Authoring Action

Where Teen Authors Embrace Their Voice

Authoring Action | March 2023

The Story of Our Dreams

The buildings in Winston-Salem, North Carolina house stories. At times the tales are written on the walls. As resident and non-profit founder Lynn Rhoades shows us around the downtown area, marks of its history can be seen in commemorative murals. One celebrates the legacy of the Black press through The Winston Salem Chronicle, a newspaper still in circulation. Another coats the side of a building in Winston’s present-day arts district, remembering a local department store that was once a fixture near Trade Street. Appearing next to small businesses, restaurants, and galleries, these portraits of the past give context to the present.

David Schmidgall

The walls of Authoring Action, too, are a gallery. The current headquarters for the youth literary and performing arts organization portray their journey with vigor and vibrancy. You feel it as you step into the busyness of living space. A quick look around pairs the familiar with the special: the prerequisite round tables and chairs for group writing sessions and the personal touch of an embroidered pillow made by board member Lauranita Katende. It is hard not to pause at the two showcase walls. “That’s interesting, I’m just seeing that,” interjects Lauranita as she notices a poster for an ensemble performance her son participated in, Goblisk: The Dream is the Message. Program and Outreach Coordinator Love’ Lemon also points out family members who have taken part in these shows. Her brother wrote a piece for Authoring Action’s first film project, Home and Hood, back when the organization was named the Winston Salem Youth Arts Institute.

There is colorful artwork created by teen authors to visualize written themes, and news clippings featuring regional coverage of the organization and its participants. “See this guy right here? That’s Jimmie Jeter,” points out Nathan Ross Freeman, Authoring Action’s prolific Artistic Director. He co-founded Authoring Action alongside Lynn Rhoades. “He’s currently in Hamilton touring with a Broadway company. He was in a Chicago company, a New York company… I think he’s in Australia now. He was 15 [when he joined us].”

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Authoring Action co-founders Nathan Ross Freeman and Lynn Rhoades

David Schmidgall

For more than 21 years, Freeman and Rhoades have worked with 800 teen authors as they craft bold thoughts into brave visual performances. Alongside a devoted staff—many of whom first experienced the program as participants themselves—and an enthusiastic Board of Directors, the group has produced beautiful shows for the stage and screened original films throughout Winston-Salem. The eager support of community partners underscores countless personal transformations that have left an impression on the city. Through the movement of its participants, Authoring Action’s legacy has spread nationwide. These figures are a testament to the pen, paper, and voice as catalysts for community transformation.

In their words, Authoring Action is redefining learning through the arts. Combining media like creative writing, spoken word, visual arts, and filmmaking, participants are encouraged to share their personal thoughts and stories without limits. It has also helped shape the way they see themselves and their abilities, building youth as authors, artists, and advocates for social change. Participants are “auteurs” who impart their unique way of seeing the world in every group project. Authoring Action honors the literary arts by seeing the potential of language as a negotiator of dreams, of self-image, and freedom.

Authoring Action's headquarters feature artwork by teen authors, news clippings, and posters of past ensemble performances.

David Schmidgall

Teenagers rest in the in-between of becoming; this time is fertile ground for developing a rhythm of deep thinking that aids self-trust. Authoring Action has led the charge in valuing what youth have to say, surrounding them with the resources needed to discover that truth for themselves and carry it into the future. Anyone is able to apply if they lack one essential support system, inclusive of everything from a safe home to human interaction to connecting with other students who hold ambitions in the arts.

It all begins with a writing session. Teen authors unpack their thoughts word by word as they form any number of things: a group performance, a film, even a song. It all nurtures inner change that takes root. “I’ve grown a lot through this,” says Gwen Straker, a teen author who joined the organization in 2021. “I've learned how to trust in myself more and believe in what I've written, and recognize that my ideas are actually valid. [I’ve] become more confident in what I have to say.” Gwen worked with music producer Joel Buckner for this story, creating a song from a spoken word piece she wrote for an Authoring Action collaboration with the Winston Salem Symphony. She describes her experience writing in the program over summers and throughout the school year as exhilarating: “It feels amazing, but terrifying at the same time. It's kind of like a breath of fresh air.”

Joel Buckner leads a collaborative workshop with young author, Gwen Straker, at Authoring Action in January 2023.

David Schmidgall

With wisdom and courage, the 17 year old’s lyrics to her song “Revival” captures the heart of what this program does: it brings youth face to face with the best of themselves as they push towards newly revealed horizons. Authoring Action is the first stop on a journey that is just beginning. Listen to the finished song:

btrswtcreative · Revival - Gwen Straker

Straker’s experience writing in Authoring Action’s Summer Intensive program and throughout the school year has been exhilarating. “It feels amazing, but terrifying at the same time. It's kind of like a breath of fresh air.”

A School of Thought

At the core of Authoring Action’s is its signature creative writing process. The framework underpins four programs: the five-week Summer Intensive, year-long After School Advanced Writing Workshops, the “Just Us” film series, and the Outreach Ensemble. ‘Process’ is the defining feature of the writing instruction, prioritizing the voice of the author above technical elements. As Nathan Ross Freeman explains, "We don't teach you how to write. We teach you how you write."

As a narrative writer, scriptwriter, filmmaker, and creative writing educator, Freeman has seen firsthand the long-term value of learning to share your story your way. Following an invitation to teach theater to master’s degree candidates at the Artist Institute in New Jersey, he began to see creative writing as a form of activism. After the 10-day workshop, two teachers from Newark asked if Freeman would be willing to work in their school system. This was the mid-90s, in the middle of the cocaine epidemic, and these schools were in the thick of it. “I remember I went to the first elementary school and I noticed there were ambulances and police parked at the end of this thing,” he reflects. “And I said, ‘Oh, what? Something happen?’ They said, ‘No, but it will.’ You get tired of sirens, by the end of the day.” To the 40 students in the classroom, “creative writing was almost laughable… all of their eyes were empty.”

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Nathan Ross Freeman, Co-Founder and Artistic Director, Authoring Action

David Schmidgall

It was an expression he remembers seeing in advanced placement students previously. “That was my baptism in saying, how can I create a process of communication where not only could someone learn to read and write with their existing comprehension, and their existing vocabulary, but be able to write so that their story can be told in such an original way that only they could tell it? And nobody would be allowed to get in the way of that?”

What emerged is a method of writing fueled by critical thinking. As a pedagogy, the Authoring Action Creative Writing Process considers our personal “why” of the messages we communicate. Authors write in a forum setting and are led in discussions to share their work and reasoning out loud. Beginning with a theme, the process “presumes each student embodies a school of thought.”

It is a very tactile experience that involves imaginative thinking and its own vocabulary. It starts with Shout Out and Riff Nouns to represent something we can touch or an idea to convey. These are modified with sensory words that make the story something we can feel. It is all recorded in a hand-drawn table which later becomes a word mosaic. They are not given books or reference points to create these, nor do they know the meaning of the initial theme words until after they have imbued them with their own memories and perspectives. An emphasis on the individual makes the process special, finding value in personal histories and recognizing that the words needed exist already.

The handwritten notes and sketches by the teen authors give a glimpse into the many transformations that breathe life into language. Authoring Action proposes writing as an active expression, an emotive journey that asks the whole being to participate. It encourages holistic engagement where the mind ventures further into what it knows or even unlearns what it has long held. It pushes description beyond simple recitation, illuminating truth in a way that is poetic and honest.

Willie Holmes, Authoring Action's Assistant Artistic Director, shares his poem "Ain't I Bad."

David Schmidgall

“Authoring Action authors start with just a pen and paper. And as a writing instructor, I'm very interested in that,” says Keri Epps. She is a member of the board, serves as an assistant teaching professor at Wake Forest University, and is drawn to understanding the impact these tools have on the authors’ work. Along with Freeman, she is embarking on an interview-based research project with the group to see “what the writing process and tools, even if it is just a pen and paper, activate. [To see] how we think of ourselves as writers, and how we gain confidence and ownership over our writing.”

When Epps moved to Winston-Salem in 2018, a conversation with co-founder Lynn Rhoades led her to participate in Authoring Action’s Educator’s Workshop, where local instructors are trained to teach the course themselves. The experience has impacted the way she leads her own students. “I remember distinctly when Nathan said, ‘Write for three minutes.’ We wrote and he was like, ‘All right. Read.’ As an instructor, there was no contextualization for that. He just directly said ‘Read’ and allowed us to make the decision of who was going to read first. It’s been a point of true reflection for me in my teaching practices because I realized how quick I am to respond. I don’t always allow silence and students to listen to each other. This is a challenge I face every day in the classroom.”

Rewriting the Script

Teen authors feel their own tension in this mode of writing and sometimes the opposition gets emotional as they look inward. Devin Singleton has been involved with the program since he was 12. Now a mentor, he gently guides authors through the process. “I remember struggling with it. I remember having questions, being frustrated,” says Devin.

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Devin Singleton, Authoring Action mentor and former teen author


David Schmidgall

His compassion is stirred for those just starting out. “I think, specifically here, that it’s the first thing that has to happen. I couldn’t imagine not being directed through a process like this. We create a space that’s conducive to welcoming that in. Mr. Nathan always says, ‘Use it. I need that.’ Whatever that emotional event is, welcome it and create with it.”

This process shapes and heavily influences their performances. “They're all awesome and raw and come from a very authentic place,” describes Lauranita Katende on witnessing the authors’ stage work. “Nathan’s direction opens up a place for young people to shed whatever it is, to share, and to shed through the learning process of how to express themselves. He helps them to do that from day one, understanding what they want to provide to the world.”

Authoring Action’s socratic approach empowers teens to take ownership of their expression. The staff provides space and makes resources available for them to engage in creative decision-making. Their Just Us film series highlights its philosophy, where filmmaking renders their inner worlds tangible. With the support of the Juvenile Justice Council of Forsyth County, it extends an opportunity to teens in alternative education or referred by the court to voice their perspectives on their lives and societal issues worldwide.

Authors that join first pen monologues through the creative writing process. Those thoughts are then put into a film that their hands have touched at every point, from ideation to final edits. They are connected with a professional film team to bring their imaginings to life and the resulting work is screened at a local theater where their names flood the credits. Just Us has been a court-approved program in Winston-Salem since 2013.

Donald Clark and Marisol Camargo Mendoza

David Schmidgall

For teen author Donald Clark, the experience has been “life-changing. Before this, I wasn’t really able to find an outlet for emotions and expressions, but after Authoring Action, now I found that outlet.” Like fellow teen author Marisol Camargo Mendoza, he was introduced to the program at the Winston-Salem Street School, an alternative high school where Authoring Action hosts recruitment presentations. “At first, I didn’t take the initial sign-up sheet, but I went on the Authoring Action website and saw the potential in it. I already knew that I loved writing, I love the arts, so I saw it as an opportunity, just like the Street School is an opportunity.”

Being comfortable enough to document certain emotions, knowing that they will be shared with others, is a vulnerable position to be in. But the structure of Authoring Action is a safe house for such feelings. They help with “finding relief and a point where you can finally let those things out,” shares Donald. “For so long, so many people could go through depression, and mental health, and just hold onto it and don’t express it. But with this, you have to find it in your heart to want to express it, to want to tell somebody because, at the end of the day, all the emotions and things you have inside of you can turn into art.”

Students may not always have the space to speak freely in authorized environments like school or work; they are invited to do so here. Time is taken to explore the depths of themselves and what they are capable of achieving through creation. In this program, Authoring Action respects teens as collaborating artists who carefully build their body of work through the pieces of their lives.

“I feel like anybody, those in the street life or anything, can come to this program and be changed, and realize that all of the things they go through and have held inside them, that makes them the person they are. They can let it out and create something positive with it.”

Donald Clark, Teen Author

Local costumer Frenchie La’Vern partners with the authors to invent wardrobes for their films. As a former couturier, she is used to designing elaborate apparel for the stage; working with Authoring Action allows her to do that for youth while turning her ear towards them. “I think that’s one of the things that they’re missing—no one is really listening to them, taking them seriously, trying to help them achieve what they want. That’s exactly what I enjoy doing—coming up with something that interprets what they’re trying to say.” In Frenchie’s view, listening is imperative. “Through the visual aid that Authoring Action does, it allows people to get a glimpse of what these children’s capabilities are and what their potential is.”

Costumer Frenchie La’Vern in Authoring Action’s costume closet. La’Vern works with teen authors to design wardrobe for the Just Us film series.

David Schmidgall

And this community certainly comes out to celebrate that potential when their films premiere. Denise Hartsfield, a former Forsyth County judge that has referred many teens from her courts to the Just Us program, is always floored when she sees their work. One summer in particular “absolutely blew my mind. That day in that theater, their mamas, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and the whole community they lived in came to cheer them on. And some of them lived in terrible communities where there was anything you could think of. But they came out, they supported, and they were proud. It was just like the premier of a Spike Lee movie. They took that kind of enthusiasm, which gave them, the young kids, just…they were beaming.”

The City of Art and Innovation

In a time where public funding for arts education continues to dwindle against more practical initiatives, Winston residents have looked to creative pursuits as a vehicle for communal healing through people-centered solutions. Community support for Authoring Action is a prime example.

Denise’s involvement was prompted by a fellow judge who approached her with a thought: Could we benefit from having our kids go through Authoring Action as an alternative to any kind of incarceration? “I thought it was a fabulous idea,” says Denise. She already believed the group’s work to be powerful from exposure at events throughout Winston; a partnership was a chance to remedy harsh penalties that ignored the youth’s personhood and promise. The Just Us Program created a better way, one that saw these moments in court as a piece of their lives rather than its entirety. Denise observed traits in the kids she saw regularly that showed they may be a good fit for the program, things as simple as making beats, or an infectious personality.

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Denise Hartsfield, former Forsyth County judge

David Schmidgall

Winston-Salem is a city that trusts the medium of art. Better yet, they trust its ability to help us confront the familiar in new ways. Because art is a platform for fashioning whatever can be imagined, engaging with it considers every possibility for what a full, whole life can be. When asked about the relationship between art and justice, Denise’s approach is “finding the blank space that allows whoever—that could be the public defender, the DA, the judge—to create, from a platform of rules and regulations, alternatives that have been traditional for far too long.” Art is the lens through which we question what may keep us from that full life and what may bring us closer. It can lead to renewed mindsets that glimpse flourish as recidivism goes down, graduation rates go up, and families confirm the value of a local literary program by recommending more and more students to join.

Buy-in from community partners also affirms the rich talent that each teen author possesses. Authoring Action coordinates public-facing performances through its Outreach Ensemble in collaboration with local events. The student’s original work brings their thoughts center stage and widens our understanding of who or what makes an artist. It builds on the legacy of established North Carolina-born creators whose work has inspired past Authoring Action engagements, like painters Romare Bearden and John Biggers. Teen authors have also created to the sculptures of Sonya Clark, whose pieces utilize her own hair to make observations on race, class, and history.

That outlook continued this year through a collaboration with the Winston-Salem symphony. Together, the two organizations delivered a one-night performance inspired by the music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges. The French Creole composer, violinist, and fencer was an 18th-century force whose compositions were praised for their ingenuity, but reached a ceiling as historical records favored contemporaries like Mozart. The performance, “Chevalier: Composer + Liberator,” was not a retelling of history but considered themes of emancipation and liberation. It allowed the authors to weave personal stories with social commentary as members of the orchestra played selections from the Chevalier. The collaboration has been an exciting one for the symphony, as they recognized the lasting difference that the voice of youth can make.

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From left to right: Nathan Ross Freeman, Lynn Rhoades, Winston-Salem Symphony Vice President Tim Storhoff, and Winston-Salem Symphony President Merritt Vale. The two organizations produced a one night collaboration called “Chevalier: Composer + Liberator.”

David Schmidgall

“I think it is a wonderful opportunity for us to open our eyes and break through some rigid stereotypes that people hold about different art forms,” offers Winston-Salem Symphony Vice President Tim Storhoff. “In our case, we play the music of dead European white guys. The fact is, like all art forms, this is a living art form and we are absolutely committed to advancing it through new work.” WSS President Merritt Vale agrees. “Art opens up the conversation…[it] broaches topics that maybe some of the traditional symphony audiences are like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t have anything to do with me.’ It doesn’t take too long of looking at it to realize this is not just about the 1770s to the 1790s. This is about the 2020s.”

The Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, the oldest in America, is a local facilitator and operational partner in similar events. President Chase Law views Authoring Action as a leader in what it means to nurture truly inclusive spaces. “Quite frankly, Authoring Action is at the cutting edge of bringing community to the table,” says Chase. “They were the ones going out, understanding what was happening in neighborhoods, and how they could respond to it.” The council has continued to partner with members of the program, including on an upcoming project that will use art as a response tool to mental health and disparities in their healthcare system. “Arts has to be the changemaker,” she says. And she has witnessed it in the authors’ performances as, “they are out there putting their heart on the stage but in a confident way. And they are healing through it, which I think is so clear.”

Nicknamed the city of art and innovation, the work of Authoring Action and its partners have helped Winston-Salem live up to that intention many times over.

Roots of Freedom from Seeds of Love

Ninth grader Trinity King has a calm, quiet demeanor. But put her on a stage and her words pierce the air, revealing a stunning portrait. When asked what it feels like to perform, she describes a natural expression she did not expect. “It’s a breeze,” Trinity says. “And I was really surprised about that because, with my personality, I didn't think that I would enjoy performing in front of other people.” She joined Authoring Action’s Summer Intensive program in 2021 and has since participated in Outreach Ensemble performances. The group setting proved to be fun as she connected with other students. And the writing process influenced another core connection, this one with herself: “I’d never done anything like that before. We had to write all those pieces and I didn’t know I had that in me.”

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Nathan Ross Freeman speaks with teen author Trinity King.

David Schmidgall

Trinity’s personal experience mirrors the metamorphosis that occurs for many students in Authoring Action: they leave having discovered parts of themselves that were previously unknown. Each piece unveils its inner power, and the group is a gathering space for nurturing that key relationship. “It’s where you meet yourself,” offers Assistant Artistic Director Willie Holmes. “It’s where you grow. It’s where I fell in love with poetry and fell in love with, not only the idea of myself, but myself. And I think that’s a huge distinction.” He learned to embrace his most honest thoughts while taking part in the program in high school. At the time, sports were his main focus, and accepting his voice, or even the importance of having one, did not cross his mind when he took the first writing session. Willie came to see strength in pursuing something that requires the truest version of yourself. “The next step was realizing that it was about being honest; not even just in my writing, but with myself and about how I was feeling and letting that be whatever the piece is: my honesty. I can't have an honest poem, but feel like somebody else is performing it or engaging it.”

Willie Holmes, Authoring Action Assistant Artistic Director.

David Schmidgall

To love the idea of self requires the protection of that image. New security shines through as we learn to hold the complexities and beauty of who we are in equal measure without hiding. It seems this is how Authoring Action has become a place of freedom for so many. They seek out original thought in teen authors, emboldening a secure sense of self that benefits more than the individual. “We’re here to fortify you to save others because, in that, you’ll find your salvation,” explains Nathan. As teen authors engage audiences with their work, the hope is that their sincerity resonates. That it would move us to see our communities in a new way, and work towards a better reality for everyone.

Love’ Lemon, Authoring Action’s Program Coordinator, first saw the standard of advocacy lived out in the actions of her mother. A part of seeing herself in that light came on stage for a performance with Authoring Action growing up. During an ensemble called “Happy Is,” Love’ noticed that in using her personality to get the crowd involved, she was able to help redefine certain ideas for them. She believed her art had a purpose. “So, I was already an artist and I was already an advocate,” she shares. “Honestly, for me, the definition of an artist is one who seeks justice.” Her current role with the group extends that care to the teen authors. She understands that many circumstances we face do not occur by happenstance; it has led to her and other staff undertaking local training to offer the program in a trauma-informed way. “We always have a lot of things we want from certain communities, particularly the ones who are most impacted by systemic, structural, and institutional violence. But we have to go in a way that is more open to what healing looks like.”

Program and Outreach Coordinator Love' Lemon recites her original work, Black Tourmaline. Her handwritten notes detail how authors go from idea to performance using the Creative Writing Process.

David Schmidgall

This practice is restorative and often begins with an internal inquiry into our role. It is what Lynn has discovered: “When you live with the questions, Rilke says, we someday live into the answers.” She has been a steady pulse through Authoring Action, leveraging her relationships formed over the years to connect as many people as are willing to this cause. Many seeds helped plant the program in the early 2000s, but the clearest came through her involvement with a community safety initiative that joined city officials with students who were repeat offenders in the court system. Lynn soon noticed that something was missing. “We’re all adults trying to figure out what these kids need, and nobody’s asking them. I kept saying, ‘We really need the youth voice in this.’”

Authoring Action has embodied living into that effort. The program serves its community by ensuring that teens are equipped to be active participants in their own lives and orbits, into adulthood. Together they make sure that everyone who joins senses they are known deeply, by name. It is a tremendous conviction that reverberates beyond Winston-Salem: they are not about giving youth voices so much as they invite the rest of us to listen as they embrace those voices for themselves.

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Editor's Note

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Robert Winship


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