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!