Language Matters: YourWords STL Co-Founder Anna Guzon

Over the past week, St. Louis—and the nation—have been kicked awake once again. Just as 2014’s Darren Wilson verdict rocked Ferguson and beyond, Jason Stockley’s acquittal has exposed a divide that rivals the New Madrid Fault. And, just as three years ago, reactions are polarized. While some clench their fists, others shake their heads. Some in shame, some in blame, some in incredulity. While some people say, “I can’t believe this,” some people say, “Who could?” Some people simply turn off the news, or drop out of social media. Some drown their fears in the Mississippi, and all its muddy promises.

Anna Guzon isn’t one of these people.

“I was out of St. Louis for a long time,” she recounts of her response to Michael Brown, “and came back in 2012. When I was here, at eighteen, I didn’t see the extent of the fear between St. Louisans. And then I saw it all come out—from the county, from the city. I felt everyone was afraid of each other. I still get emotional when I talk about the time.” When tensions mounted in Ferguson and nationwide, she teamed up with high school friend Steve Handoyo, an allergist in Chicago, to determine how they might actually make a difference. The result is YourWords STL, an educational program devoted to fostering literacy, creative writing fundamentals and cross-cultural collaboration among St. Louis youth.

Starting in 2015 with a pilot program at Marygrove, a home in north St. Louis City for young people recovering from a history of abuse, Guzon and a few other volunteers tutored sixteen- to twenty-year-old men—those identified, at the time, with the most urgent need. “We helped them apply for college and jobs,” she reflects. “They were getting ready to be independent, so writing skills were really important.” Since then, as programming director, Guzon has expanded YourWords to hire paid writing teachers and tutors, increasing Marygrove visits from once to four times a week. This fall, they’ll also work with the young-women’s transitional home.

st louis nonprofit your words stl alive magazine

Lest this seem a bleeding-heart initiative pumping more pathos than results, Guzon’s empirical rigor sets it straight. “In developing the program over the past two and a half years, one of our highest priorities is working from the evidence that when people write, and they are heard and feel validated, there is a physiological change that occurs in the brain,” she says. “For the kids that we serve, particularly at Marygrove where all the young men and women have experienced some kind of trauma, when they get to read their work out loud and feel understood, there is actually a science behind it. It isn’t just a foggy, emotional ‘I-feel-better’ kind of thing. It’s necessary for health to feel like one is listened to.”

With an MD from the University of Missouri—Kansas City and an MFA in poetry from the New School in New York, Guzon is a walking, talking—but mostly listening—contradiction. In person, she has the kind eyes of a kindergarten teacher and the acumen of a radiologist—think Clara Barton meets William Carlos Williams. “Whether I like it or not, my science background infuses everything I do,” she carefully explains. “I want everything at YourWords STL to be research based. I experiment with lesson plans, of course, but in the big picture, I want to make sure that what we’re doing is going to matter. We don’t move forward without looking at the research to show that these methods are proven to show results.”

For a city in which economic and racial segregation has long hindered the public good, one of Guzon’s most ambitious efforts has been bringing together school children across county and city borders to collaborate on a single creative project. One such YourWords project, among several, included sixth graders from Parkway Northeast Middle School in Creve Coeur and St. Louis Catholic Academy in the city responding to the same writing prompt. “They are such different schools,” Guzon stresses. “Catholic Academy is a tiny, all African-American grade school in northeast city, and the kids have entirely different lives from the kids in Creve Coeur. Both schools produced some really beautiful, revealing poetry, and we put it all in the same chapbook. We didn’t label each section according to school, but mixed it all together. Kids could see their vast differences, but also their similarities.”

And it’s perhaps a heightened awareness of these similarities and differences that can gradually bridge the gaps that continue to splinter the St. Louis region. A poem isn’t just a poem, and a story isn’t just a story—it belongs to someone, and deserves to be heard—not just in the spirit of good will, but in the long-term mission of uniting a community. YourWords STL values that power of language—the ability, and authority, to make oneself known, clear, and, most importantly, understood. As Guzon puts it, communication skills are of a piece with education in general—not just as a means of upward mobility, but survival itself. “There’s been ongoing research in St. Louis on how just graduating from high school prolongs one’s life—not just the quality of life, but how long somebody is going to live. There’s numbers behind that.”

With Guzon at the helm, the number of young people mastering their voices far and wide is surely on the rise. We need only keep our ears open.

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