Photo from Lorene Cary

As a schoolgirl in West Philadelphia, Penn Lecturer in Creative Writing Lorene Cary never thought she would be honored by the city for her work.  

But on Aug. 22, in what is just the latest in a string of commendations, Cary was chosen as one of the seven people to serve as Resident Artists for the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development program.

Cary came to Penn as a freshman in 1974. She spent the next four years earning both her bachelor's and her master's degrees in English, all while working between 20 and 40 hours a week and writing for The Daily Pennsylvanian after being recruited during the paper’s push to recruit more black reporters. 

Despite feeling overworked, Cary led a successful career at Penn. She won the prestigious Thouron Award her senior year, which allowed her to study abroad at Sussex University in England. There, she studied Victorian literature and religion. She also met a group of black graduate students from Africa who introduced her to their discussion of their respective countries and political movements of the time.

“When I was in England, I went from a minority to a person of color in the world,” she said. “That was enormously liberating.” 

After receiving a second master's degree, Cary served as an intern for Time magazine and an editor for TV Guide. In 1995, hoping to take on a more stable job, she began teaching English in the College. 

Aaron Levy, Senior Lecturer in English and the History of Art departments, said Cary is unique as a teacher because of how she connects her lessons to the larger Philadelphia community. College junior Madeleine Schirber, who took Cary’s Advanced Writing for Children course last spring said she is “super charismatic.” 

Cary has also received institutional recognition for her teaching abilities. During her time at Penn, she has won the Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence by Non-Standing and Affiliated Faculty twice, first in 1998, then in 2017.  

Cary published her first book in 1991, and her publications have continued to receive widespread praise. In 2003, her novel “Price of a Child” was chosen as the inaugural book for the One Book, One Philadelphia reading project.

“I have found her to be an extraordinarily gifted writer,” former colleague and Professor Emeritus of English Peter Conn said. “[She] combines a novelist’s imagination and immense intellectual curiosity with a passionate commitment to getting things right – to telling the truth about herself, about American society, about the past of America as so far she can reconstruct.”

On top of being a writer and educator, Cary is also a passionate activist. 

In 1998, she founded Art Sanctuary, an organization based in North Philadelphia that connects black authors, historians, musicians, filmmakers, photographers and dancers in a celebration of black art. Inspired by her national book tours, she said that she wanted “to bring this intellectual and artistic conversation to the hood in [her] own city.”   

Although Cary stepped down as the organization’s director in 2012, “the entire spirit of the organization continues to work as she started [it],” Valerie Gay, Director of Art Sanctuary, said.

Cary also founded the website “Safe Kids Stories” in 2015 after serving as the chair of the Safety Committee of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. The website aims to promote peaceful stories for young people “in opposition to the conventional journalistic fascination with violence and loss of safety,” said Conn, who also worked on the project. In 2003, she was awarded the Philadelphia Award “for her leadership in the Arts communities of Philadelphia," according to the award's website. 

When presenting Cary her award for teaching excellence this spring, former Provost Vincent Price included commentary from one of her students: 

“She is a brilliant human being. I am honored to know her. When I think about someone who has truly changed my life, I think of her.”

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