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Words with Friends

Making an impact on others through the wonder of writing

It’s the skeptics who are the most fun for Jodi Sherman Egerton ’97, the challenging ones who wait in line just to find out what all the laughing and crying and frenetic rat-a-tat-tat-DINGs! are all about.

What do you mean you’re writing free poems on the spot?

“Come on, give me one word,” Egerton prods. She promises not to disappoint.

“They’ll go, ‘All right, well, how about dragon or spatula,” she says. “Those are always my favorites because there’s so much you can do. And then they love it and realize that poetry can be for anyone.”

But sometimes, through that one word—or one sentence or one-minute-long conversation—Egerton’s typewriter taps into something deeper: Can you give me a poem about my brother? We’ve been distant for 10 years, and he’s coming to town. I’m really nervous about it.

“Then all of a sudden, there’s this intimate moment where they’ve let you into the biggest struggle that they’re dealing with,” Egerton says. “I’ve been given this amazing gift: I get to be honest and say, ‘This is going to be powerful and fun and hard, but wait till you see the other side’—without actually saying it. I write this all down and then hand them these words that hopefully capture something they connect with.”

That’s where Typewriter Rodeo—Egerton and her troupe of typists—shines. Hired at events to write customized poems for guests, these friends with backgrounds in writing and improv become three-minute therapists, using the power of their words for the greater good.

And they’re not alone in embracing that Quaker ideal: Many Swarthmorean writers, in looking out for their fellow humans, have set out to prove just how mighty the pen—or typewriter or computer keyboard—can truly be.


Without poetry, Haydil Henriquez ’14 may never have left the South Bronx. She also may never have returned.

“As a young woman of color growing up in a historically disadvantaged community, I didn’t see reflections of myself in the media, or in academia, or in anything that was claimed successful,” says Henriquez, a daughter of Dominican immigrants. “Through poetry and being exposed to other writers, I realized, This isn’t the only world that I know. The Bronx isn’t the only world that exists.”

Henriquez embraced poetry as a way to share “an untold story that was very alive, that was eating me up inside.” As a student at an upstart performing-arts high school, Henriquez stood out at poetry slams, received an award in the name of poet Martín Espada—and caught the attention of Swarthmore.

“When I visited the campus, I had never been in a space outside of Central Park that had that many trees, and I went nuts,” says Henriquez, the first in her family to attend college. “I thought, This is amazing. I can breathe.”

Swarthmore was the kind of place that inspired Henriquez’s writing, but also made it necessary for her to write. She found her niche through the student writing collective OASIS (Our Art Spoken in Soul), which allowed her to “maintain sanity” through her rigorous course load.

“OASIS was really a healing force for me,” she says. “It’s something so basic, but we often forget we’re humans. In order for us to fill voids within us, we need to speak, we need to feel community, we need to share our stories.”

After graduating, Henriquez chose to return to her South Bronx community—where she now helps high schoolers share their stories. As manager of outreach and college advising for DreamYard Art Center, a community organization affiliated with her former high school, she connects students to colleges through their personal essays, homing in on periods of resilience and growth.

“Folks forget how much truth is in the personal statement,” Henriquez says. “They’ll have a story, which is often My father wasn’t around, or I had all these responsibilities at home, or I immigrated into this country, and they’ll feel that those are such typical stories that there is no value in them. I’ve been challenged with allowing young people to see how a story’s power is maximized when you hear it in a way that provides an authentic voice.”

Just as she discovered a world beyond the Bronx, she encourages her students to take a broad view.

“Their guidance counselors are telling them, ‘Just apply to all these local colleges,’ when there are other places that would actually tickle your brain,” she says. “That’s one thing that Swarthmore does really, really well—it builds activists who are challenging the world, it builds character, it builds writers.” 


James Mendez Hodes ’08 brings new perspectives to the table—literally.

As a freshman at Swarthmore, Mendez began playing tabletop role-playing games, or RPGs, in which participants take on a character and advance a storyline based on a fictional setting, à la Dungeons & Dragons. For Mendez, a religion major with interests in theater and poetry, the games provided a perfect mix of acting and writing. But these RPG worlds—traditionally dreamed up, played, and promoted by white, straight, cisgender men—often lacked the diversity and authenticity of the actual world, he says.

“Historically, most role-playing games were set in a Tolkien-like fantasy or Europe,” says Mendez, who made a career of his hobby by becoming an RPG writer. “But these days, there’s a lot more attention paid to having authentic research—and not having people get mad at you on the internet.”

Mendez has “a great deal of academic background that is relevant to almost nothing except for these games,” he quips: He studied West African religion, English literature, and Brazilian and North Indian dance at Swarthmore, and received a master’s degree in Eastern classics, covering Japan, China, and India, from St. John’s College in New Mexico. All of which, combined with his Filipino-American heritage, made him an ideal writing candidate for RPG companies looking to diversify. 

As a staff writer with John Wick Presents, a producer of tabletop RPGs, the New York-based Mendez casts a liberal arts eye to find the “most interesting and characterful and important things relative to the setting we’re working on,” whether it’s Imperial Mali, the Aztec Empire, or the Dutch West India Company. But Mendez never claims to be an expert on any culture but his own. 

“I know a lot about people of many different backgrounds, but I’m still a person with only my background,” he says. “It’s important to me to make sure that I check anything that I create against a real person from that culture.”

His cultural research and creativity also come into play in his side project, converting Homer’s The Iliad into a modern-day hip-hop epic.

“Rap was the original format of The Iliad,” says Mendez, who as “MC Lula” is crowdfunding the translation at “The poem had a very set rhythm and meter, but a lot of it was actually freestyled. And contentwise, it’s all about booty and machismo and a lot of the most frustrating and also captivating elements of hip-hop culture. So I wanted to translate it from its original format, into its original format.”

Through the power of imagination and words, Mendez believes we all can transcend and connect.

“I want people to feel like they can engage with subjects where they were worried about being inaccurate or offending someone, by playing a game and having fun in that setting,” Mendez says. “Swarthmore taught me that every topic was worth exploring, even the really scary ones—especially the really scary ones.”


In the introduction to This Land Is Our Land, her recent book tracing the 400-plus-year history of American immigration, Linda Barrett Osborne ’71 poses a question to her young readers:

“Is it our land, the land of the people who already live here, who were once but are no longer immigrants? Or is it our land, including the people who still come here for opportunity and freedom to make the United States their home?”

Ultimately, she lets her readers decide.

“I want them to have a fair and clear-eyed view of our history, to counter the divisive, hate-filled rhetoric we hear today,” says Osborne, a former senior writer/editor for the Library of Congress. “We talk about fake news; I’m against fake history.”

After working on a book on Italian-Americans for the Library of Congress, Osborne set out to write This Land, inspired by the experiences of her eight great-grandparents, who all emigrated from Italy in the late 19th century.

“I hadn’t realized how vicious and demeaning the language used by politicians, the press, and the public against them was,” she says. “This has been true at some point for nearly all ethnic groups immigrating to America. Obviously, some immigrant groups are being denigrated today.”

Using memoirs, letters, and interviews—plus vivid artwork and historic photographs—Osborne shares the stories of these immigrants to present the more complex reality behind the image of America as one big happy melting pot.

Osborne’s books—which also cover slavery, segregation, and other aspects of black history—have been well-received by teachers and education groups, “I think because they honestly deal with the negative parts of American history,” Osborne says, “but they also show how people—whether immigrants or African-Americans—have overcome huge obstacles to succeed.” This Land received high praise from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, and was a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2017 Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. 

As an English major at Swarthmore, Osborne never expected to write for a young audience, but she recently completed her fifth text for kids, Come On In, America, marking the 100th anniversary of the country’s entry into World War I.

“I do it because there are cracks and spaces in the history I learned growing up—and in what we hear now—and I’m obsessive about filling in the story,” she says. “Kids pick up information everywhere, a lot of it incorrect, incomplete, or oversimplified. 

“But I also think kids have a sense of what is true or reasonable and what is propaganda when they are presented with narratives that are backed up with facts and personal stories. They just need to know what they are and see them explained in an engaging way.”


Typewriter Rodeo was never meant to be more than a one-time gig. Jodi Sherman Egerton ’97 simply hoped to enter the Maker Faire—a celebration of all things artisan—as it landed in Austin, Texas, in 2013.

“I gathered up a couple of good friends and antique typewriters. We had this tiny, little booth and we said, ‘OK, we’ll have one person going and we’ll trade off every few hours—it’ll be fine,’” she remembers. “‘We’ll write a few poems or a couple of stories, and we’ll see.’ Within a half-hour of us starting, there were three of us typing, and we had lines 20 people deep.”

She realized, in that typewriter bonanza, that something had clicked.

“A couple of hours in, someone asked if we did events. We turned and looked at each other and said, ‘Yup, we do!’” she says. “At some point, some random person walked by and said, ‘Whoa! That looks like a typewriter rodeo!’ And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s our name.’ It must have been six or eight hours that we typed, and it was amazing and so much fun. I went home that night and bought the domain name for”

Ever since, the group has been available for hire for wedding receptions, corporate parties, and other events—always with at least two writers typing in tandem to feed off each other’s energy. One memorable gig brought them to Willie Nelson’s ranch during the South by Southwest festival, where they typed nonstop for nine hours. 

“That was the first time where actually I thought, I can’t continue. I am in so much pain,” Egerton laughs. 

Despite having sent thousands of poems out into the world—enough for the group to land a book deal, with plans to publish next spring—Egerton rarely suffers from writer’s block.

“A lot of it is momentum,” says Egerton, who also has a Ph.D. in English. “It’s like diving in and just going with it. The improv part of me is very big and exuberant and performative and enthusiastic, and so I get in it and I’m like, ‘Yes! Bring on the next poem! I can’t wait to do this!”

The whole Rodeo experience, from that “one word” to printed poem, typically takes just minutes. It’s enough time, though, for Egerton to put into words what others can’t—to translate the intangibility of humanity onto the page.

“It’s realizing that this collection of words and symbols touches something inside of you, and maybe it’s inspiring or soothing or commiserating or challenging or encouraging,” Egerton says. “If I can just do that for tons of people out there, for whatever their next life journey is, it feels like we’re doing something good.”