David Kipen believes the time is right to jumpstart a new version of the Federal Writers’ Project in the United States.
The writer and founder of Libros Schmibros has been working to recreate a Depression-era work program for modern times. In an interview with “Inside the Issues” host Alex Cohen, Kipen explained how COVID-19 has put American writers in economic circumstances similar to the 1930s.
“We’ve been up this creek before. The Writers’ Project was one thing that helped get us out of it, and not just get writers out of it, but get readers out of it,” he said.
The original project started during the Great Depression to help out-of-work writers attain jobs documenting life in America. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Writers Project in 1935. The program paid writers and artists to create travel guides and chronicle people’s life histories across the country, including many formerly enslaved Americans.
Since May 2020, Kipen has penned several pieces calling for the Federal Writers’ Project to be reinstated. He argues the initiative could help cease the decline of journalism caused by the rise of the internet and give isolated and lonely Americans a chance to share their stories during the pandemic.
“You’ve got old people dying in the nursing homes with nobody to tell their stories to and you’ve got me at UCLA teaching gifted English majors who graduate right back into their high school bedrooms,” Kipen added.
Earlier this year, his idea reached the attention of Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance. The lawmaker and his staff researched the proposal and introduced the H.R. 3054 in May 2021. Framed as the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, the $60 million proposal would hire 900 writers to record oral histories and create U.S. travel guides.
So far, Los Angeles City Council member Mitch O’Farrell and City Council President Nury Martinez have expressed support for the legislation.
The new Federal Writers’ Project faces a steep climb to pass in a divided Congress, but Kipen believes the legislation is vital to telling the stories of those most marginalized in our society.
“We are losing entire swathes of America if we confine ourselves only to the voices that are active on social media,” he said. “I think social media doesn’t even represent a lot of those voices, true feelings about where the country is and where it’s gone.”
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