From elderly residents to at-risk youth, Ridgelines Language Arts empowers under-heard voices in central Pennsylvania
Ridgelines Language Arts has been quietly making a difference in the lives of marginalized communities since its establishment in 2017.
At the time, founder Abby Minor was directing Being Heard, a program that facilitates poetry-writing classes for older adults throughout Centre County, with support from the Centre Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Being Heard, which was originally launched in 2012, eventually spawned the creation of Ridgelines, the nonprofit that expanded Being Heard’s mission to teaching and celebrating language arts in all kinds of settings, working with not only older adults, but also LGBTQA+ individuals, survivors of domestic violence, youth shelter residents, and more.
“I founded Ridgelines because I believe in the profound connection between aesthetics and politics, or you could say between beauty and justice,” Minor says. “I don’t think you can separate issues of social justice from the need for beauty. Having grown up in Centre County, I also deeply love this landscape and the people of this landscape – so Ridgelines has been a way for me to be rooted in this place and also in my commitment to social justice.”
Casey Wiley, an associate teaching professor of English at Penn State, is one of the founding board members and board secretary at Ridgelines; Wiley has been with the nonprofit from the start.
“I was available to support Abby in any way possible,” he says. “Her passion for social justice is amazing. I remember meeting with Abby and several other prospective board members in Webster’s, and when I heard Abby’s ideas for Ridgelines – to provide space and support for under-heard and underrepresented voices in central Pennsylvania – I was immediately excited. I love teaching creative writing courses at Penn State. My students have wonderful, inventive ideas, but many of my students are middle-upper class and, of course, are receiving higher education degrees. I was eager to hear that Ridgelines’ goal was to support local individuals who may not be as lucky. Everyone’s voices are important.”
As board secretary, one of Wiley’s goals is to assist the organization in developing a long-term plan for serving the community not only in the present, but also in the future, as a sustainable, healthy nonprofit.
Wiley and the other four board members seem to be well on their way to realizing this goal, as this once-small nonprofit makes bigger and bigger waves, impacting more and more individuals and getting the notice it deserves.
In January, Ridgelines was one of three organizations to receive a Centre Foundation grant from the Patricia Farrell Music Fund for its new Youth Songs program, an interactive concert series for at-risk youth, led by local singer-songwriter Eric Ian Farmer at the Central Counties Youth Center, a five-county youth detention center.
This year, Ridgelines also received the Pennsylvania 2020 Library of Congress State Literacy Award, administered through the Library of Congress Learning and Innovation Office, a division of the Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement, and through the Pennsylvania Center for the Book.
Before the steps taken to combat COVID-19 temporarily put most programs on hold, Ridgelines was operating six core programs, all free to participants, in addition to special, one-time events.
Terri Dennis is the teaching artist for one of these core programs, Lightwaves, which takes place at Centre Safe. Dennis is a life coach and co-owner of a private spirit guidance and healing practice, where she reaches thousands of clients worldwide, offering healing, guidance, and empowerment through various services and classes. She had already established Lightwaves as a program before connecting with Minor to offer Lightwaves at Centre Safe under the Ridgelines banner.
“I was very attracted to Ridgelines’ mission of serving and empowering under-heard voices in our area through creative writing,” says Dennis. “Ridgelines’ mission blended perfectly with my Lightwaves program goals, which included strengthening, supporting, and providing stress-management skills to groups through writing guided meditations, positive affirmations, gratitude journals, etc. When Abby approached me about facilitating workshops with the women in the Domestic Violence Support Group at Centre Safe (previously the Centre County Women's Resource Center), I felt it was a great fit for my program goals and Ridgelines’ mission.”
During a Lightwaves session, women might discuss the elements involved in a guided meditation, as well as the benefits derived from meditation, such as reduced anxiety, depression, and stress. Then, participants might write their own meditations with a provided outline, working together to structure and write stress-reducing meditations to share with friends or family, or just for themselves. Other topics beyond guided meditation might include writing positive affirmation cards or gratitude journaling.
“When I attended my first drop-in support group meeting, I was impressed with the women’s openness to a novel program that focused on guided meditation, or as I termed it for the class, ‘creative storytelling with a purpose.’ The women were attentive, engaged, and interested in learning a new skill,” Dennis says. “They offered original ideas and asked thoughtful questions as we collaborated to create a new guided meditation together.
“Collaborating and sharing writing ideas with the women as a means for healing and empowering has been a very rewarding and invigorating journey.”
Being Heard, the program that started it all, is still one of Ridgelines’ core offerings, and for a good reason.
Laura Johnson has been a participant in the Being Heard writing group at Centre Crest for several years and says that the program is easily the best activity that Centre Crest offers, welcoming residents, friends, and family members alike.
“My sweetheart is a resident in Centre Crest, and he isn't involved in activities there. Since I could be in the group, too, I was able to persuade him to do this with me [as] something nice we could do together,” says Johnson.
Minor herself still leads Being Heard writing groups at Centre Crest. Johnson explains that Minor stimulates conversation among the participants and, as individuals talk about what they see, hear, and feel in both the present and the past, the group uses these conversations to form the basis of original poetry. At the conclusion of a weeks-long course, the group ends up with a book of poems.
“Abby gets people to talk, and as the talk progresses, I can hear and see that people are being stimulated, that words and sensations are coming forth, that one image brings out another,” says Johnson. “A number of our people have various degrees of dementia. As Abby gets us to talk about memories and experiences, I can see that minds are being stimulated and people are talking in such an astoundingly creative way.
“I see real benefit for the residents, and for me there's a genuine joy in seeing our little poetry book at the end of the 10 weeks. Many of those poems are as fine as any created by professional poets. These poems show the value of disabled people, people in a nursing home, people with dementia, people who are now marginalized. There's so much beauty and life in these people, and Abby with her Ridgelines Being Heard program brings it out.”
Long Trinh, a volunteer with Ridglines who has helped with the Being Heard writing group at Centre Crest in the past, mirrors this sentiment: “There are many nonprofit organizations with worthy noble causes, but Ridgelines Language Arts’ humble ambition is to share hidden talents – for example, transforming docile seniors into daring poets, wielding their mighty big pens.
“The seniors at Centre Crest are a riot once they are in the midst of group brainstorming, composing stanzas and sonnets!” Trinh adds. “By the end of the class, everyone is beaming with satisfaction as they hear their recently minted class poems being read back to them by Abby. From these fun group writing classes at Centre Crest, I learned about the fabulous, humble, rich lives they'd lived. … Who knew that grandparents are still darn feisty, interesting, and young at heart!”
Ridgelines’ other core programs include Poetry for the Future, a series of poetry-writing workshops for queer and trans youth in Centre County; A Poem in Our Eyes, a semester-long program in which residents of Centre Crest’s memory-loss unit, local artists, and a teaching poet work together to write spontaneous poems in response to artwork by artists with ties to Centre County; One Mic, a summer program in which Storm Break Group Girl’s Home residents explore identity formation through music; and now the newer songwriting series at Central Counties Youth Center with Farmer.
“What’s incredibly rewarding to me is seeing how the Ridgelines team – a group of artists, organizers, activists, and educators – have been able to do so much with so little,” Minor says. “We aren’t professional fundraisers, and we aren’t coming from business or marketing backgrounds. We’re doing this in a very grassroots, very boots-on-the-ground kind of way.”
As to the future, Minor says she hopes Ridgelines “can lead the way in creating a central Pennsylvania in which imaginative acts have public consequence, in which the language arts are valued as critical forms of information, and in which everyone has equal voice.”
Regardless of which of the core Ridgelines programs an individual comes into contact with, whether as a participant, volunteer, artist, or instructor, their feedback always seems to follow the same tune: Ridgelines is all about elevating unheard voices in our community, something both needed and worth celebrating.
“Ridgelines is an important resource for the community,” says Dennis. “It offers opportunities for people outside of the school setting to express their creativity, their innermost feelings, and their personal truths through the cathartic experience of writing.”
“We’re all layered in stories,” Wiley adds. “And too many of those stories are never heard. Ridgelines encourages me – and I hope others – to slow down and listen to other people. And in turn, to be more empathetic. What has this person experienced? What do they think about? What do they dream of?”
For more information on Ridgelines programming, visit ridgelineslanguagearts.org.
Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.