Voices Need to be Heard
need to be spoken
feelings need to be
Hopes & dreams
need to be realized—
cries need to be
jokes to be told
The sentiment behind this poem—written in 2005 by a woman with experience of homelessness—is exactly the reason why Gilda Bruckman does what she does.
Gilda is the Writing Group Facilitator at On The Rise, an organization in Boston, Massachusetts that provides women experiencing homelessness with a safe place to stay during daytime hours when shelters are closed. It also provides various services, supports, and a strong sense of community.
Gilda approached On The Rise in 2004 about starting a weekly writing group for women. At the time, she was working for a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering women through their words. On The Rise agreed, and Voices Together was born.
Today, the group still gathers once a week around the kitchen table at On The Rise. Sometimes seven women show up; sometimes only one woman comes. “These women’s lives aren’t predictable, and things are not always in their control,” Gilda says. She makes sure that she is there every single week no matter what, and she sits and writes with whoever is able to make it, explaining that “consistency matters, and just showing up predictably really counts for something.”
For Gilda, a lot of her “lesson planning” is about not having a concrete plan. “I usually come in with some idea that will stimulate some form of writing, adjust it based on who is there that day, and then we all write for fifteen or twenty minutes,” she says. “Then we share what we’ve written, and people comment on what caught their ears or what surprised them.”
Gilda explains that the exercise is not about criticism in the sense of telling each other how their writing skills could be better. “The writing is a tool,” she says. “It’s really about helping them hear their own voices, and to listen to, respond to, and recognize talents, abilities, or latent qualities within themselves.” In other words, she says, the writing is simply the medium through which the women can start to explore deeper emotions and talents within themselves—things they may have forgotten about due to the trauma of homelessness, or things they may not have been aware of in the first place.
Although the group has published two short volumes of poetry, publishing isn’t the goal that Gilda has in mind for the group. For her, it’s much more about the short-term. “The challenges these women face are enormous, and this is not an environment in which they need yet another long-term goal placed on them,” she says. “So if I can create a totally new experience in their day that adds to their sense of worth and strength as human beings, then I’ve achieved my number one goal.”
The women who come to the group have a range of experience with writing. Some have never explored writing before, while others have kept journals for years; one woman had even published poems in her youth. They write across genres, including poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Gilda herself has a Master’s degree in English Literature, but she does not consider herself to be primarily a writer. She says it can be just as challenging for her to respond to writing prompts as it is for some of the women.
What unites the women in that kitchen is finding out they have a lot to say, but rarely having an outside audience to hear it. The writing group gives women a platform to share their voices and to learn to listen to themselves—and others—in a new way.
On The Rise has been very supportive of Voices Together, and Gilda says that participating in the writing group has been meaningful for the women involved as well. “They’ve told me that they feel happier, more positive, and uplifted after the hour we spend together. They have fun and say it’s like an escape. But,” she points out, “it’s not just an escape—it’s an escape, plus a door opened.”
It is the focus on helping women discover their innate talents and gifts through writing that makes the group so successful. And the themes the women write about reflect this. What Gilda sees most in their writing is a real dedication to overcoming and surmounting obstacles, together with getting beyond difficulties. “There’s a real hopefulness that I actually found surprising [at first], and a [reemerging] theme that things can get better,” she says. “And that’s partly due to the way that On The Rise functions.”
Today, eight years later, Voices Together is still going strong, and the group has set the record for the longest-running program at On The Rise. What motivates Gilda to keep going is the realization that she is not so different from any of the women she works with.
“I’ve met so many educated, bright, capable, and functional people who have just had terrible things happen to them,” she explains. “It doesn’t take much to have your life undone in this society. All it takes is a couple of catastrophes and a divorce, and not enough social supports, and that’s it. I just see the people I work with as whole people—and not just people who need a service from me.”
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