Libby Hunter: The Woman Behind WordPlay
All of us can see problems in our neighborhoods. Many of us will talk about those problems. But few of us throw our lives toward fixing them as Libby Hunter did when she co-founded WordPlay Cincy, a Northside-based nonprofit organization that fights poverty through creativity and communication.
Hunter and her friend Elissa Yancey set out to give Northside teens a productive, safe place to go. Now, WordPlay provides after-school tutoring and creative writing classes to hundreds of children from kindergarten to twelfth grade each week. Programs likes CincyScribes unite teens across geographic and socioeconomic lines and provide more than academics, giving the kids a place to share and connect.
Women of Cincy sat down with Hunter at WordPlay’s Hamilton Avenue home to talk about the organization’s beginning and future.
Tell us a little bit yourself and how you ended up here in Cincinnati.
So, I am a born and bred Cincinnatian. Went away for ten years, college, grad school, work overseas. I thought I was going to go into academia and become a professor, and ended up taking a right turn, really very unexpectedly.
I was living in Hungary doing my post-graduate research and I just really needed an outlet, so I went down to the Red Cross to volunteer. It was in the early ’90s and the war was raging in Yugoslavia and you had all these refugees pouring in and I just thought, “I just want to go help.” I can babysit refugee children while their parents are getting settled or something – just something to counter all this academic work.
They don’t have a culture of volunteerism over there, so they didn’t know what to do with me.
They sent me up to the International Department, and I ended up being, as a volunteer, the assistant to the head of the International Department of the Red Cross in Hungary. It’s like, whoa. And I got to stay after my research work and work with them some, and that got me into refugee work.
And then, I came back here and pretty quickly got in with the Catholic Charities and became refugee resettlement coordinator there. My kids were young, and I had a meandering career path after that.
In my heart, I just knew being an academic was not where it was for me. I am a doer. I’m not a theoretician. I need to be out there doing. I realized a career in human relationships was what I needed to be focusing on.
How did WordPlay start?
Several shifts in my career later, I ended up in real estate. I was working in the niche of sustainable, urban redevelopment, trying to counteract gentrification. It was late winter in 2011. There’s a park around here [the Children’s Park], a really notorious park. It had been ground zero for our gang, which was broken up about seven years ago. This kind of power vacuum was left after they were gone. Teenagers started really occupying the park, still selling drugs, dice games, graffiti. All the buildings around the park, most of them were vacant, so there were lots of broken windows, vandalism. So, these nonprofits started dovetailing their efforts around that being ground zero. Let’s redevelop these buildings and get homeowners in here, mostly low- and moderate-income homeowners.
So, I was working with a woman with cerebral palsy. She was in a wheelchair and wanted to progress from assisted living to owning her own property. This condominium project on the edge of the park was perfect for her. It was a small building, small apartment, and it had been vacant for probably the entire lives of the kids who were hanging out there, 15 years or so. And so, it was their turf. We were there very early in the project to meet with the architect to make sure it was designed to meet her wheelchair needs, and we were over there one night, one of the very first nights, flipping on lights, and the kids in the park suddenly took notice and they started throwing rocks at my client. I was absolutely livid. I was first like a mother – “What the hell are you doing? You don’t throw rocks at people!” – and then I was terrified.
I just wanted to find a way to connect with them. I knew calling the cops was only going to escalate the aggression.
I’ve lived in Northside since 1996, and I knew those kids – maybe not specifically those kids, but I’d known kids like them. I’d seen these generations of kids hanging out on street corners and parks and whatnot. I was always dismayed by this real tension. Northside prides itself on being so diverse, and we are diverse – but we’re very segregated.
We’re very separate, and separate is certainly not equal, especially not in Cincinnati, not anywhere really, and definitely not in Northside.
And so, that had always been frustrating me as well, just not feeling like our neighborhood was truly integrated. So, I thought, here’s my chance to connect with these kids.
So, I went over there. And at first it was, “What the hell are you doing?” Then, I just wanted to find out, “Why are you here? And what else speaks to you in our community?”
These kids were basically like, “This is our community. These are my friends. This is all I’ve got.” I can guarantee you 100 percent of those kids were living in poverty, and I can guarantee you that their opportunities for climbing out of that were really slim. I just felt, you know, maybe this eternal kind of motherly guilt or something, this collective responsibility for them being trapped there in the park.
By the time we were done, they were trying to make me laugh. They were asking me for a ride home. I think they were just as fascinated that they had a captive audience as I was.
I came away from that just totally obsessed with helping to find a solution, something that would speak to them. The park came to represent poverty to me, and you know Cincinnati has one of the highest poverty rates, and one of the lowest upward mobility rates. So, it was like, wow, these kids are squeezed into a place with no opportunities, and if there’s nothing that they’re taking advantage of, according to them, in terms of services and programs, then, it’s up to me to crack that code, to find that magic right recipe that’s going to speak them.
I thought at first I was just going to organize a community roundtable and it was going to be a real collaborative effort, and just realized it was going to be a lot more talk…a lot of meetings and talk, and I’m very impatient.
So, I was having a beer with my good friend Elissa Yancey, two nights later, and she’s lived here even longer than I have. She moved here in ‘94 and she’d raised her kids here. At that point, her kids had been mugged twice, my boys had been mugged at gunpoint by their peers, right behind this building, in fact, and it was like, we have got to come together or we’re only going to continue to drift apart, racially, economically, culturally, socially, all those things.
So, I said, “We have to do something to help these kids!” And she said, “OK.” Maybe it was the combination of a good friend and a couple beers in our system, but our laptops flew open and she’s like, “Let me show you something. I’ve always loved this model.”
She showed me 826 National, out in San Francisco, that was started by Dave Akers. They opened a nonprofit to help kids with after-school tutoring, and once that’s out of the way, turn the kids onto creative writing. It became a real powerhouse. They’ve got seven chapters around the country.
We decided we’d have a creative writing center, and that would be what would draw in the kids. And it was like, “We could do this!” and “We could do that!” and it became this thing like if you’d won the lottery, what would you do? Well, we’d kind of create our own beautiful new welcoming community for kids. What does it look like? We just started making it real. It was the strangest, most organic process; it never could be replicated.
The right people started, almost like a vortex, pulling in the right energy and the right resources.
My friends who owned this shop here told me they were closing up, and I said, “Oh, I want dibs on that space.” I had a big old house I was renovating. I sold it and I moved into the apartment above WordPlay.
Do you still live upstairs?
No, I was able to buy a house a couple years ago. It was like, “Wow! A mortgage company actually considers WordPlay to be a viable employer.” I live in Northside.
My boys at the time, they were all-in. They loved it. They all volunteered for me. One of them still does. The oldest went into psychology.
As soon as we turned our concept over to the community, it just became the community’s. That’s the way I always wanted it to be. I want it to really belong to all of us, the kids especially. We had a wonderful poster at our grand opening in September 2012, a big poster to thank everyone who had something to do with getting us open. There were over 150 names on there.
You opened in 2012?
Yes, with just a sandwich board out front with some balloons on it that said “free tutoring.” Let’s start talking to teachers and principals and social workers and families and then the word just spread like wildfire.
Those kids from the park, did they come ever?
You know what, yes. Before we opened in September, that summer of 2012, we started developing partnerships, and Cincinnati Public Schools were one of our first partners. They said, “Hey, why don’t you guys be an enrichment provider for one of our summer schools. You can go to Chase Elementary right here in Northside.” It was 80 kids, and we had no idea what we were doing. It was total mayhem and we learned so much. There were three girls in that program who were in the park that night. I thought, “Oh my gosh!” I didn’t want to say anything. I thought, “I just want to hang out with you guys.”
And then, the amazing thing, my client ended up buying that condo, and she came to me. She wanted to volunteer for us. That was our first intense full circle. That it’d come back to those girls in the park, and my client.
And it never would have happened without those right events and those right people. It just feels so “right time, right cause, right everything,” you know? Like it was meant to happen, and yet, any number of big things along the way, if they hadn’t fallen into place, like if we hadn’t gotten this building right away, I don’t know what we would have done. It just allowed us to open at the right time. If Elissa had been hesitant, if she wasn’t so gung-ho that night, I never would have done it on my own. The partners that jumped on so readily…
How many kids are you serving now?
When it’s at full-tilt, it’s about 200 a week. The majority of that now is at our schools. At first we were very committed to being a third space – we only wanted to provide programming here. Get the kids away from their homes, away from the school environment. That was great, but you can only serve so many kids in this space, so we started our school-based programming. That’s just taken off like crazy. And then we do kind of one-off events.
2012 to 2017. What is the thing you’re most proud of over that five years?
I do think it’s our teen programs overall.
Teenagers, you know, they are so left behind. I say this a lot: It seems like almost anybody wants to read to a cute little kindergartener. But you get a 17-year-old who is 6’4” and he’s reading at fourth-grade level, he’s intimidating looking and he’s got a thick wall up, and he just wants to drop out of high school – nobody really wants to sit down with him and say, “Hey! Let’s get you turned on to reading and writing.” How the hell do you do that?
It’s community building. It’s letting the students lead the way. We don’t want to assume that we know what they need. It’s community building. It’s trust building. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s become friends and bridge that divide. Show me what you need. Tell me what you need. What can I do to help? Every semester, we’re tweaking and reforming to follow where the students lead.
With poverty, there’s certainly a lot of things kids need. So, why writing and reading?
We felt that’s what’s missing: that safe, kind of non-judgmental place where kids can discover. Everyone has creativity in them and it’s so often quashed by the realities of a hard life. Or if these kids are failing in school, they don’t want to sit down and learn how to read. They don’t. Even though the pressure is on us, everyone wants us to prove we’re raising reading scores.
We want these kids to learn how to trust, to trust in themselves, that’s our goal, to learn confidence and creativity.
We have this recipe, this triangle: talking, reading, creating together. Our volunteers create alongside the kids to show them it’s worthwhile. It’s not just modeling the behavior, it’s like, “Hey! I’m your peer. I’m here.”
And then, everything’s celebrated. We don’t grade anything here, spelling, grammar. We just want everyone to use their authentic voice. It’s been amazing.
Right now, our big goal is to hire an education and outreach director. We’re hoping to do that for the beginning of the new school year. We only have two full-time staff and three part-time. [That position] will help us grow exponentially.
We’d like to start moving toward a campus model. We want to have more satellites around the city, so we’re aligning ourselves much more closely to our food pantry, for example. We’d like to move into family literacy. We’re not going to do adult literacy, but, on almost a case management level, help the family understand what needs they have in education and what resources can we connect you to, and then, help the family support the children’s education. We want to start to change attitudes about education and self-advocacy and just a love of reading. We want to promote creativity. We want our events to evolve into even bigger audiences.
So, having that next full-time person will allow us to have even more of a school presence, which is necessary.
We’ll never be in every neighborhood in Cincinnati, but we do hope to have a much greater geographic presence. In five years, I’d love a mobile programming unit. I’ve always thought it would fun to get an old camper and retrofit it, have a WordPlay on Wheels mobile. We could just roll up to the park and roll out a mobile reading lounge, give away books and do fun activities with the kids.
What women have been influential to you?
I definitely have to say my mom, in that she is kind of the quintessential mother spirit. We always call her a mother tiger. She’s a little thing. She’s like barely over five feet tall, but just that unconditional nurturing and care. I’m not like her. I’m fiery, and short-tempered, and I yell at my kids. But, just to understand so fundamentally that it is that unconditional love, first and foremost, that any child needs, especially our at-risk kids. She’s been tremendously important in my life in terms of that.