Department of English

UT English Department holding book drive for English junior Barry Maxwell’s organization, Street Lit

Wed, November 4, 2015
UT English Department holding book drive for English junior Barry Maxwell’s organization, Street Lit
Barry Maxwell and Professor W Joe Hoppe of ACC in the workshop room

Barry Maxwell is a UT junior majoring in English. He is also one of the cofounders of Street Lit, a group in town that runs book drives and creative writing courses for Austin’s homeless population. Maxwell, once homeless himself, knows the peace and relief that a book can provide during tumultuous times as well as the self-expression and sense of community that a creative writing group affords. He spoke with us recently about how Street Lit got started, the different types of work it does in our community, and how interested individuals can help out.

In conjunction with this news item, the English Department will be running a UT book drive for Street Lit for the next month. Anytime M-F, 8-5, until Monday, November 16, you can come into the English Department main office in Calhoun 226 to donate books. Please read on for Barry’s description of what type of books­–and other forms of aid–would prove most beneficial to the folks at Street Lit at this time.


How long has Street Lit been around, and how did it begin?

In the Fall semester of 2013, my Public Speaking class at ACC required a “Make a Difference” project. I pitched the idea to the room of collecting books from students and faculty and delivering them to the ARCH and the Sally (Salvation Army) as they came in. A handful of crazy classmates—good crazy—teamed up with me and we ran with it. Our first effort collected over 700 books. I’ve still got unsanctioned collection bins over at the ACC Rio Grande campus (shhh!), and books are still coming in, along with donations now from folks who I’ve met along the way through UT, or who know the project through various school or online connections. I didn’t actively ‘do’ Street Lit book collections after the class project was done (got an A, by the way), but it kept going forward with a life of its own. I just ran along, trying to keep up!

As to the current expansion, the Street Lit Authors Club, it’s something I’d wished to do from the outset, but had no idea how to make it happen. I didn’t feel qualified in any way, and those doubts kept me stalled out. I knew it could be done: folks around the country have initiated similar programs—even here in Austin there are programs like Freeminds, with both credit courses and free writing workshops.

This past summer, Kay Klotz, of Front Steps (the nonprofit that runs the ARCH), accidentally emailed me. She sent a note intended for a different Barry to my address. I don’t believe in signs and wonders, but I took the opportunity to ask if they’d be willing to work with me. Within days we’d met, Kay hooked me up with Hannah Ford, the volunteers coordinator, and before a month passed the project was underway. Those doubts were all me in Chicken Little mode, and I realized most importantly that teaching, per se, was not actually my role. That’s why I don’t call the meetings classes, but workshops, and I’m not a teacher, I’m the facilitator. I’m the bringer of coffee, provider of pens and paper, and head of the structure and encouragement department. It’s good work if you can get it. 

Street Lit does all kinds of different work–runs classes, donates books, solicits student work, etc. Can you tell us a little more about each of these efforts and how they benefit Austin’s homeless community?

Have you ever been in jail? Probably not… Sometimes homelessness feels like that sort of confinement. Even when someone is doing their best, the obstacles are huge. The homeless people we—meaning us more fortunate individuals—see around town may be actively pursuing work, or they may be disabled or mentally ill, and waiting for responses on Social Security benefits or access to care. I remember how hard it was jumping through the hoops simply to reestablish ID, and trying to keep sober while living downtown—imagine shaking off an addiction in a milieu often composed of drinkers, dealers, and drug users. It’s a struggle to work one’s way back to real world viability, and there are days, long ones, when nothing can be done. You’re stuck with no place to be or anything you can do, and nothing within reach offers up any sense of worth or accomplishment. 

That inner desolation is what drives Street Lit. Books were the start, and are still incredibly valuable. You’d be amazed at the security and point of psychological contact a simple novel in one’s hands can supply. It is somewhere safe to go when reality is a full on dystopian horror of day in and day out exclusion from the world you knew. It’s escapism that harms no one, and enriches the reader in the process.

The writing group takes it further. We’re developing a community in that room, and even though it’s a tiny one now, it is growing. It’s been called a bright spot in the dark weeks, a safe place to be one’s Self with a capital “S,” and a confirmation of our collective value that dismisses labels of race, social status, and gender. Everyone at the table shares a level of respect and appreciation that we’d be hard pressed to find out on the sidewalk or as an isolated data point in the system. 

At its most intimate, the group allows expression that isn’t part of the everyday experience. We’ve got poets and short story writers, budding journalists and even a playwright. We discuss the work, we make the effort to understand one another and help the work grow in its own way. Nothing is discounted or dismissed: a word on the page is golden, no matter what. While I can’t claim that anything we do is going to help someone escape the homeless situation, it will certainly make it more tolerable until that happens, and if coffee and kind comments add to someone’s self worth and confidence in their heart, then this little gang of writers has accomplished something rare and wonderful. 

How can people help out (other than donating books during­–­and after­–the department’s potential Street Lit book drive)? What types of assistance would be most beneficial to Street Lit at this point and moving forward? 

Street Lit’s primary needs these days are ideas, expertise, and openness to meeting the group as people and not statistics or societal liabilities. We’ve had great sessions with visiting professors and fellow writing students. Interested “guest stars” are a treat for everyone, and I think it also adds a feeling of being cared about by the bigger world outside. When a guest, a “real” writer, you know, shows respect for us strugglers and our pieces, and sincerely pitches in to help the work along, everyone benefits. The group gets a shot of confidence and fun from the visit, and the enthusiasm lingers afterward, along with better writing in the long term. As I mentioned, I’m no teacher, and it’s an honor when bona fide instructors take the time to help us out.

Of course, money is an ongoing issue. It doesn’t take much to keep us going, but groceries add up over time, and the basics that go with them. Snacks may sound trivial, but simply having decent coffee and something healthy (or just delicious!) to munch on is one of my bribes to get people in the room to begin with. Someone may be shy about attending a writing group, but once the coffee pot lures them in, the rest flows more smoothly, and they keep coming back. And there are writing books to acquire, good reading material—I like to offer quality books to the group, and they are always appreciated, along with notebooks, pens, etc. Donations are easy; click over to to help out.

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