Ridgelines was founded as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2017 by a small group of local writers, community organizers, activists, and teachers. We came together around our shared belief that brave, healthy individuals and just social conditions are sustained by the reflection, honesty, pleasure, and intimacy fostered by the study of language arts.
We partner with local groups and social service organizations to provide language arts programs to those who are marginalized in the ridges and valleys of central Pennsylvania. Our program participants range from queer and trans youth to low-income older adults, from survivors of domestic violence to residents of our region’s youth detention center. Under the umbrella of “language arts” we teach a range of expressive arts, from poetry and storytelling to songwriting and theater. We nurture a corps of vibrant teaching artists and serve as a matchmaker between TAs and the communities in which they teach.
What many of our language arts learners have in common is the experience of being impacted by stigma and injustice. What they all have in common is something that we all share—a need to tell our memories and explore our imaginations. Ridgelines meets that need for those whose other requirements—for food, shelter, recovery, medical care, and more—may be perceived as more immediate. We believe that the needs for meaning-making and beauty are essential and can be fulfilled alongside basic needs and the need for justice.
In creating Ridgelines, we were mindful of the rich history of community writing initiatives that precede us: Poets-in-the-Schools, prison writing programs, poetry workshops in homeless shelters, and many other instances of language arts programs that began to flourish outside of academic institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. These kinds of community-based classes have in common a sense of creative agency as fundamental to each and every person’s wellbeing. Such initiatives have often been rooted in the understanding that while the practice of language arts is not synonymous with the practices of therapy or activism, it can have therapeutic effects and pave the way for social change.
Since our founding, Ridgelines has grown gradually and sustainably, bit by bit each year. Some of our programs are well-established, while others are seedlings and sprouts. We embrace the variable nature of the community settings in which we teach, adapting to changing circumstances and creating programs that are responsive and pragmatic, built to suit the people and the place. At the same time, we aim for our programs to be in-depth and long-term. Our goals are for students and teachers to develop meaningful relationships; for our teaching artists to become valued members of the organizations and communities where they teach; and for programs to recur year after year.
As we continue to write, read, listen, sing, perform, collaborate, and convene throughout these ridges and valleys, we articulate values and metaphors that guide us:
We bring those who are outside, in, and those who are inside, out. Our programs bring listeners into new spaces, bring voices out of closed spaces, and blur the boundaries between who is serving and who is being served. While we’re committed to making space for the voices of those who are least heard, we also see that everyone benefits when the formidable boundaries between those who are “inside” and those who are “outside” are crossed.
We believe that the study of language arts prepares the way for social change. “Art is action,” writes poet Muriel Rukeyser, “but it does not cause action: rather, it prepares us for thought.” In making space for silence, subtlety, complexity, and contradiction, art prepares us to carefully consider and respond to our world.
Ridgelines wears an assortment of hats. What kind of organization is Ridgelines? Well, we are something like an itinerant community school; we are a matchmaking organization between teaching artists and student communities; we are a publisher/celebrant of marginalized voices. Ridgelines is a literacy organization in the sense that “literacy,” according to the Pennsylvania poet Julia Kasdorf, “means making meaning of your life and using language to do it.”
We honor our students by supporting our teaching artists. Our teaching artists are expert language arts instructors passionate about the movement for equal voice. We provide both administrative and financial support to these hardworking community members who maintain their own language arts practices while also leading others in finding beauty and meaning through poems and songs, stories and theatre, journaling and more. We pay our teaching artists as a sign of respect not only for them but for their students, people we take seriously as creative agents. We believe that the language arts learners who participate in our programs deserve the same high-quality and engaged instruction that takes place in schools and universities.
We provide expert language arts instruction outside of academic institutions. Why don’t we teach in schools and universities? All of us involved with Ridgelines are certainly big fans of academic institutions—many of us attended them and still teach in them!—but with Ridgelines, our mission is to provide language arts education in unlikely settings, in spaces where arts education doesn’t necessarily or often take place. While job training, GED study, and other forms of instruction that usually take place in social service settings are surely important, we believe that each and every person also has a deep creative need to make meaning of their lives and use language to do it.