As a national network of tutoring and writing nonprofits, the 826 Network is always learning, connecting, and collaborating to better help a greater number of students become stronger and more confident writers across the United States. For the past 12 years, the 826 Network has convened for a week each summer to learn and connect with field experts and each other in one vibrant city home to an 826 chapter. 

This year’s Staff Development Conference was especially powerful. This year’s SDC was hosted by 826CHI and 826 National across the city of Chicago. Together, staff from eight 826 chapters, including the network’s newest chapter, 826 New Orleans, and our friends from the chapter-in-development The Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, located in Minneapolis/St. Paul, rallied to share collective joys, expertise, and powerball moments, as well as trials and tribulations from the 2017-2018 school year. From plenaries from Chicago educators and social activists to a closing keynote led by Chicago’s Teen Writers Studio, the 826 Network experienced a week of great learning and reflection.  

The conference commenced with an opening keynote by Carmita Semaan, Founder and President of the Surge Institute, where she spoke about “Ikigai,” the Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.”  Semaan taught us that when we find our purpose and “reason for being”, “your work isn’t a vocation, but a privilege of a lifetime.” The 826 Network also engaged in self-awareness checks through a writing exercise during Chicago-educator and MC, Nate Marshall’s workshop, where he asked us to reflect on the labels we use to describe ourselves and the ways these may or may not match up with the labels others use to describe us. Marshall’s workshop provided a space for both creativity and reflection.

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Mid-week, the network received a bolt of energy during, Professor of African American Studies and Educational Policy Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago, Dr. David Stovall’s discussion. Dr. Stovall shared hard truths about who gets to think and create by reminding us that education is about life and death. When our students write, they have the power to articulate their conditions. He drove home the importance of being clear about the ‘fight’ and who we serve.

One of the most well received sessions of the conference was a teen-led workshop led by Chicago’s Teen Writer Studio, where they shared how we can make our programs and interactions with youth more engaging and inclusive. They pointed out that most organizations tend be ‘tourists’ in the communities they serve. We as a network have to be willing to be a part of these communities as an ally and an advocate.

While not shopping for spy supplies at the home of 826CHI and the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co., or discussing best practices in roundtables or co-labs with others who do like-work across chapters, the network made sure to explore Chicago-themed art, fun, and gastronomy. We also learned you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen robots, oceanographers, cryptozoologists, time travelers, ghosts, magicians, superheros, pirates, and secret agents play shuffleboard. Trust us. 

The week was packed with learning and new friendships, and the 826 Network is full of gratitude for all those who made this year’s Staff Development Conference possible. 

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