It started with a TED talk — by author and philanthropist Dave Eggers no less. The talk was a gloriously enthusiastic monologue about Eggers’ San Francisco-based writing centre for young people, 826 Valencia.
It was a call to action.
Two years after the 2008 talk, former Sydney Morning Herald journalists Catherine Keenan and Tim Dick answered that call and opened Sydney Story Factory on Redfern Street. “I watched the TED talk, showed it to Tim and we both thought, ‘Let’s do that,’” Keenan told me. “We went to San Francisco, attended a course on how to set it up, volunteered for a week and did it.”
Eggers founded 826 Valencia to offer one-on-one attention to students from marginalised backgrounds, kids who weren’t at grade level, and kids who were lost in the system. He wanted to offer them the self-worth that comes not only from expressing oneself, but from being taken seriously while doing it.
Sydney Story Factory was founded on the same idea. The 826 Valencia storefront was a pirate supply shop, and behind the centre was Eggers’ own publishing house. Poised on the line between gentrified and non-gentrified suburbs, much like Redfern, his aim was to break down barriers between communities: barriers between the cultural elite and those who would probably never have the opportunity to participate in it.
Behind the guise of a Martian Embassy, Sydney Story Factory is truly a whimsical and thoughtful homage. The Dr. Seuss-like interior is hard to miss; the walls are backlit with a green glow and welcoming wooden curves shape the walls and ceiling into the inside of an alien spacecraft.
The gift shop offers a variety of products that a visiting Martian might need, from “sunscreen for the invasion” to “bottled gravity” and T-shirts that say “Take me to your leader.” Past the conical flasks of “mutant wee-wee” and “android tears”, in the bowels of the spaceship, is the tutoring centre.
Today, it is filled with 15 kids from a vacation care centre in Glebe and five volunteers. The kids, aged 6-12, were writing a two to three minute script they would later perform for their friends, with a little help from the volunteers and former high school English teacher Richard Short, the Storyteller-In-Chief.
I watch as Short breaks down comedic theatre into bite-size pieces, walking them through characterisation and plot.
“Kids find things they didn’t know were inside them,” Deputy Storyteller Helen Coolican, another former teacher, explained to me. “You are allowing them to develop themselves and you are standing there, applauding them”.
Another volunteer, Uma, whose background is in theatre, confessed to me, “It’s addictive … It’s totally about them. They don’t need to fight for our attention … We are telling them that right now they are the most important thing.”
And that really is the key to understanding Sydney Story Factory. There is a genuine belief that words, writing and creativity can change lives.
“We are reaching out to street kids, Indigenous kids and kids of all sorts of marginalised backgrounds … We say ‘yes’ to them,” Uma explained.
The centre recently gained the trust of organisations like the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE), and the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy
(NASCA), both of which work closely with the Redfern community.
It’s too early to say if Sydney Story Factory has changed the community, but over half the students who participated in after-school tutoring at 826 Valencia saw their writing test scores increase. Ninety-one percent of parents reported that their child was getting better grades and enjoyed reading more.
When I spoke to Short after the workshop and asked if he was interested in expanding, he is realistic: “If we set up in say, Fairfield or Cabramatta, it would be instantly filled, but … right now, I can’t be in two places at once. Me and Cath [Keenan] agreed that was too crazy.”
Mostly, he was uncertain about the number of volunteers he would have. “We couldn’t run without volunteers and interns. We have about 800 on the books, but a core of 150 that do a lot of the volunteering.”
Luckily, students and volunteers for Sydney Story Factory are never far away. Keenan is most proud of the fact that not only have 1000 kids visited the centre since July, but they keep coming back. “It’s fantastic, we have one girl that came to our first workshop and she still comes every week.”
I sat in on Uma’s group at the scriptwriting workshop; she had two Year Six boys who at first seemed more interested in what the gift shop had to offer. But after some gentle cajoling on Short’s part, the boys sat down and created a script. By the end, almost in spite of themselves, they were excited by their own ideas and had fun performing their story for the class: a moral tale about an exorcist trapped in a pixelated world. On his way out, one of Uma’s boys told me he couldn’t wait to come back.