Humans of JCU: Zachary Thomas ’18 Executive Director of Writers in Residence


Writers in Residence

Zach Thomas (right) and a former resident attended the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference at Loganberry Bookstore in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Taylor Anthony, Campus Editor

Zachary Thomas currently serves as the executive director of Writers in Residence, the Ohio nonprofit corporation that started as a student-run organization at John Carroll University in 2017. The program teaches creative writing to incarcerated youth “to empower their voices and assist in their re-entry to society” as stated in the mission statement on the organization’s website.

Thomas and his peers were inspired by the experiences shared by volunteers of the Carroll Ballers program which integrated basketball into a service opportunity and mentoring program for residents of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. 

That inspiration, along with frustration of the challenges the residents were facing in the facilities such as not having pencils and paper is what sparked the idea to share their passion for reading and writing with incarcerated youth. Thus, Writers in Residence was initiated at the University.

“I wanted to create a space for the youth residents to express themselves creatively without restrictions.

— Zachary Thomas '18

“I wanted to create a space for the youth residents to express themselves creatively without restrictions and to reflect on their circumstances and hopefully plan out a future for them not to recidivate after leaving the facility” Thomas told The Carroll News.  

Once the program was established, Thomas, along with his co-founders and other student volunteers, would meet with residents at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility to facilitate creative writing workshops. At the end of the 12 week workshops, the organization always publishes the works of the residents into a Chapbook

Thomas explains how the writing workshops are essentially byproducts, serving as a vehicle for their engagement. 

“The service that we practice is a service of being,” Thomas stated “We show up consistently and it’s to understand and build relationships with a population who a lot of the time don’t have a lot of family or friends that visit them frequently. That’s the most disheartening thing, we show more than some of their friends and family. I let them know that, God permitting, if we can show up, we show up.” 

In 2018, Thomas was a recipient of the Cleveland Foundation’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Grant Fellowship that allowed him to expand the Writers in Residence cohort at John Carroll into the nonprofit organization it is today. 

“The work that I get to do is a dream job.” Thomas continued. “Any interaction that I have with a resident reminds me why we’re doing this. It also reminds me of the importance of trying to convey to them and to other people that they deserve this recognition of human dignity.”

Not only is Thomas an advocate for the residents but he also wants to see a more accurate alignment between the mission statements of these facilities with their actions.

“The hypocrisy of some of the mission statements…a lot of facilities talk about rehabilitation, but sometimes the demonstration of that mission doesn’t really come to light at all,” said Thomas. 

With that being said, Thomas also told The Carroll News about another important part of the work that the organization does which is to “bring another layer of this narrative that we have in the United States around criminal justice, our juvenile justice system, but also how we define punishment.” 

Despite the challenges the organization faced due to COVID-19, the pandemic allowed for more outreach with the virtual meeting platforms and the creation of new partnerships with different juvenile facilities. 

“The consideration for being innovative is a huge opportunity that the pandemic has presented, and I am really grateful for that,” said Thomas.

At this point in time, Writers in Residence is still technically a startup nonprofit organization and Thomas says that one major goal he would like the organization to accomplish is the transition to a small nonprofit. Thomas explained one significant way the nonprofit has already initiated the steps towards this transition is “hiring new staff, contracting and teaching artists to maintain high quality programming for our residents.” 

Writers in Residence currently has 11 partnerships in the state of Ohio with goals of expansion in the future. Thomas wants to continue to increase the program’s presence to have a greater impact all throughout the state. 

“The next phase of our work is really going to be focused on reentry. Asking ourselves what does it look like for us as an organization to provide services and resources to the youth that we work with some opportunities to not recidivate at all?” Thomas told The Carroll News. 

Essentially, after a resident is released from a facility, Thomas wants to establish an assisted living space that helps them learn life skills before living on their own and help to prevent future recidivism. 

During his time at John Carroll, Thomas worked for the Center for Service-Learning and Social Action where he learned skills that directly apply to the work he is doing now. CSSA taught him to be an adequate facilitator which is a skill that he has continued to pass on to his program volunteers. 

“You don’t really recognize how important [being a good facilitator] is until you start having difficult conversations with people with different lived experiences and backgrounds. You have to know how to create a space where everyone feels respected and heard,” said Thomas. 

Thomas also expressed his utmost appreciation towards his mentor and best friend Philip Metres, English professor and Director of the Peace, Justice and Human Rights program at John Carroll. 

For anyone who is interested in volunteering for the organization, you can visit the Writers in Residence website or send an email to [email protected]