Art and Activism

Zach Wyner MFA ’09 teaches incarcerated kids to express themselves through writing

By ARVIN TEMKAR, USF NEWS Posted Mon, 11/13/2017 - 12:13

Zach Wyner MFA ’09 doesn’t press the kids he works with about their alleged crimes. Instead, he encourages them to tell the stories that are inside them: whether that’s about their families, their passions, or the futures they dream of. 

What he gets are poems, raps, essays, and artwork, stemming from the lives of the 13 to 18-year-olds — some of whom have been accused of armed robbery or murder.

For the past five years Wyner, a novelist with a strong bent toward social justice, has volunteered at Alameda County Juvenile Hall with The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that facilitates writing and art workshops in prisons. 

“I want them to have a space where they can be seen apart from something they did or didn’t do in their darkest moments,” says Wyner. 

The students’ work is published in a bi-monthly magazine that’s distributed to detention centers and officials like judges and district attorneys, with the goal of humanizing the young inmates and giving them a creative outlet to express themselves. 

“It’s really important to us that the kids have a platform,” Wyner says. “It’s nice to hand a kid a publication of their work and see them take pride in it — and maybe shift conceptions of themselves and what is possible.”

Activist artist

Wyner’s path to the nonprofit began at USF, where he made friends with other politically and socially minded students.

Calder Lorenz MFA ’09 introduced him to San Francisco’s St. Anthony’s Foundation, where Lorenz worked. Wyner began volunteering to serve food to the homeless, and soon volunteering became a major part of his life — “essential” to his who he is, he says.

“I honestly believe that we need to do this work to save our society and to save our souls, because it is toxic for our souls and our society to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering inflicted by capitalism, misogyny, and systemic racism,” he says.

A more inclusive canon

After graduating, Wyner looked for opportunities to both make a difference and put his writing chops to good use. The Beat Within was a perfect match. In addition to facilitating juvenile hall workshops for the nonprofit, Wyner occasionally attends court dates for the students he works with and often writes referral letters for them, so that judges have an impression of the kids beyond their case files.

Wyner says that he saw his values mirrored in USF’s MFA in Writing program, which made inclusivity a priority.

He loved his professors, who “made sure to present us with material that isn’t part of the typical literary canon — work by women writers, queer writers, and writers of color,” he says. “That was really important.”

Wyner’s debut novel What We Never Had was released last fall. He’s at work on another novel that draws on his experiences at the detention center. 

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