During the Great Depression, part of the New Deal included money for the Federal Writers’ Project, which helped writers, historians, librarians, editors, teachers, and others find work. At its height, the program employed more than 6,000 people nationwide. It helped launch the careers of writers like John Cheever, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston. 

Now there’s a proposal for a 21st century Federal Writers’ Project — to fund and sustain the writers and stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. A bill in the House was recently introduced by Santa Monica Congressman Ted Lieu. 

He got the idea from David Kipen, former director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts. He now teaches in the UCLA writing program and runs the Libros Schmibros lending library in Boyle Heights. 

Kipen tells KCRW he drew inspiration for the project at the onset of the pandemic. He was losing friends to COVID-19, and he saw others were losing newspaper and magazine jobs. He also witnessed the deaths of nursing home residents.

“Many of them [were] dying with nobody to tell their stories. I noticed how facts were, these days, somehow in short supply and up for grabs. And I thought back to the 30s, and how divided the country was then, and all the things besetting us in the middle of the Depression.”

Excerpted from Press Play with Madeline Brand, Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser May. 19, 2021

The May 19, 2021 episode of Press Play with Madeline Brand features a conversation with David Kipen, founder and director of Libros Schmibros. Brand and Kipen discuss the original Federal Writer’s Project, part of the WPA, and Representative Ted Lieu’s recently introduced bill to create a 21st Century Federal Writer’s Project.

Read the full article or listen to the podcast on the KCRW website.