Nafissatou Ndiaye, a youth writer with Chapter 510, holding “Freedom Is," a companion book to the musical album of the same name. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Nine months ago, during what would be the last First Fridays festival in downtown Oakland before the pandemic brought things to a halt, Chapter 510, a local nonprofit that teaches writing and bookmaking to Black, brown, and LGBTQ youth, held an event at its “Department of Make Believe” (the organization’s headquarters on Telegraph Avenue) to unveil its latest publication: “Motherland: Oakland Poems Inspired by Home.” Chapter 510 had big plans for the project, a handmade book of poems written by Hoover Elementary school students. Several community events were scheduled for the spring and summer, including a read-along at Children’s Fairyland. But just days after debuting the book, those plans were canceled.

The staff had hoped to resume in-person events within a few weeks, but quickly realized it wouldn’t be possible. “We thought, maybe we will reopen for spring break. Maybe we can do it in person in June,” said Chapter 510’s co-founder, Tavia Stewart. “We finally came to terms that we were going to be online.”

Undeterred, the organization shifted its focus to helping kids develop their creativity and reduce social isolation while sheltered at home. “Kids need to write and are hungry for community,” noted Janet Heller, Chapter 510’s founder and executive director.

Chapter 510 went on to publish two more books during the summer and fall: “Because This City,” a collection of poems about Oakland, and “Behind Our Names,” featuring poems by Muslim and Swana (South West Asian and North African) youth. Both books had been developed with students in-person, before workshops were moved online. 

Since then, the nonprofit has continued to run creative writing, poetry, and open mic workshops, virtually, for Oakland students, including two aimed at elementary school children, one for middle schoolers, and one for teenagers.

Chapter 510 is also helping youth create music. In October, the team released “Freedom Is,” an 11-track album with an accompanying songbook illustrated by Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh, which was the first Chapter 510 project developed entirely via Zoom. The work was led by teaching artist Tiffany Golden, who paired nine students with local musicians and groups including Santos Soul, Alphabet Rockers, AshEL “Seasunz” Eldridge, and others. Their songs deal with isolation, distance learning, and other pandemic-related themes.

Remotely producing the album with so many artists, said Golden, posed a logistical challenge. She also had to keep in mind that not all students have access to the same technology and resources, especially English language learners. Keeping the information as straightforward as possible, she said, was key to making the virtual songwriting camp a success.

“I had never done any remote teaching before this. I had to scout for online resources,” said Golden. “How do I bring my goofy personality to the screen? When I’m one on one in a classroom, it really is about transmitting a lot of love and closeness. How do you do that through a computer?”

Ava Marie Smith was one of the students who helped create the album. The 10-year-old teamed up with musician Hannah Mayree, co-founder of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, and the two met every week online to work on their song.

Spending so much time at home gave Smith the chance to pay attention to her immediate surroundings, and she drew inspiration from her parents, who she said have helped her navigate these tough times. Meanwhile, Mayree was there to support Smith’s artistic expression through songwriting. The end result was “Shine,” a song on which Smith narrates: “The curtain of night fell upon us, but my family still shines in the darkness. Even when it’s the hardest, we can help all lost causes.” 

By “just being able to support some of her ideas,” Mayree said, “I got to know Ava Marie, what she was about, and what was important to her.” 

Sisters Nafissatou Ndiaye, 8, and Aida Ndiaye, 11, holding copies of the companion book to the album, “Freedom Is.” Behind them are Hannah Mayree and Joyous Dawn, local artists who they collaborated with on the album. Credit: Amir Aziz

Sisters Nafissatou Ndiaye, 8, and Aida Ndiaye, 11, wrote two songs on the album: Nafissatou wrote “Corona, Go Home,” dedicated to first responders, while Aida wrote “Brilliant Beautiful Girl,” a song she dedicated to her mother. Nafissatou teamed up with Oakland-based musician and artist AshEL “Seasunz” Eldridge on her track, and Aida worked with the singer-songwriter, Joyous Dawn. 

“What I wanted to bring was support and encouragement,” Dawn said. “I also appreciated the sense of connection that felt possible in this virtual camp. It felt like a transfer of creative energy, and it always left me feeling super joyful after every session.”

Aida, who began writing in second grade, previously contributed to two Chapter 510 books. She’d also written a book about her food allergies prior to joining Chapter 510, and is a two-time winner of Fairyland’s Young Writers Contest. “That encouraged me to keep writing,” Aida said of receiving the honor. 

“She brings a level of otherworldliness to her characters,” Golden said of Aida’s storytelling. “She writes so beautifully and really creates another world that you want to be a part of.” 

Mareme Ndiaye, Aida and Nafissatou’s mother, said the organization has done a lot to nurture both of her daughters’ talents. “They got a lot of support from Chapter 510,” she said. “They have built a lot of confidence. It’s a great experience.”

“It’s such a big deal for the kids to meet and be listened to by real creative professionals,” said Margie Chardiet, the program and publications manager for Chapter 510. “It was so powerful to witness, with COVID and the disconnected feeling of families being in lockdown and meeting remotely, seeing these musicians taking time out of their lives [and] committing to the program.” 

As of last week, Chapter 510 began releasing a wave of new youth-produced projects: eight novels written by seventh graders from Westlake Middle School, a project with fourth graders from Hoover Elementary School, and a collection of poems about redefining justice. 

The entire “Freedom Is” album is available on BandCamp and Spotify.

Correction: We previously misspelled the first name of Nafissatou Ndiaye, and Aida Ndiaye’s age. We regret the error.

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Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.