Rachel Loeper on Building Her Nonprofit

When Rachel Loeper, a Philadelphia-based educator and writer, saw a Ted Talk by David Eggers about creating a nonprofit to educate students, she knew she wanted to create something similar. After quite a bit of hard work, Mighty Writers, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, was born. 

Loeper talked with She Spends about the program, plans for expansion and its special focus on young girls. 

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity) 

Tell me about Mighty Writers.
So Mighty Writers has been around since 2009. I was there at the very beginning. I was our original program director when we opened in 2009. We teach kids to think and write with clarity, and we do that by engaging members of the local writing community, like journalists, novelists, marketing and communications. Those volunteers come in and we work with them on the education and youth development piece so that they’re ready to work. We throw them in with the kids. We have 40 to 50 unique opportunities at each of our sites, and we have seven sites this year. Our first six locations are all in Philadelphia. Our seventh just opened in Camden, N.J. 

How did you it come to be? 
I have a degree in creative writing. After that, I taught English as a second language, both abroad and in Pennsylvania. I went back to grad school, got a masters in creative writing and was working in the education technology industry. I was helping to develop computer programs based around writing. As I was doing that, I found that it was not a good fit for me. Among the many things I did for hours at work was looking at Ted Talks. I watched one by Dave Eggers about his writing program that struck me. That’s where Mighty Writers began.

So you had an idea. Then you had to get organized. How did you do it? 
I was really good at organizing on Facebook and MeetUp Doing that really was focusing on turning those online relationships and connections into face to face encounters. At that time Craigslist wasn’t as creepy as it has become. I shared the idea and had people join me. I started developing meeting lists, had morning coffees and evening happy hours for those who were interested. I talked to them and tried to organize in this direction. I found a great cohort of people, many of whom I’m still in touch with. The right people are the ones that show up. 

How did you structure Mighty Writers? Is it a nonprofit? 
We’re set up as a nonprofit. We received our initial grants from Gerry Lenfest, who is a local Philly philanthropist. He provided that startup funding we needed to just do the work. As time went on we reached out to many foundations and individuals to support our work. To date, we’re about a little less than half funded by foundations, while half of it comes from individuals. Ten percent comes from corporate and government giving.

You specifically offer programs for young girls, right? 
One of our very first summer programs was Girl Power Poetry. Girls loved it, their moms loved it. It was something that we knew we’d continue to do over the years. There are a lot of conversations around strengths and recognizing them. The age range is pretty broad.That has created a cool dynamic. The older girls are ready to lead, and don’t always have permission to do so. They’re stepping up as leaders. It’s a safe place for discussion. Our girls as young as 12 and 13 are getting cat called. So we talk about what to do about that. In an ideal world, all of us can talk to our mothers about it, but it’s not the case for many families. Finding some sort of safe place is pretty phenomenal. They’re really trusting of us. 

I think that the one thing that the program does is that it creates a safe environment to express who they are and what they do in this world. Once kids start doing that, their self esteem goes up, they start articulating themselves better, and it can be a really powerful thing. 

What are your plans for expansion? 
We could probably be in three or four more neighborhoods in Camden before we go anywhere else. It’s the nature of sites and cities. We have to go where the kids are, because they can’t always get to us. Thinking about those barriers and trying to focus on Philly and Camden is where we are right now. We could expand in the future.