Founded 25 years ago, Simpson Street Free Press is a paper made by young people on the South side of Madison.

Amber Walker wrote about Simpson Street in a recent article in The Cap Times:

Simpson Street Free Press started as a free monthly newspaper in the Broadway-Simpson neighborhood on Madison’s south side, just south of Lake Monona, in 1992. Six students from La Follette High School — Keysha McCann, Tammy Washington, Tasha Bell, Patricia Bell, Dee Graham and Tomiko Osbey — wanted a platform for teens to share their thoughts and combat what they saw as negative stereotypes and incomplete coverage about their neighborhood in the mainstream media.

Fannie Mims, president of the now defunct Broadway-Simpson neighborhood association (now called the Bridge-Lakepoint-Waunona neighborhood) and Kramer, a resident and volunteer, served as adult editors for the fledgling paper. They helped the teens hone their voices as they wrote about violence, teen pregnancy, domestic abuse and other issues that were important to them.

By 1998, Simpson Street welcomed teens from all over Madison to write for the paper. Through donations, Kramer and Mims were able to pay students modest stipends for their work, which continues today.

I first heard about Simpson Street Free Press when my middle school librarian handed me its hard-copy newspaper. The Free Press looked like the other newspapers on display, but it was filled with stories written by kids my age who looked kind of like me.

I was bright, but had issues focusing at school. But those issues tended to dissolve when I was allowed to be creative. After starting my own little newsletter in fifth grade, I already fancied myself a newspaper girl; but the school paper at my middle school was shut down due to budget cuts and lack of interest.

I talked with a guidance counselor about how I could get involved in another way. This most-unhelpful counselor did less than the bare minimum. She suggested I talk to some student I didn’t really know about how to get involved. It was middle school, and I gave up.

Later, in high school, I overheard a boy in my English class making fun of the school newspaper for which I proudly wrote and occasionally edited. He told me in no uncertain terms that one of the school newspapers I worked on was “trash.”

I wanted to dismiss what he had to say, but he had a point. There was barely any editorial review. It was maybe a bit self-congratulatory. I pressed him for insights on who the hell he thought he was to expect so much out of a high school paper; he turned around and told me that he took part in a real newsroom experience.

I’m like, Okay, so tell me where it is.

A swath of hardcopy issues of Simpson Street Free Press over the years. Photo Credit: Claire Miller

People describe Simpson Street as a sparkling gem on the South Side of Madison, but it’s more than that. Rather, it’s a mirror of the sometimes-unsung bright young minds that make up Dane County and its surrounding areas.

For me, it was a place where my writing talent was recognized, nurtured, and held to very high standards. Rigor and creative freedom coexisted. Staff writers—that’s what they called us—were valued for what knowledge, perspective, brilliance we already brought to the table. I felt respected, and because of that, I grew.

“It’s fun to have something going on in the gym for sports, but we need more academics for our kids,” Adams said. “When it came down to getting him that material (for school) I had to run to Simpson Street Free Press for it.”

—Jewel Adams, as interviewed by Amber C. Walker

At SSFP, my work mattered and meant something to people. I had never been in an environment where my intellect and weirdness could combine to create a generative discussion, or to help someone learn a concept. With these high standards in place, I became a much better writer, and in turn, a much better reader and editor. Without realizing it, I had become a leader.

Multiple rounds of edits from their peers and adults encourage students to refine their craft. The idea is if students are invested in turning in their best work for the paper, that commitment to excellence will benefit them in all of their classes.

This notion is what brought Jewel Adams to the Free Press’ door over eight years ago. A longtime south side resident, Adams remembers Simpson Street kids “always had books in their hands,” and she was impressed by their professionalism. Students clock in and out each day and carry business cards.

Adams said her son, a talented athlete, struggled in math but lacked the confidence to ask for help. She said Simpson Street was one of the only after-school programs in the neighborhood she could find with an academic focus.  

“It’s fun to have something going on in the gym for sports, but we need more academics for our kids,” Adams said. “When it came down to getting him that material (for school) I had to run to Simpson Street Free Press for it.”

Aarushi and Luis 3Eight years later, it’s summer of 2017 and I’m one of the editors who does these ‘multiple rounds.’ I work with all kinds of students, customizing my lesson plans to their interests and learning styles, and I’ve also become a little bit of an expert on out-of-school time literature. I can recite the mission statement in my sleep. I have spoken and written publicly to reporters, elected officials, citizens, and parents, representing the Free Press.

When I started at the Free Press, I was scared to death of “networking” with people, and truth be told, I’m still sometimes terrified, but I know how to do it, and I do it everyday.

Today I’m in New York, pursuing a Master in Fine Arts in Writing and Activism. It’s the most populous city in the United States—or so I wrote in my postcard to the students.

Geography is an ongoing lesson plan at the Free Press, maps adorning the walls of the newly-expanded Monona newsroom. Jim Kramer, the organization’s executive director calls maps “learning portals.” We find them particularly helpful when working with students, who (like me) are more responsive to visual stimuli, when taking in information.

New York is the perfect place for someone like me—a writer, musician, stand-up comic, who considers herself an activist. When I started at the Free Press, I was scared to death of “networking” with people, and truth be told, I’m still sometimes terrified, but I know how to do it, and I do it everyday.

The other day, I checked my Brooklyn mailbox on the way to a show, and found a large envelope in the mail— a new issue of the Free Press!— filled with fresh articles in English and in Spanish, about big, smart, important topics like Geography, Space Science, Energy and the Environment, and a beautiful editorial about representation of people of color in literature that I assigned while working closely with a brilliant middle-schooler named Kadjata Bah.

kadjata bah article
Imagine my joy at seeing this in print! Read it here in the online publication.

Reading through the paper, I remembered the first time I read the paper in my middle school library. Reading it, I experienced the kind of joy you can only get from learning something new, and understanding the world a little better.

The work that has come out of SSFP is academic, it’s rigorous and it’s radical.

That first year I worked at the Free Press, I looked up to people like my friend, Jonah, who had ripped apart my school newspaper, and never shied away from a fun, interesting metaphor if it stuck with people. We traded work and improved each other’s stuff.

I met editors, like Sisi Chen, who could improve a piece of writing I thought was perfect.  These same editors pushed me to share my own ideas. It was always scary, but I found that speaking up and sharing my work always felt better than not sharing it. And it got easier when other people shared, too.

Empowerment is contagious. And with this new-found empowerment, my true potential to be an effective leader in my community started to unlock. I began to see sharing not just as something I was afraid to do, but as something I couldn’t afford not to do. This continues to make all the difference.

when we speak
“a litany for survival,” by Audre Lorde, as quoted in Talking Back by bell hooks

I am so thankful to Jim Kramer, Jonah Huang, Deidre Green, Mckenna Kohlenberg, Taylor Kilgore, Ben Reddersen, Gloria Gonzalez, Claire Miller, Adaeze Okoli, Ashley Crawford, Brianna Wilson, Andrea Gilmore-Bykovskyi, Sisi Chen, Darlinne Kambwa and everyone else at Simpson Street who believed in me, sharpened me, and turned me into the sort of person who believes in herself.

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Aarushi Agni (@aarushifire) is a Brooklyn-based writer, stand-up comic and musician, hailing from Madison, WI. She eavesdrops on conversations about medicine and public policy. As a comic, she’s opened for lovely people such as Aparna Nancherla, Jackie Kashian and Maggie Faris. For the last four years, she has produced and performed within Yoni Ki Baat, a yearly monologue showcase celebrating the intersectional stories of women of color. She’s also a singer/songwriter, frontperson of several bands, including Tin Can DiamondsShe founded Brown Girl Lifted in 2015.