary school, which is now renamed Dinjerra Primary School, an Aboriginal word meaning 'west'. I told them stories about how I once threw up behind the multi-purpose room because I found one dollar and bought twenty licorice sticks at the canteen. It was good to be back. The school was, as it had always been, filled with teachers who wanted to cultivate the imaginations and intellect of children. Sometimes you can't believe the hype and the news reports about the western suburbs.

Even if you grew up here, but moved out, and feel like you have moved on, you never forget this about the western suburbs of Melbourne and its people: we may eventually have the material things in life, but unless we gain cultural capital – the courage to speak out in public and even run for election, the power to be heard in newspapers and journals across the land, and even the simple dream of being able to have the collected works of Shakespeare on the shelf – we are going to remain insular and isolated from the sphere in which decisions are made about us, alienated from the wider community and avenues of power. This is why helping children in the west learn how to communicate effectively is important, and one of the greatest goals the 100 Story Building can accomplish.

Jenna speaks about trying to recognise her preconceptions, but working with her and Lachlann has also made me realise my own preconceptions too: that not every organisation wants to charge in and change a community through imposition on a culture, and that three young and very attractive people who are filled with indefatigable enthusiasm may appear a bit crazy – but only because they are brave enough to see the possibility that children in the west must have a voice.

Like Susan Orlean's subject Colin Duffy, the 100 Story Building takes kids – any kids, all kids, but particularly kids in the west – out of their small world of school and family and home (and possibly housework or babysitting or helping the family business). It exposes them to a larger world of possibility. When Susan Orlean was asked why she chose Colin Duffy for her profile, she replied:

The particulars of the story would have been entirely different with a different boy, but the fundamentals would have been the same: an ordinary life examined closely reveals itself to be exquisite and complicated and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain.

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