So the Legend Goes: 826LA’s Joel Arquillos Talks Shop with Use All Five

Joel Arquillos is the Executive Director of 826LA, a non-profit that helps LA kids aged 6-18 develop their creative writing skills. We talked to him about the Time Travel Mart, their mission, and the healing power of creativity.

Joel Arquillos Use All Five Interview 4

UA5: How did you first discover 826? How did you become involved in the LA chapter?

JA: When 826 Valencia, the founding 826 chapter, opened in San Francisco in 2002, I was lucky enough to receive their first ever Teacher of the Month prize which is determined by recommendations from students, teachers, and volunteers. On top of that, 826 co-founder Dave Eggers wrote an article about me in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was a huge honor, since getting positive recognition for being a teacher wasn’t something that happened very often. Soon after, I started working with 826 Valencia’s other founder, Ninive Calegari, on bringing volunteers into my classroom to work on essays and many other writing assignments. The project that really brought home what 826 was capable of was when sixty of my students were published in a book called “Home Wasn’t Built in a Day”. It was the culmination of a project all 826s run called the Young Authors’ Book Project, where students write multiple drafts of their stories, work one-on-one with professional writers, designers, copy editors, and in the end produce a beautiful book that is sold at 826 stores and online. And on top of that, we ask a well-known local resident to write the foreword to these books. The year I did the project at Galileo High School in San Francisco, we had the amazing honor to have Robin Williams write the foreword to the book. And not only that, he also came to our school and put on a one-hour comedy show for my students, and also attended the final release party where he signed all the books! So many of my former students still tell me today how impactful it was to be a part of that.

Soon after, the founders of 826 National asked if I would like to join them to help in the expansion of the 826 model across the nation. There were already chapters in six other cities, but many others were hoping to bring the model to their towns. It seemed like a great opportunity, but leaving my teaching job wasn’t easy. I had spent eight amazing years working with youth from all over San Francisco and I really loved the public school where I taught. But I decided to give it a shot, and boy did it change my life. I worked with Ninive and Dave for two years helping develop our evaluation tools, fundraising, supporting the application process for new chapters, and traveled to the cities to support the work on the ground. I even helped launch a new chapter in Boston and put together a few events to help raise funds there. But in 2008, the director for the Los Angeles branch moved on to become a writer and I saw the opportunity to develop a chapter from the ground up. Part of me missed being closer to the action–getting to know the students and families and seeing the day-to-day impact of our volunteer efforts in classrooms–so the chance to run a center was very appealing. I’m now in my eighth year running 826LA and I’m proud to say we’ve grown from a small organization run by four people to one that employs 27 people, has over 3,000 trained volunteers, three locations, and we serve close to 10,000 students a year from over 100 public schools across the Los Angeles Unified School District.

We recruit lots of volunteers through our storefronts and yes, we do surprise a lot of folks who realize they can purchase dinosaur eggs. We sell the freshest ones in the galaxy...so I’m told.

UA5: Can you tell us about the store themes in different locations and how they came about? How have you seen people react to whimsical products on the shelves like dinosaur eggs?

JA: So the legend goes that when Dave Eggers and a group of friends started building out 826 Valencia, someone who was pulling out the ceiling material mentioned the space looked like the inside of a pirate ship. And since the space– a former gym–was zoned for retail, the decision was made to open San Francisco’s finest and best pirate store. Items such as glass eyes, lard by the pound, and remedies for scurvy are all available at the store or online. Soon after, a group in NYC opened the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., and in Los Angeles we have two Time Travel Marts. All proceeds from the stores help us pay for the free writing services we provide to youth across the nation. And the stores also serve as portals to the world of creativity and fun 826 creates for our students. We also recruit lots of volunteers through our storefronts and yes, we do surprise a lot of folks who realize they can purchase dinosaur eggs. We sell the freshest ones in the galaxy…so I’m told. But my favorite Time Travel Mart product is our timeless line of Viking Odorants. They help you smell like a viking so you fit in when you travel back to that period of time. We sell out quickly of the toe-nail scented one for some reason.

Dinosaur Egg from 826LA

We believe in publishing beautiful books and in honoring our students as authors. We’ve seen so many of their lives change through the confidence they’ve developed taking part in the publishing process.

UA5: What are some of the recent writing programs 826LA provides? How are new programs developed? What’s planned for the immediate future?

JA: We just wrapped up our season of helping hundreds of college-bound students with their personal statements for college. Led by our Director of In-Schools and College Access, Marisa Urrutia Gedney, we target schools in South and East Los Angeles by providing them with one-on-one support on essays which UC and State schools require for admission. Marisa just led our seventh annual Great Los Angeles Personal Statement Weekend where we get about 200 students together with 200 volunteers to complete their essays a week before they’re due! On top of that, we’ve gone to classrooms in about seven additional schools to provide this support from August to November. We’ve also teamed up with other organizations to share our best practices and train teachers to use our methodologies.

We also just published a collection of stories by our high school students who attend our TNT (Tuesday and Thursday Night Tutoring) program called “Touching the Clouds As I Go”. And next week our younger students on both sides of town will release their first publications of the year by performing a live reading of their work that will be attended by their families and our volunteers. We believe in publishing beautiful books and in honoring our students as authors. We’ve seen so many of their lives change through the confidence they’ve developed taking part in the publishing process.

826LA offers four main programs: After-school and evening tutoring, workshops, field trips, and in-school support. We publish hundreds of books a year through all of these programs. In fact, each student who attends one of our field trips goes home with their own book. And in the coming year we will be releasing new workshop offerings for both our locations in Echo Park and Mar Vista. We also have a Writers’ Room inside of Manual Arts High School in South LA where we support students and teachers with a wide variety of writing and publishing projects.

826LA office and time travel mart in Mar Vista

Students who visit The Broad and use our writing booklet are asked questions like “If this piece of art told a story, what would it be?” ... Part of our hope is to connect them to the art through writing and to help them realize that their opinions and ideas about the art matter.

UA5: You’ve partnered with some local museums like The Hammer and The Broad for events – how has that affected the writing of 826LA kids? How do visual stimuli in general play into writing?

JA: We collaborate with museums like The Hammer and The Broad by offering our writing programs in those spaces and reaching students from even more schools across our vast city. Our Director of Operations, Kristin Lorey has been deepening our work at these institutions. She is currently working on designing a second year of field trip programs for The Broad. The museum pays for buses to get students from far away schools to their beautiful downtown location and when those students arrive, they embark on a writing activity developed by 826LA. We see this as another way to expand the reach of our services and promote the practice of writing. Students who visit The Broad and use our writing booklet are asked questions like “If this piece of art told a story, what would it be?” and they are asked to make comparisons between the art they see and their own lives. Part of our hope is to connect them to the art through writing and to help them realize that their opinions and ideas about the art matter. Kristin is also developing our workshops at the Hammer Museum which take place one Sunday a month and are taught by some of our most experienced volunteers.

826LA Students visiting the Broad museum in downtown LA

UA5: Can you tell us about the process of publishing student work? How do the kids feel about it? How important is the design and physical presentation? How could traditional classrooms do something like this?

JA: Publishing runs through all our programs. For our tutoring students, we have them write to prompts regularly and encourage them to write multiple drafts of their stories. We make it a point to provide them with topics that are creative as well as culturally relevant. In our most recent publication we asked students to create political campaigns and to write about issues they cared about. So many chose to write about the environment and the struggles they see and experience in their own lives. We’ve seen many stories about fears and anxieties our students have about how they are perceived by our incoming administration and how their families, many who are undocumented, may be impacted. Writing has been the best way for them to gather their ideas and try to make sense of what’s happening around them. And when they finally get to see their published books and show their families, you can see genuine pride in their smiles. For some of our students, the books we publish their work in may be one of the few actual books they have at home. One parent once told me that the only books she has on her bookshelf were written by her son at 826LA.

Design is critical for all the books we publish. We want the kids to feel proud and to keep their books forever. We have an in-house designer who coordinates with illustrators and other designers to create these unique books. You could say we inherited this love of design from our co-founder Dave Eggers’s publishing house, McSweeny’s. In fact, 826 Valencia and McSweeney’s were housed in the same location for a few years at the very beginning, so their aesthetic certainly rubbed off on us. But I should point out that many of our books were designed by volunteers and design agencies like Matthew Manos and his Very Nice studio, Shannon Losorelli and Parallel-Play, Anna Lien-Tes and Public Service, and the original creator of our Time Travel Mart store design and products, the inimitable Stefan Bucher. We’ve also worked with agencies like Ludlow Kingsley in Echo Park, Team One, Deutsch, Italic Studio, and M&C Saatchi just to name a few. All of these great folks have helped us not only design books, but also Time Travel Mart store products, brochures, and even our website where a lot of our student’s work is also published.

Some of the teachers we’ve worked with at schools have continued to run publishing projects on their own. There are so many online publishing and design tools available these days that it’s not impossible to create amazing books for very little cost. It’s not easy to pull off, especially if you don’t have dedicated volunteers and folks who can help with layout and copyediting, but it is possible. It’s a matter of building a culture in your classroom that honors the written word and publishing. It may take years, but folks will come out of the woodwork to help out, especially if you make it clear how and when they can help.

Spelling Out Identity - a book designed by 826LA in Mar Vista

The best way to strengthen your community is to share your passions with others. We need more folks who can inspire action and art. It’s what helps any community thrive.

UA5: A lot of the country is experiencing a sort of national anxiety right now, and more Angelenos are looking to make a difference locally. What are some resources people can use to learn about volunteer opportunities like 826? What would you tell someone who wants to strengthen their community?

JA: Volunteering with us is certainly one way folks can immediately feel like they’re putting their energies in the right place. Folks who are interested can apply and sign up for a Volunteering 101 session here.

There are many volunteer opportunities throughout Los Angeles, and one of the places to start your search is LA Works. But folks can find just about any organization that reflects the kinds of things they care about, and most of these orgs can use volunteers.

The best way to strengthen your community is to share your passions with others. We need more folks who can inspire action and art. It’s what helps any community thrive.

Student work from 826LA creative writing program in Echo Park

UA5: Of all the things 826LA could teach kids, you’ve chosen to stimulate imagination. Why?

JA: Creativity is the source of the best solutions and art ever produced. I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times, but some of us lose touch with our creativity as we age because we either don’t make time for it or we feel it’s not going to help us with our day-to-day needs. I think our lack of creativity is what puts us in a funk, and the only way to get out of it is to challenge ourselves by tapping into that inner child who experiments, takes chances, and doesn’t worry about failing. Young people need to be given the room and time to experiment and create. So much of our culture emphasizes instant gratification and practical solutions, and as a result we’ve forgotten how to love the practice of making things or of letting our imaginations explore possibilities. Play doesn’t need to end once a child enters school. It should continue to be a part of the curriculum all the way through college and beyond. By being creative, we give ourselves a larger lens with which to perceive the world and ourselves. And if we allow our creativity to play a bigger role in whatever we practice, we may get the results we’ve been looking for.


Related Links:

Find out more about the Time Travel Mart and volunteer programs at 826LA.org

Read about why community organizations like 826LA are more important than ever now - "This is What Makes 826LA Work"

Stock up on student books and dinosaur eggs at Time Travel Mart Online

Illustration by: Christine Jackson & Troy Curtis Kreiner

The interviewer, Ryan Ernst is a Digital Strategist at Use All Five.
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