“Activism in the Archives” Takes Center Stage at What Cheer Writers Club
The new programming series, funded by a $66,000 National Writing Project grant, kicks off June 3 with a community conversation for creatives of color.
What Cheer Writers Club, the four-year-old writing club that makes its home in downtown Providence, is turning the page, literally, on a new chapter in its brief but active history as a hub for local creatives.
The club announced last week it received $66,000 grant from the National Writing Project’s Building a More Perfect Union program. The grant is part of the American Rescue Plan Act funding for organizations affected by the pandemic and is funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities.
According to Jodie Vinson, program director, it’s the first time the organization has received a federal grant on this scale. The money will be used to launch a new year of programming geared around the theme “Activism in the Archives.”
“It’s exciting for us. It’s our first major national grant. We’ve gotten a lot of local support from the city and from [the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts] and the state, but this was exciting to have some funds coming from the NWP,” she says.
The idea behind the program series, which will kick off June 3, started with a perceived need for more resources and community-building events among local writers, she says. When the club first launched in 2018, it was conceived as a co-working space where writers, illustrators and other creatives could work communally in a professional setting. Members had access to the club’s headquarters, a quiet, artfully decorated suite of workspaces and reading nooks overlooking Westminster Street.
“What we noticed from the beginning was people were congregating in the kitchen and talking to each other and wanted not just quiet, but community,” says Vinson, noting the club now has more than 350 members.
The need for community only increased during the pandemic as members were forced into the isolation of solitary work. With the space closed to co-working (it reopened in the summer of 2021), the club leaned into programming, hosting online workshops for members and supporting community initiatives. They hosted the popular Dear Rhode Island letter exchange and offered workshops on everything from writing techniques to doing taxes as a freelancer.
“While we started as an organization really built around the physical space, it changed our orientation a little toward really community-focused programming, keeping people connected when we were all feeling isolated,” Vinson says.
This spring, with the help of the grant, the organization is planning to focus its programs on both the activism of the past few years as well as the history of social change in Rhode Island. Vinson says many members were interested in learning more about how to access historical resources in archives maintained by the Rhode Island Historical Society and other organizations. At the same time, many were participating in their own history-making moments through their writing and artwork.
“We were interested, and we felt the interest in the community, in exploring that intersection between activism and the arts. Sometimes art is activism, and sometimes activism benefits from artists’ work, but what does that look like? We wanted to explore that idea,” she says.
“We thought, well, what stories in the archives locally around the state are there about activism and social justice in Rhode Island’s history? What are the stories that need to be told and resurfaced and interacted with?” she adds.
The first event in the series, scheduled for June 3, is a community conversation for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) creatives on their experience and inspiration. The event will take place in the Liberation Garden at Haus of Glitter, an arts and performance group that maintains a residency at the Esek Hopkins House at 97 Admiral St. in Providence.
Later this year, the series will continue with a panel conversation on arts and activism followed by a presentation by local archivists in the fall on how to access their resources. The series will culminate next spring with a zine-making workshop (for the uninitiated, a zine is a small, self-published work often used to promote new voices or countercultural messages) as well as a reading and anthology of member zines. What Cheer plans to work with Binch Press and Queer.Archive.Work to publish the anthology.
“We’ll be relying on a partner for that because this will be sort of our first publication out of this organization,” Vinson says.
She adds they look forward to using the grant to promote the new round of resources and opportunities for their members to come together. The theme of activism, she says, often intersects with art but is also broad enough that members can focus on the issues that are important to them, whether that be social justice, racial equity, health care, the environment or any other topic.
“The archive is just such a rich pool of resources, and these stories from our past can kind of inspire our present moment,” she says. “I know these past couple years, it can feel like we’re all in crisis mode, but if we look to the past and stories of the past, those can be very grounding and they can also offer us guidance for the future.”