In Philadelphia, a city alive with active and impactful nonprofit groups, Mighty Writers’ steady expansion of their writing education programming has been making its mark, both in the number of locations opened and in communities served. The number of students who are, or want to become, Mighty Writers is steadily increasing. And the man behind this expansion? Tim Whitaker, the program’s founder and executive director.
I met Tim on a gray, drizzling fall afternoon. On our way to the offices on the second floor of Mighty Writers’ South headquarters on Christian Street, we passed through a series of spaces you might be hard-pressed to call classrooms. There were brightly-colored walls, comfortable couches and shared work tables, posters of superheroes and lovingly displayed books and notebooks, all illuminated by warm, eye-level lighting. Even empty, you could sense the energy that these rooms hum with when they’re filled with writers of all ages.
Tim obviously takes great pride in the space, humming with his own energy while pointing out various aspects of each room we passed. This pride, and his tireless enthusiasm for writing education, is at the core of what makes Mighty Writers, a nonprofit that seeks to “teach kids to think and write clearly,” tick.
With a background in teaching, writing and editing (including a fourteen-year stint as the editor of Philadelphia Weekly and time as the head writer at NBC Radio), Tim is serious about writing, and wants everyone who walks through the doors of Mighty Writers to take it seriously, too. The design of their writing spaces, he says, “makes the kids respect the space, and want to engage with it.” Writing, and being part of Mighty Writers community, “becomes an identity for them.”
Inspired by the mission of Dave Eggers’ 826 National writing education nonprofit, Tim teamed up with Rachel Loeper, Mighty Writers’ education director, to open the first Mighty Writers location in 2009. Reconfiguring the 826 model “in a big way,” Tim admits that he wanted to create something that would meet the specific needs of Philadelphia’s students. “Philly kids are very fast—they’re funny and street smart and they keep you on your toes,” he says with a grin.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) his laser-focus on foregrounding the power of writing, Tim’s leadership style is amiable and open; he says he believes strongly in giving people authority, and then standing back to let them do their best work. For over six years, he has sought advice and guidance from colleagues, collaborators and other nonprofit leaders at critical moments for the organization, and still considers “constant course corrections” as Mighty Writers continues to grow and adapt to new challenges. This is not to say that Tim’s ability to share authority and ask for advice disengages him from the day-to-day work. He visits at least two of the four Mighty Writers locations (in North and West Philadelphia, in addition to the two in South Philadelphia) every weekday, saying “if you don’t see the work every day, if you don’t want to be around the kids, you lose focus, lose sight of why you started this work in the first place.”
This attention pays off. Tim is acutely aware not just of the citywide challenges his organization faces, but the unique climate and dynamics at each program site, and even the situations of individual students. At El Futuro, he speaks about the challenge of keeping kids engaged throughout high school, as the pull of working in family businesses begins to occupy their after-school hours. In West and North Philadelphia, Mighty Writers grapples with the constant and neighborhood-specific effects of poverty. Fortunately, Tim’s teaching background informs a philosophy of prioritizing students’ resources over their deficits, and he speaks with pride and confidence about the richness that students bring into these challenging settings. In the Christian Street location, for example, students from diverse academic backgrounds bring their skills and motivations to the table, serving as powerful motivators of their fellow students.
In keeping with his egalitarian leadership style, Tim foregrounds sharing ideas and resources across his staff. All program directors share information and ideas, address challenges, plan for upcoming events and negotiate the crossover use of Mighty Writers spaces at bi-weekly meetings with Tim and his director of education, Rachel. And there’s no question that prioritizing resources and expertise sharing extends to the 300 volunteers who make it possible for Mighty Writers to serve over 2,200 kids each school year. When asked if it’s difficult to manage this volume of volunteer resources, Tim simply says that it would be impossible to do the work that they do without them.
And what they do, and the nonprofit Tim has built in this collaborative and focused way, is making a substantial impact on Philadelphia’s students. Online writing assessment software implemented by Rachel Loeper has helped the organization build a clear, yearlong picture of the progress each Mighty Writer makes while in the program. And surveys and observations throughout the year confirm what is obvious when you sit in on a Mighty Writers workshop: self-esteem is also skyrocketing among participants. For Tim, this comes back to the writing: “As soon as students are able to express themselves clearly, their self-esteem just blows up.”
So where does Mighty Writers go from here? When he speaks to other nonprofit leaders, Tim says he hears the same thing over and over. “Tim, you’ve established yourself, now you have to hold a hard line and be tough, don’t compromise.” As they continue to expand, Tim knows he must face, as many leaders do, the reconciliation of the organization’s big-picture goals with the needs of the community, the city and the individual students who come through their doors. With the help of his board, colleagues and volunteers, Tim envisions future microsites for Mighty Writers, partnerships with the public school system to provide in-school services or even partnerships to provide their model of writing engagement under the umbrella of larger nonprofits. With his quiet but positive energy and unquestionable passion for the work, it seems likely that Tim will hold that line, overseeing Mighty Writers’ uncompromising, empowering writing mission as it continues to take the city by storm.