UM Student Brings Power of Writing to Opa-Locka

PageSlayer Session One Group
By Robin Shear

PageSlayer Session One Group

UM Student Brings Power of Writing to Opa-Locka

By Robin Shear
Summer Creative Writing Camp Inspires Young Writers to Release Their Emotions Onto the Page.

Before she fell in love with writing, University of Miami Master of Fine Arts creative writing student Dana De Greff fell in love with reading. In high school, she says books like Native Son by Richard Wright and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison “shook her” to a level of awareness about what she wanted for her future.

“I remember having a feeling of ‘Wow, this is what you can do with writing!'”

Today, as she works to complete her first novel—part political drama, part romance, part historical fiction set in Nicaragua and Miami—De Greff is helping to bring the power of the written word into the Miami community as the founder and executive director of PageSlayers.

This June, with a two-year $45,000 matching grant from the Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, she launched the summer creative writing camp in Opa-Locka, a Miami-Dade County municipality known for its Moorish Revival architecture as well as for its higher-than-average poverty and crime rates. She partnered with the Opa-Locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC), which allowed PageSlayers to use the Thrive Innovation District building where City Hall is currently located.

PageSlayers, which started the first of three two-week sessions on June 19, takes place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., drawing most of its attendees from area elementary schools. The camp is free, and so are breakfast and lunch, thanks to a grant through FLIPANY that De Greff secured.

The kids get to super-charge their imaginations daily with free-writing and other exercises designed to release their emotions, experiences, and voices onto the page. Recently, award-winning Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat led a workshop encouraging the campers to create a superhero. After discussing things they’d done for others—from making breakfast for their families and caring for siblings to tending to an ill parent and even saving a relative from drowning—“many of them identified themselves as heroes,” recounts PageSlayers instructor Chioma Urama, M.F.A. ’17, “recognizing the heroism in their own acts.”

Dana De Greff, center, receives her Knight Foundation award
Dana De Greff, center, receives her Knight Foundation award from Matt Haggman and Victoria Rogers, of the Knight Foundation.

PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Farrell for the Knight Foundation

It was important to De Greff to bring in writers of color to teach the students, the majority of whom are African-American, Hispanic, and Haitian. In addition to inviting noted authors like Danticat, De Greff hires emerging writers to teach. She met her inaugural instructors, Urama and current M.F.A. student Andrew Boryga, as classmates in UM’s Creative Writing Program. Opa-Locka native and poet Shameka Poetry Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate at UM, as well as FIU M.F.A. candidate Miguel Pichardo and writer and visual artist Itzel Basualdo are also slated to teach.

De Greff, who has been involved with other creative writing programs for kids, says young writers inspire her because they don’t censor their imaginations or self-judge their ideas as “silly” or “crazy” the way adults do. “To be able to express yourself, express yourself well, will help these kids not only in school but in life,” she says. “If you’re frustrated or you have emotions you don’t know what to do with, you can write it down. It allows them to feel a sense of ownership over their thoughts and ideas.”

De Greff wanted a powerful and catchy name for the camp—and slaying pages is how she views the act of writing—it can seem a daunting task, but it’s one that empowers those brave enough to take on the challenge.

“The kids are happy, and they don’t want to leave,” De Greff says of PageSlayers’ first crop of young writers. “They’re making their own journals and writing their stories—and they’re sharing those stories. I feel proud and happy for what we’re doing. Most of the kids in there would probably just be at home watching TV if they weren’t in the classroom. But it’s not summer school. It’s a fun thing they’re doing.”

Urama agrees. “It’s been really great to witness them become more confident in their writing and reading skills,” she says. “They’ve gotten to the point now where they’re excited to share what they write with each other. They all get up and read in front of the class, which was a challenge when we first began.”

Boryga says the students are eager to begin every day. One student was so prolific they nicknamed him “our novelist.”

“Whenever I see his notebook, it is so clear how much creativity and imagination he has bubbling inside of him,” says Boryga. “All he needed was someone to give him a prompt and then step back so he can let it out.”

On July 28, PageSlayers will have an end-of-the-summer celebration in collaboration with the OLCDC at the Opa-Locka ARC, 675 Ali Baba Avenue. You can follow PageSlayers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates, or visit pageslayers.com and join the newsletter. They are currently still trying to reach their goal of $45,000 to match the Knight Foundation Grant, and every bit counts. Donations go toward paying for the instructors, journaling materials, camp T-shirts, photographers, and other resources for the kids. You can support free creative writing summer camps by visiting https://www.pageslayers.com/donate.