David Eggers’ heart-warming school of staggering genius

David Eggers, the best-selling author of a Heart-breaking work of Staggering Genius, gives this impassioned speech at Ted Conference (Technology Entertainment Design) on grassroots community tutoring.

Back in 2000, Eggers helped form a non-profit organisation helping local kids develop literacy skills. 826 Valencia in San Francisco is no ordinary after-school drop-in centre, mind. It was actually a space in the front of McSweeny’s, the literary magazine started by Eggers. What he helped coordinate was a network of volunteers, mostly writers, who could offer local kids one-on-one tutoring. It has had a massive impact in the neighbourhood and has served as an exemplar for a network of similar projects.

This being David Eggers, there is a very colourful side story to the project. To get through local planning laws, the centre had to behave as is it was a retail space. The writers decided to nominally create a pirate-supply stores (planks-by-the-yard, peg legs, hooks and bottles fit for messages etc…), this was meant to be a joke. But it has subsequently helped 826 Valencia to turn a profit. A similar project in Brooklyn masquerades as the Superhero Supply Company, one in LA “sells” gear for time travellers. This month the movement (see more here) crosses the Atlantic with the opening of Fighting Words, with the help of Booker winning author Roddy Doyle.

Why does this matter? Well apart from improving child literacy, Eggers sounds this note of optimism in the middle of the speech: “A bunch of happy families in a neighborhood is a happy community. A bunch of happy communities tied together is a happy city and a happy world, right?”