On Saturday night, dozens of supporters of 826 Seattle gathered in the tutoring space hidden behind the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company for a top-secret party. A mysterious invitation sent in October promised the unveiling of secret plans for the Seattle chapter of 826 National, the nationwide nonprofit writing center for children and teens founded by Dave Eggers, and the room was buzzing. Nobody knew what was about to happen.
What happened first were drinks and snacks. An energetic 9-year-old played host, leading guests around. Finally, the secret was revealed in the form of a skit. Local author (and 74-time Jeopardy! champion) Ken Jennings was joined in a round of Jeopardy! by three 826 Seattle students (categories included “Famous Goats,” “Fearless Ideas,” and “Burien”). The answers kept getting more and more weirdly specific, until it culminated in this Final Jeopardy! answer:
826 Seattle is a super successful writing center now entering its tenth year and has spent the last year thinking about new incredible ideas of everything they could be doing all over the greater Seattle area making all of its kids even greater and they want to open more places and expand the work to include recording, plays, new media, expanding neighborhood love and a million other things that will be like the work they have been doing now but even bigger and better and in more locations, because these ideas are so bold and so new they have decided they must have a new organization and a new name to reflect this great and extraordinary newness and boldness. What is the new name of this new organization that is a lot like 826 Seattle only much bigger and better?
And then 826 Seattle executive director Teri Hein came onstage and delivered the answer to the question: Starting next week, 826 Seattle would be replaced with a new nonprofit called the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas, or BFI for short. She did not phrase it in the form of a question.
The nonprofit soon to be formerly known as 826 Seattle was not conceived as a branch of 826 National. Hein had been organizing it for a year under other names. It was originally called Pencil Head “for the blink of an eye” until “these kids told me that was stupid,” and then it was going to be “Studio 26” until Eggers asked Hein to join 826 National. Since then, Hein says, they’ve been “operating at capacity for all our programs. We’ve never taken a loan, we’ve ended up in the black every year. Even through the worst of the economic decline, our budget’s been going up and up and up and up.” Staffing has increased from “two and a half” employees to 19. The first year’s annual budget was a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. This year, the budget is almost a million.
So if everything’s going so well, why rock the boat? Hein has nothing but kind words to say about 826 National, but she thinks her nonprofit has always been “kind of the independent chapter” and needs to grow beyond the 826 National mission statement. Plus, as 826 National grows and expands, they will probably need to standardize their procedures in order to capture the larger grants that a truly national educational program needs. Hein hopes the BFI will become an affiliate of 826 National; she’d like to pilot educational programs that she can then pass on to the nationwide branches. Gerald Richards, CEO of 826 National, issued a statement saying, "We wish them well,” but did not elaborate on the future of the BFI’s involvement with 826 National.
So what will the BFI do differently? For one thing, Hein says, they’re going to open a branch in White Center by 2016. And obviously the name is changing. A lot of serious thought has gone into the terminology behind the BFI. Students and tutors will be “Field Agents,” Hein is the “Bureau Chief,” and starting next week, students will be doing after-school tutoring and taking other classes at the Greenwood Field Office, which will still be hidden behind a teleporter in the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company.
Hein says the organization makes most of its money from individual donors, a rarity in the nonprofit education field. “Are we crazy to think we can raise another million dollars,” she says, “and open another center somewhere else? Or two centers? Or five centers?” She’s considered offices in Burien, and she calls Tukwila and the Crossroads neighborhood on the Eastside interesting possibilities. Wherever the field offices open, Hein wants them to become intrinsically tied to their neighborhoods. Seattle feels more divided than ever, she says, thanks to worsening traffic and economic disparity. But “what happens to kids when they really identify with their neighborhood and their sense of confidence and their sense of safety with their neighborhood?”
The programs that 826 Seattle has become known for will still be happening at the Bureau, including tutoring assistance, classes on writing family history “through poetry, prose, and a comic/graphic novel,” travel and food writing classes, and a National Novel Writing Month meet-up group for high-schoolers. The programs will still be free and available to kids from all financial backgrounds; they serve three thousand kids a year in Greenwood alone. Hein is bursting with ideas involving low-power radio and incorporating neighborhood businesses into the act. Hein says, “One of my fantasies is that the kids with their adults will research the history of Greenwood and perform a play about it with the adults at the Taproot Theatre.” She begins whirling off ideas—personal histories of immigrant small-business owners, songwriting projects—until it’s obvious that she’s just gotten started.
After they’ve been let in on the secret, the adults at the party all seem impressed with the BFI and its cool logo with official-looking government font and an Illuminati-style eye perched at the top. But who cares what the adults think, what do the kids think? I ask a 9-year-old boy (“I’m turning 10 in July,” he tells me) and a middle-schooler about the revelation. “I don’t know what 826 means,” the older student tells me. She says the BFI “has meaning,” and she likes that it’s unique, while all the 826 branches around the country “have the same name.” The 9-going-on-10-year-old wants me to know that he has “fun” at 826 Seattle because “they let us use computers and everything’s free.” When the White Center branch opens, the middle-schooler wants to go there, since it’s in her neighborhood. I ask her what she’d like the theme of the storefront to the new field office of the BFI to be. She says she wants it to be somehow science-related. The boy interjects that he likes robots, and he thinks a robotics store would be pretty great.
If you’ve ever visited the education center in Greenwood, you’ve seen the four clocks up on one wall. They’re supposed to be a spoof on those LONDON/BEIJING/NEW YORK/MUMBAI clocks you see on the walls in international headquarters of companies in movies, with each clock set to a different time zone. These clocks are labeled for different neighborhoods in Seattle: Greenwood, Lake City, Rainier Beach, West Seattle. They’re all set to the same time, which is the joke. But maybe that’s not so much of a joke, anymore. The BFI doesn’t need to worry about what time it is anywhere else, because the BFI is intensely interested in Seattle. They know the time of day.
This story has been updated since its original publication.