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Catherine Keenan

02 April 2012

In San Francisco X marks the spot at 826 Valencia where a Pirate Supply shop is the clever front for the hidden treasure of novelist Dave Eggers’ community based children’s literacy project.

Over in New York the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co is the cover for the NYC chapter of the 826 project. In London, writer Nick Hornby’s Ministry of Stories beavers away in behind the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies store.

And in the Sydney suburb of Redfern in July 2012, the world’s first Martian Embassy and Gift Shop will open in front of the Sydney Story Factory. 

So what have pirates, superheroes, monsters, and now Martians, got to do with quality Arts programs, creative writing and children’s literacy? 

The person best placed to answer the question is Sydney Story Factory (SSF) Co-founder and Executive Director, Catherine Keenan. She explains that seeing Dave Eggers explain his literacy project for children on TEDtalk, the cultish American based lecture series posted online to “spread ideas”, was the catalyst for beginning a similar children’s literacy project here in Australia.

“To comply with zoning laws in San Francisco, Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia writing centre also had to sell something, so he included a Pirate Supply Store on the street front, selling eye patches, peg legs, buccaneer stuff,” says Cath, explaining the commercial aspect of Eggers’ community literacy project.

The model went viral in the States, where there are now 8 centres each with a different shop-front theme. The shops are seen as an integral part of the operation’s success, providing a child-friendly street-front, as well as generating revenue. 

The Sydney Story Factory takes its inspiration from Eggers but has adapted it to local needs, cutting out the homework-help programs of the US model, because, as Cath explains, other organizations in the Redfern area already do that very well. 

“It means we can be very focussed on writing and creativity, and cultivating the enthusiasm children have for imaginary worlds,” says Cath, who points out that the free programs the centre runs are about targeting children from as many different worlds as possible. 

“Getting the message out to some groups in an appropriate way and in a way to which people will respond can be harder. The Martian Embassy and Gift Store is a sort of magnet and interactive introductory mechanism to the creative world beyond,” says Cath, explaining the proposed store and its working telescopes and glowing Martians, which form part of the interactive store front. As for the merchandise, sales will generate money for the centre and its creative writing programs, supporting the creation of a sustainable long-term operation.

“Our Vice President on the Sydney Story Factory’s board is Professor Robyn Ewing,” says Cath. “She’s an educator as well as an academic. In her recent paper, ‘Realizing Potential’, she looks at quality creative Arts based programs and the wider value they bring to the children who participate in them and to society in general. 

“The Story Factory’s creative writing program offers us the chance to engage with children who can be difficult to engage with, to develop those children as well as challenge children who are already successful. Creating even greater sustainability for us means developing rigorous evaluation tools around our creative writing programs. These can then be used to conduct a disciplined study around the value to our communities of quality Arts based programs,” says Cath.

Overseas studies have shown that kids involved in these enrichment programs do better at school in all subjects, become more engaged with people and their community, are more aware about politics, watch less TV and volunteer more.

“We also have other plans for the space to build commercial business sustainability,” says Cath. “There are so many other competing priorities on weekends so we won’t run writing programs on Saturdays. We’re planning to rent the space out for parties then and, at other times when the space is vacant we’re looking at hiring it out as a venue for creative businesses to take employees for seminars and workshops. Chris Bosse from LAVA, the Laboratory for Visionary Architecture, has designed the building for us. He worked on the Water Cube in Beijing.” 

Bosse’s concept for the SSF’s building, which Cath describes as “really long and skinny”, involved building ply ribs down the length of the space. 

“Walking into it feels like you’re inside a rocket ship or being swallowed by a whale,” says Cath, a metaphor she would agree describes the affect the Sydney Story Factory has had on her life since its inception 18 months ago.

Inside the cavernous, lunch-crowd-filled Book Kitchen café in Sydney’s Surry Hills, an oblong platter of crisp fried spiced squid, accompanied by a crunchy salty Vietnamese mint, cabbage and water chestnut salad, sits between us. It’s to be picked over as we talk through Cath’s career moves and the process of arriving at a not-for-profit.

Describing herself as that “particular sort of shy kid who found it important to read”, Cath agrees the Sydney Story Factory while probably the most unexpected twist in the story is not an impossible plot thickener.

“I’d always thought I’d be an academic,” says Cath, about her career prospects. “Half way through my doctorate I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to be.”

Left pretty much at a loose end, she says she had this very, very vague notion she could get a job in the media not that she knew what that meant. Coming across the Herald’s traineeship program on line she decided she’d apply, and “promptly gave it no more thought after that. When they rang to say I’d been accepted it was a complete surprise. I was the oldest most overqualified trainee they’d ever had.”

That was more than a dozen years ago and since then Cath has held the role of Literary Editor at the Herald, had two children and following the birth of her first child, about 4 years ago, moved into part time Arts writing. It was from this position – where Cath says she watched her salary go backwards, as well as facing barriers most men will never come across, that Cath and her Herald colleague Tim Dick decided to begin the Sydney Story Factory.

“I think,” says Cath of the Factory’s development process, “we thought it would start and then we’d get someone else to run it. But you soon realize you can’t do that. It has this life of its own and it’s in no position to be handed to someone else – certainly, not yet.

“For a long time we tried to set up the operation and get things going on top of our normal jobs but there comes a point where if you’re going to do it properly then someone has to be on it full time. I took a leave of absence from the Herald for six months and now I’ve resigned to devote the time to the project. It’s been challenging. For years I wrote stories. That was quite a prescribed thing to do. Now I do admin, write grants, teach kids, public speak, fundraise, do interviews. All that is quite a change. It’s amazing to see how you can use the skills you have to do things you would not have thought possible. In the beginning I found it very hard to talk about money, to say we need $20,000 to do this or $100,000 if we are going to do that, but you get over being squeamish about it [talking about and asking for money].”

In the past year, Cath and the board have worked hard to reach financial targets. Winning Westpac Foundation’s inaugural Mary Reibey Grant for a community based social enterprise has provided a further boost financially and in confidence.

“Mary Reibey,” says Westpac Women’s Market Director and Ruby, Larke Riemer, “was entrepreneurial. A convict who reinvented herself and went on to be a renowned business woman in the Australian colonies. She was a sort of Madonna for her times when it comes to self-reinvention. 

“I don’t think Mary was shy about taking a bit of creative license when it came to rewriting her history... and I think by the end of her life you’d have been hard pressed to find any reference to those early convict roots.

“We were excited by the Sydney Story Factory concept and its newness. Its volunteer tutors tell stories of all kinds. The aim is to get children writing and developing their creative talents. The Factory targets disadvantaged children, especially those from indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds, but it’s open to all and its vision is to improve children’s life chances by developing their writing skills and love of language. The $50,000 grant is helping to fund the organisation’s on-site after-school programs,” explains Larke.

“It was a very thorough process,” says Cath about the Mary Reibey application. “It was important that we prove our sustainability, that we show the establishment of strong Governance principles and the links between the program and its outcomes.”

The Sydney Story Factory has more than 600 volunteers on its books, with about 20 mentors visiting schools. Cath is the only paid staff member at present but they have embarked on the search for their storyteller-in-chief who will run the program for the kids. 

“I’ll continue volunteering. It’s the classes and the kids and watching their progression that provides the biggest buzz,” says Cath. “It’s the reason you do all the other stuff.”

To learn more or to get involved with The Sydney Story Factory, please visit the website