KATIE EDER, 17, was not a huge fan of writing as a kid. Especially not all the book reports and assignments that she got in school. But after getting injured in figure skating, her parents saw that she needed a new way to express herself artistically and they signed her up for a creative writing class. It was the first time she experienced the magic of writing in her own voice.
Finding your voice on the page is really at the heart of Katie’s organization, Kids Tales. It started out as 10 kids in a community center, led by Katie. And now it is a global non-profit with hundreds of teens teaching more than 1,000 children worldwide, including in a refugee camp in Hungary.
Focusing on children in underserved communities and the positive messages they can be given, Kids Tales runs week-long workshops all over the world, always culminating in the students’ stories being published in an anthology and sold on Amazon. For her vision and leadership, Katie has been recognized by The Malala Fund, Ashoka Youth Venture, Youth Service America’s Everyday Young Hero, Three Dot Dash, the International Literacy Association’s 30 Under 30 Award, and of course, The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.
Talking with Katie Eder:
What is your favorite book?
That’s a really good question. I think I’d have to say “The Prophecy of the Stones” by Flavia Bujar and the reason why is because it’s written by a 17-year-old. So, reading it was the first time that I felt like kids could write their own story and make a difference.
If there were an extra hour in your day today, what would you do with it?
Well, I have three older sisters and they’re home right now. So, I’d definitely hang out with family and friends.
Do you get to write yourself?
I do. I usually write every day in a journal. I use it as a therapeutic time. I’m also currently working on some short stories.
How do you write?
I definitely like to write long-hand.
Who’s your biggest literary hero and why?
Al Gore is someone whom I really admire. When I read “An Inconvenient Truth” in 6th grade, it was the first time I understood how activism could be conveyed on the page.
Can you tell me what inspired you to run that first week-long writing workshop?
I actually was not a big writer myself. I was a competitive figure skater and then I had a serious injury. So, my parents signed me up for a writing class and I didn’t want to do it at all. And then I went and I fell in love with it. It gave me a chance to express myself. It was so therapeutic for me to get everything from my head onto the paper.
And then once I got through 7th and 8th grade, I started to realize that a lot of people I knew really hated writing in school because we were being told to write reports and stuff like that. I decided I wanted to teach a writing class but I couldn’t find a place where I could be a teacher. So, I decided to start my own writing workshop at a community center in an underserved community in Milwaukee. The summer of 2014, I taught my very first workshop. It was just me and 10 kids. At that point, I had no intention for it to become a non-profit or become what it is today.
And wasn’t there a story about a student approaching you afterward?
On the very last day of the first workshop, there was a girl named Alana. She had been pretty shy all week; she didn’t really share. And then in the last minute of the last day, she raised her hand and she called me over to her desk. She started telling me about her life. Her parents had gotten divorced and she said that she never felt like she had a chance to express herself and have a voice. And she said this was the first place she felt like she had a voice. So that was really motivating. I thought this could be something…
How do you recruit your teen volunteers?
We rely on the power of kids to recommend other kids. Our whole organization is run by young people. So, our executive board is run by young people. Our website is designed by young people. And the board has established an ambassador program. So, in every city or state or country we go to we have a team on the ground there.
How do you raise this much money and get so many volunteers?
Throughout the process, I’ve learned a lot about how to run an organization. I literally had no idea what a non-profit was. The biggest thing that I have learned that has helped us grow is the ability to put trust in other people. At first, it was hard to give up any tasks or duties. Especially because it was all so close to me. But I learned that I have to let other people drive. In the long run, that has been most beneficial. Putting trust in other people has been really important.
What did it feel like to see Kids Tales get recognized and honored?
I think the coolest part of these awards is being around other young people who are also impassioned about making the world a better place. And I also think that it’s really amazing that these awards exist because it acknowledges the power of young people and how we want to encourage young people to make a difference.
One of my friends Melati, who runs Bye Bye Plastic Bags in Indonesia, says, “Kids may only be 25% of the world’s population but we’re 100% of the future.” And I love that. It’s so true.
What’s the hardest part about running Kids Tales?
At first, I think it was hard to go against this peer pressure of “This is stupid” or “This is just something you’re doing to get into college.” All those things that people say. That definitely gave me a thick skin right away. It helped me look away and focus on the work I was doing. Because it feels like sometimes we have to break the stereotype of what it means to be a 21st-century teenager. And now that I’m doing it, it’s become really rewarding. Because I’ll say it again, we are the power of youth.
If you could sit down and chat with anyone alive or dead about Kids Tales, who would it be and why?
I think Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. I’d love to find out how she grew Teach for America. I want to know how she did it! I read her memoir — she did the impossible — made this little thing grow exponentially and it’s really inspiring.
What’s next for the Kids Tales campaign?
For me, the goal has always been for every kid in every corner of the globe to become a published author. It’s not just to get people writing. I want to empower them to find their voice. What I’ve seen is it’s helping kids find their voice and teach them that you have the potential to do anything you set your mind to. My goal is that every kid everywhere gets to hear that same message.
As you said, it’s more than just getting kids to write. It’s also giving them this experience of publishing their books. How do you see the publication process as validating?
I think it’s hard to see the connection in one week. But once you get that tangible product — it’s showing that hard work can pay off. And now with our technology, kids can become actual authors. I can see it on their faces. “I’ve done something and I’m 8!” Or, “I’m 12! And I can do things!” We’ve heard that our Kids Tales student writers overall do better in school after our workshop — not even just in writing. These kids emerge as leaders. Showing that hard work does pay off.
Any other thoughts you want to share about receiving one of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards?
I grew up going to a Jewish elementary day school and tikkun olam has always been such a big part of my upbringing. But I think it should be a big part of humanity. And I think the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards are unique because they are saying, “Young people, we want to see you making a difference.” I mean, because of Diller, Kids Tales can expand even more. I really think the Helen Diller Family Foundation is amazing. What they’re doing is spreading this ripple effect of tikkun olam throughout the world.