The Local Look: 826CHI and the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co.
Perhaps you have recently walked past the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co. (formerly the Boring Store) and wondered what was inside. Behind the shop is not, as you might imagine, a secret agent training facility. Instead, it is a youth literacy and writing nonprofit, 826CHI that the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co. donates its profits to. 826CHI is part of the national 826 network of writing and tutoring centers, which fosters self-expression and collaboration in students ages 6 to 18 while improving their reading and writing skills. From holding writing workshops to publishing collections of student-written work, 826CHI’s diverse programming empowers young readers and writers to strengthen their skills and let their imaginations run wild.
The 826 National network expands to new cities through the work of local individuals and organizations that see a need for 826 programming in their community. Considerations for this growth include a high number of under-resourced public schools, access to a diverse volunteer corps, public transportation, broad fundraising opportunities and potential for organizational partnerships. Over the past decade, Chicago has seen rapidly increasing class sizes and ongoing cuts to arts programs—a landscape that makes 826CHI’s free educational and literary arts programs even more relevant. It’s been an invaluable opportunity to connect with our local community, as well as to educators, writers, artists and like-minded organizations throughout the city.
If you could go back in time before you became involved in running the business and share one piece of advice with yourself, what would you tell yourself?
I’d tell us to build infrastructure from the beginning. The grassroots spirit of 826CHI is a key part of our identity and energy to this day, but over the years, building infrastructure and capacity have been absolutely essential to our sustainability and growth. Create systems that support your vision and work long-term, not just immediately. And write everything down!
What are your next steps?
Our yearlong Capital Fund Building Project 826CHI Forward wraps up in May 2015. We’ve received unbelievable support from dozens of individuals and businesses as we’ve outfitted our new home with the fixtures, furniture and technology to best suit and serve more than 3,500 Chicago students a year. We’re nearly finished with our brand new Vol/loquium website, an online resource portal which will allow us to better equip our volunteers to work with our students, as well as provide volunteers with resources for their own professional development. We’ve also been putting together a “How to Be a Secret Agent” dossier, which articulates the spirit —as well as the nuts and bolts—of 826CHI’s way of teaching and talking about the writing process with youth. We’re ecstatic to release this as a volunteer training tool.
We want to be in the know! Name one person, place or thing that you think is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets—a secret until now, of course.
We deeply admire small presses and independent publishers. Closest to us in Wicker Park is Quimby’s Bookstore. Swing by their location in Wicker Park to check out the indie zine scene and even snag an 826CHI book or two!
Q&As are edited for clarity and length.