As we work to gather support for H.R.3054 – 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, we inevitably look back at the work of some of the 6,600 writers employed by the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. In this series we introduce a few that you may not have heard of, even though some of them were and continue to be very influential.
Aurora Lucero-White, a proud Nuevomexicana Author, Folklorist, Educator and Suffragist is credited with preserving New Mexican traditional culture as a member of the WPA New Mexico Writers’ Project, in Los Hispanos and several other books.
What if a single government initiative could (1) create fulfilling jobs for thousands of struggling Americans, (2) help irrigate “news deserts,” (3) create apprenticeships for recent humanities graduates, (4) preserve the vanishing stories of the disadvantaged and the elderly, and (5) reassure marginalized citizens that their stories are heard and valued?
Why on earth should anybody believe that one program could ever accomplish all this? The answer’s easy:
It worked the first time.
At its peak, the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project employed as many as 7,000 people, only a tenth of them professionals when the program began. It created cheap, informative, often funny, still delightful book-length “WPA Guides” to all 48 states, as well as 40 cities, 18 regions and territories, countless counties, and other, less mappable American phenomena. After dozens of local newspapers folded, the FWP reported lifesaving news of fire and flood. And it recorded the oral histories of 10,000 Americans—especially the stories of formerly enslaved people, creating by far the largest repository of its kind.
Congress is going to the movies this week, and you’re invited.
Rep. Ted Lieu has arranged a free public virtual screening for the nation – and for his colleagues on the Hill – of Soul of a People, a terrific Smithsonian documentary about the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. This follows a bill he and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced in May, the 21st-Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, which is jockeying for inclusion this week in the upcoming $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package.
The bill would hire 900 writers to reinvent a New Deal initiative whose work can still educate and delight readers 85 eighty years later. Among the Federal Writers’ Project’s many gifts, it created the American Guides, a shelf of useful, cheap, shockingly well-written book-length explorations of all 48 states at the time, plus Puerto Rico and Alaska. The Project also recorded roughly 10,000 oral histories around the country, including 2,300 invaluable interviews with formerly enslaved people.
Writers suffered enormously during the pandemic. The Federal Writers’ Project offers a template on how to help them — and the country.
By Scott Borchert
Mr. Borchert is the author of a history of the Federal Writers’ Project.
Nearly eight decades ago, the Federal Writers’ Project — the literary division of the New Deal’s vast jobs creation program — met an untimely demise at the hands of its enemies in Congress. Now it seems that Congress may invite its resurrection.
In May, Representatives Ted Lieu and Teresa Leger Fernández introduced legislation to create a 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project. Inspired by the New Deal arts initiatives — which produced government-sponsored guidebooks, murals, plays and more — their bill is a response to the havoc unleashed by the pandemic on cultural workers in all fields.
Here’s how a revived F.W.P., as currently envisioned, would work. Instead of hiring impoverished writers directly — as the Depression-era F.W.P. did — the new program would empower the Department of Labor to disburse $60 million in grants to an array of recipients, from academic institutions to nonprofit literary organizations, newsrooms, libraries, and communications unions and guilds.
WASHINGTON – Today, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D-Los Angeles County) and Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM) introduced legislation that would create a new grant program administered by the Department of Labor to hire America’s unemployed and underemployed journalists and writers. In April 2020, the New York Times estimated that 36,000 workers at news outlets had been laid off, or had their positions reduced, and these numbers do not account for freelance and gig writers. Inspired by the 1935 Federal Writers’ Project of the New Deal Era, the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act will help address the mass unemployment of writers. It will also create a nationally administered and searchable repository that archives the stories of America’s history.
“I am pleased to introduce the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act today to coincide with the 86th Anniversary of the original Works Progress Administration, including the Federal Writer’s Project,” said Rep. Lieu. “This program will revive the Federal Writers’ Project of the New Deal Era by creating a new grant program to hire America’s unemployed and underemployed writers. Many writers were laid off or had their work reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, many young people have graduated into an economy that has not been able to provide opportunities to leverage their skill sets. My bill would create a new jobs program for these talented and high skilled individuals, while allowing them to capture invaluable American stories that may otherwise go untold. The New Federal Writers Program will be vital to our economic recovery to build back better.”