A conversation with Word As Bond’s Ashley Mack-Jackson and Rashida Greene

Poet Mitchell Douglas sat down with writers Ashley Mack-Jackson and Rashida Greene, who founded Word As Bond, which offers creative writing programs that provide forums for self-expression and community empowerment…

Photo of Word As Bond founders

Poet Mitchell Douglas sat down with writers Ashley Mack-Jackson and Rashida Greene, who founded Word As Bond, which offers creative writing programs that provide forums for self-expression and community empowerment to Indianapolis area writers. The following is their conversation.

Mitchell: Describe your journey as friends and writers. How has it developed over the years? What are you most grateful for in this friendship? 

Ashley: We met back in 7th grade when Rashida transferred to Eastwood Middle School from Belzer. I first remember seeing Rashida in Mr. Dunham’s math class, but her memory may be different. Wherever it was, I remember getting a strong sense, pretty much right away, that Rashida hated the school, and for some reason I felt set on proving to her that it wasn’t so bad, or at least proving that I wasn’t so bad. I’d been in the same township schools since first grade and had an even longer connection with the school system because my mother had been a teacher in that system since before I was born, but, in many ways I felt like an outsider in that school too. The various public school systems in and around Indianapolis are really confusing, and that is a topic for another day, but, though I lived on the east side of the township, I’d spent most of my elementary school years at a school on the west side of the township where my mother worked. This meant that most of my elementary school friends went to a different middle school, and I had to learn all new people too. I’d been through 6th grade and made it out alive and I was drawn to Rashida from moment one and wanted to make sure that she made it out alive too. I could literally talk forever and not say enough about what Rashida has meant to me over our nearly 30 years of sisterhood, but I will try to be brief and emphasize two things: first, we are soulmates who I truly believe that the holiest spirit brought together at a crucial point in our lives in order to navigate life together. She sees and knows me in ways that no one in this world ever will. She has not only walked by my side but guided me through the most joyful and difficult transitions in my life. Second, I am grateful for the role that writing plays in our friendship. It brought us together and helped us connect on the deepest levels. 

Writing is what allowed us, back then and even now I think, to uncover the deepest truths about ourselves, and because we often wrote together and shared our writing with each other, we shared sometimes unspeakable things through writing. Rashida creates a space for me, and I hope I give this back to her, where I am both completely held and completely free. I legit do not know how to do life without Rashida, and whenever I think about my audience, whenever I think beyond myself to who I’d most like to reach, I think of Rashida. 

Rashida: Ashley and I met in 7th grade at Eastwood Middle School. I had moved that summer (the summer of ‘96) into Washington Township from Lawrence Township and I felt so out of place at Eastwood. I remember it was lunch time, and after I got my tray I came out and sat at a table by myself. Ashley came over and asked me my name, and then told me to come eat lunch with her and her friends. I think from there our friendship budded into what it is today. We ate lunch together every day. I was an avid reader, when I wasn’t on punishment (when I would get in trouble my parents would take reading away), and I found out that Ashley was too. She had access to more “grown-up” books than what I was allowed to read, so we shared books. The writing together started with writing letters back and forth and these letters were epic. So much so that we started writing in notebooks instead of passing notes, and eventually we started sharing stories in these notebooks. And, we had multiple notebooks. I loved reading so much and Ashley was the only person who seemed to really understand me on that. Like back then we both loved the writer Eric Jerome Dickey, and when we’d go into the bookstore and see a new Eric Jerome Dickey book  I would legit start crying. She didn’t really understand, but she accepted it anyway. 

I am most grateful for our friendship because I feel like I met my soulmate. I feel validated even in some of the craziest stuff, because she will be honest with me no matter what and she just “gets” me, even when I can’t even get the words out. Quite literally, she has saved my life and made sure that I finished college. She knows me in ways that no one else has or ever will know me. I don’t know that I will ever open up to another person the way I have opened up to her.

Mitchell: As your friendship and commitment to your art grew, when did you decide that you wanted to help young writers? Please share the road to founding Word As Bond, Inc. 

Ashley: We have told this story many times, and there is an official line. We started Word in 2013, but it goes back to years before then. Right or maybe even in our senior year, us talking about starting a writing group for young mothers or parenting teens. I think we also talked about writing groups for young people whose parents were incarcerated. These were our lived experiences, and we wanted to help young people like us, at the time we were still college students, navigate in the most productive way that we’d found, which was through writing. 

Rashida: For me, the idea of working with teens was a way to give back but to also help myself heal. Growing up in the church with a stepfather who was a minister, I felt a lot of shame around my experience. There was and is so much stigma around being a young Black mother, and I didn’t want any other teen to ever feel that way. For me, writing was a way to process what was going on and I wanted to give that to others. After watching the “Brave New Voices” documentary and, seeing these teams of teens from all over the country slam, I was inspired. I knew that there were dope poets in Indianapolis and there had never been an Indiana team represented at BNV. I wanted us to be the first. At the time I was working at George Washington High School, I figured that Ashley had the academic training and I had the access to young people who really wanted and needed a creative outlet. Even outside of the competition aspect, I also knew there was just a need for it because at the time I didn’t know of anywhere in the city that was offering free creative writing classes for teens. Everything had a cost. 

Ashley: So around 2011, after a lot of life had happened for both of us, we sat down and seriously devised a plan for Word. Word actually became an entity in August of 2013, and we had our first cohort of students and participated in BNV in July of 2014.

Mitchell: Please describe the Word As Bond experience. What can the teens who participate expect? What impact will it have on their writing? 

Ashley: I really think what makes Word unique is that we start by cultivating the connection between our students. Things have changed since the pandemic, but before then one of the first things that we’d do is make sure to host workshops at various places in and around the city to  bring young people in intentional contact with each other and with each other’s neighborhoods. For us, Word has never been just about growing young people as writers, though it is about that too. It has always been about the bond. Being seen and seeing. 

Rashida: One of the things that we have tried to do when we do the workshops is to have the writers explore themselves and to feel safe and accepted as they are. Word doesn’t actually have one physical building, but if it did I envision that “Safe Space” sign hanging outside. I mean as an example of this, we had a student who was at school and there was a school shooting. During that event, they couldn’t get a hold of their parents, who were teachers in the school district and also on lock down, so they texted our Word group chat. That was a scary and humbling moment. It showed us what this space means to young people, and the responsibility of care that we have. 

Ashley: From that place of genuine connection, the development of writing skills comes naturally. Don’t get me wrong, writing and presentation skills are a big part of the programmatic focus. Rashida does an excellent job of really thinking about workshop curriculum and how, over a series of weeks or months, we can build upon core skills to get work that everyone is proud of, but getting the writers to investigate who they are, what they want to say, and how they can connect to others is the core of that. 

Rashida: Right, at the end of the day, everyone in the workshops, facilitators and coaches included, grow their writerly skills. But, I think the truest impact is how they learn to use the writing process for their own purposes. Some of our students have gone on to pursue writing on a professional level, and that is really exciting. But what I really get emotional about is when I see the ways that those who haven’t continued down the professional creative writing path and have decided to pursue say culinary arts or law or education have continued to use writing to navigate their lives and to connect with themselves and others. 

Mitchell: Can you share a particularly rewarding Word As Bond experience, a time when as its founders you were glad you started this organization? 

Ashley: That’s an easy and a hard question because there are a lot of struggles that go with keeping this organization together (when we started I sold my car and Rashida cashed in her retirement) but there are countless times when something big or small happened that reminded me why we do this. 

Rashida: Something that was obviously really big was when Alyssa Gaines, who has been part of the Word As Bond Family since 2016, became the first Indianapolis Youth Poet Laureate and was awarded the title of National Youth Poet Laureate in 2022! To see Alyssa now, a National Youth Poet Laureate and student at Harvard, is breathtaking. Ashley and I attended her high school graduation party, and we both took our turns crying and hugging each other and other poetry mentors from our city, like Camea Davis and Lauren Hall. It was just incredible because we, along with other artists in our city, received acknowledgement and love from Alyssa and her family, and we were just lucky enough to have created a space that became part of her journey. 

Ashley: Yes definitely! That was huge! But here is something that the world did not see: two weeks ago, Rashida was leading an ARC workshop on Zoom. ARC is Word’s writing group for all Black women writers. On the Zoom we had friends from high school and college, parents and grandparents of our youth writers, folks from New York and Baltimore, and writers who had once been in our youth programs. To see the intersections of our lives and work on that Zoom was a trip! And, to see Rashida guide us through prompts that moved us ever closer toward connection and our capacity as writers; that was truly one of my proudest Word As Bond moments yet. 

Mitchell: Ashley, Indiana Humanities recently selected you to write the poem that will accompany a mural of Etheridge Knight on Mass Ave. Congratulations! What do you want your poem to say to Indianapolis and the people who love this poet? 

Ashley: Thank you so much! It is a trip to have been selected for this honor, and I am just so humbled and grateful for the opportunity. My connection to Etheridge Knight’s work runs deep, and to be a part of preserving his legacy is a privilege I feel I have no right to but am truly thankful for. I am the child of a father who, like Mr. Knight, was a Hoosier with Mississippi roots and was a writer and thinker and veteran who loved the Black artist community of Indianapolis. Like Mr. Knight, my father also grappled with addiction and spent several years in Indiana correctional facilities. So, immediately, Knight’s work spoke to me almost as a proxy for my father’s experience that was, in many ways, unknowable to me. Because of this, it is easy for me to get completely caught up in Knight’s story and the personal intersections there, and I wouldn’t be the only one to ever elevate his “colorful” history above his poetic voice. Many know Knight as a prison poet or even a political poet, and he never shied away from being either of those things. But while his history is interesting, there are two things that I believe made him one of the preeminent poets of his day and, by my estimation, one of the most important figures in contemporary American poetics: his artistry and his commitment to cultivating creative community for mutual growth and collective empowerment. It is my hope to embody Knight’s legacy in my poetic craft and in the work that we do with Word, and in this poem I’d like to highlight it all. I want this poem to reflect Knight’s work, work where all of the facets of the human experience, desperation and hope, love and anger, joy and defeat live pressed together in such beauty and tension. If the poem can accomplish even a little of that, it will also be a reflection of this city, a place of so many contradictions that somehow fit together in a way that I can’t stop myself from loving. 

Mitchell: Rashida, your son Makai is a gifted poet and visual artist. What is it like to be an artist raising an artist? In terms of education, inside and outside the classroom, how do you prepare Makai for the world? 

Rashida: I was pregnant with Makai when I was 17, and had him when I was 18. At that time I would not have called myself an artist, because I definitely did not see myself as an artist. I was just trying to survive and take care of this little baby. Makai has quite literally grown up with me. I think that he is a big part of my artistry as well. He is a multifaceted artist, and has been an artis pretty much his entire life. When he was about 4 months old he perfected this fake cough that he would use whenever we were out in public so that he could get attention. He has been drawing since he was 2 and he has been writing since he was 4, but paused for many years, and he became a musician (cello player) when he was 11. When Ashley and I started Word As Bond, Makai wanted nothing to do with poetry, so he actually was not a part of our first cohort of students. It wasn’t until 2015 that I used my “Mom authority” and made Makai become a part of Word. Makai has helped develop me into a better artist, and I think that it is so amazing to see him be a great artist also. I am a huge fan of all of his art! And with the both of us being artists, we inspire and push each other to grow in our crafts. Makai’s father was murdered shortly after he turned 5. Before that happened, he was a very happy-go-lucky kind of kid and found beauty in everything. He did not believe in “stranger danger” and would always tell me “a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.” So, from a very young age, he learned how cruel the world can be, and he briefly lost the spark he had before his father died. But also with that tragedy, I tried to teach Makai to use his own voice and to always advocate for himself. When he felt ready, I encouraged Makai to write a letter to the man that murdered his father, because he needed to know that the taking of one man’s life didn’t just affect that one person. I knew from early on that Makai was a special soul and I wanted to protect that in so many ways. In the traditional public school system, Black boys already start off with strikes against them because of systematic oppression, racism, classism, all of the isms. First and foremost, I wanted my kids to innately know that I will always be a home, safe haven for them. I also have tried to prepare Makai for the world by encouraging him to go outside of his comfort level. He recently did a semester of college away at Montclair State University in New Jersey. I’ve also tried to teach him that pursuing his dreams is important. 

Makai has aged out of being able to participate in BNV, but last year he auditioned for and made the adult slam team that went to Southern Fried. He was the youngest team member and out of over a hundred adults, he was ranked 14th nationally. 

Mitchell: You both have done a lot in terms of service to youth. When you think of the daily obstacles of young artists (and young people in general) what services would you like to see available for them in Indiana? 

Ashley: Most of the things that I can say about young people and what they might need here could go for middle-aged and old folks too. We are living in a time of great social change, which means that we are also living in a time of great pushback. Love abounds, but hate is emboldened. I think it is the responsibility of those of us who seek justice and who are committed to dismantling oppression in all its forms to walk boldly forward in love and unwavering commitment. The young folks are showing us the way by constantly pressing against repressive structures, and it is our job, because we have the means and experience, to create edifying spaces that equip them for the fight ahead. 

Rashida: We need more spaces where young people are free to be their whole selves and protected in that freedom. When there is proposed legislation to have kids outed as transgender by their schools, when school for some kids who weren’t safe at home was once the safe space, it is important that we build these spaces outside of the established institutions. I think about this when it comes to churches too. I was always told that church was “come as you are,” but that was never really true in my experience. I could come to church, but I would be judged or even punished for being as I was. We need spaces where young people can really come as they are with no judgment and, with love and guidance, grow into who they want to be. And free. Whatever it is, it needs to be free. 

Mitchell: What is the future you envision for artists in Indiana? How do we get there? 

Ashley: I think the future is already happening. Look at Alyssa Gaines. Ashley C. Ford. Angela Jackson-Brown. Maurice Broaddus. Look at Natalie Solmer and The Indianapolis Review. Adrian Matejka and Poetry! Look at GangGang. I could run down a list of folks and organizations who are making waves locally and nationally. And not only that, folks like the ones I named who are claiming the Hoosier connection loud and proud and working to cultivate artistic community. 

What I didn’t know when I was 18 and left Indiana but I certainly know now is that art is happening all over Hoosier land. 

Rashida: I look at Makai, and he is a great example of this. He grew up around poetry and art, and I don’t think he ever saw being from here as meaning he couldn’t be a great creative. Looking at him, looking at Alyssa, looking at the young people we work with every day, the future for artists in Indiana is bright! I think we can continue this way if we continue to promote the work and connect folks to working artists and to spaces where their art can grow and thrive right here. But we have to work together and give up the idea that we are the only ones from here that are doing interesting, new or good creative work. Again, thinking of Makai and Alyssa, they came through Word As Bond. They are our poets, and we love them! But they were mentored by other Indiana-based artists and organizations too. Voices Corp, The Indiana Writers Center, The Indianapolis Arts Center, UnLearn Literary Arts, That Peace Open Mic, Vocab Indy, Tea’s the Artist at Tea’s Me. Chantel Massey, Camea Davis, Lauren Hall, Kia Wright, Mariah Ivey, Eric Saunders, Tamika Catchings, Corey Ewing, and there are a bunch of people and places that I am forgetting! We can’t do it alone, and we really don’t want to. That’s what Word As Bond actually means! 

Mitchell: Finish this phrase: There is no art…. 

…without connection. 

…greater than the next.