Editor’s Note: Last year we featured reformer Matt Malyon, prison chaplain and executive director of Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities. We recently spent a day with Malyon in Mount Vernon, WA to witness Underground Writing in action and experience a day in the life of this humble reformer.
“Well, this is new,” I think to myself. In my years of covering reformers in far-flung corners of the earth, I had not yet been inside the walls of a jail. I’m just starting to get my bearings when dozens of spirited, orange-clad women stream through the doors, so many that we hardly have enough chairs to go around. It takes at least ten minutes to get settled; subduing a room bursting with so much personality feels like an enormous feat.
Lori, the teaching writer sitting next to me, welcomes the group and initiates a “brain dump,” a time for free-writing and free-thinking. The room falls silent sans the sound of furious scribbling. After ten minutes of this, we reconvene to read a poem about the back-and-forth of a hot-and-cold relationship. The air swirls with murmurs of agreement and variations of, “Yup, been there.” We dive in to our next writing assignment, inspired by the topic of “what drives us wild.” “The system,” says one woman. “Love,” says another. “My cellmate,” says a third, inciting howls of laughter.
Across the table from me is the man who started it all, Matt Malyon. Inspired by a similar program in Los Angeles called InsideOut Writers which uses creative writing to catalyze transformation, Malyon saw a replicable model for the Northwest and an outlet for which to use his writing for a greater purpose. He launched Underground Writing in 2015 to “honor the transforming power of the word” and “assist in the restoration of communities, the imagination, and individual lives.”
Malyon, with a hint of self-deprecation, is usually quick to deflect praise or credit for the unique work to which I’m bearing witness today. You get the sense that he sees himself as just a guy, faithful to his work, trying to do something about the broken world around him. He dons a vest, flannel, and boots on his tall frame, fitting the Pacific Northwest stereotype. His voice is low, steady, and assured. He may play the part of “just a guy,” but he’s a guy you want in your corner, a guy you want to call a friend.
Nestled in the heart of the Skagit Valley in Washington State is Malyon’s hometown: Mount Vernon, a small community two hours north of Seattle and an hour south of the Canadian border. Its population of 34,000 (one-third of whom identify as Hispanic/Latinx), is a melting pot of urban expats and rural farm workers (nearly half of whom are migrants from Mexico). It’s a colorful tapestry that informs the crux of Malyon’s work: creating spaces where the marginalized can truly be seen.
It’s lunch time at LaVenture Middle School when we pay a visit to Janice Blackmore—the school’s bespectacled Migrant Graduation Specialist, head of “Migrant Leaders Club,” and advisory board member of Underground Writing. Having lived in Oaxaca for a time, Ms. Blackmore speaks Spanish fluently, even with accented flair. She drives from Seattle to work every day—a 120 mile, four hour round-trip commute. “You must love your job,” I say in disbelief. “Ohmygod I love my job,” she exclaims. “Since I was a teenager…this was my dream job.”
“He may play the part of ‘just a guy,’ but he’s a guy you want in your corner, a guy you want to call a friend.”
Blackmore’s role is one of five initial positions around the state designed to advocate for migrant students at a district level. Mount Vernon School District’s 2017-2018 enrollment consisted of 55 percent of students who identify as Hispanic/Latinx, a near-10-percent jump in the last decade—statistics that are emblematic of the ever-growing demographic of the Hispanic/Latinx population in the Skagit Valley.
A half-dozen preteens stream into her tiny office with their plain hamburgers and rubbery cheese pizza in hand. She greets them in rapid Spanish, transitioning seamlessly to English when necessary. She lets them take over every nook of her office; she asks them about their day. Clearly, she is a much-needed safe space for “migrant kids” (“children whose parents work in agriculture,” she explains).
A large portion of these children and their families are of Oaxacan descent and face discrimination from other Mexicans who don’t view them as “real Mexicans.” Gatherings like Migrant Leaders Club offer the rare opportunity for Oaxacan migrant kids the chance to take refuge in the company of one another. As one kid put it, “It’s a place I can feel safe and talk about anything.” It’s a place to process their trauma, build confidence, and find healing. Writing, as Blackmore and Malyon see it, is the best tool to do so. In 2015, Underground Writing collaborated with Migrant Leaders Club in order to expose and empower the voices of this particular marginalized population.
Blackmore is particularly grateful for Malyon’s presence with her students. “Our personalities balance each other really well. Matt is a reflective, calm personality. I had been struggling with some of my kids who were more introverted,” she admits. “I am very extroverted and wasn’t sure how to find a place for [them] until Matt and Underground Writing. They came in and those kids just came alive. That’s what they needed…a place to think and process and share.”
Not only is the writing process crucial to the work of healing from trauma, according to Blackmore, but it affords kids the opportunity to shape their own story and educate the community out of misconceptions and stereotypes about migrant life.
“I tried a lot of different things, and writing is by far the best tool I’ve found in helping kids with their trauma,” says Blackmore. “Writing has become my number one tool in helping kids redefine their own stories.”
Later, I meet Yessica, an intern with Underground Writing and a graduate from LaVenture’s Migrant Leaders club. She is 22 years old with the confidence of a grounded woman. When I ask why UW is so important to her, she reflects on writing as a helpful tool to escape whatever trouble may come. “Writing saved my life,” she says while remembering her experience as the child of an undocumented mother. As we sit together in the juvenile justice center for our next workshop, it’s clear that she is giving back the gift that she received from Underground Writing: tools to define her own narrative, and permission to imagine a better future.
Photo by: Alvin Shim
After witnessing the day in the life of Malyon, I convene with him for lunch at the local co-op. In an attempt to understand what guides his work, I ask about his faith. I’m fascinated as I witness this fellow writer, so competent with words, struggle to articulate what his faith means to him. A self-proclaimed outsider on the inside, he often finds himself “standing on the edge trying to make peace with the inside.”
“But the Gospel makes sense to me…I’ve experienced a certain amount of things in my life of faith that point to a steadfastness that I hold to,” Malyon says, recounting God’s faithfulness as he raises support for his ministry. “I’m wrestling all the time,” he admits. Most days, he says, he relates to Jacob wrestling an angel for a blessing (Genesis 32).
It’s clear that he is a man with more questions than answers. But perhaps that is what reformation work looks like. We may never have the answers to our deepest questions, but we show up anyway. We continue doing the unglamorous work of planting seeds in the hope of future harvest. We continue to, in the words of Teilhard de Chardin, “trust in the slow work of God.” As anyone who works the land would know, there are no guarantees that seeds will bear fruit. But that doesn’t warrant a reason not to try. Malyon, for his part, is trying. He’s continuing to wrestle.
A self-proclaimed outsider on the inside, he often finds himself “standing on the edge trying to make peace with the inside.”
Father Gregory Boyle, director of Homeboy Industries (the world’s largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program) says, “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship.”
And that is where Malyon spends his days as chaplain, writer, and teacher: kinship on the fringe, writing in the margins. “When you’re all seated at the same table writing, you’re in it together,” he says. In Malyon’s eyes, folks who are incarcerated are exactly the type Christ would have spent time with. “In the jail…[posturing] gets stripped away. It’s just people very aware of their needs and problems. I find it very refreshing. Their insights come out of left field; [they’re] not ‘academic’ answers. Whether it’s a scripture story or a poem, it’s often very insightful and gets me to see things in a way that I didn’t before. I’m grateful for that.”
But there is one thing of which he is certain: there is power in the gift of seeing. “In the midst of my struggles and frustrations, what I do know is that the person sitting across from me needs to be cared for,” Malyon says. “That person is an important person and I want to communicate that with them. I want them to realize that and sometimes that’s all I know on a given day, and that’s enough.”
I have a feeling that day he speaks of looks a lot like today: writing exercises in a women’s prison, spending time with migrant kids. All of this—this whole day of seeing and being seen—started with the faith of one man who never claimed to have the answers, but knew that simply showing up and planting oneself where Jesus would is often the best we can do. That’s kinship. That’s kin-dom, here and now.
Portraits by Parker Miles Blohm for KNKX.