Reinventing the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project could help reintroduce America to itself

David Kipen Opinion contributor – USA TODAY

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. 

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Opinion: A New Deal for Writers in America – New York Times

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.

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It’s Time to Mobilize for Voting Rights:

John Nichols on the franchise, plus David Kipen on a new Federal Writers Project.

Voting rights suffered a defeat in the Senate this week, but really it’s just the latest battle in a continuing struggle—and if anything, it clarifies the real problem: The filibuster must go, at least for voting rights legislation. John Nichols says it’s now up to grassroots groups to go to work on reluctant Democrats during the July 4 break.

Also, here’s an idea: Create a new Federal Writers Project, hiring a thousand out-of-work writers and journalists to document American lives during the pandemic year. It’s in a bill proposed in the House by Los Angeles Representative Ted Lieu. David Kipen explains; he’s former director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts, and it was his idea.

Read more on The Nation

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Editorial: It’s time for a new Federal Writers’ Project

Sarah Gulder's life story was taken down and recorded as part of the Slave Narratives initiative of the WPA Federal Writers' Project.

By The Times Editorial Board
June 20, 2021

The narrative of Sarah Gulder, who had been born into slavery, was collected by the New Deal-era Federal Writers’ Project in 1936. A bill in Congress would revive the program.(Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group ) By The Times Editorial Board June 20, 2021 3 AM PT

There is no denying that America took it in the teeth with the COVID-19 pandemic and related financial crisis, a one-two combination that was disproportionate in its impacts. And it had particularly dire consequences for journalism, adding to strains on a business model that relies on advertising and readers to stay afloat.

Between 2008 and 2019, nearly 1 in 4 newsroom jobs disappeared, according to the Pew Research Center. Since the onset of the pandemic, one-third of large-city newspapers reported fresh layoffs. And that doesn’t measure the hits endured by freelancers as outlets’ budgets dried up.

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