826 National is a nonprofit tutoring organization that offers distinctively creative and writing-focused programming at no cost to under-resourced youth across the county. RRD was overjoyed when the Programs Coordinator at 826LA’s Echo Park site, Luis Antonio Pichardo, agreed to an interview. We couldn’t wait to ask him about his extensive experience with nonprofit management and bilingual communities, and the science behind 826LA’s success.
RRD: Briefly describe the programs offered at 826LA and their overreaching mission.
Pichardo: 826LA is a nonprofit writing center for 6- to 18-year olds that provides youth in both Echo Park and Venice with the opportunity to develop their literacy and writing skills through creative and expository writing activities. The goals of 826LA, as an organization, are achieved through the generous support of donors and volunteers who help us provide a variety of programs, including After-School Tutoring, Field Trips, and In-School Writing Projects.
I am specifically responsible for the coordination of our After-School Tutoring (elementary-age), Tuesday Night Tutoring (middle- and high-school-age), Journalism Workshop, and ‘Zine Defined programs, all of which take place in the afternoon and evening hours at our Echo Park location, conveniently located behind the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, your one-stop shop for all of your time travel needs.
RRD: What is unique about 826 LA’s approach to academic success and creativity?
Pichardo: 826LA is part of a larger national network of writing centers that started in San Francisco some years ago and has since spread to other cities throughout the US.
In Echo Park, our students arrive on a daily basis at the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, which is a quirky store front that sells a variety of novelty items such as Mammoth Chunks, Caveman Notebooks, Robot Emotions, and more. This is the introduction to our form of academic support that our kids receive. They arrive at an environment that is generally free of any formal “school-influence.”
After-School Tutoring is our most academically focused program, and the agenda is simple: 1. help students do their homework, 2. encourage students to read for 30 minutes, 3. encourage students to write in response to the daily writing prompt.
The student-writing is collected and then turned into a chapbook that the students get to read from when we have our release parties. And, the books are sold in our store. The allure of being a published writer is one of the many things that appeals to our students and results in their social and academic development.
Our other programs, such as Journalism or ‘Zine Defined, have similar end results, where publication is a big part of the sense of accomplishment our students feel. Throughout the writing and editing process, our students are supported by volunteer tutors who help them develop an understanding for the written form.
RRD: One of the most distinctive programs of 826 is the field trip. Can you describe this program for our readers?
Pichardo: Our Field Trips program is, in some ways, a reverse field trip in that we don’t take kids on field trips; the kids come to us. Through partnerships with various local schools, both our Venice and Echo Park locations host full classrooms of children who come to experience the writing and publishing process.
Depending on the age of the class, students will either develop a collaborative story with their own unique endings, or they will create a choose-your-own-adventure book. For the younger grades, the experience is even more intense as they have to deal with either Mr. or Mrs. Barnacle, our sometimes sweet, and sometimes curmudgeonly owners of Barnacle and Barnacle Publishing. The threat of being fired by either Mr. or Mrs. Barnacle causes our staff to encourage the students to write and publish the best story that has ever existed. The students rarely ever receive the Barnacle Stamp of Disapproval. Everybody ends up happy and published, with a copy of their own book to take home.
RRD: You have extensive experience bridging the Spanish and English speaking communities of California as a youth mentor and community liaison. What are some of the challenges and rewards of this work for you?
Pichardo: The rewards of my experience as a native Spanish-speaking person overall have been many. I feel that my cultural identity has been shaped greatly by my personal experience navigating the California state educational system, and this experience has helped me act as a mentor in many capacities to the youth I’ve worked with over the past 10 years or so in the nonprofit world.
Being a native Spanish-speaker, I also feel that I’ve been able to connect with the families I’ve served in many ways as well. The greatest experience I’ve had to-date would be helping youth and their families understand the importance of doing what makes you happy; whether it be through education, small business development, or art.
I didn’t have the experience of benefiting from after-school programming as a youth, and doing art is the only thing that kept me motivated as I struggled to enjoy school. That, in itself, taught me that being happy had to come from me first. It had to come from within.
Art allowed me to experience my own world: a self-generated paradise where I could control my own destiny and not be subjected to the humiliations I once withstood in the real world. That is what I’ve wanted to teach to everyone I’ve ever met; to everyone who ever felt that they were or are in the same situation as me.
One of the largest challenges that most Spanish-speaking communities have is the lack of an opportunity to speak in their authentic voice. It still saddens me to know that, even now, a native Spanish-speaking student only speaks about 90 seconds a day when in school. My hope is to influence enough people in such a way that they feel empowered to speak in whatever language they use.
RRD: 826 LA coordinates troves of volunteers and maintains programs that are dependent on their daily support. How does 826LA recruit and encourage volunteers that are so reliable and committed to its cause?
Pichardo: The recruitment of volunteers is a team effort, but our primary recruiters are our AmeriCorps Vista members (Jonah in Echo Park, and Birte in Venice). As AmeriCorps members, they obviously know the benefits of volunteerism, but we always try to do as much as possible to show our volunteers that we appreciate them and support them, whether through trainings and guidance, or through social events and awards.
Aside from a discount in our Echo Park Time Travel Mart, our volunteers are also invited to participate in other social activities that we coordinate, such as our Book Club and occasional poetry readings. We even had a canned food drive and hangout time for volunteers recently (only because they really wanted to continue giving over receiving)! Our next biggest event for volunteers is our Centaur Club, which will be a small appreciation awards night.
Our wonderful volunteers are truly the life-blood of our organization. We couldn’t do this without them.
RRD: What is a lesson you have learned since working at 826LA, or from the children you have worked with over the years?
Pichardo: I’ve learned many things over the years working in nonprofits. I can speak to both the intrinsic value of working with youth and adults, and I can also speak to the real value of skill development and professional growth.
In all of the years I’ve worked as an administrator of programming, I can say that the most important thing that I’ve learned is that the end result will always be a satisfied customer: a person who feels that they’ve been helped in some form or another.
Working as hard as possible to plan every aspect of a person’s experience when they come to an organization is key to ensuring that a program will have quality, long-lasting results. I’m reminded of that every time I hear from one of my old students. Especially when they tell me how their life has changed because of the guidance I gave them years ago when they thought they didn’t care about school. That is what I continue to carry with me.
RRD: In addition to a nonprofit program director, you are an artist and poet. On your blog, you express the hope to “elevate [your] community through all art forms” and aspire toward a “revolution, based on faith, hope and love.” What is the relationship between your work in social services and in art? Describe the changes to education and/or society that would characterize this revolution.
Pichardo: For a long time, I felt that my art and my job in social services was one in the same. My art reflected a need to call people to action; to empower others to believe that their world is okay and beautiful in its own way, and most importantly, worthy of equality.
In my personal life, I started to wonder if I could sustain that drive to seek that kind of revolution through both my job and my art. I wanted to see a cultural revolution based on empowerment and equality, but I started to feel like it was futile to push for that through my job because of the restrictions in funding and measurable outcomes.
I was devoting as much energy to my work in social services as I was in my art without seeing any results in my job. I needed to take a step back and allow myself to develop as a person and artist. That’s when I left San Diego and moved to LA to earn an MFA in Creative Writing.
Now I feel like it is possible to empower people through art and nonprofits; specifically by encouraging them to practice their own art. The infrastructure, however, has to be set in place for this to happen in the social services world, and it historically hasn’t been, especially where I’m from.
Low-income communities generally are provided with programs that emphasize skill development for entry-level jobs and such, with a fairly narrow view of the potential job markets that are available, thereby neglecting jobs in the arts.
Work-wise, it is now my goal to create a revolution in people’s individual lives as opposed to system-wide. I believe that the revolution has to come from within, and art can be the outlet for that voice of the individual’s revolution. It can also be a revenue generator in the nonprofit world, just like 826 has throughout the country.
In the end, a person’s ability to market their art and their voice leads to personal financial growth, which in turn becomes the power to create an environment of self-sustenance. Investing in a person’s voice and art is like investing in a small business.
If our society learns to value art in its many forms, then our next step will be to empower the individual artist in a professional developmental form. I feel that the new revolution can happen through social services that create economic development zones within low-income communities, and their services can encourage the development of new jobs in the arts, such as graphic design and programming, sound engineering, and more.
Thinking outside of the box in the arts industry will be important to our ever-growing, technologically-based world. The revolution will still be based on equality, but in a socio-economic equality instead of a cultural equality. Once socio-economic equality is achieved, the cultural creators of society will be able to effectively challenge the way that certain cultures are viewed within our society.
A revolution based on faith, hope, and love, is really a revolution that is internalized when it is about the faith a person has in themselves. Faith in oneself breeds hope for better things, and it breeds a love and respect for the individual. That is how I see my roles as an artist and social service provider coalescing. By working in an arts-based nonprofit, I now have the ability to truly make a difference in the voices of the future.