Author re-writes the book on activism


Making a huge splash with his debut memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” author, screenwriter and activist Dave Eggers made the most of his turn in the spotlight, starting a literacy organization and mobilizing world leaders to get involved in public schools.

Using his natural gift for storytelling, Eggers has created multiple vehicles to change the world. In 2002, he launched his revolutionary 826 Valencia in San Francisco. It’s a literacy lab for students six to 18 that’s grown to seven locations across the United States and operates as 826 National.

“When I started tutoring at 826 back in 2002, I used to come home on such a high, a teaching high,” Eggers told UTNE Reader. “It happens when you know you’ve reached students in whatever way — maybe you’ve related a new idea, or changed their minds about something, or awakened them to why a certain book or story works. I think the students feel something similar, at least some of the time.”

Knowing that a powerful story can change the world, Eggers created Voice of Witness, a book series that uses oral history to tell stories of abused, oppressed, and impoverished people. His fictional account of a Sudanese “lost boy” in “What Is the What” provided the template for this project.

“Human rights work depends on storytelling, but all too often we only have a chance for sound bites,” English professor and author Jim Dawes told UTNE Reader. “So when you have somebody who can get these stories out, and get them out in a way that people will listen to them — it’s not just going to be upsetting, it’s also going to be beautiful — then it can literally change the world.”

Eggers credits his literary journal McSweeney’s as the catalyst for both projects. “With both Voice of Witness and 826 the ideas just seemed logical and feasible extensions of what we were doing with McSweeney’s. At its core, 826 began as a way to put the McSweeney’s group of writers and interns to work helping in the public schools; we didn’t predict it would shoot out into so many different directions,” Eggers told UTNE Reader.

“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” published in 2000, recounts the true story of his parents’ deaths within one year of each other from cancer. Eggers left the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he was pursuing a degree in journalism to care for his 8-year-old brother. He followed his Pulitzer Prize nominated debut with “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” his first fiction novel, in 2002; “What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng” in 2006; and “The Wild Things” in 2009.


Turning his attention to screenwriting, he wrote “Away We Go” with his wife Vendela Vida and “Where the Wild Things Are” with director Spike Jonze.


One of three 2008 TED prize recipients, his wish was for community members to work directly with their local public schools.

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