When I was starting out as a writing teacher over 20 years ago, I remember talking with my friend and mentor Mark Dahlby who ran writers.com, where I taught writing to adults for many years. I must have been going over the classes I was teaching, and at one point Mark interrupted me and he said, “Laurie, you just need to love the students.”

Love them? But hadn’t they come for all my jazzy classes on memoir and personal essay? Wasn’t that what they were paying me for?

What could love possibly have to do with that?

In the beginning I leaned on the content of my classes – waving it in front of the students’ faces as evidence of how hard I was working for them, how much I cared – but over time I started to understand what Mark was talking about.

Writing is personal and it can be vulnerable. While I was trying to do a good job editing their stories, my students wanted to be seen by me, to know that I cared about their work, and cared about them.

My teaching was good enough, like a hearty pasta that any chef could stand behind, but without the hot bubbly sauce of love, it lacked something. Over time I think my teaching changed. I started to see that my attention to students mattered more than what I was teaching them in some cases. They wanted love.

I thought about Mark’s words last week when I visited Chapter 510, a nonprofit in downtown Oakland that offers free writing classes, bookmaking, publishing and podcasting classes for black, brown and queer Oakland kids, ages 8-19.

Chapter 510 is like the technicolored clubhouse you wish you had growing up. It feels like it’s being run by kids, for kids. On the street, before you even enter, an entire wall of windows is covered with a collaborative poem written by the youth, and their mentors in the program. It begins like this:

To belong is to be safe
appreciated and welcomed
for just being yourself
and not having to change
for anybody
or act different in a certain space
It’s to be accepted
and to feel like you’re included…

As you step into the building, you find yourself in the Department of Make Believe, the storefront where there is an entire wall of books written by the kids who have attended their workshops.

I picked up a book called What About Ur Friends?, written by 12-year-old Catherine Wallace, and another by 11-year-old Ka’Yara Jackson called The Ghost Detective, about a couple of kids who mysteriously die, and a detective’s quest to find out what happened. I imagined the pride these kids must feel: their stories had been turned into books, which now lived on a shelf in a room where make believe had become real.

Every wall in the Department of Make Believe was covered with murals, and I rounded a corner to find a cozy nook with a velvet couch where kids could relax and read.

There were typewriters at the ready, and a colored map on the floor that instructed your feet to follow the lime green line to get to the Division of Infinite Possibility, follow the blue line to the writing room, the magenta to the bookmaking studio, follow the coral to the mini print shop.

I followed the colored lines and went deeper into the magic of Chapter 510 to find the podcasting studio and a stage for spoken word performances.

I was impressed with everything – this jewel box for children in downtown Oakland. I kept thinking about Mark’s words. I realized that this is actually a love center, a place where kids can share their stories and stand on stages. A place where they’re celebrated and recognized, and where they can blossom into beautiful, confident writers and human beings.

And beautiful, confident writers and human beings have a better chance at finding their footing, their belonging in this complicated world of ours.

I’ve been working with adults most of my life, and so much of the work we’re doing in Wild Writing has become about love. At first I thought it was writing I was teaching over 20 years ago, but it’s become all about listening and trusting the sound of our own voices – the stuff inside of us that we haven’t always had the courage to bring out.

Can you imagine if we grew up in the Department of Make Believe? What if we had a free pass to the Division of Infinite Possibility?

What would be possible then?

I believe in the work that Chapter 510 is doing and I am excited to be a part of their community. They are in the middle of a big fundraising campaign to finish building out their beautiful new writing center and continue offering all these wonderful programs for free to low-income Oakland youth. I will be giving a percentage of my teaching profits every month to their organization. If you’re moved to be a part of that and learn more, you can find out more here.

Below is the full text painted on the windows outside of Chapter 510

A Sense of Belonging
A collaborative poem by youth and mentors

To belong is to be safe
appreciated and welcomed
for just being yourself
and not having to change
for anybody
or act different in a certain space
It’s to be accepted
and to feel like you’re included

Belonging in a place
or belonging in a group of friends
where you feel cared about
When you hug your best friend
in your blankets in your bed
to feel accepted
to feel wanted
to feel welcomed
and to feel appreciated

Belonging is Oakland
the way you know how to move
from the border of Berkeley
to the border of San Leandro
How you know you’re standing on the edge
of a bridge
or tunnel
leading to Alameda
It is knowing what lies past
the hills of Oakland
and knowing all the back roads
and open roads
to get to Lake Merritt
It is being able to ride
the 1, the 20, the 40, the 57,
the 73, the 90 and the NL
while walking the rest of the way
to one’s destination

It is finding your friends and family
on every corner
their smiles greeting you
making you feel seen
Belonging is Oakland
Oakland is belonging
because it is a community
rooted in radical love

Belonging means you can
smile with something or someone
Belonging is peace
Belonging means feeling accepted and welcomed
Belonging means feeling you have a place
and are seen by others

When you feel a sense of belonging
your heart feels comforted
your body at ease
Belonging is knowing
Knowing familiar sounds, sights or people
To belong is to have a home
for your authentic self

Belonging is being comfortable
Comfortable with the space
the people
being comfortable with yourself
Belonging is to feel safe, welcomed and happy
being completely yourself
and not having to change
to fit in
Belonging is being fully accepted
respected and appreciated
even being treasured
It means being a part of a
large community
that supports each other
It’s human nature

Belonging means creating
a community around you
a safe space where you feel
safe enough to express yourself
Belonging means to have a sense of
purpose or to be self aware
To know exactly what you want
to do or be
To know what life path
you want to take

When you don’t feel like you belong
you feel lost or upset
You feel like you’re not supposed to be here
You have no sense of direction
Belonging is a sense of security
that you find in bittersweet memories
Belonging is not always your happiest self
but rather your safest
Belonging is to be supported in my dreams
surrounded by unconditional love
Belonging means liberation
and bringing radical ideas
to life