Changing young lives

31 May 2021 | Posted In: #139 Winter 2021,

In 2002, novelist Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Caligari founded 826 Valencia — a creative writing centre for under resourced young people in San Francisco. The impact of 826 quickly spread across the USA, inspiring the launch of seven more 826 chapters in places including New York, Boston and New Orleans. It wasn’t long before this momentum led to the opening of similar creative hubs all around the world. These include The Ministry of Stories, in London, established with help from Nick Hornby; Fighting Words in Dublin, established with Roddy Doyle; 100 Story Building in Melbourne, and of course, Sydney’s Story Factory.

In 2011, Sydney Morning Herald journalists Cath Keenan and Tim Dick visited 826 Valencia in the hope of finding a solution to the growing concern about literacy rates and limited creative opportunities among marginalised children in Australia. Cath and Tim spent a week immersing themselves in 826 workshops as volunteer tutors and learning all about the 826 philosophy. Once home, they consulted widely with educators, young people, parents, writers, and the broader community on how to adapt the 826 model to local conditions.

In February 2011, the Story Factory founding board was established, including chair Michael Gonski, a solicitor and leading young philanthropist; Professor Larissa Behrendt, who lent her expertise in Indigenous education; and Professor Robyn Ewing, an expert in creativity in education. In April, the very first volunteer meeting was held with 200 willing people turning up — a flash mob before flash mobs were even a thing!

Support was garnered from prominent writers, including Peter FitzSimons and Markus Zusak and in May 2011, the Story Factory was launched by then governor, Professor Marie Bashir, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, to a capacity crowd. Eighteen months after the first spark of inspiration, in July 2012, the Story Factory was officially opened at 176 Redfern Street, Redfern.

For the first couple of years the focus of the work was specifically Redfern/Waterloo but over time Story Factory volunteers were increasingly asked to work in Western Sydney. To support this work, a second creative writing centre opened in Parramatta in October 2018.

Together with more than 50 other organisations around the world, Story Factory is part of the International Alliance of Youth Writing Centres — a coalition inspired by 826 and united by a common belief that young people need places where they can write and be heard, and where they can have their voices polished, published, and amplified.

Story Factory runs creative writing and storytelling workshops for young people aged seven to 17. Its programs are delivered exclusively in areas with high populations of young people who are most at risk of poor literacy, leaving school early, and significantly reduced life outcomes. The focus is on young people who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander; for whom English is an additional language or dialect; are from under-resourced communities; or marginalised in other ways.

The ethos behind Story Factory is the belief that all Australian young people — no matter their background — should be given opportunities to develop the literacy skills that will allow them to flourish and shape a positive future.

In the wake of the COVID-19 calamity, Story Factory’s work is more important than ever before as it is those in the community who are most disadvantaged who are facing the greatest hardships. “That includes the kids who struggle with school at the best of times, who have low literacy and are the least engaged,” says executive director and co-founder, Cath Keenan. “They’re the ones whose educational outcomes are the most compromised by disrupted schooling.

“The impact on their future could be catastrophic. We’re committed to being there to help them recover lost ground, rebuild their literacy and motivation to learn, and boost their confidence, ensuring they have the best chance of success, in an uncertain future.” After a pause in 2020 due to the pandemic, Story Factory is once again recruiting and training new volunteers.

  • If you would like to volunteer — or make a donation — call 9699 6970 or email