March 27, 2017; New Yorker
Mighty Writers, with the help of more than 400 volunteer teachers, journalists, authors, and artists, teaches and mentors some 2,500 kids annually. Located in South and West Philadelphia, Mighty Writers offers free afterschool programs to students aged 7 to 17.
In a city where more than half the adults are functionally illiterate, Tim Whitaker, the former editor of Philadelphia Weekly (1994–2008), founded the nonprofit in 2009 to help kids learn to “think and write with clarity.”
Mighty Writers is ambitious. During the 2016 Democratic National Convention, with the soundtrack of the movie Rocky appropriately blaring in the background, Mighty Writers gathered more than 3,000 students on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They were there to attempt to break the record (1,178, as established in 2013 in Beijing) for the “greatest number of young writers writing essays in the same place at the same time.” The theme of every essay to be written in 15 minutes or less was “If I were president.” An official present from the Guinness Book of World Records declared that though there were indeed many people coming and going, the record was not broken.
Mighty Writers also produces an Internet radio station, Mighty Radio. Their audio documentary, “Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio,” won first place in the Public Radio Exchange’s Zeitfunk 2014 competition for the Most Licensed Debut Group.
Paige Williams at the New Yorker writes about Mighty Writers’ new initiative to help their students differentiate between real and fake news.
Last Monday, twenty-one public-school students burst through the door of a building at Thirty-ninth Street and Lancaster Avenue, in West Philadelphia, for a session of Fake News Finders, an after-school workshop run by the nonprofit group Mighty Writers. An eight-year-old named Thomas parked his scooter opposite a framed photograph of Barack Obama beneath a “Black Lives Matter” banner. A ten-year-old named Musa carried his violin sheet music. James, eleven, had a backpack filled with snacks. All but three of the students were boys. Most found seats at a conference table. “How many people know what fake news is?” the instructor, Annette John-Hall, asked. She is a former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who now reports for public radio.
Fake news is published propaganda and disinformation purporting to be real news. It typically uses social media to drive traffic for political or financial gain. Mighty Writers advises its students that the 2016 election redefined “fake news” for many people as news that’s simply disagreeable, not fictitious. Still, nothing’s false about the range of benefits Mighty Writers is bringing to youth, families, and communities in Philadelphia.—James Schaffer