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Literary Arts Program, 1970s - 1990s with a picture of a class from the program in front of Penn Center

Exhibit Dates: Nov. 1, 2023 -  Apr. 7, 2024
Exhibit Location: MLK Library, Floor 5

About the Exhibit

Begun in 1970 by high school teacher David Aaronson, the Literary Arts and Urban Journalism Program allowed high school students in the District of Columbia Public Schools to explore the creative arts and gain experience and skills in the media and publishing industry through the creation of a variety of student publications and cultivation of collaborations with prominent publishers and journalists. The publication of student work was central to the program. The program continues today as part of Duke Ellington's Literary Media and Communications Department. Many students who participated in the Literary Arts and Urban Journalism Program went on to have careers in media and communications.

In 2019, Aaronson donated to the People’s Archive over 25 years worth of materials created by the students from 1970 to the 1990s. The exhibit includes selections from this collection, including journalism, interviews, poetry, short stories and photographs. 

Selections from this collection may be accessed at DigDC, the library's portal to digitized and born-digital collections.

View Selections in DigDC

About the Literary Arts and Urban Journalism Program (LAP)

LAP was a creative writing, journalism and photography program for DC Public High School students. It was started in Fall 1970 by David Aaronson. As a young teacher at Cardozo High School, Aaronson saw that traditional teaching was failing many of his students. Realizing that students went from bored to interested when asked to write about the world around them, he began sending them out into the city to write and photograph what interested them. They would bring what they discovered to workshop sessions attended by four students from each of the city's public high schools. The teachers and students together crafted publications that were distributed around the city.

For more than thirty years, hundreds of DC Public High School students learned about video, news, filmmaking, graphic design, poetry and radio broadcasts. Many of its participants went on to have successful careers in these fields. The work the students created across the decades reflects the program itself, the world around them and their own internal achievements and struggles. Read on to learn more about each decade and see a sample of the work on display in the exhibition. 

1970s | Claiming Power

Students from Photojournalism class pose in front of the Lemuel Penn Career Development Center

During the early 1970s, protests roiled the city, on issues as varied as the war in Vietnam, environmental justice, civil rights and local control of District government. The culture was also changing radically - young people began expressing their political beliefs through their clothing, music, hairstyles and more. LAP students were encouraged to document these changes, creating photographic essays, poetry, journalism and short stories that reflect a uniquely tumultuous and creative time in the District's history. 


Photojournalism students in the Urban Journalism Workshop, 1978. Photograph by Llewellyn Berry, Literary Arts Program Records, The People’s Archive at DC Public Library

1980s | Reflection & Transformation

Three students producing video in the literary arts program

Throughout the 1980s, D.C. suffered an increase in crime each year. The crack epidemic and rise of AIDS put new strains on residents and institutions alike. Many middle-class residents moved to the suburbs, causing significant declines in city funding and leaving empty storefronts and school buildings. Many of the problems faced by the city are reflected in the students' work - drug abuse and gun violence were frequent topics. At the same time, they were writing about the same things any teenagers in any area of the country might want to write about, music, fashion and sports. 


Students producing a video (L to R) Corwin Kirby, Elissa Blount, Peter Burris and Jamie Carter, 1985. Literary Arts Program Records, The People’s Archive at DC Public Library

1990s | A Difficult Decade

Student Rick Williams working at the Duke Ellington School Radio Station

As a result of the challenges of the 1980s, by the early 1990s, the District was on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1995 an unelected control board created by the federal government took over the management of the budget and most day-to-day functions of D.C. Government. This was also when LAP was moved from the Penn Center to Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Students could no longer leave the campus to write about the city so they wrote about their home lives, travels to and from school and celebrity visits to campus. The artwork and writing became more inward-looking and more cohesive - and always reflective of the moment.


Students Rick WIlliams working at the Ellington radio station, WDUK, 1990s. Literary Arts Program Records, The People’s Archive at DC Public Library

Teachers and Students

President Obama, Photography by Chuck Kennedy

In 2003, David Aaronson, Lew Berry, and Carolyn Jones Howard left the Literary Arts Program, which continues as part of Duke Ellington's Literary Media and Communications Department. Many students who participated in the Literary Arts Program went on to have careers in media and communications. These include

  • Kofi Adisa, Associate Professor of English, Howard Community College, Columbia, MD
  • Dave Chappelle, Stand-up comedian and actor
  • Terry Dawson, Filmmaker
  • Barrington Edwards, Chair, Social Studies Department, The Paideia School, Atlanta, GA
  • Marta Effinger-Crichlow, Professor, New York City College of Technology. Author, playwright, and documentary filmmaker, her most recent movie is Little Sallie Walker
  • Andrea Ferster, Attorney and President of DC Bar (2013-2014)
  • Ife Franklin, A professional artist and activist living in Boston. Ife's most recent project is titled The Indigo Project, which honors the lives, histories, cultures and traditions of African people throughout the diaspora with a concentration on the formerly enslaved of North America.
  • Tyrus Gaines, Photographer with his own studio in Charlotte, NC
  • Polly Hanson, Senior Director, Security Rik Emergency Management, Former Chief of the Metro Transit Police Department
  • Essex Hemphill, Poet, performer, activist
  • Nestor Hernández, Photojournalist based in Washington, D.C.
  • Rev. Kenneth Irby, Pastor, Bethel AME Church, St. Petersburg, FL. He is a former senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies
  • Chuck Kenney, Photographer with his own studio in Washington, D.C. Was a staff photographer at the White House, assigned to First Lady Michelle Obama.
  • Ken Lambert, Staff photographer, The Seattle Times. Ken won First Place in the 52nd Annual White House News Photographers Association Competition.
  • Donnell Lewis, Founder and Creative Director of One Creative Source, a graphic design and visual communications office.
  • Jane Lincoln, Social worker, activist, fierce knitter
  • Elisa Blount Moorhead, Baltimore-based artist, curator and producer. She also wrote P is for Pussy, a raunchy alphabet picture book of double entendres.
  • John Parmelee, Professor and Director of School of Communications, University of North Florida
  • Angela Peterson, Photographer and editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Marlene W. Potts, Writer of the Miller's View detective series
  • Connie M. Razza, Attorney, Director, The Center for Popular Democracy
  • Hansford Rowe III, Jazz fusion bassist, founding member of Gongzilla
  • Tony Robinson, CEO & Founder, Robinson Public Affairs
  • Kiernan Seth, Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, Lexicon Pharmaceuticals
  • Kamala Subramanian, Artist
  • Tanzi West-Barbour, Director of Communications, DC Public Library
  • Luci Williams, Journalist, Kansas City Star
  • Duane Winslow, Started his photography career doing cookbook photography before moving to Baltimore, where he works in both photography and printmaking.


President Obama, Photography by former LAP student Chuck Kennedy.