BERKELEY -- The city has a new moniker: philanthropic neighbor.
At a Dec. 10 forum hosted by online news site Berkeleyside, Berkeley residents and writers Michael Chabon, Michael Lewis and Michael Pollan used their powers of persuasive storytelling -- and cachet as the city's three "most famous" Michaels -- to benefit 826 Oakland.
With significant support from Oakland's One PacificCoast Bank, the East Bay's still-in-the-planning-stages chapter of 826 National, award-winning author Dave Egger's and Ninive Calegari's nonprofit writing and tutoring organization, gained exposure in front of a sellout crowd at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre.
"Why 826 Oakland? Why not 826 Berkeley?" inquisitive Berkeleyans may ask.
"We actually didn't choose Oakland," says CEO Gerald Richards, who jumped from leading the Bay Area offices of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship to guide the program's San Francisco home base and eight national chapters. "We had several potential funders come to us with a desire to bring 826 to Oakland."
The operation is based on Egger's 826 Valencia model, which sports a retail storefront bursting with everything pirate and fronting a whirlwind of backroom creativity where teachers inspire kids, ages 6 to 18, to write. The centers offer after-school tutoring, field trips, in-school projects, workshops and a Young Authors' Publishing Project.
"It takes a visionary to make this work -- and a group with a spark. It needs to be community based for everyone to accept it," Richards says.
The Washington, D.C. chapter began with a book; physical proof that kids can write. The Ann Arbor, Mich., center is entirely free and cranks the wheels of young imaginations behind the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair store. Chicago's program is located within one mile of 16,000 public school students.
"We work with teachers and in schools," Richards is quick to mention. "It's been a way to bring creativity into school systems and freedom for teachers. There's no lack of people who want to help: we have 4,295 active volunteers!"
Richards says schools are recognizing the need to "free up shelf space for arts-focused learning." In an era emphatically supportive of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, he insists: "You still have to know how to write."
At the author benefit at Berkeley Rep, moderator Sedge Thomson, himself a Berkeley native and the host of radio's West Coast Live, asked the three Michaels what they most enjoy about writing.
Chabon traced his passion to the fabric of his childhood home, where reading was loved and good writing was praised.
Pollan said the science of ecology was really about relationships and returning to a fundamental question -- or obsession -- is the force compelling most writers.
Asked what Berkeley-centric things the three dads like to do with their kids, Lewis told a hilarious story (one of many -- he's a guy you'd love to hang with, even if you know nothing of baseball, stocks, or bonds) about coaching his daughter's softball team.
Leaving Berkeley's militantly "eccentric, fair, equal, city-council-with-a-foreign-policy" environment, he said the team went "out into the wild of Rohnert Park and played Republicans." When a coach was thrown out for cursing an umpire, the coach declared himself the commissioner and fired the umpire. Parental and official rage ensued, with kids ogling the "adults."
"A Berkeley mom stands and shouts, 'What horrible modeling for our children!' -- and everything stopped!" Lewis said, as if finding the cessation of moms and dads gone mad less astounding than the politically correct brakes that stopped the tirade.
It was clear the three writers are addicted to Berkeley's charms.
"Berkeley's more nuanced than people think," Chabon said.
"My first impression was there's a lot of facial hair," countered Lewis. "I wanted to fly a crop duster with Nair over the city."
Distractions, from family obligations, media requests and mostly, the Internet, provided clues on how they handle the pressure to produce.
"You have to be disciplined," Pollan said.
"I write on airplanes," Lewis contributed.
Chabon, who writes mostly from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., relies on an app.
"It's called 'Freedom' and it shuts me off from the Internet," he said.
"Can you change your mind?" Pollan asked.
"No, that's the beauty of 'Freedom,'" Chabon replied, laughing at the irony. "Without it, I go online, there's a spark plug website. Three hours later, I find myself researching the Partridge Family. That's when I know I'm self-destructive."
The funniest story of the evening was told by Lewis, recalling the night he met Pollan.
"It was my birthday party. He drove a VW beetle and parked it on the hill. At some point, we were outside and I said, 'Is your car rolling?'"
The car rolled down the hill, flipped and crashed into Lewis' office.
"It was still the best birthday party ever!" Lewis said, admitting the only thing he was worried about was making sure the story material -- which brought laughter from Pollan and the audience -- was his to tell.
For details about 826 National go to http://www.826national.org/.