NACOGDOCHES, Texas — As a guest speaker for the fifth annual Barrio Writers program at Stephen F. Austin State University, Casey Muze, musician and founder of Starr Avenue Company, uses his hands to create a calming beat on his drum to help participants understand the power of creative expression.

For a week, 30 students from school districts across East Texas attended the Barrio Writers summer program at SFA that focused on literature and creative writing. Faculty members from SFA’s elementary education and secondary education and educational leadership departments organized this event.

Barrio Writers is tailored for students ages 13 through 21 with an interest in reading and writing. Through this program, participants engage in workshops led by SFA students, faculty and staff. Participants read books, poems and song lyrics before discussing them as a group and free writing.

SFA faculty and staff who led the sessions and served as writing advisors included secondary education and educational leadership faculty members Drs. Heather Olson Beal, associate professor, Chrissy Cross, assistant professor, and Amber Wagnon, assistant professor; Dr. Lauren Burrow, associate professor of elementary education; and Alicia De La Rosa-Millard, secretary in SFA's Office of Multicultural Affairs.

“Sarah Rafael García, the founder of Barrio Writers, uses ‘your voice is your weapon’ as the program’s mantra, so we’ve talked to students about this idea,” Olson Beal said. “We stressed what you say matters, and your opinion matters and is important. We encourage students to find productive ways to express themselves and share their values with the world.”

During the week, students toured the university campus, including the solar sculpture garden in front of the Cole STEM Building where they read a Maya Angelou poem and discussed what it means to be part of the human family, Olson Beal explained.

Focusing on inclusion and diversity, the class met virtually via Zoom with a beat boxer who has Asperger’s syndrome, synesthesia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“All of the readings we discussed were written by people of color or women. Having diversity in our literature is vital and creating that inclusive community is key,” Olson Beal said. “Our guest speakers helped highlight this sense of community and belonging. Because of their diversity, we were able to discuss various topics with the students in a comfortable setting.”

At the end of the week, students participated in a live reading to share their original works.