Paula Levin is the Lead Experimentalist at Literary Arts Boom (LAB). She founded the organization in 2011 on the heels of graduating from Carnegie Mellon’s master’s program in Public Policy. Passionate about providing students with more creative learning opportunities, she found herself most inspired by 826 Valencia, a San Francisco based non-profit that gives youth the space, time and mentorship they need to develop their creative writing skills. The non-profit has spawned numerous locations across the country, each one doubling as a storefront with its own zany kid-friendly theme (i.e. The Brooklyn Superhero Supply, The Museum of Unnatural History, The Pirate Store). Levin had already been to the San Francisco and Chicago storefronts when she decided she wanted to bring something similar to Pittsburgh.
Much like 826, she envisioned LAB as an organization that would provide afterschool homework help, creative writing exercises and workshops for youth ages 6-18. She also wanted adults to be able to plug in to the organization, utilizing their time and talent to act as mentors and volunteers. In 2012 Levin won a $15,000 Spark grant from Sprout to help launch the LAB.
Levin decided that LAB would have its own storefront theme, The Mad Science Supply & Surplus. She worked with Pittsburgh design firm MAYA to create original products for the supply store such as Time Travel Capsules, Extra Strength Eureka and Robot Intestines. The store would operate out of Assemble, a community based space for arts and technology in the Penn Avenue Arts Corridor.
Levin found that being located on Penn Ave allowed her to more easily connect with skilled members of the arts community. “A lot of our volunteers came from people who had wandered in during an art opening or open hours and learned about the space,” she said.
LAB soon began reaching out to Pittsburgh area students through a number of inventive programs. Elementary school classrooms would visit LAB for Glorious Group Stories, an 826 modeled storytelling workshop where a class builds the key elements of a story, offering the main character, setting, conflict and resolution, while an artist works diligently to bring illustrations from the story to life. Each student gives the story their own twist, writing their own ending to the plot and receiving a printed copy of their version, complete with illustrations.
Over the last year and a half LAB has done Glorious Group Stories with 14 groups of students in 6 different area elementary schools. Imaginations run wild, with titles to stories like Triple Threat and the Trash Emergency, Ms. Spaghetti and Cheese McFry Lost in Space: Adventures on Planet Earth, and Daisy and Blastoffs Underwater Adventure.
In October 2013, LAB brought a group from Vintage Senior Center to Linden Elementary for a visit with two fourth grade classrooms for a special collaboration. The seniors detailed their memories of past technologies such as a rotary telephone, a wind up alarm clock and a baseball card vending machine. The fourth graders chose one of the bygone technologies as a protagonist in “What Mysteries Does the Future Hold?” a comic about the future.
Levin has a track record of partnering with outside organizations to create unique project based programming. In the summer of 2014, LAB ran workshops for The Youth Race and Identity Initiative in conjunction with the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The initiative culminated in a daylong teen-led summit that used different media and forms of storytelling to get teens talking about race.
Their most recent programming involves working with youth at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh to create The Community-Sourced Mixtape Project, a mixed media endeavor that aims to amplify the voices of teens and tweens through beatmaking and creative writing.
Jess Gold, an educator with LAB and Amos Levy, an independent teaching artist, are spearheading the yearlong workshop series. Gold helps participants craft their words into poems while Amos teaches them how to use recording equipment to make beats and create podcasts.
“We didn’t want to force teens and tweens to talk about experiences that might be difficult to talk about but we also wanted to get them thinking about the fact that music and writing and art making can be a very therapeutic creative outlet if they choose to engage with them that way,” Gold said.
A permanent recording studio was set up at the shelter, made possible by a Hive grant from The Sprout Fund. Gold and Levy have led trainings for the women’s shelter staff on how to use the equipment so that youth can always have access to these tools and the shelter can use it for future programming.
One of the things that excites Gold most about the project is the collaboration it inspires. One participant who loves writing but not beatmaking might be inclined to work with another participant to turn their lyrics into a song. That way, “everyone can engage a way that’s comfortable for them but still contribute to the final project,” she said.
A blog displays the mixed media work online, in effect creating a “digital mixtape.” Gold and Levy plan to share the resulting zine and full mixtape with different libraries and organizations around the city.
Projects like The Community-Sourced Mixtape are an example of the kind of programming that LAB wants to continue as it transitions out of its day-to-day storefront operation. LAB closed its Mad Science Supply storefront in April 2014, and was hosting field trips at Highland Park’s Union Project through November 2014. Levin has since moved the office to her home. She hopes LAB can serve as a consulting resource — helping organizations bring together educators, creators, makers and young people to create unique and collaborative learning experiences centered around creative writing.
“I’ve met so many different wonderful people from volunteers to writers to professors to school time teachers to librarians…if they reach out to me about an idea, I’m trying to help them connect the dots,” said Levin.
Most of all, she’s learned through past projects how critical it is that young people get the time and attention they need toward their writing. “A lot of kids may just associate writing with homework, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about thinking and expression. It’s about having a voice. It’s about connecting with other people. It can be silly. It can be serious. It can be so many things.”