The Sydney Story Factory teaches marginalised youth the art of storytelling
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The Sydney Story factory empowers marginalised young people to tell their own stories.

The Sydney Story Factory teaches marginalised youth the art of storytelling

by Alannah Maher See Profile
The Sydney Story Factory, Redfern NSW 2016, Australia
6th Jul 2018
The Sydney Story Factory teaches marginalised youth the art of storytelling

Reading and writing skills are the foundations of a successful life. From understanding instructions on a medicine bottle or interpreting a street sign to the ability to pick up and read a book, we live in a world that assumes everyone can read.

Beyond basic spelling and grammar, literacy also encompasses your ability to connect to the world around you and to think critically and creatively about things that affect your daily life. Literacy is the ability to tell your own stories and to understand the stories of others.

An alarming number of Australian children and teens are slipping through the cracks, and those from marginalised backgrounds are most at risk.

Co-founded by Cath Keenan and Tim Dick, the Sydney Story Factory is on a mission to change lives through creative writing and storytelling, with a focus on helping those most at risk.

Their Redfern hub hides in plain sight, disguised as one of Sydney’s most curious sights, The Martian Embassy. Claiming to sell “everything any Earthling could need when preparing for intergalactic travel”, the quirky shop is the gateway to a cave-like workshop space where young imaginations can run wild. Since opening its doors in 2012, the Story Factory has enrolled over 10,880 students from diverse backgrounds.

The deceptive decor (and income stream from the gift shop) is a technique borrowed from the Story Factory’s inspiration, 826 Valencia in San Francisco, a writing centre for young people founded by novelist Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Caligari in 2002. The centre masquerades as “The Pirate Store”.

The Martian Embassy
The Martian Embassy

A brand new location for the Story Factory is launching in Parramatta soon, bringing with it a demand for more volunteers. The QUO caught up with the Story Factory’s co-founer and Executive Director Cath Keenan and Volunteer Manager Craig New to find out about what they do and why.

“It’s very much a process of engaging young people with writing and showing them that it can be really fun,” Cath explained.

The Story Factory’s workshops generally run over a school term. Students learn to write a story and at the end they are presented with a printed and bound version of their book to take home. Cath explained that throughout the workshops, volunteers help students to break the writing process down into manageable parts:

“Before anyone starts writing a story there’s a whole series of steps around thinking about what might happen, getting them imaginatively engaged, supporting them and giving them a structure. You’re setting kids up to succeed and do well and therefore that builds their confidence, their sense of engagement and their feeling that they might be better at writing than they thought they were.”

Source: The Sydney Story Factory
Source: The Sydney Story Factory

While recent NAPLAN results have sparked a growing concern around the decline in children’s writing skills, low literacy skills amongst Australian adults have long been an issue. In 2016 SBS’s Insight found that around 44 per cent of Australian adults lack the literacy skills required for everyday life, and 1 in 3 Australians have literacy skills low enough to make them vulnerable to unemployment and social exclusion.

“There’s two main reasons, the first one is that if you can’t write you’re never going to be able to get the most out of your education. You have to be able to read and write well in order to engage with your education,” said Cath.

While this is a huge concern, Cath explained that the social and emotional elements of their programs are no less important than the literacy outcomes.

“A lot of it is about making kids feel that they have a voice and they have something to say… it’s a feeling that you have a story that’s worth telling and that other people should listen to,” said Cath, adding that this is where the volunteers are most important. “When the volunteers are sitting there and listening to them, that can be quite an unusual experience for a kid, to have someone who is not a parent or a teacher be interested in what they have to say.”

Volunteer Manager Craig New agrees that helping kids to find their voice is one of the more important milestones the organisation helps achieve.

“Seeing a student shift perspective from "My ideas are silly and no one wants to hear them" to "Listen to this - I'm excited and passionate about it and I want to share it with you" is just the greatest thing,” said Craig.

In order to reach the kids most in need of their help, The Story Factory has partnered with 157 schools, community groups & arts organisations. “What we find is that the way that we can most effectively target our programs to the most disadvantaged kids is by working with the schools,” explained Cath.

Pictured: Cath Keenan
Pictured: Cath Keenan

With their priority to help those most at risk of losing confidence in their writing and switching off at school, the Story Factory works with young people from some of the most marginalised communities in Australia. The organisation has always had a focus on working with young Indigenous people, who are disproportionately affected by low literacy. According to Aboriginal-lead charity Literacy for Life, more than 40% of Aboriginal adults have low literacy.

The Sydney Story Factory also works with young people who are refugees, or come from non-English speaking or low socioeconomic backgrounds. Craig counts working with many students on the autism spectrum as one of his most rewarding experiences, including a few students who are not able to speak.

The decision to set up a base in Western Sydney came organically for the Story Factory, as many of the schools and community groups wanting to work with them are located there. The statistics add up - the state’s biggest population of young people is in Western Sydney, a majority of whom are culturally diverse. The area is also home to the single biggest Indigenous population in the country and is where 60% of new arrivals to Australia choose to settle.

Both Cath and Craig can recount numerous stories of young people whose lives have been intangibly changed by their association with the Story Factory - from simple observations about seeing children come out of their shells, to a young boy in Mount Druitt who reads his published story to his siblings every night, a young girl who used creative writing to cope with her mother’s death soon after moving to Australia from Indonesia, to a group of marginalised high school students who were inspired to take ownership of their futures for the first time through a science fiction writing task.

“I think storytelling is fundamental to life, it’s how we make sense of what happens to us, it’s how we make sense of the world. If you cannot articulate what you think, what you feel and what you want you are always at a disadvantage,” added Cath.

The Sydney Story Factory relies heavily on its volunteers to keep up with the demand for quality, accessible creative writing education. With the establishment of their new location, the Story Factory is in need of people based in Western Sydney or willing to travel. So what are they looking for?

“Although we love our teacher and writer volunteers, these skills are not mandatory. Mostly what we look for are people who are kind, patient, have a good sense of humour and imagination,” said Craig.

“Our students don't need skilled writers to work with, they need people who respect them, are excited about what they do, who show an interest (and show up) and who listen to them. Being that tutor goes a really long way and brings about incredible change.”

Volunteers also have the opportunity to participate in professional development workshops with benefits beyond the work with students, covering topics from understanding Indigenous culture to writing and editing skills.

To find out more about the Sydney Story Factory, the launch of their new Parramatta location and opportunities to volunteer see their QUO Profile or their website.

The Sydney Story Factory
Alannah Maher

About Alannah Maher

Alannah is an insatiably inquisitive writer with a passion for delving into stories about the human experience, gender, sexuality, creativity, and all the fun, gritty stuff. She is especially passionate about steering ‘cringe’ away from ‘culture’ by communicating about the arts in a fun, accessible manner.  She is experienced across the gambit of the journalism and communications industries, yet always manages to circle back to her true love of writing and storytelling.

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The Sydney Story Factory, Redfern NSW 2016, Australia
6th July 2018