Entering the Department of Make Believe has a peculiar effect on people. “It’s almost like a weird therapy,” Tavia Stewart-Streit, Chapter 510 co-founder and chief operating officer, said by phone. “People walk in, and immediately their guard is taken down. They’re like, ‘What’s the Department of Make Believe? What is this place? This is crazy!’”

This recently opened storefront for Chapter 510 is a literal space created for and devoted to the powers of the imagination. Kids and adults alike can play with what Stewart-Streit calls “kind of funny but touchy-feely products about wishing and dreaming and worrying, creating, procrastinating,” such as permits to make-believe, which will help pay rent. But “right now it’s just about inviting the community to converse with us,” she said.

Founded in 2013 by Oakland poet and WritersCorps founder Janet Heller, Chapter 510 is a nonprofit that offers in-school tutoring, creative writing workshops, and publishing opportunities for K-12 students in Oakland. The organization sends teaching artists into classrooms to boost existing curricula.

But the goal is to work with teachers and parents to develop supplementary programs. Doors to the organization’s headquarters opened on Dec. 4 with the launch of a fundraising campaign to help build a writing center offering free after-school workshops for kids and a place for educators to bring their classes on field trips, where they can engage students in creative writing and bookmaking.

“It’s deepening those relationships with the schools that we already have,” said Stewart-Streit. “We really want to connect with the parents’ community, and the community around us — both in West Oakland and East Oakland — who need something like this.”

Heller was a teaching artist at MetWest High School and at Knox Elementary, so those relationships developed organically, but since the Department of Make Believe opened, principals and educators citywide have requested that Chapter 510 visit their schools, too. It’s fortunate, then, that in that short time the organization’s volunteer queue has almost tripled. The campaign will also fund a third full-time staff member, who will help facilitate this expansion and oversee all in-house programming.

The center is expected to open in the spring, after volunteers complete some necessary demolition. But first, to close out the campaign, the organization has invited poet and minister Marvin K. White to deliver a Call to Make Believe, with readings by Maisha Z. Johnson, Kwan Booth and youth writers from Chapter 510’s Youth Advisory Board. Hosted by Regina Evans and with food by Two Mamacitas Pop-Up Kitchen, the event is a chance for the public to get involved.

“We’re looking for artists, we’re looking for writers, we’re looking for builders right now — people who build things,” Stewart-Streit said. “We have a group of men coming in to help rip the ceilings off, and get the carpets out, and we’re really in this space of — do you want to help build something amazing for Oakland, for Oakland’s use? Now is the time — we have so much for people to do.”


A Call to Make Believe: 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9. Free. The Department of Make Believe, 2301 Telegraph Ave., Oakland.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Shelby Ashbaugh

Other book events this weekend

You’re Going to Die presents a special two-night open-mike show themed the Funeral, a night for community to gather and create space to honor the dead and dying (7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, Jan. 7-8, the Lost Church, 65 Capp St., S.F., $10).

Poets Julia Vinograd and James Cagney read as part of the Last Word Reading Series (7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 8, Nefeli Cafe, 1854 Euclid Ave., Berkeley, free).

Contributors to the recently published “Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry From California” (Scarlet Tanager Books), which features 31 native poets representing 29 tribes, read alongside editors Lucille Lang Day and Kurt Schweigman, who introduce the volume (5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, Heyday Books, 1633 University Ave., Berkeley, free).

Writers With Drinks features Anthony Marra (“The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories” and “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena”), Naomi Williams (“Landfalls”), Lisa Goldstein, Tracey Knapp, Edward Gauvin and Elizabeth McKenzie (7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, the Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St., S.F., $5-$20).

More than 30 poets, including U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and San Francisco Poet Laureate Alenjandro Murguía, gather to honor the life and works of Francisco X. Alarcón (2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, Cafe la Boheme, 3318 24th St., S.F., free).

SFJazz Poet Laureate Ishmael Reed joins Eric Harland’s Voyager for a one-night-only combination of poetry and jazz (7:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 10, SFJazz Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St., S.F., $25-$45).

Youth Speaks, in partnership with the Oakland Public Library, is conducting a search for the 2016 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, with an open call for applications from poets 13-18 years old residing in Oakland. The call is open through April 1; to learn more and apply online visit