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Breaking Walls program inspires teen writers from Brooklyn to Bethlehem to Berlin

Kori Tuitt | 8/29/2013, 11:01 a.m. | Updated on 8/29/2013, 11:01 a.m.

Fran Tarr had a passion for writing and dreamed of changing people’s lives. She never expected to lead teens in international writing workshops in locations ranging from Palestine to America to Berlin.

Tarr, founder of Breaking Walls, said that although the program focuses on creative writing and performance, the main goal is to create future leaders. The program is partnered with ACORN Community High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Al-Rowwad Cultural & Theater Training Center located near Bethlehem, Palestine, and the Nelson Mandela Shule in Berlin.

Tarr was inspired to create Breaking Walls after volunteering for a writing workshop at the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem in 2006.

“It was very eye-opening on many levels,” she recalled. “They were so resilient and so hopeful, and they wanted to write about the things that were happening in their lives.”

Tarr, who had been a teacher for many years, had expected the children overseas to be very different than the ones she’d encountered throughout her career.

“Even for me, with all the experience I’ve had teaching in Chicago, Denver and even New York, I was very touched by how human these kids were,” she said.

A colleague suggested Tarr make a documentary about the parallels between the Palestinian and Brooklyn kids. So when she returned to New York, Tarr gave the Brooklynites the same workshop. In 2008, she created a documentary on the program, “Bethlehem to Brooklyn: Breaking the Surface.” In 2010, she released another titled “Brooklyn Bridges: To Bethlehem and Back.”

“They didn’t join a jihad. They didn’t join a gang. They joined a writing group,” says the 2008 documentary.

Tarr said the purpose of the 44-minute documentary was “comparing kids who really challenged the media’s negative image of them.” In that vein, she also facilitated bringing two of the Brooklyn kids to Bethlehem and vice versa.

In 2012, Tarr headed to Berlin with three former Brooklyn students and three former Bethlehem students, who came along as instructors. By that time, they were between the ages of 19 and 22. Tarr said the nine-day workshop was a success because of how much the students were involved in shaping what the program entailed.

“Kids were listening and responding in the moment,” Tarr said. “We’re very rarely in a situation where people are listening and responding in the moment.”

Students were given many writing prompts, but these prompts are subject to change with students’ input. Also, they are not limited in terms of writing form; the teens may choose to write poetry, essays, songs and more. This comes in handy when the workshop is done and everyone participates in a collage play, which tells their stories through all their forms of writing. Each student chooses two pieces from their portfolios to perform.

Next year, Tarr is taking the program to Cape Town, South Africa. Unlike the Berlin trip, she wants to have the Cape Town kids housed with everyone else involved in the program, but it’s a matter of money. She said that of her responsibilities running the program, the most difficult one is fundraising.

“Raising the money is just staggering,” she said. “I work nonstop applying for grants. It’s very much a process.”

But Tarr isn’t on her own. The young Brooklynites took initiative by selling candy to help raise money. They also have formal fundraisers, including one in the works called “Telling Our Stories: An Evening of Awareness and Understanding.” Tahani Salah, a Palestinian-American poet, and Lamar Hill—commonly known by his rap name, LA Sunshine—are scheduled to attend. The date of the event will be announced once a venue is chosen.

Tarr said she wants these programs to inspire community transformation and for the teens to use their skills to become change-makers. She added that there are only three things required of students who are interested in the participating: students must have a passport, a working knowledge of the English language and an interest in writing.

For more information on Breaking Walls, visit www.breakingwallsprogram.org, call 212-989-7353 or email Tarr at frantarrpro@gmail.com.