Nicole Melanson ~
After the publication of her first novel at the age of eighteen, Dani Hedlund founded the international literary nonprofit, Brink Literacy Project (formerly, Tethered by Letters). Over the course of the last decade, Brink has grown into one of the largest independently funded literary nonprofits in the nation, with bases across the US, UK, and Southeast Asia. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of F(r)iction, an art and literary collection specializing in boundary-defying work. Since its inception in 2015, F(r)iction has risen to critical acclaim, becoming one of the fastest growing literary journals in the world. In her ever-elusive free time, Dani lectures about the ins and outs of the publishing industry, writes very weird fiction, and runs a strange little board game company called Bad Hipster Games.
What can you tell us about Brink Literacy Project?
Brink Literacy Project is an organization centered around the idea that stories can change lives. Over the last 11 years, Brink has progressed from helping writers make sure that there are great stories in the world to recognizing that so many people don’t have the abilities or the resources to access those stories in the first place.
Today, we work with populations that people often overlook when it comes to literature—low-income high schools, prisons, homeless shelters… populations that are thought of as being “on the brink.” We use storytelling to pull them back, inspire them, help them reach their full potential. This mission is at the core of our organization. We focus on increasing literacy rates, nurturing new storytellers, empowering underserved voices—making sure that no great voice goes unheard.
To carry out this work, we have education, community, and publishing divisions. Each of these divisions carries out a certain facet of our core mission. In education, for example, we have created the Youth Writing Program to help spark a love of literature in teens who otherwise wouldn’t go near a book. In our international community, we work with other incredible humanitarian organizations to shine a light on writers in every corner of the world, all the way from Afghan women to veterans to members of the LGBTQ community. And in our publishing division, we create a platform for those underrepresented and emerging writers ourselves through our triannual print journal F(r)iction.
Why did you decide to go the nonprofit route with Brink?
When I started the Brink Literacy Project, then known as Tethered by Letters, I was nineteen years old. I didn’t know a lot, but I did know that stories mattered and that I wanted to find a way to help people write them. I also understood that the publishing industry is very expensive and difficult to navigate. Even if you’re a great writer, if you don’t live in one of the major publishing hubs, it’s difficult to make the connections you need. MFAs, writers’ workshops, private editors, and other resources all cost money.
I wanted to make sure that everyone could get better at writing, regardless of age, background, race, religious, geography… every voice mattered to me. So when I thought about what kind of company I wanted Brink to be, a nonprofit made sense. So I read Nonprofits for Dummies on the floor at Barnes & Noble, and I learned that if we could get enough people to support our mission, we would be golden. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get people with money to care about reading and writing, but that was the challenge for the next 11 years!
How does your personal experience as a writer inform your current role as CEO of Brink Literacy Project?
I certainly wouldn’t have started the organization if I hadn’t been a writer. I wrote my first book when I was fifteen. The rough time I had trying to get people in the industry to take me seriously inspired me to start this nonprofit.
Being writers and editors both, we wear different hats every day: we see magic and endless possibilities everywhere we go as well as a constant stream of things that can be changed, edited, formed to our will, which is an interesting mindset for business.
When you go to talks at business schools or startups, they always mention what you need most in the corporate world: stubbornness. Writing gives you stubbornness. If you survive as a writer, you will have been faced with so much rejection, not just from agents, magazines, and publishers, but from yourself. If you don’t look at your prose and think you might be a hack, you’re probably not doing it right. Writing is full of pain. You’re constantly ripping yourself apart so that you can work on being the absolute best writer you can be. And it’s the same with running a business. There are donor rejections, bank rejections. You have to be strong and believe in your cause. I couldn’t have run this company if I hadn’t been a writer—it gave me all the tools I needed to make sure we would thrive.
You’ve bucked the trend by taking the Tethered by Letters Quarterly Literary Journal from an online format to a print journal, now known as F(r)iction. How has that transition worked?
As anyone will tell you, publishing (and in particular, print) is dying. Book sales at the ten largest houses have tanked. Digital versions sometimes make up fifty percent, if not more, of sales. As publishers we like that; we’re reaping a full financial benefit without production cost. So it made sense to go digital.
Something was lost, though, when we only worked online. As literature has changed, and content has evolved to become shorter, most people engage with content on social media. And that’s changing the way we interact. When we started F(r)iction, we wanted to go back, not only in terms of the content we publish—great stories no matter where they came from—but also to what it was like to be a kid going to a bookstore and coming home with so many enchanting new worlds in our hands. There is something oh so special about a beautifully designed book.
So we decided to move to print in the most aggressive way we possibly could, which was to completely change the way we thought about the aesthetic of a literary journal. We went all out, commissioning full-color, custom illustrations for every piece published, including a comic in every issue, and printing custom-embossed covers with spot glosses and sheens. People would look and wonder how we could afford it—a book as beautiful as the stories within! And it paid off. We’ve grown faster than any other journal on the market simply because of how different we are. Since our books feel like a collection, we have a very dedicated readership. They want every copy and theme because they’re all very unique. So although it’s counter-intuitive, our print journal has really helped us grow in that way.
What’s next for your organization?
Up until 2015, our nonprofit focused largely on helping new stories come into the world. This meant particularly focusing on helping both new writers and writers from underserved communities. We wanted to be sure that unique, important stories always found the light. In all respects, it was about people coming to us with a passion for storytelling.
At the end of 2014, we were approached by a prison librarian about whether we could run a program in her prison. Like most things, we thought, “What the hell, we’ll make it work.” And out of everything we’ve ever done, this decision changed our nonprofit the most. We had found a new passion. We now teach a graphic memoir curriculum in prisons, using the comic medium as a way to engage reluctant or low-literacy readers. Through this storytelling and literacy program, we seek to empower incarcerated individuals to make positive choices going forward. In fact, I teach the program myself because I fell so deeply in love with it. Every person that has accompanied me has seen that we’ve really started doing something a bit magical—we can see how these women’s lives are changing because of the chance to tell their own stories.
So we sat down with our board and said: What if we got even more aggressive? What if we went into other marginalized populations, populations with the lowest incomes and literacy levels, and tried to make a difference? We could use stories and storytelling to increase literacy and change lives. And so we reorganized the lens of the nonprofit to particularly focus on these innovative education initiatives.
Often inmates begin our program not believing that their stories are worth anyone’s time, and they finish our programs as storytellers. And that, really, is what the Brink Literary Project is all about: helping people to see that their stories matter.
Thank you, Dani Hedlund!
— Nicole Melanson
To purchase products from Brink Literacy Project, visit here.