Our Founding Story: an Interview with Liza Halley and Ben Moorad

Interview by Write Around Portland development director, Allison Specter.

On January 31, 2019 we interviewed Write Around Portland’s founders, Liza Halley and Ben Moorad, almost 20 years to the date of when they launched Write Around Portland’s first season of writing workshops in 1999.

Liza, who now lives in Boston, is a librarian at a school for youth ages four to nine. She loves storms and likes to go outside in extreme weather, she also has an impressive Kinder Toys collection. She served as Write Around Portland’s co-director from 1999 to 2004. She stays involved with the organization as an advocate and advisor, and she lovingly keeps Write Around Portland’s website as the home page on her internet browser.

Ben works as a consultant to non-profit organizations and recently co-founded Pass The Mic, a program of Portland Meet Portland that provides immigrant and refugee youth with free, high-quality and culturally responsive music education and mentorship by experienced Portland musicians. Ben served as co-director of Write Around Portland from 1999 to 2003, was a board member from 2003 to 2013 and continues to be an advocate and supporter of Write Around Portland. You can often find him at Write Around Portland readings.

What inspired you to create Write Around Portland?

Liza: I was living in New Hampshire and I was a VISTA volunteer for AmeriCorps. During my first orientation with AmeriCorps, I met a woman who was doing her AmeriCorps service with Amherst Writers and Artists, an organization that was training people to lead writing workshops for traditionally silenced people in places such as public housing, shelters, hospitals or prisons. I took their training and after that I started working with the Housing Authority in Keene, New Hampshire as an AmeriCorps volunteer. When I was at the Housing Authority, I began to facilitate writing workshops for youth and adult women. I was so inspired by that work.

My husband was accepted to graduate school in Portland, so I ended my work in New Hampshire and we moved to Oregon. I started to work at Outside In, at the drop-in center for homeless youth, and still thought about how I could bring writing to more people. In my heart I knew that what I was doing with the writing groups was the most transformative thing, and I wanted to keep doing that.

One day, while I was working at Outside In, this amazing person walked in and he was like I want to lead a writing workshop at your center. …Take it from there Ben.

Ben: I was getting my masters to be a teacher. I thought I was going to be a high school English teacher, and in my student teaching I realized I didn’t like high school any more as an adult than I did as a teenager. I knew I wanted to be in education, but I wanted to be in the community. I didn’t know what that would look like, so I decided I would just start to do it.

I don’t know who pointed me to Outside In, but I just showed up and said that I wanted to facilitate a writing workshop. The youth were not particularly interested, but there was this one guy, Chris, who was clearly interested, and he was also kind of a leader at the drop-in center. He said I’ll write with you if you can beat me at chess. He was kind of chess hustler. He would only play me once a day, and so I played him every day, I think for like 3 weeks. Finally, I beat him, and then he came to the writing group every day after that, and he got more people to come too.

What was it like in those early stages of building an organization?

Ben: One day, Liza asked if I wanted to get a drink with her and she pitched this idea of this network of workshops.

Liza: I had this vision that it could be bigger than just one workshop here and one workshop there.

Ben: We just started sketching it out on a cocktail napkin. I feel like that was probably in October of ’98. We came in with a few basic radical, humanitarian values and just inductively built it from there. Within a few months we had a minimal board, we were incorporated as a non-profit organization and we were ready to go.

Liza: We both had had a lot of experience volunteering. We wanted to build a community-driven organization that offered really meaningful volunteer experiences, where people felt appreciated for their time and also had clear instructions and expectations. We had a lot of vision about the workshop model and structure and how to make writing accessible to people.

We were really simpatico about so many different levels about what was important to the organization to get it going. We also met with other people that were starting up non-profit organizations, and it was just like, Yeah, we can do this.

It felt like anytime we were stuck, we would just reach out and ask another non-profit organization that had done the same thing three years before us. It was a very collaborative scene.

Ben: Yeah, there was also something about Portland at the time that just felt really open. We were really new, and yet right after we started, we got a meeting with the head of the Housing Authority. We got a grant from The City of Portland (our first grant award!). There was just this spirit of openness and possibility and passion, and that feels unique to Portland.

And there was no internet then! I’m not sure how we found some of those first volunteers. I think we were kind of shocked when volunteers showed up that first season. Those volunteers took a leap of faith with us, and we held our first 27-hour facilitator training to prepare volunteers to lead our writing workshops out in the community.

Why was it central to Write Around Portland’s mission to hold writing workshops in partnership with social service agencies?

Liza: All we were thinking about is how could we make it accessible. The partnering with agencies was because we wanted to figure out how to build something where we would be able to meet people where they were. I had experience working at affordable housing buildings, where they often have community centers, places where people are already comfortable. We wanted for people to be able to access the workshops, and not make it intimidating by having people come to us.

Ben: For me, writing is a personal tool of transformation and it was something I had access to. That was a clear motivation for me, to find people that can most use this power and may not otherwise have access to it. The accessibility of writing is what makes it sustainable for people. If it’s really clear that all you need is a pen and a piece of paper, then anyone can use the tool, anywhere. If you have the fancy office, if you glorify method, then it becomes dependent on you to continue to facilitate the process, and then you haven’t really helped someone gain those tools for themselves.

Liza: We also kept asking ourselves, where are the voices that we don’t usually hear? How can we share the voices of people who are not often heard in the general community? What I always shared with people was that we were not teaching people how to write. So many of the people that take Write Around Portland workshops, they have been writing; they are writers. Whether its in a domestic violence shelter, a prison, a drug rehab center—wherever it was, there were people who were such strong writers. Whether it was their first time putting pen to paper, or whether they had been writing for years, its important to provide people with an audience to say that someone else cares what you have to say. So many people are never given an opportunity to come to the table and to share their words with the broader public. There is a magic in the partnerships.

You helped to imbed three values into Write Around Portland’s work: Respect, Writing and Community. How did you come together around these core values and why do they feel important today?

Liza: We wanted a place where every human being that walked through the door felt respected and valued for their contributions. The very first logo we had said Respect, Writing, Community.  That was the very beginning, the core of everything, and we knew that we wanted to use writing as the tool for showing people respect and for building community.

Ben: Respect is first for a reason. Writing is an amazing thing in and of itself, but it’s an especially powerful tool for building respect. When you respect someone deeply and you see them as a full human being; that’s quite radical and that is very rare.

For a lot of the people Write Around Portland works with, they’ve been labeled and othered, and it’s hard not to internalize quite a bit of that. So we thought, if we can create an environment in which for two hours a week you are just radically seen — we thought even if you didn’t do any writing for those ten weeks, but you participated in that environment, that would be a good thing.

Liza: Participants establish really strong community within their workshop. The workshops bring people together who maybe live in the same building, or participate in the same program, but don’t know each other.

I was thinking back to the first reading. The readings are such an important piece of the original vision of the organization. Bringing together people from this whole network of workshops, who have not been writing together, but have shared the same experience over the past ten weeks. Having them hear each other’s voices, and stories, and witnessing the power of what it feels like to stand up and read your words in front of other people, and to be valued for that. To be a part of this Write Around Portland community of writers and volunteers. The community piece, it’s so magical.

Ben: And so I think the values of respect, writing and community, we just made sure that everything flowed from those values. How we worked with volunteers, how we built the curriculum, how we followed up with participants — everything flowed from those values.

What is one highlight or moment that has stayed with you?

Ben: One of the amazing things about Write Around Portland is it helped me to see my blind spots, and to be able to work with people who were living in those blind spots. I was facilitating a group for women who were incarcerated. Almost all of those women identified as having been trafficked or survivors of violence, and I think they had not had control of their story. To see them take ownership of their story; they changed how I saw the world.

Liza: The first workshop I facilitated in 1999 was at a domestic violence shelter, and the images of that workshop, and the women’s stories have stayed with me for the rest of my life. I remember one participant sharing that they had always been someone’s mother or daughter or sister, but that they had never just been themselves. She shared that the writing workshop gave her the opportunity to be herself and to find her voice.

Also, that first big grant with the city was a big moment for us. And we have funny moments of trying to start a board. The first reading was really, really profound and every reading after that was very, very, very powerful. It was really a magical process; the power of what we were able to accomplish by getting people together with a pen and paper.

When you think about Write Around Portland today, now celebrating 20 years, what is one thing you feel proud of?

Ben and Liza in 2013.

Liza: That it’s thriving. It’s amazing. It’s everything we could have imagined. I tell everyone Write Around Portland is my first baby. It’s the proudest thing I have ever done in my life.

Ben: I’m thrilled that Write Around Portland is thriving, and that it evolves. It’s a living thing and new people are coming into it, informing it, and that it’s changing with the changing realities of the city.

If too much time goes by, Write Around Portland becomes an abstract thing in my mind. And then I come to a reading, and there is this visceral thing, this thing that I forget. I come to a reading and it’s like “Ohhh right, I was missing that.” I’m always surprised by it, and I’m always surprised that I had a hand in it.

A very special thanks to Liza Halley and Ben Moorad for all they have done to build a world with more respect, writing and community. If you would like to share a message of gratitude or thanks to Ben or Liza, please email us at info@writearound.org.  Stay tuned for more 20th anniversary interviews, and be sure to join us for Write Around Portland’s 20th anniversary celebrations