Me & my shiny new degree
School's out! One week ago, I graduated with my MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. It's hard to believe that my first residency there was already two years ago
, and now, my turn to walk across the stage as a graduate has already come and gone. Tonight, I'm showing off what I learned at Oakland's Beast Crawl, not by reading poems from my MFA thesis, but
by reading brand new work, all about vengeful sex. What can I say? I guess I needed some kind of release. If you can, come hear me read during leg 3 of Beast Crawl at Anger Management & Revenge: Dirty Trixxx
.I do have plenty of reflections about what my new degree means for my life and writing moving forward, though. I'll have lots more time now for sharing about this life here on the blog, but for now I'll leave you with
this – a version of the graduate presentation I gave at my last MFA residency. It's edited to remove the poems I included (gotta keep those to myself for now, in case of publication), and it doesn't quite carry the full effect of me delivering all this truth-telling in a little chapel hall full of people, of all places, but you'll get the idea of my journey through all of the learnings of the last couple of years. Click below to read more.
Naturally, after my fantastically action-packed weekend
, my body has fallen ill and is demanding rest. After all of the self-care and healing, I decided it was best to answer to it. So I'm sorry blog posts have been spare this week. I'll be fully back in action next week!
Today, this is what I'm thinking about as I recover: In my neighborhood, there are signs posted, letting me and my neighbors know that there will soon be a "special school" open around the corner. What makes this school so special, that it calls for neighborhood signs and meetings? Its goal will be to educate youth from the criminal justice system. And while my first thought is of the positive impact this will have on youth, the signs go on to let me know how I can voice my concerns.
No specifics about what these concerns should be. Just the implication that I should be worried that criminal youth will be in my neighborhood, doing their criminal youth things... like, you know, learning. Hmm.I have an idea. How about instead of criminalizing,
stigmatizing and isolating underprivileged youth who have made mistakes, we educate ourselves
about how providing these young folks with the opportunities they lack can help reduce their chances of repeating their mistakes, and help heal our broken, violent world in multiple ways
?Here's a great start. The Ella Baker Center
has put together an award-winning
film that shows concrete examples of how to shift from endless cycles of detention and violence to new stories of change and hope. Here's the trailer for Learning from Our Mistakes: Transforming Juvenile Justice in California
. Visit the Ella Baker Center website
to watch to film online, or to order a DVD copy with a viewer and action guide. Let's give all young people a chance at life.
What makes him so sure?
I wondered. The young man was expressing himself in a place where self-expression is the forgotten option. In Juvenile Hall, where the belief that shame and isolation prevents crime shackles youth under restricted movement. He seemed completely aware of the barriers against him -- not just the physical barriers of bolted doors and authoritative figures, but also the larger concepts of how young people of color like himself often hardly stand a chance in
a world that offers more opportunities for prison than progress. I've been returning to the Hall with The Beat Within for weekly
writing workshops with incarcerated youth, and it's been enlightening. This was one experience from last night's workshops.The young man had just finished writing his piece, which concluded with the declaration that, in spite of the obstacles in his way, he is "a young black revolutionist."
As the others finished their writing, he drew the attention of me and my co-facilitator to share some of his thoughts. What makes a young man still so bold, that he can call himself a young black revolutionist from within a jail cell? How is it possible that, while trapped inside of an institution that tries to break everyone who walks through its doors, he still had so much spirit in his eyes, so much hope in his voice? If he knew one thing for certain, it was this: knowledge is key. His body may have been claimed by his oppressors, but he knew that his mind is his own. And holding this knowledge, he was sure, would be enough to change the world. He has plans for when he is released, but his impact on social change has already begun. The NAACP has recently released a report that confirms this young man's suspicions about what stands against him. Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate
reveals data that shows the negative impact of overspending on prison systems while cutting funding for education. The good news is that, while releasing such reports and advocating for policy changes can be helpful, we don't have to wait for somebody else to come along and help our communities. We can, as this young man knows, help ourselves. This idea is on my mind especially because Safetyfest begins tomorrow, which means that the weekend will be filled with powerful events in which folks from communities that are continually oppressed will express themselves, gain knowledge and come together in ways that pacify violent systems
through the power of our own minds.The incarcerated body still has the freedom of thought.
And there's no way to disempower the thoughtful mind.
There were rounds and rounds of difficult questions.
Do I want to go to grad school? Where should I apply? Which one should I choose? And which genre?
Finally, I've made my decision. And I'm very pleased to say that this year I'll begin pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Pacific University
Many factors went into this decision, of course. Here are a few of the main ones:
- Pacific has a low-residency program. This means that I can continue my life and work here in the Bay Area, attending ten-day residencies twice a year. Why choose a low-residency program? Read some of the reasons here.
- The faculty will be amazing to work with. This faculty is part of what earns Pacific such a great reputation. I can't wait to work with folks like Kwame Dawes, Marvin Bell, Dorianne Laux and more.
- They offer flexibility between genres, so although I've decided to focus on poetry, I can still work on my fiction while I'm there.
- And the location was something to consider, especially when I'll be traveling there twice a year. Pacific offers residencies in the beautiful state of Oregon, which means it'll be cheaper than traveling across the country and possibly more fun, with the opportunity for a scenic road trip twice a year.
The question now, I suppose, is what getting an MFA has to do with writing and social change, seeing as that's the focus of this blog, and of much of my writing. Does this mean I'm taking a side
in the MFA debate
? Does it mean I believe a higher education degree is necessary to change the world through writing?
Not at all. But I believe an MFA is right for me, and the direction I'd like to pursue for my writing at the moment. I believe that I have much to learn, and that the knowledge I can seek at Pacific University will be invaluable.
I'm thrilled to be moving forward. Check back for more on my experience at Pacific, beginning this summer!
When I began blogging
, I'd just graduated from the undergraduate creative writing program at San Francisco State University. I was wondering how to answer the question of "what next?" And I was wondering how to pursue my life in a way that made sure I was earning the er
in writer. How has that worked out so far? Well, I've managed to get a "day
job" that has nothing to do with writing, but that feels important to me, doing HIV outreach
for the AIDS Office of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. I've continued learning, because even when I'm not in school I can't stop doing that. Some endeavors haven't quite worked out. The Free University of San Francisco, for example, has continued to face its challenges, and has moved in some directions I've decided to step away from, though I wish them the best of luck.
But there have certainly been other bright spots
in my learning about the world from outside of academia. I've done readings, at events like Quiet Lightning, Bitchez Brew and New Poetry Mission. I've lived as a writer, yes. And I believe I've earned that er most of all because, as I set out to do in that first post, I've been writing. Now, I'm preparing for next steps. I've been hearing back from MFA programs, and so far, every school I've heard from has accepted me. Joyful news, yes, but so much for the rejections helping me narrow it down! Now I have quite the decision to make, including whether I want to study poetry or fiction. I'll let you know as soon as I'm sure where my next steps will take me. Until then, I'm getting giddy for change...
Today's Friday Friends are Planned Parenthood
. Please watch and share this important video.
'Double Consciousness' by Zeal Harris
I've been putting off making this blog post like nobody's business. Which makes me stop to ask myself why, exactly, I'm so uncomfortable writing about diversity
as it applies to the Free University of San Francisco
I think it's the idea of being asked to speak for other people. Ask me, Maisha Z. Johnson, about Maisha's experience with the Free University of San Francisco's first teach-in, and I'll tell you as an individual how exciting it was to hear Diane Di Prima
speak on Visionary Poetry, how thrilling to learn from Martin Holden about San Francisco's native wildlands, how enlightening to hear from Alan Kaufman about connections between Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock. But I don't believe I've been asked as an individual. I believe I've been asked to share, as a person of color, how people of color feel about the University of San Francisco. I usually balk at the invitation to speak for "the community," mostly because, big surprise here, communities are made of individuals, all of whom can vary wildly from one another. I won't pretend to speak for all of us. But I gave my individual opinion.
The result is that my opinions as an individual appeared as part of a general commentary on the lack of diversity in the FUSF's first teach-in, in this San Francisco Bay Guardian article
. I'm thankful that this discussion, which has been going on for a while,
has spread. Still, I'm a little disappointed in the use of sensationalism to frame the discussion in such a negative light.
My position in this discussion reminds me of a question W.E.B. Du Bois
writes about in his collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk
. How does it feel to be a problem?
Du Bois says this is the underlying question when white folks politely asked the resident black person for his or her opinion on issues surrounding race. He was writing in 1903 of the double-consciousness
that still affects people of color today -- that is, we are aware of both ourselves as individuals and of the dominant society's perception of us.
What does this mean for my position in an endeavor like creating a free university? Well, out of this discussion, two sides of a debate have emerged. On one hand, some argue that the doors of the Free University are open to all, and that should be enough. They say that deliberate outreach to people of color simply for the sake of checking of the "diversity" box is condescending and unnecessary, as people will choose to become involved if they'd like to. The other argument, part of the point I was making when I was quoted in the article, is that we can't expect folks to show up if they haven't been invited and welcomed, and that one way to reach other communities is to spread the word that the FUSF is open to their vision, rather than simply advertising what we have to offer.
It's not a matter of reaching "the community" to share the knowledge the Free University already holds. It's about reaching individuals of all kinds, recognizing them as individuals and not as a box to check off, and asking what they have to bring to the table. Not asking how does it feel to be a problem?
but how does it feel to be empowered?
and supporting all of the people in feeling that way.
The overall impression of the FUSF's first teach-in was a positive one
, with many folks leaving feeling inspired by all who were involved. Though classes fell short in the aim of incorporating more diversity, there's no reason to paint it all in a negative light. We know that we have many more people to reach in order to be a university of the people, so to me, the future of the Free University of San Francisco sounds pretty damn exciting.
To learn more, visit the FUSF website
, or feel free to contact me
for more information on upcoming outreach meetings and more. Note: As I mentioned later in this post, I've since decided to step away from being a part of the Free University collective, though I wish them the best of luck!
I don't have a TV. Most of the time this works out perfectly well for me -- after all, as far as media goes I do have the Internet if I want to feel connected to the rest of the world. Should I still be so dependent on technology, though? All weekend I've been glued to Youtube, watching videos of what's happening in Egypt.
I considered this yesterday while attending a Free University
meeting. One of the points that came up was a resistance to depending on technology, at least technology that would outright replace human connection. Would providing Youtube videos of course lectures take away from the face-to-face element of our vision
for reaching people?In the case of Egypt, there are videos that have been created for the people, by the people, and they wouldn't have reached anyone if it meant relying on the government or mainstream media to show us what's happening. So this is a case of technology being used by the people to claim their own rights. Then again, maybe there are some drawbacks.
Maybe if I didn't have the ease of watching Youtube from the comfort of my home, I might actually be out connecting with people to learn more about the situation. At the meeting yesterday, Alan Kaufman made the point that those who sought to learn used to travel the globe to reach a teacher they wished to study with. Now, we're hardly willing to leave our couches to find the information we seek. So technology certainly has the potential to reach more people, in ways that were never before possible. But let's be sure it doesn't just make us more comfortable in our complacency.
The folks in the videos know that change comes from movement. Let's move.
S.F. protest against education cuts, 3/4/10
Photo by Maisha Z. Johnson
Education in this country is still becoming more expensive
and inaccessible every year. How would the sharing of knowledge look, if it were up to you? If you dared to entertain dreams beyond what seems possible under the current system? What would it take to make those dreams a reality?
Some folks are daring to shift their ideas about education into the reality of education, and as a result, creation of the Free University of San Francisco
is moving forward. I shared about the first planning session
in December. Now we've had a second meeting, and we're gearing up for a third. And people are excited. Today's SF Bay Guardian features the Free University and words from founder Alan Kaufman in this cover story. I'm excited, too, of course. I can only imagine -- what does it mean if we don't have to wait for permission from those who appear to be in power to grasp the knowledge we seek? As Alan Kaufman said in his second opening remarks,
"knowledge in the hands of the oppressed is a tool of liberation far more powerful than a gun." Imagine empowering folks with the knowledge to survive and thrive in their own communities, regardless of income, age, disability, immigration status
, or any of the other barriers standing in the way of education for so many people today. There's still plenty of time to get involved in the Free University, which can mean physical involvement if you can, or simply contributing ideas, which are just as valuable as material contributions. Those questions from the beginning of this post aren't just hypothetical. I'd love to know -- how would you share knowledge, if you could? What would you learn, if money was no option? What would you teach? Let's create this world we imagine.
It's not as impossible as it seems.Note: As I mentioned later in this post, I've since decided to step away from being a part of the Free University collective, though I wish them the best of luck!
More excitement in the air
in San Francisco. This time, it’s not just in the literary community, though that’s where it’s beginning, with some of the most brilliant and creative minds in the SF lit community pursuing a vision that is, as Alan Kaufman
put it, “a dream far too important to hold hostage to any particular person or personality-type.”
This past weekend I attended the first planning meeting for the Free University of San Francisco. It’s very early in the development stages, only just morphing from idea to reality. You know what that means? That means that you (yes, you, if you live in the Bay Area) have a chance to be a part of this from the very beginning.
What’s the vision? To create a university where knowledge is freely given
between those who wish to share it. But that’s only part of it. The other part is what you and I and everyone else who wants to make this a reality can bring. I attended the meeting in awe of folks like Alan Kaufman
, Matt Gonzalez
and Diamond Dave
, but I found that everyone was there to listen, believing that everyone who’d come had something to contribute. It’s very inspiring, how grassroots this whole process is.
Still, it’s obvious that at this point the communities involved are limited. Which is a shame, because an opportunity like this one should be available for everyone to share, from the beginning. So they’re hoping to get more folks involved, more people of color and queer and trans people, educators and experts in all kinds of fields, which could mean having a degree in a particular field or having a grasp of a practical skill, or anything in between. And also people who can help with the logistics of setting something like this up, and anybody who's interested in learning. If you know anybody who would want to be involved, or if you have any sort of inkling to come see what it’s about, please check out the Facebook group here
, the website here
(still very early in development), and I can’t recommend enough, even if you don’t want to be involved, reading Alan Kaufman’s opening remarks
from the meeting, just for the sake of the enrichment that brings.
Also, if you can make out the audio, here’s a video peek
at how the first meeting went. Help spread the word! And let me know if you know of any organizations or individuals, particularly folks of color, who want to be involved. Education for all!Note: As I mentioned later in this post, I've since decided to step away from being a part of the Free University collective, though I wish them the best of luck!