#SheInspires Catherine Keenan

April 18, 2018

Image: ABC

Catherine Keenan has always had a love for reading and writing, with it shaping her view of the world.

With a doctorate in english literature from Oxford University she’s used her knowledge to help students improve their writing skills by creating the Sydney Story Factory.

The idea for the writing factory came about after she heard about a writing centre in San Francisco called 826 Valencia where students are taught to harness their writing skills.

“I was a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, I was an arts writer and I had a very good friend there, Tim Dick. We found out more about this writing centre and began to think what a great idea it was and wondered whether we needed something like that in Sydney,” Catherine said.

“So we started talking to people, people in education, to kids, to parents and to teachers. To see what was around and whether this might be necessary, and the feedback we got was overwhelming, and that it really could make a difference.”

Though Catherine’s had heaps of standout moments throughout her career including being named the 2016 Local Hero for her role as a youth educator in the Australia Day Awards, she counts the kid’s achievements as momentous.

“There was one just this week, where we’ve been working with some young people at Chifley College at their Shelby campus at Mount Druitt. The high school students have been working as volunteer tutors for the kids at the Willmot Primary School,” Catherine said.

“We’ve also been doing a writing program with the Shelby kids, helping them work towards a substantial piece of writing. Which in the end we print and put a beautiful cover on and we give back to them, sharing, celebrating and reading them out to each other.”

The kids ended up loving the program so much that they made a video to thank the Sydney Story Factory.

“I think it just shows that it really makes a difference to kids when they can articulate their world in the way that they want,” Catherine said.

“Where they can talk about the stories that matter to them and they can show the world what they think and who they are.”

Catherine said it makes a huge difference to their confidence and to their writing skills and that it all feeds back into their ability to engage with their education, to be the best version of themselves.

“Last year we worked with about 3500 kids all across Sydney and Western Sydney, we’ve worked with lots of indigenous kids, newly arrived kids and kids with really low socioeconomic backgrounds,” Catherine said.

“All of those stories matter and all of those children matter. Whether it’s when a child writes half a page, but it might be the first time they’ve ever written that much or it might be the first time that their writing has been celebrated.”

While Catherine can’t pick a single literary hero, having thousands to choose from, she said that  Dave Eggers who set up the writing centre in San Francisco is one of them along with some of the students in the Sydney Story Factory.

Catherine believes that there is a great value in not being stopped by what you don’t know, in just doing things even if you feel like you can’t do it. She said how important it is to ask for help from people, also saying that she doesn’t undervalue naivety as a force for change.

Catherine’s plans for expansion have already started with a second Sydney Story Factory opening in either May or June this year in Parramatta.

“We are very excited about that, because it means we can do a lot more programs in Western Sydney and we want to work more deeply in different communities across Western Sydney,” Catherine said.

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