Founded in 1995, the InsideOut Literary Arts Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to putting professional writers in Detroit public schools where they can share the love and craft of writing with students. In the early 2000s, a PEN/Faulkner program that connected University of Michigan writing faculty with InsideOut ended. Terry Blackhawk, InsideOut’s founder and executive director, then teamed up with LSA’s Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor Nicholas Delbanco to continue to put U-M writers in Detroit schools. The result of their efforts was the Civitas Fellowship program, which launched in fall 2005 and has funded dozens of Helen Zell Writers' Program MFA students.
The word civitas—which means “citizenship”—relates to shared purpose and community, and the Civitas Fellowships allow writers to bring the craft they study in the Zell Writers’ Program to young students who are just beginning to explore the possibilities and mechanics of writing. But for new graduate writing students, teaching for the first time—particularly with young people in a public school setting—can present some real challenges. Therefore, Civitas Fellowships pair two writers together so they can build a body of lesson plans collaboratively and work through preparation and classroom challenges as a team. The pairs also navigate the city together, which is particularly helpful for those MFAs who have moved to Michigan from across the country or from abroad.
HZWP students are given the opportunity to apply for Civitas fellowships at the beginning of each year. During the fall term, two pairs of students are selected and placed in classrooms across Detroit. Placements range from elementary-school classrooms to afterschool settings such as InsideOut’s Citywide Poets—a program where students study the art of performance and poetry, developing performance troupes that make local and national appearances each year. To date, the Civitas program has reached more than 1,400 students.
Teaching with InsideOut allowed me to work with amazing young people in Detroit just starting out their lives in letters. I worked with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders thinking through poems & stories as writers, learning to view the world with the magnifying lens of a poet, and, with a small group of students, helped build a performance for Wayne State’s annual MLK Jr. Celebration.* Through the Civitas Fellowship, I was given an alternative teaching experience outside of the university that engrained me immediately into a community here in Michigan. This fellowship helped open my mind to ways in which I can be employed in the “writing world” once I graduate, all while also introducing me to some insanely talented and intellectually hungry young people.
—Danez Smith MFA '17
*Below, a clip of this MLK poetry performance commissioned by Wayne State University for its annual celebration of King's life and legacy. This performance, titled "Only Us," marked the first time that middle school students from Marcus Garvey Academy were given the honor of representing iO for this major event.