The spring 2022 cover of SOFA Journal celebrates the subject of Benita Alioth from Shelbie Loomis’ interview, and ongoing socially engaged art project by the same name, The Art We Value. During weekly Bingo/Luncheons for the Jantzen Beach RV Park and Hayden Island Mobile Home community, where Shelbie and Benita are both residents, they became friends and ultimately collaborators in a local art show and sharing event that Shelbie organized for the project. In reading their interview, I started to think about compassion: the feeling of fellowship birthed from the suffering of others. How social forms of art can really artifact, and even celebrate, this exchange of tenderness between people. What are the forms of documentation for any given project that make this warmth and gentleness sing?
How does the documentation resonate with the people experiencing the artwork firsthand, those on their computer at home, in a book a decade later? They’re all sharing an experience of this same artwork. They may all tell a similar story of the work, when it was made and where, the materials it’s made from, and the motivation. But that compassionate feeling may be an ephemeral thing. So we ask, how do we communicate that feeling over time, which is often so crucial to the birth of the artwork when it’s in a social form?
It isn’t about requiring one way of interpreting or defining the meaning of a work. It’s more about offering a lens through which we can understand the relationship behind the work, which may offer us a hopeful possibility for the future when we feel more disconnected. With heavy hearts holding recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, rising food shortages, the overturning of Roe v Wade, on top of being over two years into a global pandemic, it’s a starting point. A test for possibilities for change. Shelbie’s tender illustration of her collaborator Benita serves as documentation of the tender hope that is possible to uncover in the relational experience at the core of socially engaged artworks. Helping us to see who is aching, and who is resonating with that ache. Who is navigating the world a certain way because of it, and what strategies they are using. Ultimately, this can help us to see the limitations of our singular perspectives in favor of coming together.
Cover Art Direction: Gilian Rappaport
Cover Art Production: Laura Glazer
Letter from the editors
So much art is a treasure trove of references and allusions. It can sometimes feel like a scavenger hunt to look at works of art and it is so exciting when you get it! It’s like having an inside joke with the artist, even if you have never met them. Reading the interviews in this issue for example, you may notice a few people make the deliberate choice to forego capitalization in their names or the titles of their work. Rest assured this didn’t just get missed by us, the editors. This is reminiscent of bell hooks’ decision to spell her name in all lowercase, because “when the feminist movement was at its zenith in the late ‘60s and early ’70s, there was a lot of moving away from the idea of the person. It was: Let’s talk about the ideas behind the work, and the people matter less.” Was Sister Corita Kent making the decision to use lowercase letters in her titles for similar political reasons? Maybe Roz Crews’ performance piece titled with lowercase, tell us how you became so close to art, was an homage to Kent.
This idea that hooks referenced is an important notion in Social Practice, and a highlight in some of the interviews in this issue too. When talking about Sister Corita Kent’s work, Nellie Scott tells Gillian Rappaport, “The objects are not unimportant, but the message, the meaning, and the collective coming together is priority one. And the byproduct of this incredible collaboration is almost like eye candy.” This deemphasis on the object is echoed by Kenny Walls who tells his twin sister Kiara Walls, “I think that’s the power of art, whether it’s music, writing, it forces you to create the idea as well. You become the creator of that idea.”
Because our particular area of artmaking is niche, many people working this way pull from the same set of references. We often have a shared set of values. Art, and especially socially engaged art, is such a small world, but it also opens you up to how big the world is. It is a tiny tool through which to look at something huge. When we find others who see the world the same way, it is a treasure. As artist Wendy Ewald told us in a recent workshop, “I don’t usually get to meet people who think so similarly.”
The interview can be a way of finding out how people think and hopefully finding some who think the way you do. From shared family memories tied to place, as in Luz Blumenfeld’s talk with their grandmother, Aqui, to forming friendships through plants and co-mentoring youth, like in Lillyanne Pham’s conversation with ridhi d’cruz and Jackie Santa Lucia, there is a joy to be found in reading a shared language between others, as well as having that shared language, shared with you.
An interview can also be a method of learning an unfamiliar language. Like Justin Maxon, who asks others to reflect on experiences he wouldn’t be able to understand by himself. Or Laura Glazer, whose admiration and curiosity about an art piece led her to publish a book about what she learned from the artist, Ms. Melodie Adams. She now asks others, “What do you want everyone to know?” We hope the Spring Issue of the SoFA Journal connects your curiosity and questions with a couple methods for exploration.
We hope you’ll enjoy.
“What I respond to in socially engaged art is a sense of vulnerability. When I see an artist being vulnerable and then I see people responding in vulnerable ways, that’s what I’m interested in.”ROZ CREWS
I first connected with Roz Crews the summer before I moved to Portland, Oregon. I had just been accepted to the Art and Social Practice Program and Harrell Fletcher told me that Roz, a program alum and instructor, had attended the same strange and tiny liberal arts college I had just graduated from (New College of Florida). I got in touch with her in an attempt to gather as much knowledge about this program as I could, and our first conversation clued me in to what I quickly learned could be expected from conversations with Roz: warmth, honesty, and genuine connection. Since that point, I’ve gotten to know and appreciate Roz’s teaching style by both being in a class facilitated by her and by hearing more about her experiences teaching elementary school. While I think about the kind of teacher and facilitator I want to grow into, I think it’s important to learn directly from those whose styles I admire, hence the following conversation with Roz.
Olivia DelGandio: How would you feel about talking about vulnerability today?
Roz Crews: I like that idea.
Olivia: I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability as it relates to teaching. I’d like to be a teacher who teaches with and through vulnerability, but with the teacher/student relationship there can easily be a lack of empathy that makes learning, and just being a person in that space, really difficult. I think you do a really great job of teaching through vulnerability and I’m interested to know your thoughts on this.
Roz: I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and I don’t think I’m naturally super empathetic, but I am naturally very sensitive and I’ve always wanted to be an empathetic teacher. I wanted to support students in all the ways that I could, and whether they are kids or adults, I really try to advocate for each person whenever I can. Sometimes that does wind up feeling like a maternal kind of role and personally, I never thought that critically about it until more recently when I started to recognize how much emotional labor goes into supporting students and the various needs that come up. You know, some years I’d have 300 students and if it’s elementary school then I’d have around 700 that I saw every week. So you can imagine that all of those people relying on and needing support from you can be challenging, especially when you’re an adjunct instructor or somebody who’s not necessarily feeling compensated for work beyond their “contract hours.” But in the same breath, I am so happy that I have been able to support people in times of need, and also just in their everyday regular life. Teachers have done that for me, and I feel kind of like I owe people that kind of support.
Olivia: It’s interesting to think about the teachers I’ve had who have played that maternal role and those who have been pretty against it. Maybe there’s some kind of middle ground where you can have boundaries while still having a deep connection to your students. What would that look like?
Roz: I think it looks like developing a strong sense of self but not letting it affect you on a personal level or else you’ll be over involved in everything. So for me it’s been about establishing a strong sense of what I believe and then committing to that, but also being flexible wherever I can. My philosophy on education is that you are really going to get out of it what you put into it. That can be a controversial point of view; especially if students or participants are expecting a more traditional “banking model” of education: where students are perceived as empty vessels ready to be filled up with knowledge, an approach criticized by folks like Paulo Friere and bell hooks. I see teaching as an exchange. And that’s my boundary actually. I’m not really there to hold your hand through a situation as much as I am to present something to you and see what you think, and then, if it’s hard, we can talk about it. If it’s good and rewarding, we talk about it. For me it comes down to self-preservation and self-awareness, and I try to teach those things to students.
Photo of a passage Olivia highlighted in their copy of bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress, 2022, Portland, OR, photo by Olivia DelGandio.
Olivia: Totally. I’m thinking about the class I took last term, the pedagogy class taught by Alison Heryer. We had to write a teaching philosophy and I was thinking a lot about vulnerability and teaching and also reading a lot of bell hooks. Something she talks about is teaching through vulnerability, but having to be vulnerable yourself before you can expect vulnerability back from your students. I feel like that’s connected to this idea of boundaries and how vulnerable you can allow yourself to be with your students.
Roz: Yes, and I certainly have been influenced by bell hooks and I think that’s where my relationship to vulnerability and teaching comes from. Vulnerability in the classroom is complicated. Certain things, I’m happy to be super transparent and vulnerable about. This was especially true when I was younger, I was like an open book. And I use that in my art practice too. I use the strategy of: I’m going to tell you whatever you want to know about me so that you will want to participate in this project and so we can have a shared sense of vulnerability. I do that in my artwork, but I also do it in the classroom and it’s changed over time in both contexts, but more specifically in my teaching because there’ve been some situations that have happened that I’ve been alarmed by. These things have shifted my willingness to be vulnerable with students and the public. It’s become harder to want to share, even though these situations are far and few between, considering all the students I’ve worked with and all of the public places I’ve put myself into.
Olivia: But situations like that can make a big impact.
Roz: They can, yeah.
Olivia: Considering all those things and how difficult it is to ask people to be vulnerable, how do you make the classroom a safe place?
Roz: I’ve really developed a strategy for quickly acclimating students to the situation that we’re going to be in for the next 10 or 15 or 36 weeks. Part of how I think of making a safe-feeling space is by trying to be vulnerable to some degree myself, more so with grad students than undergrads, and then I share even less about myself with kids. I also always create community agreements in the beginning of a class so there’s a sense of accountability. If something does happen, we can refer back to this document which includes things like “move up, move back,” which is about creating space for people who might not necessarily love being the first to talk. A lot comes up when we make the community agreements, which I find super useful as a starting place. Of course, uncomfortable things happen throughout the class, and you can come back to community agreements.
Olivia: You started talking a bit about vulnerability in your art practice. I feel like there are some similarities in how you think about vulnerability in terms of art versus teaching, but also ways that these spaces are pretty different. How do you think it shifts when you’re trying to be vulnerable in the classroom space versus in your own practice?
Roz: For me, the classroom and my practice are pretty intertwined. Even though I don’t think of my teaching as my practice, there’s a lot of times when, in my career, they have intersected. I’ve done a lot of projects at schools and I’ve also taught in schools and so sometimes I’m doing a project in the school where I’m teaching. Recently I did a performance. I was really struggling with the whole fifth grade at my new school and I was pretty desperate, so I was like, I’m going to go off the books here and just sort of see what I can do to build trust with this group. With one class in particular I said, “Hey I’m going to be doing this performance artwork and I would like it if you guys would help me create a score for the piece.” I explained what a score is and the whole time we were talking they were so engaged because I’m talking to them about something that’s really in my life and that they don’t know about. They were excited about it and I told them they could choose everything that I do during the performance; they were totally in control of this performance and I wasn’t going to change anything that they decided on. And I did everything they said, I followed through on my promise. I’m very committed to doing what I say I’ll do. So that’s one example of how my teaching intersects with my practice and involves vulnerability and trust building. Other times I’m more vulnerable in my practice than in teaching because I have less to lose when it’s not something I’m doing in an institution.
Olivia: I love that project. Do you have any other thoughts on this?
Roz: I think talking about vulnerability in the context of social practice is really important. What I respond to in socially engaged art is a sense of vulnerability. With a lot of projects, I see people putting up personal, emotional, and mental walls and that can make it hard for me to respond to the work. When I see an artist being vulnerable and then I see people responding in vulnerable ways, that’s what I’m interested in.
Roz Crews (she/her) is an artist, educator, and writer whose practice explores the many ways that people around her exist in relationship to one another. Recent projects have examined the dominant strategies and methods of research enforced by academic institutions, schemes and scams of capitalism, and the ways authorship and labor are discussed in the context of a specific art gallery. Her work manifests as publications, performances, conversations, essays, and exhibitions, and she shares it in traditional art spaces… but also in hotels, bars, college dorms, Zoom rooms, and river banks. As part of her exploration of the oppressive qualities of schools, she worked for two years as a full-time art teacher at a public elementary school in North Florida during the pandemic. She is currently a manager of community engagement programs for a collecting museum in New England.
Olivia DelGandio (they/she) is a storyteller who asks intimate questions and normalizes answers in the form of ongoing conversations. They explore grief, memory, and human connection and look for ways of memorializing moments and relationships. Through the work they make, they hope to make the world a more tender place and aim to do so by creating books, videos, and textiles that capture personal narratives in an intimate manner. Essential to Olivia’s practice is research. Their current research interests include untold queer histories, family lineage, and the intersection between fashion and identity.
Gardens in Canoes
“It was very important to always be there, to have someone doing things and staying in that place, spending time with the people. Many projects in rural communities happen in a more transitory way, and the people leave as soon as they’re over. Our idea was to really be there.”YOLANDA CHOI
Text by Diana Marcela Cuartas, translated by Camilo Roldán
Spanish version below
Jardines en Balsas (Gardens in Canoes) is an environmental education and community arts project, created by Yolanda Chois and Michelle Szejner in collaboration with a group of farming families. The project takes place in the township of Jaqué on the border between Panama and Colombia, on the Pacific Coast in what is known as the Darien Region. The name of this project refers to an agricultural practice called zoteas: a concept particular to the coastal communities of various places in the Chocó biogeography, which involves converting unused boats into beds for elevated gardens that can adapt to tidal changes and rising water levels in rivers.
In this interview, Yolanda and Michelle discuss a seven-year process of artistic and interdisciplinary work that, at the community’s behest, brought back this planting technique that was on the brink of being forgotten. One of the results is a book that compiles and classifies 100 usable plants in Jaqué that were collectively researched through plantings, seed exchanges, and knowledge sharing, for traditional agriculture practices and native plant identification, with a focus on local food sovereignty.
Tomatillo cultivated in a zoteas garden, Jaqué 2016 – Photo: Jardines en Balsas archive
Diana Marcela Cuartas: Let’s start at the beginning: How did Gardens in Canoes get started?
Michelle Szejner: I met Yolanda through a mutual friend and when we were talking she told me about Hacia El Litoral (Toward the Shore), a project that involved a trip through the Chocó region with an art collective. They were going to travel by sea, getting to know local cultures and recognizing them, compiling oral traditions, histories, and soundscapes. It was a lovely project and one of the stops was in Panama. She also mentioned that she wanted to do a recipe book and I thought my services could be helpful in identifying useful plants with the community. I told her I would request vacation days so I could meet with the collective as a volunteer. She said, “Great! Arrive on this day on this airplane,” and that’s how I arrived in a community I didn’t know, in a super remote part of Panama that very few Panamanians even know about.
Once I was there, I started to meet the farming families of Jaqué. One day, in the garden of one of the project participants, we found that there were more than 120 species of useful plants in her zoteas garden. That was when I realized that I had to return to that community. I’m a biologist and ethnobotanist and I love talking to people. I started documenting the plants I was finding, who was growing them, and what they were used for. This database started to grow, which fortunately allowed us to get more funding to continue traveling to Jaqué with Yolanda and to make the magic that happened there.
First, we wanted to connect two coastal communities, which were the Las Perlas archipelago and Jaqué, around gardens, recipes and useful plants. Later, we focused only on Jaqué, and there we went through a whole journey of workshops, volunteers, art, permaculture, and culinary arts. We were trying to recuperate traditional cooking and not depend so much on things that come from the city on ships. Jaqué is so isolated and has so many market restrictions that a ship arrives on a sixteen-hour trip from Panama City carrying stuff like cement, beer, eggs, chicken and canned goods—a lot of canned goods that have led to really high amounts of diabetes and malnutrition. And so, there were conversations about going back to eating more salads and vegetables and about using local seeds. We did a lot of work in that area. We started organizing seed exchanges, and that’s where the Gardens in Canoes came from.
Yolanda Chois: Now here’s my version of the story. Like Michelle said, with Hacia el Litoral, I had done a tour through the Chocó and Darién regions of Panama and Colombia, which have been very stigmatized by the intense violence that they experienced as a border zone. In that project, what I did was to invite people that were interesting to me to do interdisciplinary work in that border zone. Michelle was there contributing as a botanist, but we had other friendships with sociologists, documentarians, scientists and people who didn’t necessarily come from an arts background. It was conceived as a kind of residency, and then other things started to happen.
I had in mind the model of Siembra (Planting), a project that the Más Arte Más Acción (More Art More Action) foundation had done, which was also an artistic practice connecting people from other disciplines, and they had developed a recipe book. It was a search for local knowledge and plants, and this is why Michelle and I started talking about a recipe book. But later there were the particular needs of that region, of the people who we got involved with in Jaqué, the need to bring back knowledge about the zoteas, which is a practice in many communities on the Pacific Coast, and surely in many other places where there are rivers and oceans. We started talking and came up with the idea of Hacia el Litoral as a platform for people to meet and develop a lot of different kinds of projects. Some of these came to fruition; others didn’t, others came together as artworks, others became radio programs, and Gardens in Canoes was one of those projects. It was really interesting because, among all of the people who contributed to the project, there was a spirit of collectivity, ideas and feelings that motivated people to find resources. On the other hand, it was also a constant learning process for all of us who came from different ways of working.
Michelle: It was totally a two-way learning experience!
Seeds and plants exchange in Jaqué, 2017 – Photo: Jardines en Balsas archive
Diana: How were you able to integrate those working methods between arts and science backgrounds?
Yolanda: It was often very difficult for me. For those of us who work in culture, communications or art, it’s sometimes hard to place our contributions to a project, which for example: in the case of science, biology and botany, is much clearer. While my question was “How can we deconstruct our ideas about how we relate to this community?” For Michelle, the question was much more practical. She would say to me, “We have to bring tools and that’s it,” which made a lot of sense.
Art came into the project as a way to think about the relationship with the community and as a way to design strategies for bringing back that knowledge about the zoteas. For example, one of the volunteer artists devoted herself to studying biochemicals and solutions for plant diseases, and in the end, she made a handbook. At a different point, we invited an illustrator to draw gardens and spend time with the people. She was doing different cultural activities that had to do with the gardens, beyond collecting information. There were also a lot of labs where people from different disciplines were invited to work with the community to complement each person’s knowhow, instead of telling them how they needed to do things.
In the case of botany specifically, it was vital not only for scientific information, but it also helped us to establish some processes for seed exchanges that were and are essential for the project. It helped us to identify problems, and it helped us in the search for [food] sovereignty, because there is a financial control over something that shouldn’t be subject to that. It allowed us to hold onto seeds so that they would continue to exist, which is an example of how things started to intersect, and the knowledge set down in the books is definitely as much about local science as it is a huge contribution from Michelle as a scientist interested in the relationship between human beings and the vegetation.
Michelle: It also had a lot to do with the volunteers’ work. They were invited to stay as long as they wanted and the only thing we asked in return was that they would go along with the community on issues of agriculture to find and rescue seeds, through questions like: “Which seeds did your grandparents use? Which ones are they? How do you preserve them?” That was what guided us all and was what we worked on all the time, which generated other kinds of projects with other issues, but always with the community. That way we could gradually refine the botanical information and technical things about the book, so that the local knowledge would be respected and it wouldn’t contain erroneous information.
Diana: How did the community take to these interdisciplinary processes of knowledge sharing?
Michelle: It’s important to know that there was already a community structure in place and that we didn’t arrive out of thin air. There was the Escuelita de la Paz (School for Peace), where people worked a lot on the issue of healthy, non-violent education for children. There was the Colegio de la Tierra (Earth/Soil School): a high school that focused on agriculture. There is a turtle conservation project in place since 1998. All of that already existed. There were also precedents that basically set things up for us to be well received. We’ve also been lucky that the people who spent time with us and the people from the community have accepted each other. All of it has been happening from a place of good will and respect. I’ve never heard of someone who had to leave the community because they couldn’t stand it. Which is something that can happen and has happened in other projects.
Yolanda: I would also say that when we talk about community it’s not that we’re talking about all of Jaqué. Jaqué is the municipality’s main town and a meeting point for various communities that are much further up the rivers. When we say community, we’re referring to the group we work with, people who have already been acting as leaders in other projects and are accustomed to this. In fact, I think what we did was to refresh that relationship a little bit, because many other projects that happen there are international aid projects, which can often be much more instrumentalist relationships. Though they may have already become accustomed to people arriving from the outside to do things, we tried to manage a project with a more horizontal logic, although there are things that simply can’t be horizontal because of certain ways of relating that are very difficult to break.
On the other hand, the people who arrived as volunteers each had their own way of relating to people and opening up the project to other concerns. To me, that was very important because, at the end of the day, one of the valuable things about the project and the relationship between volunteers and the community was the development of other stories about such a stigmatized place. The book is, more than anything, a tool for the community to get to know the symbolic and biological wealth of their land, and as such: a tool for defending it too.
Volunteers and community members in Jaqué, 2016 – Photo: Hacia el Litoral archive
Diana: You said that you tried to establish more horizontal work dynamics. How do you approach horizontality?
Yolanda: I see it in different ways. The first thing is that it’s important to open up the relationship to resources, to funding. People should know what is the money available and how it’s being managed. Michelle would come every month with a folder with all of the information about how the funding was being used.
Michelle: I believe a lot in transparency in the data and the respect that I as a “foreigner” should show the community for allowing me to do a project there. It is an ethic that doesn’t get practiced much, but it’s vital. Transparency from financial resources to how far the project will go, what will come out of it, as well as identifying what we can’t control, the risks has been key over all these years and is at least a way to define the playing field. The budget is public, as are the activities, and also the changes that can be made. Everything is open because the project belongs to everyone. I think that changed how people were thinking about things a lot.
Yolanda: What’s more, we created a lot of strategies for being there, for spending time with people. The work with volunteers was super important because, although we did spend a lot of time in Jaqué, we couldn’t go and live there at the time. But the people who went to volunteer were there and were the project’s presence. It was very important to always be there, to have someone doing things and staying in that place, spending time with the people. Many projects in rural communities happen in a more transitory way, and the people leave as soon as they’re over. Our idea was to really be there, and we did it in a continuous way for over two years, with people tied to the project also staying in place, and that was also a way to create horizontality. Being present day in and day out, not only for the problems that affect the project, but also as part of the place.
On the other hand, there is also a more subjective process, and it’s that being in that place starts to transform how you see things, and it’s important to stay open to that possibility. Because for all of these rural communities—that are afro-Colombian, that are indigenous, that have different conditions, and are apparently distant to someone coming from the city with other problems, in a different condition. So, allowing yourself to ask who you are to that other reality is also part of the process, I think. But I don’t know if there is an ABC to these things.
Diana: With all of the possibilities for collective creation, how did you stick to the idea of making a book?
Yolanda: Initially, the reference was the project I told you about called Siembra. The process started to take a different shape, but the book always remained as an idea of how to culminate the project. What gradually changed was that it was no longer about a recipe book; it would be a different kind of knowledge that had to be there.
This was also part of our group conversations, asking what would be better for this place to leave that knowledge remaining in something; if it would be better to make a movie or a documentary—and in fact, several documentary videos were made as part of the process of returning the information to this place. This is when we decided that all that botanical work that Michelle had been doing with the families and local people should be the content. We invited the Isla en Vela, a local collective of graphic designers, to make the botanical illustrations, diagrams, and design the book, a job that we also carried out for several years. That has left us a powerful mark on collective creation for the community.
Diana: What have been your conclusions about this process, from its conception up until now?
Yolanda: I feel that, as artists, we’re used to processes that lead more to works, to some kind of physical thing. So, this practice is a little strange because it takes many forms. At one point it is an ethnobotany book; at another point i t’s local processes, and at another point it’s labs. It’s a more hybrid practice, and sometimes it is difficult for me to explain what it is in its different manifestations.
Jardines en Balsas publication, 2022 – Photo courtesy of Yolanda Chois
Yolanda Chois-Rivera (she/her) studied Visual Arts at the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia. She has lived between Panama and Colombia, where she researches curatorial, artistic, and interdisciplinary practices between urban and rural territories. She has managed projects in Colombia with the Museo la Tertulia, the Goethe Institute, the Ministry of Culture, the Cultural Area of Banco de la República, and multiple artistic and environmental organizations in the global south, among others.
Michelle Szejner (she/her) is a biologist with a great passion for ethnobotany cultures, and the traditional uses of her resources. She enjoys walking with the oldest and wisest people in town; strolling through her gardens and learning about plants is what she likes the most. She is originally from Guatemala and fell in love with Jaqué in 2014, visiting continuously to plant and exchange seeds and knowledge.
Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist, educator, and culture worker residing in Portland, Oregon since 2019. She is currently a student at the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University. As a family engagement specialist for the Latino Network’s education department, she creates spaces for immigrant families to meet and learn within the afterschool programs offered by Portland Public Schools.
Diana Marcela Cuartas en conversación Con Yolanda Chois y Michelle Szejner
“Era algo muy importante que siempre alguien se quedara haciendo cosas y estando en el lugar, pasando tiempo con la gente. Muchos de los proyectos de que trabajan en comunidades rurales de manera más pasajera y se van tan pronto terminan. Nuestra idea era estar, estar, estar”YOLANDA CHOIS
Jardines en Balsas es un proyecto de educación ambiental y creación artística comunitaria, creado por Yolanda Chois y Michelle Szejner junto a un grupo de familias de sembradores en el corregimiento de Jaqué, en la costa pacífica de la frontera entre Panamá y Colombia conocida como la Región del Darién. El nombre hace referencia a una práctica agrícola llamada zoteas, el cuál es un conocimiento propio de las comunidades ribereñas en varios lugares del Chocó biogeográfico,en la que se aprovechan embarcaciones en desuso para cultivar huertos elevados que se adaptan a las crecidas del mar o de los ríos.
En esta entrevista, Yolanda y Michelle nos comparten sobre un proceso de siete años de trabajo artístico e interdisciplinario buscando, por petición de la comunidad, traer de vuelta esta técnica de siembra en alerta de ser olvidada. Uno de los resultados es un libro que recopila y clasifica 100 plantas útiles de Jaqué que se investigaron de manera colectiva a través de encuentros de siembra, intercambios de semillas, y el compartir de conocimientos en torno a la agricultura tradicional y las plantas nativas, con miras hacia la soberanía alimentaria de esta provincia.
Vista de Jaqué llegando en barco – Foto: archivo Hacia el Litoral
Diana Marcela Cuartas: Empecemos por el principio: ¿cómo surgió Jardines en Balsas?
Michelle Szejner: Conocí a Yolanda por una amiga en común y en una conversación me contó de Hacia El Litoral, un proyecto que consistía en un recorrido por la región del Chocó con un colectivo de artistas. Ellos iban a viajar por mar, conociendo y reconociendo las culturas locales, recopilando tradiciones orales, historias y cartas sonoras. Era un proyecto precioso y una de las paradas era Panamá. Mencionó también que quería hacer un recetario y pensé que mis servicios podrían ayudar a identificar las plantas útiles con estas comunidades, le dije que pediría vacaciones si ella me permitía unirme a este colectivo de forma voluntaria. Ella me dijo “Súper! Llegas tal día día en tal avión” y así llegué a una comunidad que no conocía, en un área súper remota de Panamá, que muy pocos panameños conocen.
Estando allá empecé a conocer a las familias cultivadoras de Jaqué. Un día en el jardín de una de las participantes del proyecto, encontramos que había más de 120 especies de plantas útiles en su jardín de zoteas. Ahí me di cuenta que yo tenía que regresar a esa comunidad. Yo soy bióloga y etnobotánica y me encanta platicar con la gente. Empecé a documentar las plantas que encontraba, quién las cultivaba, y qué usos tenían. Esta base de datos fue creciendo y afortunadamente nos permitió conseguir otros recursos para seguir viajando a Jaqué con Yolanda y hacer la magia que ocurrió allá.
Primero queríamos unir a dos comunidades costeras que era el archipiélago de Las Perlas con Jaqué. Siempre con el tema de jardines, recetas y plantas útiles. Después nos enfocamos solo Jaqué y ahí tuvimos todo un camino de talleres, voluntarios, arte, prácticas de permacultura y culinarias, tratando de recuperar la cocina tradicional y no depender tanto de las cosas que vienen de la ciudad en el barco. Jaqué está tan aislado y tiene tantas restricciones de comercialización que llega un barco que se tarda dieciséis horas desde la Ciudad de Panamá llevando cosas como cemento, cervezas, huevos, pollo y enlatados, muchos enlatados que han generado unos índices de diabetes y desnutrición altísimos. Entonces surgieron conversaciones sobre regresar a comer más ensaladas y vegetales, y en torno a las semillas locales. Tuvimos mucho trabajo con este tema, empezamos a hacer intercambios de semillas y ahí surgió Jardines en Balsas.
Yolanda Chois: Ahora viene mi versión de la historia. Como mencionaba Michelle, con Hacia el Litoral yo había hecho ese recorrido entre Panamá y Colombia por las regiones del Chocó y el Darién, que han sido unos territorios muy estigmatizados por la fuerte violencia que se vive por el hecho de ser una frontera. En ese proyecto, lo que hice fue invitar gente que me pareció interesante para hacer un trabajo desde la interdisciplinariedad en este lugar de frontera. Estaba Michelle aportando desde la botánica, pero también había otras amistades sociólogas, documentalistas, científicas, y gente que no necesariamente venía del campo de la creación artística. Esto se plantea de alguna manera como una residencia y allí empiezan a pasar otras cosas.
Yo tenía el referente de Siembra, un proyecto que había hecho la fundación Más Arte Más Acción, en la región de Nuquí en el Chocó, que también era una práctica artística que vinculaba a personas de otras disciplinas y en ese caso se materializó en un recetario. Era una búsqueda por el conocimiento local y las plantas, y por eso se inició la conversación del recetario con Michelle. Pero posteriormente aparece esta necesidad propia del lugar, de las personas con las que nos involucramos en Jaqué, de que el conocimiento de las zoteas volviera, que es una práctica que viene de varias comunidades del Pacífico, y seguramente en muchos otros lugares con mar y río. Empezamos a hablar y la idea era que Hacia el Litoral sería una plataforma de encuentros para generar muchos tipos de proyectos. Algunos se materializaron, otros no, otros se configuraron como obras de arte, otros en procesos de radio, y Jardines en Balsas fue uno de esos proyectos. Era algo muy interesante porque, entre todas las personas que se sumaron al proyecto había un espíritu de colectividad, unas ideas y sentires que motivaban la gestión de recursos. Por otro lado también fue un aprendizaje constante para todos pues veníamos de diferentes maneras de trabajar.
Michelle: ¡Era un aprendizaje de doble vía totalmente!
Siembra de semillas en jardines de zoteas – Foto: archivo Jardines en Balsas
Diana: ¿Cómo lograban articular esas maneras de trabajar desde el arte y la ciencia?
Yolanda: Para mí muchas veces era difícil. A nosotros los que trabajamos en cultura, comunicación, o arte, a veces nos cuesta ubicar lo que estamos colocando en los proyectos. Cosas que por ejemplo en el caso de la ciencia, la biología y la botánica son muy claras. Mientras para mí la cuestión era “¿Cómo deconstruir la idea de la relación con la comunidad?”, para Michelle la cuestión era mucho más práctica. Me decía “Tenemos que llevar herramientas y punto”, lo cual tuvo mucho sentido.
El arte entraba en el proyecto para pensar las relaciones con la comunidad y en diseñar estrategias para que ese conocimiento de las zoteas volviera. Por ejemplo, una de las artistas voluntarias se dedicó a investigar sobre bioquímicos y soluciones para las enfermedades de las plantas y al final hizo un manual. En otro momento invitamos a una dibujante para dibujar jardines y estar con la gente. Ella estuvo haciendo diferentes actividades culturales que tenían que ver con los jardines, más allá del levantamiento de la información. También se montaron muchos laboratorios en los que se invitaba gente de diferentes disciplinas a trabajar en comunidad para complementar los conocimientos que cada quien tenía en lugar de decirle cómo tiene que hacer las cosas.
En el caso de la botánica específicamente, fue vital no solo por la información científica, sino que nos ayudó a establecer unos procesos de intercambios de semillas que fueron y siguen siendo vitales para el proyecto. Nos ayudó a señalar problemas y a buscar soberanía, porque hay un control económico sobre algo que no debería tenerlo. Nos permitía mantener las semillas para que siguieran existiendo. Esto como un ejemplo de cómo se iban cruzando las cosas, y en definitiva el conocimiento depositado en el libro es tanto de ciencia local, como un gran aporte de Michelle como científica interesada en la relación de los seres humanos con la vegetación.
Michelle: También tenía mucho que ver con el trabajo de los voluntarios. Se les invitaba por el tiempo que ellos quisieran y lo único que se pedía era que fluyeran con la comunidad en temas del agro, las semillas, para encontrar y rescatar semillas. Desde preguntas como “¿Qué semillas usaban tus abuelos? ¿Cuáles son? ¿Cómo se conservan?”. Eso nos guiaba a todos y se trabajó todo el tiempo, generando otro tipo de proyectos con otro tipo de temas, pero siempre con la comunidad. Esto nos permitió ir afinando la información botánica y cosas técnicas del libro para que respetara el conocimiento local y no incluyera información errónea.
Diana: ¿Cómo era la acogida de la comunidad con estos procesos interdisciplinares de compartir saberes?
Michelle: Es importante saber que ya había una base comunitaria y no es que llegamos ahí de la nada. Estaba la Escuelita para La Paz, donde se trabajó muchísimo un tema de educación hacia los niños, sana, no violenta. Estaba el Colegio de la Tierra, una secundaria con enfoque agro. Hay un proyecto de conservación de tortugas desde 1998. Todo eso ya existía. Había antecedentes que básicamente nos abrieron el camino para tener buena aceptación. También ha sido muy especial que las personas que nos han acompañado y las personas de la comunidad han sido bien recibidas entre ellas. Todo se ha movido desde un lugar de buena voluntad y respeto. Nunca he sabido que hay alguien que se tiene que ir de la comunidad porque no lo aguanta. Que es algo que puede pasar y ha pasado en otros proyectos.
Yolanda: También te diría que cuando hablamos de comunidad no es que hablemos de todo Jaqué. Jaqué es una cabecera municipal que es un punto central para varias comunidades que están mucho más adentro en los ríos. Cuando decimos comunidad, nos referimos al grupo con el que trabajamos, que son personas que ya venían de muchos años atrás siendo líderes de otros proyectos y estaban acostumbrados a esto. De hecho, creo que lo que nosotros hicimos fue refrescar un poco esa relación, porque muchos otros proyectos que suceden allí son proyectos de cooperación internacional, que muchas veces puede ser una relación más instrumentalista. Aunque ya estuvieran acostumbrados a que llegue gente afuera a hacer cosas, nosotros intentamos gestar un proyecto en una lógica un poco más horizontal, aunque hay cosas que es imposible que sean horizontales por cierto tipo de relaciones que ya son muy difíciles de romper.
Por otro lado, las personas que llegaban como voluntarias tenían cada uno su propia manera de relacionarse con la gente y abrir el proyecto a otras cuestiones. Para mí eso era muy importante porque al final de todo, una de las cosas valiosas del proyecto y la relación de los voluntarios con la comunidad fue generar otros relatos de ese lugar tan estigmatizado. El libro es una herramienta sobre todo para la comunidad para conocer la riqueza simbólica y biológica de su territorio, y en esa medida también poder defenderlo.
Diana: Mencionaste que ustedes trataron de establecer unas dinámicas de trabajo más horizontales, ¿cómo se intenta la horizontalidad?
Yolanda: Yo lo veo de varias maneras. La primera es que la relación con los recursos, con el dinero, es importante abrirla. Que la gente sepa qué dinero hay, cómo se está manejando. Michelle cada mes llegaba con una carpeta donde estaba toda la información de cómo se estaban ejecutando los recursos.
Michelle: Soy bien creyente de la transparencia de los datos y el respeto que que yo como “extranjera” le debo a la comunidad por permitirme hacer un proyecto ahí. Es una ética que no se practica mucho pero es vital, la transparencia desde los recursos económicos hasta el dónde vamos a llegar con el proyecto, qué va a salir de ahí; así como identificar lo que no podemos controlar, los riesgos. Eso ha sido clave en todos estos años y es al menos es “marcar la cancha”. El presupuesto es público, tanto como las actividades, y también los cambios que se pueden hacer. Todo está abierto porque el proyecto es de todos. Creo que eso cambió mucho la forma de pensar.
Yolanda: Además, creamos muchas estrategias de estar en el lugar, de pasar tiempo con la gente. El trabajo con voluntarios fue súper importante porque, aunque nosotras sí pasábamos bastante tiempo en Jaqué, no nos podíamos ir a vivir allí en ese momento. Pero la gente que fue voluntaria estaba allí y era la presencia del proyecto, era algo muy importante que siempre alguien se quedara haciendo cosas y estando en el lugar, pasando tiempo con la gente. Muchos de los proyectos de que trabajan en comunidades rurales de manera más pasajera y se van tan pronto terminan. Nuestra idea era estar, estar, estar, estar, y lo logramos sin interrupción por más de dos años, en donde la gente que estaba vinculada al proyecto también estaba en el lugar y eso también era una manera de intentar la horizontalidad. Estando presente en el día a día, en los problemas que surgen no sólo con el proyecto, sino como parte del sitio.
Por otro lado, también hay un proceso más subjetivo y es que el estar en ese lugar te empieza a transformar la mirada sobre las cosas y es importante abrirse a esa posibilidad. Porque en el caso de todas estas comunidades que son rurales, que son afro, que son indígenas, que están en otras condiciones y evidentemente tienen una distancia para el que viene de la ciudad con otros problemas, en otra condición. Entonces el permitirse cuestionar quién sos por esta otra realidad también creo que hace parte del proceso. Pero no sé si hay un A,B,C de estas cosas.
Diana: ¿Con todas las posibilidades de la creación en colectivo, cómo se sostuvo la idea de hacer un libro?
Yolanda: Inicialmente el referente era el proyecto que te dije que se llamaba Siembra. El proceso se fue dando de otra manera pero el libro siempre se conservó como la idea de culminar el proyecto en un libro. Lo que fue cambiando es que ya no se trataba de un recetario, sino que era otro conocimiento el que tenía que estar.
Esto también fue parte de las conversaciones en grupo, preguntarnos qué es mejor para ese lugar en términos de que su conocimiento quede fijado en algo. Si sería mejor una película o un documental, y de hecho sí se hicieron varios videos documentales como parte del proceso de devolver la información al lugar. Ahí decidimos que todo ese trabajo botánico que venía recopilando Michelle con las familias y personas locales debía ser el contenido del libro, invitamos al colectivo Isla en Vela para realizar las ilustraciones botánicas, para diagramar y diseñar el libro, un trabajo que también realizamos durante varios años y que nos ha dejado una huella muy fuerte desde la creación colectiva para una comunidad.
Diana: ¿Cuáles han sido tus conclusiones con este proceso desde su concepción hasta ahora?
Yolanda: Siento que como artistas estamos acostumbrados a unos procesos que devienen más en obra, en algún tipo de cosa física. Entonces esta práctica es un poquito extraña porque tomó muchas formas. En un momento es un libro de etnobotánica, en otro momento son procesos locales, en otro momento son laboratorios. Es una práctica más híbrida y a mí me ha costado, que ahí en sus diferentes instancias se comprenda qué es lo que es.
Mural sobre los jardines en zoteas – Foto: archivo Jardines en Balsas
Yolanda Chois Rivera
Licenciada en Artes Visuales, ha vivido los últimos años entre Panamá y Colombia. Realiza prácticas curatoriales, artísticas e interdisciplinarias entre territorios urbanos y rurales. Ha gestionado proyectos en Colombia con el Museo la Tertulia, Goethe Institute, Ministerio de Cultura, Área cultural del Banco de la República entre otras instituciones y con fundaciones artísticas y ambientales en el sur global.
Michelle Szejner es bióloga con gran pasión por la cultura etnobotánica y los usos tradicionales de sus recursos. Caminar con los más grandes y sabios del pueblo, pasear por sus jardines y aprender de plantas es lo que más le gusta. Es originalmente de Guatemala y se enamoró de Jaqué en el 2014 y junto con su hijo no han dejado de visitarlo y continuar sembrando e intercambiando semillas y saberes.
Diana Marcela Cuartas es una artista, educadora y trabajadora cultural colombiana, radicada en Portland desde 2019. Actualmente es estudiante de 2do año de Maestría en Arte y Práctica Social en Portland State University y trabaja en el departamento de educación de Latino Network, como especialista en participación familiar, generando espacios de encuentro y aprendizaje compartido para familias inmigrantes a través de programas extra curriculares en escuelas secundarias de Portland.
Come Together In Joy
“What would it look like if we could come together, not in protest, but in joy, and center these very real human issues, such as poverty and world hunger?”NELLIE SCOTT
Two month has passed since the debut incarnation of my project The Gatherade Stand; a co-authored art project in the form of a lemonade stand that serves drinks made from wild-foraged plants and creates opportunities for collaborative creativity centering those same plants. I initiated the project in Spring 2022 in Portland, Oregon at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School to encourage the connection of students and their communities to the natural world through the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) a contemporary art museum and social practice art project inside the elementary school. Since its inception, The Gatherade Stand has supported community building, nature education, and cross-disciplinary artmaking through collages, drawings, poems, audio works, and soda making.
The inaugural spring season of The Gatherade Stand was dedicated to the nettle plant. Alongside serving nettle tea, we began by displaying a large wooden sign that proudly appropriates Gatorade branding, which pivots on the interests of the fifth grade audience. We then made visual artworks that responded to the prompt: “If a nettle plant made a protest sign, what would it say?” We hosted a table at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Celebration Day and offered a collaging prompt inspired by nettle shapes. Further workshops facilitated song and poetry writing about and for the nettle plant and making soda from dried nettle leaves inside a school classroom. Finally, DJ and composer DJ Tikka Masala was invited to collaborate on an audio piece about nettle. As I gear up for the project’s first big culminating moment through an interactive installation for The Gatherade Stand 01 at Assembly 2022 at KSMoCA, I’m asking: How much of The Gatherade Stand is about Pop Art? How much is about adequacy, “the idea of making art that barely passes the threshold of being art (Harrell Fletcher. An Incomplete and Subjective List of Terms and Topics Related to Art and Social Practice Volume One, 2022)”? What is the message behind this blend of nature, mass culture, fifth grade voices, and co-creation? How does it all relate to this urgent moment of climate catastrophe?
I gained a treat on this trail of wanderings when my astute classmate, Laura Glazer, referenced the artist Sister Corita Kent in response to The Gatherade Stand sign. She remarked on synchronicities with Corita around Pop Art and co-authoring with students. My curiosity was immediately piqued around Corita’s incorporation of advertising images and slogans as well as popular song lyrics, biblical verses, and literature as a strategy to connect with a broader audience. I also wanted to learn more about the increasingly political direction in her work, as she urged viewers to consider poverty, racism, and injustice. On top of that, I discovered how prolific she was, and collaborative in terms of working relationships with students as well as businesses and nonprofits that aligned with her mission: at the time of her death, she had created almost 800 serigraph editions, thousands of watercolors, and innumerable public and private commissions. Corita’s work inspires me as I continue to develop The Gatherade Stand, with the ultimate aim of building connections to the natural world at this crucial moment. To my delight, Nellie Scott, director of the Corita Art Center and PSU alumni, was eager to converse around my questions.
Gilian Rappaport: Would you consider Corita Kent a socially engaged artist?
Nellie Scott: When I consider what she was doing at The Immaculate Heart College in the 1960s while she was a nun, what she was doing with her students, and the proto-happenings, it does feel very rooted in the social practice ethos. She offers an interesting intersection between Social Practice and Pop Art, which is her most frequent association.
Gilian: I’m interested in exactly that intersection.
Where did the Wonderbread imagery come from, and who were the students that she was collaborating with at The Immaculate Heart College?
Nellie: Pop Art was really a tool for her at the intersection of faith, art, and social justice. In wonderbread, she’s drawing very much from Wonder Bread packaging. In 1962, there were many things happening at the same time in a fruitful way. Vatican II was this larger calling in Catholic history to think about who they’re serving and how they’re serving them, and it even changed the language that they were using to connect with people in mass, which went from Latin to English. That’s one of the reasons that Corita began appropriating packaging.
Also, The Immaculate Heart College was this incredible location for women’s education. Ultimately when many left and sought dispensation from their vows, 40% had master’s degrees or higher. And it wasn’t just the art department getting accolades, it was also the science department, and people were publishing books. It was a hotbed of creative activity. Her students were this active hub of young women primarily, often in their undergraduate study. There are great stories about her students, it was a very creative environment that was very collective in its practice. They were often the ones hanging the screens by little pins all over, and helping to clean the screens.
It’s also important that a grocery store went in across the street, right next to the space that the college was using for printmaking, which was ultimately Corita’s studio. They walked into the grocery store using a tool called a viewfinder, which is a one-inch-by-one-inch square that Corita was using to teach her students how to see again. This is part of her approach to social justice as well. Sometimes taking in the whole picture can be overwhelming, but by isolating small parts and focusing on just that little bit, one can find gratitude in that place and create change. In this way, she was teaching them to see again.
Gilian: Was it intended for her students or was she envisioning a broader national or international audience?
Nellie: She was a nun, and her art practice was always for the common good and the greatest audience possible, versus as a tool in the marketplace. It came down to how she saw her contribution to her order. She believed that everyone had a job to do as part of a collective whole, and her artwork was, in some cases, a way to provide resources for the order.
Being a nun and having taken the vow of poverty, she wasn’t using the most expensive materials. Printmaking is a really democratic medium, but was mostly used in commercial settings. When she was at USC, she printed on paper towels from the bathroom. She was using what was the best that was around her, and finding inspiration there too.
Also, she wasn’t working in a silo. She had seen the Duchamp show at the Pasadena Art Museum, which many of the West Coast, mostly male, Pop Artists had seen and drew inspiration from. She was going on long lecture tours across the country, had an exhibition in New York, and was cross-pollinating with a lot of the artists that were working at that time.
Once she started screen printing, she quickly began getting more attention and ultimately became a lightning rod of thought, hope, and conversations around the subjects in her work. And she was always taking on commissions for nonprofits and causes that she believed in. She knew her work was valued, which enabled her to give further. This wasn’t a typical model at the time.
Gilian: What, if anything, do you see as Corita’s unique contribution to social forms of art as a discipline?
Nellie: There are so many milestones to touch on there. The one that is most well known is her Ten Rules which still hangs in many classrooms and art studios. She made those in her classroom by asking “What’s important in being a student, and what’s important in being an educator?” From there, they curated these rules together.
Also, when we think about her happenings now, they feel like prototypes to what later became central to the counterculture identity of hippie festivals in California.
In 1964, Corita was tapped, as the Head of the Art Department, to rethink the Mary’s Day celebration. Years prior, it very much centered on Mary and it had always been kind of a straightforward, traditional event. Corita was put in charge with her students, and they extended this practice that she was already doing of processions. The Vatican and the Pope were concerned about world hunger. Corita, the Order of Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the students of the Immaculate Heart college completely redecorated the college campus in Hollywood, and also created incredible signs and banners that spoke to this cause.
A lot of people think Mary’s Day was a protest, but it was a procession. The idea was: what would it look like if we could come together, not in protest but in joy, and center these very real human issues, such as poverty and world hunger? And there’s food packaging everywhere because Corita and her students just went into the grocery store, and were like, “You have some extra boxes? Great, we’re going to take them.” And they built these larger box towers by painting and decorating those directly to be stacked on top of one another. The students created the vision and social justice messaging throughout these works as well.
Gilian: Will you share more about the box towers?
Nellie: The box towers continued with her students well beyond Mary’s Day. For example, there’s Peace on Earth, a commission by IBM in 1965 for an installation in the form of a Christmas window display for their showroom on Madison Avenue in New York. Corita offered her students Mickey Myers and Paula McGowan directorship on the commission, which she had received days before, and worked out the contract. The students created an exhibition using 725 cardboard boxes, and featuring quotes by five recently deceased men of peace: Pope John XXIII, JFK, Adlai Stevenson, Dag Hammarskjöld, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Newspapers across the country ran stories claiming that the students and Corita had protested the Vietnam War through the art installation on the most consumerist street in New York City, Madison Avenue.
This was a great example of her collaborating with her students for a message, and centering that message as the reason behind the art. The objects are not unimportant, but the message, the meaning, and the collective coming together is priority one. And the byproduct of this incredible collaboration is almost like eye candy, when your eyes go across all of these messages your heart stops. You realize how relevant those messages are today.
Nellie: Her pedagogy is this incredible, rich thing that she left us. These fundamental practices in education are things she was doing with her students forever ago. It’s such a well of inspiration to draw upon.
Gilian: In what ways are you drawing upon that inspiration today?
Nellie: Since you are in Portland, I wanted to mention that Kate Bingaman-Burt, Co-Director of the School of Art and Design at Portland State University, was the Artist-in-Residence at the Portland Art Museum while the Corita Kent: Spiritual Pop (2016) show was up at such a pivotal election time. Kate made a call out for the term “power up” and ultimately made a screen print of power up that was distributed more widely.
power up is a print that Corita made in her studio. The Los Angeles Archdiocese at the time had banned the radical priest Daniel Berrigan from presenting at the college, and at this time, he wasn’t even the radical person that we all know and love. So Corita took his words and made this artwork, and then made it into an installation for the students for reading and perhaps prayer. She was thinking of this hierarchy of what might be traditional prayer versus reading the current events of our time as a participatory citizen and human.
So in 2016, at the Portland Art Museum, this work was on display, and people were visiting it the day after the election and finding solace in these words that were made 50 years ago.
Nellie: Also, last year, we had a cohort of students through our video program Learning by Heart. The program takes its name from the seminal book Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit that Corita co-wrote with Jan Steward, which details the teaching methods that she developed.
At the end of our partnership program with Casa Esperanza, a youth program in Panorama City, as a kind of culmination, we asked them, “If you could have a message that you could broadcast to your neighbors, what would that look like? What would it be?” We were working with a lot of immigrants, and we created a box tower together with that message as this temporary installation in their neighborhood.
At the Kennedy Center last week [May 1, 2022], we debuted POW POW POWER UP: Someday is Now, an opera installation, which was made collaboratively by interdisciplinary artist Liss LaFleur, composer Samuel Beebe, and the Corita Art Center, and performed by choral ensemble The Artifice. This performance is the first of 29 mini-operas, each referencing one individual artwork from Corita’s heroes and sheroes series. This inaugural performance was inspired by the artwork titled green fingers, and gathered a community to center on environmental justice. We invited participants to join the performance in a celebratory procession a la Mary’s Day.
Nellie: We also hosted a hands-on art-making event in Los Angeles on Earth Day with Self Help Graphics & Art, with instruction by lead teaching artist Oscar Rodriguez. It was founded by a woman named Sister Karen, who was a former student of Corita’s. Participants had the opportunity to create and personalize posters that featured some of Corita’s iconic words and phrases. The collection of posters traveled to Washington, D.C., and became part of the performance at the Kennedy Center.
We asked the participants to center themselves, in many ways like a love letter to a stranger involving environmental justice and respond to the prompt, “What does it mean to be a human on this earth?” Some of the signs were so beautiful and timely in that conversation. Also, the individuals who carried them in D.C. had never met the people who made them in Los Angeles, yet can see their name, their message, and be torch bearers of that message in this larger procession.
It was an act of interconnectivity, in a way that will be crucial in days and years to come in really talking about environmental justice. It was a reminder, if people didn’t learn this from COVID, that we are all connected. Just because we live in one state doesn’t mean that we don’t affect another state. We are one planet.
Gilian: Do you have a favorite of Corita’s 10 Rules?
Nellie: With this project, our effort is to “consider everything an experiment!” We [Corita Art Center] very much approach what it is that we’re doing, supporting, and thinking through as experimentation. As an organization, we’re going to get a lot of things wrong, and we’re going to get a lot of things right. In that process, there’s so much understanding in feedback.
We’re very fortunate to be the stewards of her legacy. We’re participating in so many different worlds—as a nonprofit and also as an artist estate. We’re always asking, “What’s the meaning of all of this? How do we actually use her work? And also feed people? How do we use her work for mental wellness, and to talk about these very heavy topics, and this wonderful intersection of faith and art and social justice? How can you be the stewards of a legacy but also meet the ethos she presented in her lifetime?”
Nellie Scott (she/her) holds her degree in Art History from Portland State University and Szeged University in Hungary. With art accessibility as a pillar to all of her professional endeavors, Scott has spent the last decade developing exhibitions and art education initiatives geared toward democratizing art engagement. Prior to holding the position of Director at the Corita Art Center, she served as an independent consultant and art advisor for a variety of public and private foundations, institutions, artists, and estates.
Gilian Rappaport (they/she) is an artist, educator, and naturalist. In this urgent moment of climate catastrophe, their practice is asking, what can we learn from closeness with nature, and the paths to get there? They believe co-authorship can deepen our connection to ourselves, our communities, and our natural environments. The granddaughter of Ashkenazi migrants by way of Russia and Poland, they were born and raised in New York between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Gilian is openly queer, and lives and works in Rockaway Beach, Queens and Portland, Oregon. Follow them @gilnotjill.
The Tapes, Conversation III
“Peggy Burton was a teacher at Salem High School who got fired in the late ‘60s or early 70s because she was gay. Charlie Hinkle took her case. In those days, there was hardly a gay rights movement, it just barely started. He took her case to the ninth circuit. They won the case, but he took it on free speech grounds.”CINDY CUMFER
The Tapes, Conversation III is the third in a series of conversations about a collection of archived audiotapes that are held within the Portland State University Special Collections and Archives. What the tapes hold are the intimate stories of lesbian mothers and gay fathers who were up against court systems that denied them of custody and their parenting rights because of their sexual orientation and gender identies in the 1970s and 1980s. The tapes are closed to the public because there is no information about who is recorded, therefore gaining permission to share their stories has been a difficult path to forge. Together, we; Marti Clemmons and Rebecca Copper, are working to track down who is on these tapes in hopes to gain permission to release these valuable stories to the public. In our search for those identities, we’ve recorded conversations with those we have been able to get in touch with. Through these conversations, we’ve simultaneously garnered first-hand accounts of the LGBTQ history in Portland, Oregon as it connects to parenting rights.
In the first conversation, we spoke with Gilah Tenenbaum, whose name Marti found written on one of the audiotapes. Gilah spoke to us about their connection to the tapes and led us to Katharine English, who we spoke to in the second conversation. In the second conversation, we invited both Gilah and Katharine to discuss the tapes with us. The two of them talked about the history of the Portland queer community and the cases they remembered together. In this conversation, we learned that Cindy Cumfer and Pat Young could be tied to these audiotapes. In the following conversation, Cindy Cumfer and Pat Young with Katharine, Gilah, Marti, and myself met to discuss the possibility of who could have been a part of making these tapes. We also discuss their past work as laywers in the queer community and one as a writer for Just Out.
Cindy and Pat both helped add historical context to the conversation. Though Cindy and Pat were not parents themselves, they understood the importance of the right to parent. Cindy was the first lawyer to get a signed adoption for a gay couple in the United States. Together, Cindy and Pat co-organized feminist resource spaces in Portland to support queer parents in the community.
Rebecca Copper: This meeting is about a group of audiotapes Marti shared with me that were donated or given to the PSU archive. The audio tapes are closed to the public. Marti works in the archive and could probably speak better to the audio tapes than I can.
Pat Young: The tapes are from the women’s bookstore, right?
Marti Clemmons: Yeah, from In Other Words. The collection was donated when they closed down a few years ago– four or five years now. One of the boxes contains multiple cassette tapes, some of which are labeled with a name of the person interviewed, but not the interviewer. It makes it a little harder to identify the voices. There’s about 50 tapes in here. They all date from, like, ‘78 to ‘81, ‘82.
Katharine English: What are you trying to do with these tapes, Marti and Becca?
Marti: For the archives at Portland State, it’d be great to have whoever we can identify sign off forms so we can eventually digitize them. Of course, there are things that come along with that. Not everyone can be identified by voice. Pat, I think that you are on one of the tapes. I took a class with Pat in 2012, a capstone LGBT class. I recognized Pat. Really, I swear, it’s your voice. Katharine, you mentioned that Pat was the one that interviewed you, right?
Pat: That was for Just Out, the newspaper.
Katharine: I remember it being for archives, for Portland State. It might have been for Just Out; I did a lot of interviews.
Pat: That’s when I wrote that article about those two women or something, or a wedding? I don’t know anymore. Obviously, we’re all old. [laughter]
Katharine: Well, I think you were questioning me about all the work that I did in gay custody. I think it was broader at that time, but you asked me about the leatherbound women case. [laughter] I call it my “leatherbound women” case. I think it was for more than that, but that was a story that stood out.
Pat: Yeah. I’m not remembering. So, there you have it.
Marti: All these tapes are custody-based. Pat, do you know—sorry, this is the archivist in me talking, but, the Just Out interviews, are those at OHS (Oregon Historical Society) with Robin?
Pat: I have no idea, you’d have to check with Robin or Oregon Historical Society. I don’t know what happened to all of the Just Out items. I mean, other than their paper versions, I don’t know what happened to any of them. If they had any audio files, certainly they had a lot of photos.
Marti: Great, thank you.
Rebecca: To give a little bit more information about why we’re all here together; as Marti mentioned, we are trying to find who is on these tapes. When we first found Gilah Tenenbaum, who’s not here right now, I had an interest in documenting these conversations as we were trying to find who is on the tapes. It was published in the SoFA (Social Forms of Art) Journal. I’m a graduate student at Portland State University. This journal is put out by my program. A lot of this history has come up in these conversations. While searching for who is on these tapes, we are simultaneously trying to document these conversations. Marti and I are collaborating on an archive that is based on the single parent experience and Marti shared these tapes with me one day when I was visiting them at the Portland State Archives.
Cindy Cumfer: Gilah’s connection with all this… I didn’t know she didn’t work in this area, so I’m just curious.
Rebecca: Gilah was on one of the tapes, one of the first names that was identified. So, then I got on the internet and we got a hold of Gilah.
Cindy: Katharine, do you know if she did work about custody?
Katharine: I don’t think she did. She was in the community, but I don’t think she did work on custody cases. What did you do, Cindy, in custody cases?
Cindy: I litigated a few of them. Maybe late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Then, I did the first two same-sex parent adoption, which is a different topic, in ‘85.
Katharine: Was Judge Deiz the judge on those adoptions?
Cindy: I did a number of adoptions, but she was the judge on the first adoption, yeah.
Katharine: On the first single sex adoption?
Cindy: Yeah, in ‘85. Then, some of the other judges fell in line.
Katharine: Would those clients mind if you reveal their identities?
Cindy: I don’t know. I’d have to ask them. I do still know them. You helped out on that.
Katharine: Oh, yeah. I know who they were.
Cindy: I dragged you into that. [laughter]
Katharine: Haha, you didn’t drag me into it.
Cindy: I think you were late. She (Judge Deiz) had already signed the order. But then she looked at you and started laughing when you came in. She said, “You came to check-in on me, huh?”[laughter]
Marti: When was the last time that you spoke with Cindy, Katharine?
Katharine: Oh, gosh, when did we last speak, Cindy? Years ago.
Cindy: I came to town for your book reading.
Katharine: Oh, yes. That’s right. That was about five years ago, wasn’t it? But, you’re always in my thoughts, dear.
Cindy: [laughter] You too. Are you in Utah right now?
Katharine: Ah, yes, I’m in Utah, by the mountains and the conservative community. [laughter]
Pat: I’m sure you’re good for the community there. [laughter]
Katharine: I’m not sure if that’s how it will go, it’s fine [laughter]. I figure I’ve passed the torch, I can kind of be in the background again.
Cindy: Does anybody know how Gilah is involved? I’m just wondering because we’re waiting for her. Her name just popped up? Did she do custody work? I thought she was a (workers’) comp hearing person.
Katharine: She did some wills in the States. I’m not sure. She didn’t do any custody work. She always sent her custody cases to me, or perhaps to you. I got a lot of referrals from her.
Marti: Yeah, she’s mentioned on the Excel spreadsheet as someone who was in the community, but not necessarily involved in the custody cases, but more as a support. I know on tape, she does speak specifically about the judicial system and just helps give a kind of a background.
Cindy: I see. I was one of the people who helped start the Women’s Place bookstore. I didn’t realize they had all these tapes, good for them. That was in 1973 I think or something. That was before law school.
Katharine: Oh, that’s right, when it was on Grand Street? I remember that. [laughter]
Cindy: Back when it was a women’s center. You came to our opening.
Katharine: [laughter] I came, I was in my little frotte dress.
Cindy: Nobody had thought a man would come. Madeline Warren and I sat and chatted about it. [laughter]
Katharine: I know! I came with my husband! It was too funny. I had on red, white, and blue stars on my little jumper. I had on nylons and heels. I was all dressed up because I came to this planning meeting. I walked in and I was sort of surprised when my husband walked in with me. Some woman, who looked at the time to me, like this great, huge, hulking lumberjack, came out and said, “Hi, what are you here for?” I said, “I’m here for the planning meeting.” She said, “Well, it’s through those beads.” We both started to walk through and she stepped in front of my husband and said, “Men aren’t allowed.” [laughter] I thought, “Oh, my God, what am I gonna do?!”
Cindy: That was a different occasion. I don’t know about the planning meeting. This was the grand opening of the bookstore, which was in the front half. You guys just came in. Madeline and I looked at each other. It hadn’t dawned on us that a man would even want to come. We knew we had to be open to men when we were open to the public.
Katharine: Oh well, it must have been a different time. But, It was all downhill from there. [laughter]
Cindy: That was a great project.
Katharine: Yeah. So, what kinds of things did you need to know, Becca?
Rebecca: These conversations have unfolded in an organic kind of way. First, I reached out to Gilah. Then, Marti and I had a conversation with Gilah who mentioned Katharine’s name. So, I tracked down Katharine and we had a conversation with Gilah and Katharine. Pat, your name came up several times, and, Cindy, your name came up as well. I thought it would be good to connect everybody and talk about what was happening when these tapes were recorded and hopefully figure out more about who is on these tapes.
Katharine: You might be interested in Cindy talking about the work that she did. I told you a lot about the work I did. I think it’d be really helpful to hear the work Cindy did.
Cindy: Are we talking about legal work or work with Women’s Place? Or the bookstore?
Rebecca: Both! We are focusing on custody though.
Cindy: Legal work… all gay stuff? Or, are you talking just custody?
Rebecca: All of it really, I feel like as these conversations have kind of unfolded, that there’s a lot of important contextual information that comes up. A lot of history.
Pat: Sorry, it’s my cat. [laughter] Like I said in my email to you, Rebecca, I was not involved in any of the custody cases. I’m not a lawyer or anything. I just started doing research around gay history. Most of my emphasis had been on the political things, but I can certainly talk to you later and share some links with you. There’s this woman—Sandy Polishuk. She did a series of three panel discussions around gay history and social justice stuff. She did one about the Mountain Moving Cafe. I know these are on YouTube, which will give you a really good background of what it was like for folks living in Portland at that time.
Katharine: You can reach Sandy Polishuk through Ruth Gundel. Ruth Gundel is the name I gave you the last time. Sandy’s in a class that I’m taking now, online. She’s accessible.
Rebecca: How do you spell Sandy’s last name?
Katharine: You mean Sandy? S-A-N-D-Y. Polishuk. P-O-L-I think it’s, S-H-U-K. She is in touch with Ruth Gundel, G-U-N-D-L-E. Ruth is a lawyer who started the Community Law Project, which did lesbian custody cases. That would be an excellent source for you.
Cindy: I see Gilah’s here—my involvement really started when I helped start the bookstore. That was in ’72. It started before I went to law school. I was involved with the bookstore; it was a combination bookstore and Women’s Center. We had some pretty cool guest speakers at the Women’s Center. We’d Invite people who usually were in town because Portland State University had an introduction, book signing, or something. Then, they’d come over and join us for a potluck dinner, or whatever.
One of them, pertinent to the lesbian issue, our first one, was actually Peggy Burton from Salem [Oregon]. Peggy was a teacher at Salem High School who got fired in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s for being gay. Charlie Hinkle took her case. In those days, there was hardly a gay rights movement, it had just barely started. He took her case to the ninth circuit and eventually, he won. They won the case, but he took it on free speech grounds. He did not take it on the grounds that lesbians should have the same rights as everybody else. He figured he would lose. I heard him talk about the case a few years ago. He took it on free speech grounds because she had come out. It was her speech that caused, in his theory, the firing. The Ninth Circuit agreed that it was a free speech violation. But the result didn’t require the school to rehire her. So, she came up and talked to us just after the case settled, I think it must have been, either ‘72 or ‘73. One of the things she said that stuck with me was that her students who were freshmen when she got fired, were seniors then. This was in Salem, Oregon in 1973. They voted to dedicate the school album to Peggy. So, her picture was on the school album. [laughter] The principal was so upset about it that he tore her picture out.
So anyway, she was our first speaker. We had Adrienne Rich come. Also, Dell Martin and Phyllis Lyon came. They had put out a book on battered women that was sold at the bookstore. We talked about other things, besides battered women. After that, I went to law school. I didn’t keep up with what they were doing with this program, behind the scenes; I was down in Eugene, [Oregon] my first year of law school. There was a lot going on in the space. The front part of the building was the bookstore and the back part was a women’s center. We’d have parties back there with musicians and women’s music, and it was a lot of fun. It was a very community-building kind of thing. The bookstore itself and the Women’s Center, were not specifically gay. It was probably about half and half—half were gay and half were straight. The straight women were very supportive.
I went to law school after that, and the bookstore moved downtown after that. I think the sort of camaraderie that we had, it seems like it split at one point over the gay-straight thing. We had really worked hard not to let that happen, but you know, politics change, people change. I went to some kind of meeting downtown. I don’t know if you were there, Katharine. I don’t think you were there. They had a community meeting to address, what I think was, the heterosexual women in the bookstore. Their boyfriends were coming in to pick them up and some of the lesbians had gotten more radical and they didn’t like that. I went down to listen to what was said. I miss the days when we all worked together. [laughter]
Katharine: When did you do your first case with lesbians, Cindy? Did you do that after you graduated?
Cindy: Oh yeah, I was at Wilner and Bennett’s. I remember you came in for that one case or something.
Katharine: No, I was there and did tax law. God, I hated it. I worked with Bill Riggs on Carolyn Wood’s case.
Cindy: I saw her at a book signing a few years ago. She’s written a book about that.
Katharine: Oh, yeah, she’s written a couple of books now.
Cindy: I had written a book on my church history and OHS has people displaying books and I saw her there.
Katharine: Oh, good.
Cindy: She looked good. It was a horrible thing.
Katharine: That was a terrible case. That was not the first lesbian case in Portland. There was one in Klamath Falls. Who were those women? Do you recall?
Pat: Nance and Estelline?
Katharine: Yes. Nance and Estelline. Bill was doing their appeal. It was just terrible. I kept saying to Bill, “Bill, you’ve got to raise this as a constitutional issue. This is a gay rights issue.” And he just didn’t see it. He changed. He did a fairly dramatic change, I think.
CIndy: Bill did their appeal? Is that right?
Katharine: I think so, yeah. I was working on the appeal, so I must have been working at Willner Bennett’s.
Cindy: Yeah, I know you did the Carolyn case.
Katharine: No, I did the Estelline case, too. I read the whole transcript trying to find appellate issues. Maybe he didn’t do the actual filing of the appeal, but we read the transcript to try to find appellate issues. I tried to get him to see that there were constitutional issues here. He did not buy that. I’m not sure they appealed it after that.
Cindy: You said the two women from K Falls?
Katharine: Yeah, the two women from Klamath Falls. Pat, do you remember their names?
Pat: I know. It’s Nance and Estelline, but I don’t remember their last names right off the bat. I know they’re good friends with Helen and Lynette, who Cindy knew. Also, on the GLAPN website, the G-L-A-P-N , the gay archive website, there should be a link to an article about them that was published in the Portland Town Council newsletter. Yeah, I can find that link and send it to you guys, too. What are their last names? O’Harra?
Katharine: O’Harra? Yeah, something like that. So, Cindy, Nance and Estelline are friends of yours?
Cindy: I haven’t seen them in a while. They were friends of Lynette and Helen.
Pat: The irony is we are all now the age that when we were looking at Helen and Lynette like, “Wow, these great older lesbians!” You know?
Cindy: We’re now the old generation.
Pat: Cindy, one of the things that I remember—you were one of the first lawyers, at least that I heard of, who would help set up domestic partner relationships, the legal stuff, so that they would be protected. Did you have an office above a Chinese restaurant on 28th Street? Was that you?
Cindy: I did have an office on 28th. It was down the street from a Chinese restaurant. But, I was downtown before that.
Katharine: Were you in the governor building with me?
Gilah Tenenbaum: I was in the governor building, but not with you guys.
Cindy: On the other side of us, do you remember who was there? Your office and my office, which connected with your office, and on the other side there was a door that was locked by management.
Katharine: Juvenile Rights Project and Sierra Club? Well, the right hand.
Cindy: Rupert Kinnard was in that office next to me.
Katharine: Rupert Kinnard! Everybody moved out after Paula threw the typewriter at me. [laughter] They said, we aren’t going to stay here.
Rebecca: Can we hear a little more about that story?
Cindy: You have to know Paula.
Katharine: Paula Nielsen is marvelous. She’s the drag queen, transsexual, who worked at Darcelle’s for many years and wrote her own memoir. She was our legal secretary. She was a bruiser. She was so big. I just grew to love her. But she and I did not get along because I like to work at four o’clock in the morning and she liked to drag in at 10 o’clock. So, one time she came in at 10 o’clock and I said, “You’re late, you’re late! You haven’t gotten the statements out.” She picked up the typewriter and she threw it at me and said, “Then you do it!” After that, I was very gentle with her. [laughter] Julie MacFarlane and Juvenile Rights Project moved downstairs within two weeks.
Oh, gosh, guys, I gotta go to my doctor. So sorry. Maybe, we can do this again sometime sometime soon. Bye. I love seeing you all.
Rebecca Copper (she/her) is currently a graduate candidate at Portland State University, through the Art + Social Practice MFA Program, where she worked in 2020 as a research assistant for Portland State University’s Art + Social Practice Archive. Rebecca’s work centers on ontology; how our being and perceptions of reality exist against one another, and how that reality is mediated, dictated back to us in varying forms. She is deeply invested in vast inversion of imperial/masculine archetypes, power dynamics, and ideologies, and the reduction of hyper categorical, industrialized research.
Marti Clemmons: (they/them) is an Archives Technician at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives, located in the Millar Library. They previously worked as the Archivist for KBOO Radio. They are interested in using archives as a place for queer activism.
Gilah Tenenbaum: (she/her) was born and raised near Boston. She received a B.A. in Government and Political Science from Boston University in 1970, attended the J.D. Northwestern School of Law at Lewis and Clark College and was a Member of the Cornelius Honor Society and recipient of the first World Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Progress of Women’s Rights Through Law in 1978. Gilah was admitted to the Oregon State Bar in 1978.
Katharine English: (she/her) practiced law from 1977-1984, was a juvenile court referee and pro tem judge from 1984-1998, and was the Chief Judge of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde from 1998-2003.
Cindy Cumfer: (she/they) was an out-lesbian in law school from 1974-77 and helped start a Lesbian/Gay law student group at Lewis & Clark Law School. After law school, they worked at the Community Law Project for 3 years. Cindy set up their own law practice in 1982 where she represented LGBTQ+ clients on a number of issues, including lesbian custody and domestic partnership agreements, as well as various legal paperworks to protect these clients with reference to donor insemination, incapacity, and death. They wrote several editions of a legal handbook in the 1980s through the ‘90s called The Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples in Oregon. Cindy got an Oregon judge to sign the first adoption by two same-gender parents of their child in the United States in 1985, which was used by an attorney in Washington in 1986 to get an adoption signed. Later that year, the National Center for Lesbian Rights won over a California judge to sign a gay adoption in San Francisco.
Pat Young: (she/her) has an extensive background in writing and has written for Just Out, the Portland queer magazine that was founded in 1983. Pat taught an LGBT history capstone at Portland State University in 2009, where students interviewed 165 people crucial to the gay and lesbian history of Portland. She is currently a member of the Gay and Lesbian Archivists of the Pacific Northwest, of which she was also a president and board member in previous years.
People Are Art
“I’ve never considered myself an artist, even though I’m telling kids that everyone’s an artist and I really believe that. Why am I separating myself from that? I’m an artist, too. I need to start saying that to myself: I’m an artist.”MELODIE ADAMS
Ms. Melodie Adams is a first grade teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, where she has worked for 14 years. She drew a portrait of civil rights activist Ruby Bridges and displayed it on the door to her classroom in celebration of Black History Month in February 2022. I saw the artwork at the beginning of the month and was awestruck by the drawing. I was so inspired by the texture and dimensionality of the hair that I photographed the work and returned for a second look at it the following week. I remember thinking: the person who made this is very inspired and really knows what they’re doing. I noticed that other doors in the school were decorated, too, and then I photographed each one.
I learn in the King School community, too, as a graduate student in the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University. Each week I attend class at the school because the MFA Program co-directors founded a contemporary art museum embedded within the school called the Dr. MLK Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA).
One day after class, I was introduced to Ms. Adams. I was very excited to find out that she was the artist behind the drawing of Ruby Bridges and I felt like a fangirl meeting my idol for the first time. A few weeks later we talked about her drawing practice, the Black History Month Doors, and what parts of her personal and professional life led to the project.
As I listened to Ms. Adams, I kept thinking: I want everyone to hear what she says. Like how her curiosity led her to travel outside the United States to explore her genealogical roots in Nigeria. Or that she chose Ruby Bridges because she wants her students to know that even as young people they have the power to change their worlds. And that despite no one in her early life encouraging her to go beyond what felt possible, she found so many ways to do just that.
Around this time, I learned about poet, activist, and educator June Jordan’s 1970 speech to school librarians, in which she encouraged them to bring young children into libraries by asking them to write their own books about what they want everybody to know or what they think is important but that nobody seems to care about. I used Jordan’s advice as the framework for sharing Ms. Adams’ stories and work with a broader audience in I Want Everyone to Know: The Black History Month Doors at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, a book I published in May 2022 with KSMoCA. It includes the following interview and photos of the artwork on all of the classroom doors created for Black History Month by over 300 artists who are students, teachers, staff, parents, and supporters of the school—a collection of what this community of learners and educators want everyone to know.
Laura Glazer: What led you to teaching?
Melodie Adams: I always think about how my life might have been different if I had different opportunities or if I had people in my life who cultivated things, brought those things out in me, and helped build my confidence. And that’s one of the reasons why I chose to be a teacher, because I was going to be a lawyer. I was very much an arguer, a person who wanted to defend my opinions and defend my case about things. Also, I’ve just always kind of been a person that believes in fairness and social justice. Plus I’d never thought I could ever be anything, to be completely honest with you. I didn’t grow up with the mentality that you can do whatever you want to do. I think when you live in poverty and you have a single mom who’s just trying to make it—even though my mom’s white—she came from a poor or working class, white family.
My grandparents were from Oklahoma and they came out here [Portland, OR] during the Dust Bowl type of thing. I don’t think she was encouraged or taught that she could do anything and be anything. She came from the era of a woman’s job or a woman’s position is to be a wife and make her husband happy. That’s how she was raised. So going from your parents’ home to your husband’s home, that was the trend in her day, that’s what you did. You became a housewife and a mom. So, the fact that my mom went outside of her race and had children, wasn’t married, she just broke all the rules and I’m sure it cost her dearly.
Laura: Do you think that you bring this into your classroom?
Melodie: My philosophy, or…?
Laura: Yeah, some of the things that you were just saying… I was imagining that you impart that to your students.
Melodie: Well, I’m a very transparent teacher, educator. Of course, I do not want to put my belief system on others. So there are certain topics that I will not teach kids, I will say to them, “Oh, that’s a subject that you want to discuss with your parents.” It’s not my place to talk about that. And then of course it depends on the age. But our society is really kind of forcing us to educate kids about lots of things, because they’re exposed to it everywhere. It’s all around them all the time. And so I feel like I have a responsibility, but I also want to respect their parents. When I first became a teacher, I was trying to figure out, what’s my style, what’s my thing? What’s gonna get kids interested in what I have to say? Especially being a struggling student myself.
Melodie: Yeah. I was not interested in school. I wasn’t interested in reading, any of that kind of thing.
Both of my kids have been in the arts. I exposed them to that at a young age; all kinds of things: graphic art, dance, music. They chose to be dancers. They were both Jefferson Dancers. My daughter is still really into dance and she’s very talented musically, so she’s been writing music and trying to get ready to put an album out.
My son wanted to do more creative things. Besides just, he’s just good at computers, he’s kind of a natural at that kind of stuff. He was working at a production company and he got laid off like everyone else and was like, “I’m going to start my own business.” And I’m like, “In the middle of a global pandemic?” Because I didn’t get that you can do whatever you want, I always encourage my kids to shoot for the stars and do whatever. So, the fact that he did that in the middle of a global pandemic, I was like, oh, that’s so gutsy, because I really lack a lot of confidence in myself. I’m very good at boosting the confidence of others and driving that home and getting others to be excited and pushing them to try this, and “You’re going to be great at it.” But I have a really hard time doing that for myself. That’s one of the reasons why I’m like, what am I waiting for? I’ll be 51 in a couple of weeks and I’m like, well, it’s not over just because I’m in my fifties now. I want to kind of see what I can do. That’s why I went to Nigeria all by myself.
Laura: You went by yourself?!
Melodie: Yep. Last summer, I’m going again this summer. I just was like, you know what, why not? So I did. And that was the first time I’ve ever left the country in my life.
Laura: Is there anyone in your life who boosts your confidence?
Melodie: Yeah. I have a really, really good friend. I’ve known him since I was in my early twenties. We actually met when I went to audition to be a backup singer for an Elvis impersonator band and he was the baritone singer for that band. And that’s how we met and we’ve been friends ever since. In fact, we live together now, we’re roommates.
Melodie: Yeah. He’s in his seventies. He’s 20 years older than me. I met him when he was in his early forties, I was in my early twenties, and we’ve been doing music and hanging out ever since.
He’s been like a best friend, kind of like a father figure, and many other things in my life over the years, and helped me financially when I was raising my children by myself, and now he’s aging and he’s not working. So, the roles are kind of reversed a little bit. I’m kind of supporting him a little bit more and just helping him in the ways that he was helping me.
Laura: That’s powerful.
Melodie: He’s lived a pretty privileged life; he’s a white male in his seventies, born on the east coast, he lived in Connecticut. I’ve actually really helped him understand his white privilege, things that he’s never really had to think about. I’m really kind of an in-your-face person when it comes to that kind of stuff, I’m very transparent. That’s kind of the beautiful thing about our relationship, is he doesn’t take it as I’m being aggressive, ’cause he knows me. But he’s not a stranger to point out to me, hey, you might want to come at it this way.
He has definitely been one of my biggest cheerleaders. He was telling me the other day, “I’ve known you all this time and I still feel like I’m learning so much more about you. You’re so amazing with your cooking talents and you raised great children and now I’m looking at this amazing art that you’re doing. I’m blown away that you’re evolving into this magnificent person in front of me. And I didn’t know what you already had and it’s just more and more and more.” He’s been very, very supportive to me. I often think about it ’cause he’s older than me and what am I going to do when it’s his time? It gets me emotional because I can’t see my life without him in it.
Laura: What is his name?
Melodie: His name’s Richard. When he was working a lot, he made pretty good money and he was always taking me to places to help me experience things that I never experienced before because I never had the money. My mom didn’t have the money.
He took me on my first plane ride. I didn’t take my first plane ride until I was like 27. He took me to the east coast and we toured around for several weeks. I went to New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, Boston, and all these places. He delighted in the fact that he was able to show me these things. He’s like, “I wish I had so much money because I would be taking you all over the world, you deserve to see these places.” That’s his wish for me, that I’m able to travel and experience all these things.
He would also take me out to expensive dinners when I was going through culinary school so he could expose me to white tablecloth dining and real gourmet cuisines and things like that. We traveled to New Orleans together and we went to really great restaurants there. He’s always helped me have those kinds of opportunities.
Laura: You mentioned that a couple of days ago he said he’s still learning about you. Was there some conversation that prompted this kind of deep exchange?
Melodie: We talk about so many things and I think the topic came up about me finishing a drawing that I started probably about a year and a half ago. I’ve been so busy, that during COVID I spent a lot of time getting to know myself in that art world vein. I started off with just trying my hand at drawing. I was drawing people, drawing faces and I’d just draw whatever image was coming to my mind. Then I started thinking, gosh, how do people catch the likeness of actual people?
I see all these magnificent artists and I don’t want to do that; I want to be able to draw someone that someone could recognize. So, I watched a few tutorials on YouTube. I started sketching eyes and sketching lips, and just watching about how to shade and lighting and just that kind of stuff.
A friend of mine sent me a picture of himself. He had just got off work and he was just laying there. I’m like, that’s a really cool picture. He’s Oaxacan and I’m very intrigued by ethnic people and I just think that they’re art; like people are art, you know what I mean? Like the structure of their faces and stuff. So, I just started trying to draw him from that picture and I took pictures, too, of all the different stages. I just worked and worked. I could get lost and do work on this for hours. I would be like, oh my gosh, I’ve been doing this for three hours. It just started coming alive, you know?
Laura: Was that one of the first portraits you did applying your new skills?
Melodie: This was the first thing I drew where I actually was like, I think that really looks like this guy. I was pretty pleased. I’m still not even done with this portrait. [Shows a picture of the drawing saved on her phone.]
Laura: Wow! It is a cool picture.
Melodie: I don’t even know art language, you know what I mean? This is totally a new thing for me. Then I was like, well, I want to paint. So, I started thinking, what do I want to paint? I want to paint women. I want to paint cultural women, in their cultural garb.
I was watching this video of the Día de Muertos and I snapshotted it. I was like, I’m going to draw this and I’m going to paint this because I want to try my hand in painting. I started painting it and this is the beginning of me painting it. This is as far as I’ve gotten so far. [Shows photo of the painting in process] I’ve been so busy back at work, I haven’t had time; I’m gonna finish this at some point. It’s in acrylics and then I’m gonna insert people throwing flowers in the air, and then along this area because I want it to be really bright.
Laura: Wait, what happened in your head when you were like, I’m going to add this? Because you have the snapshot of the video still, but then you were talking about adding magnolia. Where did that idea come from?
Melodie: I guess because I wanted it to be culturally appropriate. And so you could really kind of have a conversation about what’s going on in the portrait. I wanted it to have movement. That’s another reason why I liked capturing that because I feel like I wanted it to come alive and be really bright and colorful. Also, just making it my own, using that snapshot as an inspiration really and then making it my own.
My dream is to have a space where I have a room where I can just create art, I can just do art. I do stuff here with my students.
Laura: In a sense, for as long as you’ve been a teacher, you’ve been building up to this moment of seeing yourself as an artist.
Melodie: I guess so. I often draw things with kids and I’ve always kind of integrated art. But I’ve never considered myself an artist, even though I’m telling kids that everyone’s an artist and I really believe that. But why am I separating myself from that? I had to start thinking about that for myself. Why am I separating myself from that? I’m an artist, too. I need to start saying that to myself: I’m an artist.
When I decided to do the [classroom] door, I just decided to do a door: my door. I teach the kids about Ruby Bridges for a couple of different reasons. She was a first grader when she made history. My kids are in first grade. She was from a time where kids themselves weren’t listened to, no matter what color they were; kids were kids and they had a place. She made history, she changed things. Many people don’t even know who she is. I think that’s really sad because she made a huge impact. That’s another thing I get tired of: so many people of color, especially Black people, do not get recognized for what they have contributed to the advancement of this country.
It’s all these typical, white males who mostly get the credit for everything. I also look around and I see successful people. Like I used to live over on 20th Avenue, so I go through the Alameda neighborhood a lot when I go to Lloyd Center or other areas. I’m just looking around, like, how did you get this beautiful house? Did you get it because you worked really, really, really hard and saved? Or did you get it because of generational wealth, because of an inheritance, because you are privy to being a CEO of a company, or you got a start somewhere, and were able to build this? How many people in this country who have all this money really have worked their fingers to the bone from the ground up without any subsidy, without any help, without any little piece to get started? That bothers me when I see so many people work so hard and they die. My own mother, who is a white woman, is in a care facility. She’s doing fine, but where was her generational wealth? Don’t have it. I’m not going to get an inheritance or anything else when she passes. I’m trying to do that so my children will get some generational wealth.
Going back to Ruby Bridges, I’m very passionate about race and educating people about race, inclusion, and the contributions of people of color and spreading that word and getting people to understand that our single story is not slavery; we come from so much more than that. That’s one of the reasons why I went to Nigeria because I wanted to see—I’m almost 17% Nigerian—where do I come from? A lot of it has been self-discovery of myself and who I am, because what a lot of Black people suffer from in this country is we’re like people with no country. Because we get the same narrative for how we came about. There’s a lot to be honored and a lot to celebrate about that. But there’s also so much more to our lineage. Like even white people came over here knowing they have a Scottish crest or they have the… you know what I mean? We don’t have that and it makes me sad internally. They came here with their traditions and language, and we brought what we could. It really is wounding for me.
So, teaching my kids about Ruby Bridges, teaching kids at a young age about how they can be powerful, how they can change history, is important to me. Like, “Look at her, she was your age! And she made a huge impact.” It’s sad that she’s not talked about enough, not around here anyway. I could be overstepping as far as on the east coast or down south or something like that. But obviously we’re not getting as much education around people of color here in this town –on the west coast –the way people get it over there. I know that from being in Louisiana and being in Arkansas and being in those places, there’s a different sense of pride around culture there for Black people than it is here. This is my personal experience.
The first time I ever went to Louisiana, to New Orleans, I went for a race summit. I met people from all over the country and some people in different parts of the world who came together to talk about the impact of race in education and the lack of opportunities.
One of our keynote speakers was Ruby Bridges. She told the story from her mouth, of the experience of what it was like being a child going to school every day and being spat at and called “nigger” and told, “You’re not welcome here.” And she walked through those people every day as a little kid in her little dresses and holding her book bag and going in with marshals walking beside her. She talked about her experience with her teacher who was sent from Boston to teach her.
To the public’s eye, she was going to school with white kids. That was the whole point, right? To end segregation and for her to be able to be in a classroom with white kids, but that wasn’t happening. She was in a classroom all by herself with one teacher. She could hear the other children next door laughing and playing and I remember her saying that she was so curious about why she didn’t get to do that. So her teacher, who was a white woman from Boston, told on them and said she was still not in the same class as the other kids.
Those old school buildings have little doors that you could use to go from room to room. I saw similar doors at the Metropolitan Learning Center in Northwest Portland and that’s what I imagined she had in her classroom. One day she opened up the door and went through and the teacher helped her do that. She said the little white kids said, “We’re not allowed to play with you, we’re not allowed to talk to you. Our parents said we can’t play with you because you’re a nigger.” She said, “Well, I can understand that, I have to listen to my parents, too.” She just understood that they’re doing what their parents told them, they’re being obedient, not even really understanding the big picture.
Her story that she presented to us gave me a whole different perspective, because we heard it from her. I just have a lot of respect and admiration for her. Then the fact that she is still going around talking about this experience today. That’s why I chose Ruby Bridges as she is today on my door, and not the typical famous picture of her being the little girl. I taught my students about that and showed them who she was as a kid. Then I also showed them that she is still here and I told them that story—not in as much detail—about me seeing her.
I drew this image of her as a woman now. I started working on it little by little after school, trying to figure out, okay, I can put this picture and this construction paper together and make one big piece of paper on my easel. Then little by little, I just started creating her likeness.
Then I emailed the principal and I said, “I’m going to do a door for Black History Month. I thought it might be cool if everyone participated in it, so we’re teaching kids about Black history and it’s not an afterthought, and everyone can do a door.” I was really pleased and surprised that we had 100% participation, everybody did it. I was so proud of them.
At some point, I went around with my students because I hadn’t even seen all the doors. Even the principal did a door, the office door. I was like, “Wow! I’m so impressed.” We looked at all the doors and it just seemed like everyone was really excited about doing it. Moe [fourth grade, student] and their mom were working on a door upstairs and they were just so excited about doing it. And the office gals and their door, everyone was just really into it. It was really cool.
Laura: Where did you make the drawing of Ruby? Was it in your classroom or were you working on it at home?
Melodie: I was making it here at school. I worked on it a little bit on my lunch hour and after school. I would be sitting here with my classroom door open and I have my big easel and people walk by and go, Oh, what are you doing? I had Ruby’s image right here and I was just working on it little by little with oil pastels. Just using my hands, trying to shade, trying to think of what colors and things I could do to highlight. I probably would’ve spent way more time on that, like really trying to get the likeness. But I think it’s pretty good considering I only worked on it for a few weeks.
Laura: Where did you get the idea for the hair?
Melodie: I just figured that long rolls of paper that we have can be manipulated. I looked at the texture of her hair in the image and figured, I can bunch it up, I could twist it, I could do different things to make it read as that texture. I showed Ms. Pookie how I wanted it and she helped add a lot of that hair.
Laura: Wow! So, you had this idea in January for your own door?
Melodie: I’d been thinking about doing a door for a couple of years, but time gets away from us and I just would never have time.
Laura: Plus, we weren’t in school for over a year, too, so you didn’t even have a door!
Melodie: Right, right. But I also knew that if I did decide to do this, it was going to be a bunch of extra time, my free time. I’ve had a lot of crisis in my life and a lot of different things have happened and I have been at my capacity for a long time. But when I started doing art over COVID, it made me happy. I feel like amongst the uncertainty of what this global pandemic was going to do—didn’t know if I was going to get it or my loved ones were going to get it—it was at a time where there wasn’t a vaccine—it was just like, well, these are the cards that we’re dealt, so I have to try to be positive. I can’t just be scared and worried and wondering what’s going to happen, so I started getting into art.
Laura: Do you recall being a child thinking about art or drawing?
Melodie: I feel like I’ve always liked to draw and do art. I really started getting into it more in fourth grade. I had a really cool art teacher and we did all kinds of cool stuff: sand art, art with legumes, and things like that. I did a couple of cool things that I felt like made my mom proud of me. I didn’t really think much of it because, once again, there was no one promoting and encouraging me along this vein. It was all about surviving and dealing and there was substance abuse in my family, just all kinds of things. That’s why I think about how, had I been in a family that was a little more stable and not as dysfunctional because of poverty and domestic violence, what would I be doing? How could my life be different? Both of my brothers are musicians and they were 10 and 12 years older than me. I feel like all the extra money went to their instruments and went to their stuff and there wasn’t really much extra. I also sang and was interested in that, but no one really cultivated that in me, so I never really pursued it and then had kids young.
Laura: You went to Nigeria during COVID and I was thinking about the trip and how you have this blossoming, this coming up of “I’m going to try drawing. Where am I going with this drawing? What do I need to know?” Then you do the portrait of Ruby Bridges as an adult on your door. I keep sensing this timeline, this trajectory. Do you write at all?
Melodie: Not really, but, I mean, I didn’t do art either, so, I don’t know! My daughter writes the most beautiful songs and she writes this music and I’m just blown away about it. Like, “Oh my gosh, you’re so talented, I wish I could write a song.” She’s like, “Mom, you can write a song.” I’m like, “No, not like that!” I want to write a children’s book, but I don’t even know how to begin, I don’t know how to start. So I can’t say that I don’t; I don’t know.
Laura: I like that, “I can’t say that I don’t.”
Melodie: I never thought I was going to go to Nigeria in a million years. I was like, how am I going to do that? Just like I never knew I was going to be able to go to culinary school. I was flabbergasted when they said, “Well come in for an interview.” I said, “What? I can come in for an interview? You mean, I might be able to go here? There’s money for a loan for me to go here?” And the woman was like, I have never met anyone so excited about attending this school. ’Cause I was like, I get to go here, I get to learn culinary arts from all these different chefs. I was so excited.
That experience changed my life because I was a single mom. I actually was at home with my kids watching TV and the commercial for Western Culinary Institute came on and I was like, could I do that? Because I already loved to cook, you know, and my family was like, you’re such a good cook, Melodie. My kids were little and I didn’t want to wait until they’re school age; I didn’t want to be on welfare until then, you know?
I decided to call Welfare. I told them, “I don’t need you to send me money anymore, I just need you to help me with childcare because I want to go to school.” They said, “Well, you have to go for 30 days before we’ll okay funds for you.” And I’m like, “Who’s going to watch my kids for free for 30 days? I don’t have the money.” Well, my brother was a musician. He was like, “I’ll do it ’cause I have gigs at night.” He ended up doing it and later, they paid him to do it. He watched my kids during the day and I went to culinary school and he got paid for it and I didn’t have to have a stranger watch my babies and it changed my life. It really, really changed my life.
Laura: From a commercial?
Melodie: From a commercial. Yup. I was just like, I’m doing it, and I did it! There were 65 people in my cohort, five women; two of us graduated, two women in a very male dominated field. I was called a “bitch” and all kinds of crazy stuff. I was amongst all men from all over the country, 85% of people at that time came from other states. I met people from everywhere and I was not putting up with that kind of stuff; you called the wrong woman a bitch, I’ll tell you that right now. I had to fight for myself all the time and I’d get tired of fighting.
I was just thinking about that the other day, like I had to fight for everything. That’s another reason why I’m like, I want to do something grand. Why can’t I earn a really good living? I want to retire early and travel and talk to people. Give speeches, talk about race, talk about the importance of community and honoring people and their contributions.
This country is a country full of minorities that have created a lot of the beauty here. You know? I want to be more like that, a creator of beauty.
Laura: I love what you said, “I want to be more like that.” You’re a teacher…you are more like that.
Melodie: Yeah, but honestly we don’t make enough money. I don’t make enough money to have all these wonderful experiences. I feel like travel is education, it’s very important. Just the simple aspect of traveling and being in an environment other than your own, is education.
I think I’m very much a person that likes to see people empowered and people pushing their limits and trying to tap into their potential. I wasn’t doing that for myself. And now I’m starting to do that for myself. I’ve had a life of hardships and I want those days to be gone. I want to live a life of celebration and learning and exploring. That’s what I’m into now.
Laura Glazer is an artist using curatorial strategies to share exciting stories that she finds in places she lives and visits. Her work is socially-engaged and depends on the participation of other people, sometimes a close friend, and other times, complete strangers. Her background in photography and design inform her social practice, and her artworks appear as books, workshops, radio shows, zines, festivals, exhibitions, installations, posters, signs, postal correspondence, and sculpture. She holds a BFA in Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology and is an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. She is based in Portland, Oregon, after living in upstate New York for 19 years.
Melodie A. Adams is an educator with Portland Public Schools. She obtained her teaching degree at Concordia University in 2007 and is currently finishing a Master’s Degree in administration. Melodie is currently in her fourteenth year of employment with Portland Public Schools and has been at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School for thirteen years. As a little Black girl she did not see herself reflected in her own education. She developed a passion for targeting the needs of students who have been marginalized and who have been historically underserved. In addition to leading the staff at Dr. MLK Jr. School in cultural competency training, Melodie has worked with organizations such as Courageous Conversations, Coaching for Educational Equity, and the Center for Equity and Inclusion, and has facilitated diversity trainings in school districts around Oregon. She has expressed wanting to be a change agent and considers herself an activist for civil rights and a warrior for equitable education against systemic racism.
As a young child, Melodie grew up in subsidized housing and was raised by a single mother. Melodie, her mother, and her two brothers were a close nuclear family. They grew up with a limited amount of money and resources and had to get help from her mother’s relatives more often than not. As a half Black child, Melodie tackled many obstacles growing up in an otherwise all white family. Facing the challenges of financial woes and the lack of security, she was also confronted with racism and the stigma that comes with living in poverty.
After struggling to fit in and make the most of her circumstances, she became curious about her identity and set out to search for her father’s side of the family. Eventually she reunited with her father. As Melodie wrestled with her identity and her loyalty to her white side of the family she was met with resistance. She left home when she was sixteen to fend for herself. During that time, she was able to build a relationship with her father until his unexpected death, two years later.
In the summer of 1989, after the death of her father, she found out she was pregnant with her first child; she was only 19 and her son was born in 1990. Two years later, she was blessed with a baby girl. Her children became the driving force behind her resilience. Yet the fear of history repeating itself fell heavily upon her shoulders and she did not want to raise her children in poverty. As a young girl, she dreamt of overcoming her circumstances and fantasized about becoming a lawyer or maybe a chef. She never thought it was possible. Melodie vowed to make one of her fantasies come true. She decided to apply to Western Culinary Institute in hopes to one day become a chef.
After many years of hard work in the culinary industry. Melodie realized the money she earned was not going to be enough to sustain her family. Upon suffering a back injury which led to an extensive surgery, she needed to change the course of her life. Not knowing exactly what she was going to do, she quit the industry and went back to college. After several years of prerequisites, working hard, and raising her children, Melodie graduated with a teaching license. She continues to educate herself and will always fight for her students. She is not sure what the future holds but she knows it will be in education and fighting systemic racism. Besides her educational accomplishments, Melodie’s biggest success is raising two wonderful human beings. Thank you for taking the time to read about a woman who has tenacity, an unwavering resilience, and who has become a pillar in her school community.
Tobacco, Time, and Tarot: Connections to Youth Partnership
“We can do cool sh*t all the time, but I just feel like we have limited finite moments together to share and really grow together. I’m going to those rituals. People are sacred and our lives are sacred. The time that we spend together is sacred.”
My SoFA Journal interviews have been spaces for me to materialize a letting go of institutionalized and organizational conflict. I’ve had the privilege to be in academia for five years in a row and employed in non-white, non-cis male dominated spaces. At the same time, I’ve had to navigate intensely sticky conflict that pulled out a lot of my childhood and survivor traumas. This led me to tackle various dimensions of youth of color organizing as a means to reach out to other seedlings with a,You are not alone.
As I dove deeper into Portland, Oregon youth of color organizing, I met and worked with Jackie Santa Lucia in the Spring of 2020. She gave me the tools and mentorship to build the foundation for my teens of color focused program, Youth for Parkrose, with Historic Parkrose. Then I finally and formally met ridhi d’cruz as an organizational partner, a workspace colleague, a comrade, and a plantcestor doula. ridhi, Jackie, and I worked closely together at the beginning of this year as Your Street Your Voice instructors, a program founded by Jackie. We also shared a journey of discomfort and burnout. In this, we had many hour-long conversations around the meaning of being youth-centered and the Portland activist industrial complex. Below is a glimpse of our friendship, our mentorships, and our youth partnerships.
Jackie Santa Lucia: Is that a tobacco flower?
Lillyanne Phạm (LP): Oh! I saw that earlier and I loved the letters you wrote on it. Do you want to talk more about it?
ridhi d’cruz: Tobacco helped me get through some tough times in my youth. I didn’t have mentorship. More than mentorship, I didn’t have a deep connection which, for me, is how I would imagine mentorship: somebody just being with me. I smoked tobacco for more than half of my life, until I was 35 and I started when I was around 14. It was only until I came to this land, I found out about tobacco being used ceremonially and the legacy of slavery with tobacco. Then I worked with a tobacco plant, grew it, and got to know more facets of this plant. It was more than in a pouch. I got to know it in my own way, connecting to a very sacred plant.
So, I try to soften that self-judgment. I feel like whole new dimensions of tobacco opened up to me. I was able to answer what was driving me to use it in this way. I was like, “I am ready to transform my relationship with you.” I haven’t smoked in five years. It was hard. I have had a couple of drags, but I would be like, danger! Okay no. I think this plant is so incredibly powerful, and sacred, and helped me deal with my grief. So, when I had other coping skills, connections, and ways to deal with grief, my reliance on that way of working with tobacco felt released. I do this [holds the illustration] as an ode to tobacco because I continue to learn so much and feel so much about this plant. It’s a testament to how powerful the plant can be. So many people in the world are gripped by tobacco in a way. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I just think tobacco is hardcore.
Lillyanne: This reminds me of how you teach about blackberry bushes. Words like ‘invasive’ are used to describe it, but it can be repurposed in various generative ways. You bring more awareness to dismantling the good/bad dichotomy with plants. I used to smoke tobacco for years and it increased when I first left home. It made me feel like I had something. I could sit and sleep in my car if I had cigarettes. I could self-isolate in college if I had cigarettes. Then I stopped because I smoked like five packs a week and felt disgusting. I never mentioned that I used to smoke because it’s very stigmatized. I feel ugly and gross. I feel like people think my teeth are yellow and my nails smell. After hearing your story about smoking and working with tobacco, it makes me want to mend my relationship with it. It’s funny how you mention that it’s kind of like a mentor. I think it can definitely lead to over-mentoring.
ridhi: I think capitalism and colonization have contributed to cheapening it. Cheap is not necessarily bad, but making it so accessible. Certain plants are not meant for that. It’s about dose. When it’s like an intense plant, we should hang out like once a month or something. It’s not an everyday plant.
I love that you talk about connections because that’s what drew me to tobacco. I felt comforted. It didn’t matter if other people smoked with me or not, especially in those times when I didn’t have anybody else. Tobacco was a friend, which is the experience of a lot of people. I think about the plant and I’m like, If you ask anybody who smokes this plant if they have a plant connection, they’re not going to think of tobacco. This plant’s ability to reach is incredible. But, we demonize it. Yeah, you’re not supposed to consume it in a particulate way. At the same time, we’re not supposed to be living in this oppressive f*cked-up society. So, we do what we can and need to do to get fu*king through it.
I think tobacco has specific medicinal properties. And what I’ll also say about mentorship—it’s giving and taking, consent and reciprocity. The more that I get to know plants and people, the more I understand the specific medicine that each individual has to offer. From plant to plant, they might differ. From person to person, it might differ. Deepening that relationship helps me understand like, Whoa, Where am I? What am I feeling? Oh, I just need ‘this thing.’ I don’t want to stigmatize tobacco because we are holding a lot.
I’m trying to be grounded in my own being. So that when I approach another entity, I do so from my own sovereignty. I’m not grasping for, putting expectations on, feeling a lack of, or co-depending on “this thing” to fill something within me. The more I can live into my own liberation, the more I can actually use Thích Nhất Hạnh’s concept of being into being. To tobacco, I can say, “You are an autonomous plant and strong being.” Then I can say, “I am a being too. What’s here?” I come with openness rather than “I’m stressed out and I need to smoke.” With that said, there are so many things that I survived and tobacco definitely brought it back to me.
Jackie: My first cigarette was when I was 13. With the coming of age thing I thought I was so cool and an adult. I thought, now, I can hang out with older people. I can handle this. And, talking about mentorship, I think you were saying that even as a 13-year-old person we hold beings. I was a whole person. I didn’t feel that way at all. Tying it back to the young people that we spend time with, me being an older person in relationship with them, I see them as whole human people. They might not see themselves that way. I’m also thinking that we rely on and we seek relationships with things like seeking approval and smoking a cigarette.
If you asked me about my relationship with plants, as a 17-year-old, I would say that I don’t have one. And it’s like, okay, you’ve got a pack of cigarettes in your car. Do you drink coffee? tea? Yeah. You eat fruits. And I’m drawn to specific things because it evokes memories and comfort and I feel better. And it builds connection. I want to think a little bit about plants in terms of connection and youngness.
ridhi: If I can bounce off that a little bit and say part of the medicine of tobacco is ceremony. I think in this time and culture most of us are really craving ceremony and craving like the markings of passing through different life stages. Most cultures mark those times. Over here, it’s a driver’s license and random bureaucratic sh*t. We don’t have a way of tuning the human to be like, you are a full being. My teenage years were one of the hardest transitions I’ve ever had, with puberty hitting, sexism, and patriarchy really falling on my nonbinary body, and me not having the vocabulary to describe my experiences. So, tobacco was really important to me because it helped me be like, I’m tough. I got all these things.
Lillyanne: Yes, you can easily leave the room and no one would bother you.
ridhi: There are so many ways to self-care. Even though people are like, Oh, your lungs have been destroyed. Our self-care in our own autonomy is just under the surface of a tobacco practice.
Lillyanne: Since investing more time into plants, I’ve seen myself forgive myself a lot. I’ve also learned a lot from the youth I work with about their openness to accept the expansiveness of plants. When I was younger, I was very hard on myself because I grew up with a lot of no’s and restrictions. Now, I’ve been given the freedom to reflect on complexities because the people and plants around me say, be gentle with yourself. You deserve it. Healing my inner child by working with plants has softened my outer child. I can break things. I can be messy. I can experiment. By talking about smoking through centering the plant, I think I am more open to saying I smoked. There’s so much shame that happens with time/age. I think it piles on top of each other. If you don’t have a community to talk to, it just stays there, which is kind of scary.
Jackie: That brings up a big point in terms of what you shed light on and what you don’t, and where the safety is for that. As a young person talking to older people, I would have never told anybody that at all. I would have needed to have time pass to share the shame. The young people that we spend time with, I don’t see that much shame. I’m sure they have it. I’m sure they sit with it. But they share it. I think that’s something that I really admire. And I learn a lot from them too. When both of you were mentioning not having the language and how the binary can’t hold our entire world from plants to gender, I have enjoyed being able to unlearn that way of thinking. And live and experience life not being in binary with multiple age groups, too.
ridhi: I’ll add to that and pick up a thread from LP. As a young person, I felt this pressure that being an adult meant being perfect. And there wasn’t a supportive culture around failure. I think there’s a window when you’re really really young and you fall on your face and it’s whatever. But, I think there’s a bigger period, especially in your teens, where people are dismissive, derogatory, and ageist. When you become an adult, you’re like, None of y’all frickin’ know what y’all are doing. This makes even less sense to me.
I also remembered feeling very betrayed because I grew up with very binary thinking: right or wrong. So, that was my projection of the world for a bit. You do good, then good things happen. I feel like that was the protectionism of sanitizing childhood for some folks because I grew up with class privilege. My parents buffered me with love. I get that. I also feel like my teenage years were like, Why is this happening? What is this caste system? Oh, this is fu*ked up. I didn’t choose this. I feel like that was part of the grief. It was very hard for me to accept this life. You have to try to get some weird career. I was like, “I opt out!” Then there’s no other option.
I appreciated that my dad took the time to talk to me and work out problems with me when I was younger. There were very few adults who would look me in the eye and say, “Yeah, you’re right. This sh*t that we made up is bullsh*t. Your fresh eyes, questioning, and critical thinking are welcomed here.” Instead, people were really defensive and mirrored it back on me. So, the elders that I really appreciated are the ones who are humble and acknowledge that we grow and learn together. We just have different positionality based on our experiences. Someone can live 70 years and not have wisdom. I call them olders versus elders. You don’t get to self-prescribe that you’re an elder. People call you an elder because you are an elder to them. You can be an elder who is young. I’ve had those types of people in my life. I’m just like, Oh, you’re an old spirit or You’ve been around this block.
The mentors that I really appreciated have been the ones who would receive mentorship from me. In India, there’s a lot of age hierarchy. And that inner child, they never let die. They are always learning. Of course, they make mistakes like pronouns. I’m not saying they’re perfect. But their commitment to continue to learn and be shaped by others showed me what an elder means to me. With people who are younger than me, that’s what I hope I convey. Just because you’re younger doesn’t mean you’re less. It also doesn’t mean you’re more. We’re just different. And I have as much to learn from them. We’re here to learn and grow with each other. Hopefully, we get to impact each other and our healing.
Lillyanne: I can’t believe that I haven’t asked how y’all got into youth work! I loved how you mentioned your dad giving you the time and space to figure stuff out. Did your dad shape your youth allyship work? Also, Jackie, has your mom shaped yours? You mentioned before the interview about your mom coming into the elder role.
Jackie: My mom is definitely a big influence on my relationship with young people. My mom is a nurse. She also was raising three children basically by herself. She needed to get a job. So, she was a camp director for years. Always, there was the connection to being outside and being with all different ages and taking care of each other. And having fun with nature. So, that’s one piece. It’s interesting that you’re asking this question because I didn’t make this connection until Your Street Your Voice started.
My background is I’m an architect and studied architecture at Syracuse until 2008. Then I moved to New York City. I was working by Wall Street when the first crash happened. I got laid off. I was 23 years old. Afterward, I started freelancing and substitute teaching for a French class in New York City and New Jersey. I was on extended substitute teaching. You can only watch so many French movies and musicals. So, I ended up doing design workshops with high school kids in the middle of class. And I was like, “If you could change this room, how would you? Would you want your furniture to be in here? Or do you want to draw something on the whiteboard? We would just do these random things every day.
Flash forward, I moved to Philly and went to graduate school for architecture and immersive kinematic robotic design. I started working at this incredible magnet high school called the Sustainability Workshop School. It’s all project-based learning. It was started by a mechanical engineer Simon Hauger, but he was also an automotive vocational teacher. At this time, West Philadelphia High School was about to be condemned. Instead of teaching his students how to fix diesel engines, they designed and built electric cars. They competed against major companies like Ferrari and Ford and won all this stuff—enough to build their own school. So, they took over the school. All of the projects are based on sustainability, climate action, and working directly with industry, and I got hooked up with them as soon as I graduated from Penn.
Here, I became a mentor through Philly’s Project Graduation mentorship program. This was 2009/2010 and the graduation rate for Philly high school students was like 40% and, for BIPOC students: like 25%. So, you have a freshman mentee and you are with them until graduation. My mentee’s name is Nicole at the Sustainability Workshop School. Long story short, I got involved in a lot of awesome projects there. We did a living container, living garden, greenhouse with solar panels, and a full green roof. Students were doing a whole living irrigation system and using plants to do culinary stuff. I helped them set up their digital fabrication lab too. Just fun, fun, fun, stuff!
After graduate school, as an architect, I had the privilege to work on these projects called American Spaces, which were basically study abroad programs using the Smithsonian collections in partner countries with their consulates around the world. I was able to travel to multiple continents and worked with many young people. The constant was, Design can change people’s lives. If you have your own agency and choice in how you impact your environment, and how you do that across language, across age, across culture, across all of it — it always takes time, takes trust, takes fun, and takes joy.
So, that wrapped up and I moved out to Portland and had a complete culture shock, such as the lack of a design community. I should have realized that piece of my career, working in the community, working with young people, and actually physically making stuff, was something that I really needed and enjoyed. So, when I came here to work at a renowned firm that does culture work, they had no contact with young people and communities of color. So, I convinced the firm to sponsor the creation of a program similar to the Workshop School. Students would be paid to participate and think about design issues. And that’s how Your Street Your Voice started.
Do you want me to get into the whole Your Street Your Voice thing? [Everyone laughs]
Basically, we came up with the idea of this question, If you could change one thing in your neighborhood through design, what would it be? And we asked any young person while centering Black and Brown youth, ages 14 to 20. They had eight weeks to come up with some ideas, using the model of a design studio, and a design process of building something in place. This was six years ago.
Lillyanne: Wow, you basically started Your Street Your Voice when you were my age. You started it as a substitute teacher holding space for teens to design and play.
Jackie: I never thought about it that way.
Lillyanne: You were growing through this too. You were 23, technically a youth too. How did that work?
Jackie: That’s so interesting. When I graduated college, I thought I was grown. I was living in New York City and had roommates. I felt like I was grown. Clearly I wasn’t, even though I felt that way. It was only in the past five years that I’ve felt a major age difference between the youth that I work with. But, I’ve always felt that working with young people is also growing with them.
Lillyanne: I didn’t consider myself a youth until I graduated undergrad and worked with older folks. I’d apply for jobs and they’d require me to be 25. Then I found out that 25 is when the brain develops out of adolescence. I also noticed that at my various workspaces I was always the only or one of the few youngest people in the space. For example, when I co-facilitated a Your Street Your Voice workshop, one of the guest instructors thought I was another high schooler. I joked and said I was a freshman. And he believed me. I face a lot of ageism. People automatically think that I don’t have much life experience or make sweeping statements about my abilities. Older folks around me become very guarded or feel like my success is due to my exposure to their skills. I wouldn’t call myself a youth unless I’m directly addressing youth justice and ageism in a space. I’m fully aware that I’m a young adult on my own journey through age. But, I’m also a 24-year-old who is constantly being mistaken for a high schooler, inexperienced, going too fast, and being too naive.
ridhi: Can I add a layer to that? I also feel like it’s ageism combined with sexism and racism specifically the way that Asian folks are infantilized. It’s a form of colonization. I came to the U.S. during my Saturn return at 28. People would treat me like a kid. It’s one of many ways of dominance over young and women presenting folks.
Lillyanne: I think the opposite goes for Black Asians and Black and Brown non-Asian young folks who are forced to go through adultification. Those in power treat them as children and adults when they want to strip power and knowledge from them. They’re too young to drive or have a credit card. But they are old enough to be punished for missing school or being too hungry to focus on an exam. They give them a cruel and purposely oppressive amount of responsibility to prevent their ability to thrive and survive. I especially think about how the city and huge funder organizations want to work with low-income youth of color but aren’t willing to pay them a living wage for their labor.
ridhi: For me, there’s a power dynamic; young people can’t drive. If we go back to consent, if they’re in a power dynamic with a caregiver or someone that they’re dependent on, then there’s your power dynamic. That’s where I feel like we have to pay specific attention. So, we avoid calling something consent when we actually don’t know due to the power differences. We apply this rule between adults from different positions, so I think the same goes for young people. I’m still learning in all the different ways. With young people, I’m like, You feel disempowered in these ways because of your positionality; therefore, as someone with these types of privileges, I need to be more responsible and wield the powers and privileges that come with being an adult.
Jackie: I think that’s a really good point, ridhi. In terms of power, it is such a throughline. I would like to add the building of that intersectionality of power with racism, classism, sexism, capitalism, and also industry. My youth engagement has always been in tandem with the industry of architecture in the built environment. And that is steeped in power internally as organizations with people, steeped in power over land, over dominance, over extraction of materiality. This is often true more times than not.
Something that I’m sitting with a lot is I think that there is a wave. I think that there is a genuine interest in having community-centered design and community-led decision-making. But, I think it definitely falls short. It doesn’t meet the bottom line of making the budget or making the timeline. So, going back to what you were just saying in terms of the tokenism piece of our young people, how do we create meaningful engagement? Or how can we foster and follow young people’s lead and the engagement that they want to be part of?
The “power over” piece is such a big deal. I think in the sense that I want to hold back and follow our young people’s lead. When we talk about power with young people, I’m thinking of myself as a young person, and I didn’t understand the type of power that I actually had as a young person. You can’t even have a bank account without your parents signing it. You can’t get a credit card without all of this stuff. You can’t get your own apartment without your parent co-signing or at all. You can’t get your basic needs.
ridhi: It’s gatekeeping. I’ve been really sitting with the age segregation that happens. I get that there are certain things that happen at certain ages. And it’s fascinating, biologically, physiologically, cognitively—there’s some stuff. But I also feel with intersectionality, that pluralism, and being in a multigenerational space is a very basic, age-old way. I feel like part of what colonization, capitalism, sexism, the patriarchy, and all these ‘isms’ have done is segregated us by age.
For me, coming from India, I remember feeling like y’all made me hang out with just my age group. So, I sought elders. I sought that diversity to enrich my own learning experience. As I see modernity progressing, age segregation intensifies. I feel like multigenerational is not just letting one person or one group lead. It is, I want to be with you.
I’ve heard a really beautiful saying from some mentors in the housing justice movement: Nothing for us without us. As a brown settler, newcomer, and guest doing indigenous solidarity work, I have this thing where I feel that others should go in front. But I heard something really beautiful from an indigenous friend who reminded me, “You do not walk in front of us. But you also do not walk behind us. We walk together.” That visceral image stuck with me.
Lillyanne: With racial justice organizing, I’ve heard something similar like moving from an ally to a partner. Instead of waiting for orders on what to do, you know how to step in and collaborate because you’ve built that relationship and trust. How have you all created youth workshops in collaboration with the youth? There is giving a prompt and having their response, but, how can they own and experiment with the creative direction of a co-learning space in a container that you facilitate?
Jackie: It’s an unfolding and iterative process to figure it out. Like from the beginning, I think a lot of facilitation is asking a lot of reflective questions. One of our exercises that I love is the five senses of how you experience space. Oftentimes, we experience space with our whole body. Identifying five things you smell is just very objective. Then put some emotion to it. What does this make you feel? Why do you like this window? Once you get through the five senses, you get to the root of something interesting or something that’s super true to an individual young person.
I think specifically with the community looking at projects in neighborhoods and communities. They live and breathe that space and those plants in that land. Everyone has an inner knowing of what brings them joy and happiness. I say that with the preface that oftentimes, especially with BIPOC communities, having these questions of what is a joy to you can be very challenging especially when basic needs are not being met and if you’re in constant survivor mode. We have a lot of young people that experience survivor mode since they are born. And being asked something like, “Do you like this chair?” Their thoughts would be, “I can’t even think about this chair because I’m worried about being able to feed my family dinner tonight.” Those are really heavy things.
In terms of my experience with co-creation, safety has to be established first. It can be as simple as, “In this room with the three of us, you gave us delicious food. We know that this space feels safe. There are doors. I know of exit places if anything happens. We can put our shoulders down for a little bit.” I think if that doesn’t happen then it’s tough to get to the collaboration piece. Once you have established safety and the different types of accommodations for folks, I think having everyone feel like they can make their own spot is just the start of the collaboration.
Lillyanne: My next question is how Youth Power PDX (YPP) worked as not a nonprofit. How do you meet the needs of your youth? How does its unknown longevity feel? It goes because the people love it. I’m curious about the magic that happens.
ridhi: It’s the young people who we recruit. It’s Andre who’s one of the organizers. Andre is a trusted person who has established safety with young people. I’ve been building some youth networks. It’s word of mouth. I feel like in today’s world you can’t trust stuff at face value. It looks great on social media. Yes, all of the language is there. But, it’s not working. It’s not about the what or even the why. It’s the how. How are we doing this together?
Back to the young people. They do amazing stuff. They bring their community who think YPP is cool and get involved the next year. There’s always been a connection point and overlap. Also, it’s about trust and respect. When I watched both of y’all as facilitators, I witnessed a lot of respect, deep listening, and reflection. Often people view young people as incomplete. We don’t actually respect and see people for the fullness that they are.
When you create a space where you say that we care, and not just this one time and this one way. I’m actually going to make you suffer through learning how to do a spreadsheet and looking at the budget because I value your opinion and how we are collaboratively making the decision to spend money, including how much is coming to you. We peel back the layers. It’s scary and boring stuff. But, we are meeting each other where each of us is at. Sometimes young people are obviously like no; however, the invitation for you to make this decision is always there.
YPP is not a nonprofit because then we don’t have the overhead stuff. And I feel like putting that on young people would feel funky to me. That’s adultification where this starts to feel exploitative, where we’re not giving like living wages, we’re not giving benefits. I wouldn’t do that to a young person. Also, we have a little more flexibility and we are more responsive. And there’s not as much to lose.
There’s so much on this testing culture, this one moment. I feel like being able to say, “We can make this whatever we want” blows people’s minds. They’re like, “You’re not going to be upset with me if I said I would do like 650 things and I could only do two?” I’m like, “No!” And I think that’s a profound moment of healing. Where we all get to heal together. This is still an incredible event and let’s enjoy it.
Lillyanne: Let’s have a conversation. Let’s make a meal. Let’s go for a walk. You’re talking about relational work. People are always like, “We’re trying to move from transactional to relational.” But, do they know what that means? Are you willing to tear systems down for this relationship?
ridhi: Sometimes I get goal-oriented and forget to enjoy the process of making. Then a younger person who is volunteering ghosts me. I would call them consistently for two months and leave messages. I’m worried about their well-being and not their tasks. They would be like, “No one’s ever done this.” I feel like, what’s the point if we’re doing some event? We’re here today. I think being together, in community, and building relationships. That’s the point for me. The rest is like a great byproduct. We can do cool sh*t all the time, but I just feel like we have limited finite moments together to share and really grow together. I’m going to those rituals. People are sacred and our lives are sacred. The time that we spend together is sacred.
Jackie: When you were talking about the shift of expectations of building this collaboration together, I think that’s something that I love, is how we’ve collaborated together. We thought it was going to be this way, but it is definitely going another way. And it’s gonna go another way, and another. We’re gonna take a break, and we’ll come back later. If we don’t collaborate as a team again now, the timing will reveal itself.
Lillyanne: We’ve had our own ceremonies throughout this time we’ve known each other. How has this container been for you all? We all have our separate lives. We all have different circles in Portland too. Coming to Alder Commons and being in ceremony together, how’s it making you all feel?
Jackie: I love it. I’m grateful. I love the inter webbings of things. I think it makes me feel connected to the extensions of you all.
ridhi: I love it so much too. There are reasons people find each other. Even in the short time that we’ve known each other, the depth at which we’ve connected feels significant. While there are a lot of nuances and differences in each one of us, I see very similar commitments to certain things. There’s going to be collaboration in a variety of ways as time moves on because it just feels like it. This is what community feels like. It’s hard to put into words. But there’s a knowing. When I peel back, I’m invested in y’all’s trajectories. Even during this one-hour conversation, I’m like, Wow, there are so many insights I’m having and closures and expansions and so much is happening in my body. Because I’m with two people that I feel like we’re on soul journeys that are being created together for a purpose.
Lillyanne: Okay, let’s do this. Let’s pick a new card, leave the card from the beginning of the interview, and shuffle. Let’s think of the question, “What is your relationship to time at this moment?”
Jackie: This is interesting. It’s the same card.
Lillyanne: You picked the same card! I shuffled pretty well. That is very weird. How about you go first in reading about your card.
Jackie: The Page of Swords cuts through the walls that divide us from privatized natural resources. She rallies other warriors: other purveyors of safety and truth, teachers, activists, and youth. She laughs when seen as a monster in the eyes of industry, environmental terrorists, and white supremacists. She rallies the court of Swords as her affinity group; together ensuring a radical array of ancestral gifts in the frontline of any revolution. The Page of Swords asks you to cut through the roles that are forced onto you. She asks you to speak your highest truth, fight your greatest fight, scam your greatest enemy, and rage with your fullest heart. Whose side are you on? (Description by Cristy C. Roads)
Lillyanne: Wow, how does this sit with you?
Jackie: I’m feeling tingly? Because this definitely sums up the conversation that we’ve been having and cutting through binary thinking of age and time.
Lillyanne: ridhi, would you like to go now?
ridhi: Sitting on top of a sanctuary of her own doing, the 9 of Pentacles lives and breathes self-sufficiency. Her sanctuary includes vessels for her creative tools, self-care tools, fair trade coffee, out-of-print vinyl records, and a do-it-yourself sound system made entirely by herself. The 9 of Pentacles reminds you that you are capable of this. After diligence, determination, editing, and self-checking; comes pride, honor, and whimsical completion. The 9 of Pentacles asks you to own your Work, define your privileges, and slowly combine them in order to practice the kind of self-sufficiency that results in patience and generosity. (Description by Cristy C. Roads)
For me, the throughline is that I want to be the mentor that sees the wholeness and holiness in other people. And who lives that? And is that myself? Self-sufficiency can be a mind trick. It doesn’t mean living on an island. It’s that sovereignty. When I am seated in my own power and trusting myself and my own birthright to belong, that’s when I can live in liberatory relationships with other people.
Lillyanne: I’ve always felt like relationships complete you in some sort of way and they help you be more you. It’s not about taking from each other. Like you’ve said Jackie, you get to experience life together and mold each other.
ridhi: I’m also curious about the other card that I pulled at the beginning. I was trying to find it because I thought it felt visually gentle and I’m not used to gentle. But you go first LP, while I find it.
Lillyanne: Basking in an endless array of home brew, sparkling sheets, and jewels—the 9 of Cups reminds us to stay glamorous. She reminds us of the glitter that accented our darkest nights, and the lights at the ends of every harrowing tunnel. The 9 of Cups is a stellar machine, working hard to survive independently, and allowing herself to indulge in the luxuries that she only dreamt of before this time. The 9 of Cups asks you to rage and bloom as she directs you towards your sanctuary, your day spa, your sexual fantasy—your retreat from normalcy. She asks you to luxuriate but she asks you to stay present, as this moment defines much more than a good time. Are you honoring your gift? Are you revealing at the expense of others? Are you dedicated to the cause that brought you here? The 9 of Cups reminds us of the revolutionary role of self-care. (Description by Cristy C. Roads)
After our conversation today, I feel like I can close up a lot of the conflict that has happened to me in the past few months at the hands of institutions and community organizations. As ridhi mentioned before the interview, I’m saying no. And a no is a yes—to myself. This is the ceremony that I needed. And I’m grateful for you all. When I was hearing everyone’s cards, I felt like they were connected which felt very meaningful too. Anyways, ridhi, I would love it if you read your original card.
ridhi: The 3 of Cups is a party on another planet where you are at your wildest, and your safest. The 3 of Cups trusts their interspecies community–they trust nature and the law of respect. When you listen to your surroundings, your surroundings know you care. The 3 of Cups is a get together unlike any other, as laughter and discovery overpowers escapism. The 3 of Cups asks you to discover magical pockets of joy and camaraderie, and revel in your new definition of safety. The 3 of Cups doesn’t need to discuss or reiterate—they want you to jump and laugh. They ask you to reconnect with your happiest, safe haven and find peace in chaos. (Description by Cristy C. Roads)
Lillyanne: That’s so weird that that was the first card you chose after we warmed up the room before the interview with a conversation about our life updates. That was the vibe.
Jackie: Yes! You talked about the party and plants and…
ridhi: Interspecies! [We laugh] The party is for everyone! I love it. It’s been such an intense time and things still feel intense in many ways. But I’m tapping into something that feels just so benign, benevolent, soft, timeless. I feel like we use the word intuition, and it still feels individualized and out of context for me. There’s an intuition or a knowing and it’s like a déjà vu, this has never happened before. More recently, I’ve just been like, Oh, that’s because I’m feeling my ancestors. I’ve been shaped by them and there’s something familiar. Familiar comes from the root word familial, right, and intuition is not something about my progress. I’m literally the current version of my ancestors. It feels so much more guided and grounded. I can trust this journey because I’m still struggling. And I don’t want to be individuated or separated. This is for us.
ridhi d’cruz (they/them) is a gender queer Malayali who grew up in the city of Bangalore in southern India and moved to Wapato Valley (Portland) in 2010. they fondly identify as a facilitator, artist and peer mentor. they locate the roots of their life artistry in the intersections of place, healing, design and creative justice(s). they have dedicated over a decade of their life to designing community processes that cultivate liberatory and healing senses of place. they know firsthand the deep healing they experience belonging to themselves, to each other and to the more-than-human world. they believe this is especially true for folx inhabiting intersectional and targeted identities of race, gender, class, ability and more. As their anti-oppression practice deepens, so does their reliance on plant medicine. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and Queer and Trans (QTBIPOC) folx, endure, survive and transform the ongoing trauma of white supremacy culture, colonization and capitalism. they believe that we need revolutionary acts of self and community care. Centering their own well-being has been and continues to be one of the most challenging and yet transformative practices, helping them decolonize their life artistry and place justice practice. they believe that we all have a birthright to belong. To be well. To reclaim our ancestral lifeways and to experience radical forms of care and support. they strive to honor and benefit the sacred and stolen lands of the Chinook people and several other tribes both recognized and unrecognized that they are a guest upon. you can follow them on IG @ridhidcruz and email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jackie Santa Lucia, (she/her) AIA, LEED AP is the co-founder and program director of Your Street Your Voice and EmpowHER. Jackie is an architect and educator, with a focus on social and environmental equity in design. She has a background in experiential design through community and education institutions, with particular interest in inclusive cultural spaces. Jackie has experience in practice at Hacker Architects and as a public agent at Prosper Portland, working with community partners and the city alike. She has worked with young people across the country and has been an architectural critic at University of Oregon, Portland State University, Philadelphia University, Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse University.
Lillyanne Phạm (they/bạn/she/em/chị/LP) was raised by Việt refugees in a trailer park near cornfields and suburbs (b. 1997). LP is a multimedia storyteller, placekeeping facilitator, social media scholar, and cultural worker. LP grounds their work in ancestral knowledge, the world wide web, community-powered safety, and emotional emotions. Since graduating from Reed College in 2020, LP and their work have been rooted in East Portland exploring the power of BIPOC youth decision making. LP also builds community as an organizer and member of Metro’s Equity Advisory Committee (EAC), the Contingent’s SINE and ELI network, 2022 Atabey Medicine Apprenticeship, and virtual care lab. You can follow LP’s work on IG: @lillyannepham or website: lillyannepham.com
Practices as Old as Time: Worker Co-ops
“Co-ops are beautiful and powerful, but they are not easy! You could have your LLC and all of these other technical aspects of a co-op, but if there isn’t a shared understanding of language and culture and how to deal with conflict, the co-op isn’t going anywhere.”SONIA ERIKA
Art.coop, a project I co-organize with Nati Linares and Caroline Woolard, was invited by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), a San Francisco based arts center to produce a pilot season of a podcast about the Solidarity Economy and how artists and culture bearers are using their creative and relational skills to build it in their communities. Part of what we hope this podcast can convey is that we, Solidarity Economy practitioners, are not inventing some new technology but instead we are calling on practices and ways of being that are as old as time. We want to highlight the legacies and ancestors whose shoulders we stand on, and underscore that the ways in which this work materializes is often community driven/site specific and to illustrate the diverse ways these practices can exist.
In the seven pilot episodes, listeners will learn that you don’t have to be a starving artist or a sell out; that you can find work where you joyfully live your values and pay the bills. Listeners will meet Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color creatives who are firing their bosses, freeing the land, electing themselves, and building livelihoods based on care, cooperation, mutual aid, and solidarity—like Sonia Erika who generously shared a conversation with me to test out the format. Sonia is a creator who loves being and working with cooperatives: she believes that they are the future. She also makes music with a nomadic band called Death is a Business. Sonia and I met through our work with Art.coop where she uses social media to amplify the ways in which artists and culture bearers are building the cultural economy we want by sharing resources and inspiration about how to tap into the Solidarity Economy movement.
In the conversation below, Sonia shares stories about how she found her way to the cooperative movement and what it’s meant in her life. She talks about some of the teachers she’s learned from along the way and how you, too, can live your best life without a boss by starting or joining a worker cooperative.
*Some parts of this conversation were edited out of respect to protect the identities of undocumented people.
Marina Lopez: Sonia, I wonder if you could share a story or specific experiences that you’ve identified as being a catalyst for the work you are doing now with co-op development and Solidarity Economics?
Sonia Erika: My whole world was flipped upside down and it just completely changed my life. I was about maybe like 16 or 17 years old, and I was just about to finish high school. I went to apply for a job at Dover. It was a fast food job. And so I apply, I fill out the form, but then I get to the part where it says Social Security number. And I was like, What? What is a Social Security number? We have numbers? Everyone has an individual number? That’s weird. We’re humans. So I go home and I ask my dad, “Papi, what’s my Social Security number?” And he stays silent and I’m like, Hello…What’s my Social Security number?” And then he says “You don’t have one.” And I’m like, What? I was so confused. And so I go back to the manager of that restaurant chain and I tell him – I’m very naive at this point of my life. And I tell him I don’t have a Social Security number, but I will be the hardest worker you’ll ever have. And he just looks at me really strangely because I don’t think normally people who don’t have Social Security numbers admit that they don’t have a Social Security number. And he just looks at me very strangely and he says, I’m sorry, kid, but there’s nothing I can do about that.
And I just remember keeping a straight face of emotion. And then turning around, walking out of the restaurant and as soon as my feet step outside my face just becomes full of tears and I start crying and I’m running. I think I was actually experiencing a state of mania because I just didn’t understand how to take that information, that people have numbers and what that means. And why were people not allowed to work if you didn’t have a number? And what were these numbers for anyway?
My parents never told me that I was undocumented. I came to the U.S. at the age of six and I basically grew up here. I went to a good school. But I did feel a little bit weird because I grew up in a very white neighborhood and I was not visibly white. People knew I was different. It just felt like I never fit in or that I could be part of a community or space. But it wasn’t until the end of high school when I’m ready to apply for colleges, I’m ready to start my life and go into adulthood that I realized that I was undocumented. That experience kind of catapulted me into a situation where I realized that I was part of a group. I was part of the undocumented population in the US. And then, you know, I just started realizing so many things like, oh, some people don’t have papers, some people don’t have a number in the U.S. And what does that mean for them? That means that we have to live in fear because we may not get paid right. And we may get immigration called on us and we might get deported. And so all of these realities became part of my reality that I was so conscious of. That’s when I also realized that because I was undocumented, I would have to pay out of state tuition to attend college. And that just completely shattered my world because my parents couldn’t afford to give me money to go to college. That’s when I went to my highschool college counselor and shared with him my situation. Until that point, he had never had an undocumented student. But the cool part about all of this is that he said the best thing that anybody could have ever said when I told him that I was undocumented. He said, “I don’t really know what that means, but we’re going to figure it out.” And I love that because it just gave me so much hope. It opened up the world to me. It helped me believe that my doors were open. It led me to going to Harvard. The world might be the way that it is on paper, but that it’s totally okay because you can still make it, whatever the heck you want.
Marina: That’s so beautiful Sonia! Thank you for sharing that with me. There are so many incredible parts of your story. And I’m curious, how do you see that experience of trying to get a job in this in this workplace and then not being able to because you didn’t have a Social Security number; and then realizing, now I’m a part of this group of people, undocumented people who often live in fear because they might not be able to get work, or maybe they do get work, but they can be exploited or unpaid for their work or have immigration called on them. Do you find any of those experiences related to how you found your way into cooperatives as a way to reconcile the dehumanizing ways in which workplaces are set up, especially as an undocumented person?
Sonia: Oh, yes, totally! It’s so interesting that sometimes something has to happen to you, for you to really appreciate a certain type of experience. So in this case, being undocumented led me to then learning even more about my parents and their work experiences and being able to better understand their experience as undocumented people. It definitely gave me so much anger. A lot of anger, actually. And yes, definitely fear because I remember my dad telling me that he had worked a job where he was picked up somewhere and then they took them to a landfill. And he remembers picking through garbage and the smell and doing that for such a little amount of money. That made me so angry. My dad is the first person that told me that companies will only use you until you’re no longer physically able and then they will throw you away. And so getting these memories from him, and from my mother who also worked factory jobs, because these are the circumstances that they had to face. It gave me so much anger.
So because of that it helped me realize that co-ops – worker owned businesses are the way. And it’s honestly why I feel so honored to have worked on the Brightly Cleaning Cooperative franchise. It’s one of the first co-op franchises in the U.S. and it was like a home to me. It was like a piece of my heart. And it felt so beautiful and powerful to me to come full circle. And to help them have their own business, where they could own their own labor and help them realize that: you can be undocumented, but you can also own your labor even if it’s in the US. And that’s so powerful! I don’t think a lot of people actually realize that. The experience of my father and my mother, who were definitely laborers, gave me anger and hope because it showed me the hardships that they had gone through, but also the power that can come with carrying this identity and defying it. My parents bought a house and I have no idea. I still to this day have no idea how they did it. And I’m just like, Wow, you guys are fucking amazing!
I’m so proud to be undocumented. Well, formally undocumented now because we were able to get papers. But it’s so funny because the day that I got my papers, I was actually kind of sad. I felt like I was leaving an identity behind that I didn’t want to leave behind because it’s such a beautiful and powerful identity to have. It’s very painful, but it’s also very powerful.
Marina: Wow! I didn’t know that history. I didn’t know that you had been a part of shaping the Brightly Cooperative franchise. And how incredible to work with people in your situation and to say, you can be an undocumented person and you can own your labor. And also to shift from this manic state of, oh my gosh, my world is turned upside down and then all of the ways that you’re going to have to navigate it differently. Then, now you have this security with your papers and feeling a sense of grieving that belonging. I wonder, did you ever feel like in some ways that was an experience you had of belonging or feeling a sense of belonging? Or maybe it’s more complicated than that.
Sonia: Yeah, it’s definitely complicated because for so much time being undocumented also made me feel like I didn’t belong. There were very few people in my specific world that I came across that were undocumented. Unlike my parents, who, when they went to work, they were in communities of undocumented people. When I went to school, I was not in community with undocumented people. [laughs] And so it was definitely a point of isolation for me. And the only people I knew that were undocumented, that were my age, was my cousin.
Shortly after I found out that I was undocumented, that’s when I started getting involved with workers rights and getting involved with this amazing organization that still exists today here in Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera. They’re an amazing organization that advocates for workers rights. And they have one of the biggest marches on May 1st, The Day Without Workers. That was a space of empowerment for me, because I felt that I belonged because I was undocumented. I just appreciate those spaces, those organizations that exist. It’s kind of like Art.coop where it exists to create a different world. These are the spaces where I feel like I do belong and where being undocumented is actually a strength instead of a weakness.
Marina: Yes! It’s interesting that you find a sense of belonging in groups that are radically reimagining a new world, because that’s what you had to do. You had to radically reimagine what your world would be and what was possible for you to do. And now you’ve taken the skills, and knowledge that you cultivated from that experience and are translating it into creating new worlds through cooperatives because you’ve been a part of multiple cooperatives, right? Can you talk a little bit about some of the other cooperatives that you’ve started? Maybe if there were any mentors that you had that were part of that and how they shared or how you learned about some of the technical aspects of starting a cooperative.
Sonia: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. Okay. So my first cooperative was an organization that I helped build alongside three other people. And it’s really funny because we didn’t actually recognize that it was a co-op at first. We built it and it wasn’t until years later, after being part of Brightly Cooperative and their process of becoming a co-op that I realized, wow, the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC) was totally a co-op. I feel like a lot of times what I’ve seen in other co-op spaces is that people call it a co-op, but it’s not necessarily a co-op. It can be very hard to actually have a democratic space of work and labor. MRCC started out with four young people. Three of us were still in college. Only one of us had graduated. We grabbed onto each other’s strengths to create this organization. And I think that’s what really made it work. Kamani Jefferson, who was from New York, was a super political visionary. He could see that legalization [of weed] was going to happen. He said, “Let’s make this an organization. I’ll find out how to do the legal documentation and make it into a formal 501c4 lobbying organization.” So that was his strength. And then Joey was the community organizer. He was from that community in Massachusetts and he was loyal and committed to his community. That was definitely a vital part of it because when we’re doing community work, we need to have someone from that community. And then there was Gabby Cartagena who was also born and raised in Massachusetts, and she was more of a creative, which I was as well.
So Gabby and I worked together to create podcasts, and create all the visual aspects of the organization, what it represented, and how we formalized our existence. It all magically fit together, which is something that doesn’t always happen. I’m very grateful for that team experience because it was one of the best teams that I’ve ever been a part of. After that, it was the Brightly’s. It was such a beautiful, powerful experience because these were women that reminded me of my mother and who were learning to be in sisterhood, but also bosshood. They were like sister bosses together. I definitely saw how a lot of them struggled with that role because it is really hard to have a business where you’re the worker and the owner and you have to communicate with everybody else who is a worker and an owner. Very difficult. That’s probably one of the best things that I took away from that experience was how to deal with conflict and conflict resolution. We had a really great workshop by this amazing woman, Maria López-Nuñez. She came in and gave a workshop where she showed us conflict is, so how are you going to deal with it? And then translating that learning to my band which is also a co-op, now with my band, Death is a Business, which is a band, Death is a business, which is also a co-op I’m carrying all of these little knowledge pieces and continuing to create more and more and more co-ops.
Marina: That’s so cool. I love that you’re like the co-op queen.
Marina: I feel like that piece that you said about conflict is and how conflict resolution is such an important aspect of creating a co-op is really interesting. There are so many technical things to know about creating a co-op, right? There’s the legal part, the political side, the entrepreneurial side – what is our business? How are we making and selling the thing? There’s a lot of learning of those technical pieces. But then there is a lot of unlearning socialized beliefs around hierarchy, decision making, money, and navigating conflict. So how does the culture piece get brought into it? What’s your experience been like in ensuring that good cultural practices are essential and a part of the learning, unlearning, and the group cohesion?
Sonia: Totally. You could have your LLC and all of these other technical aspects of a co-op, but if there isn’t a shared understanding of language, culture, and how to deal with conflict, the co-op isn’t going anywhere. That’s just what’s going to happen. And I think something that really helps – outside of having somebody come in and give a workshop – are rituals. Meeting every week and creating that space and time where people check in. We’re not just talking about business, business, business, but that’s the time when we’re actually checking in as humans. We’re understanding where we are. And then that gives us the ability to be human. For example, with the Brightly’s, most of them were mothers. One of them was pregnant and about to give birth. Not many others in the group knew until she was really, really ready to give birth. She hadn’t been attending some of the meetings and the lack of communication created a barrier for empathy. People were just like, “Oh, she’s not showing up, so she doesn’t want to be a part of this. What is she still doing here? She should just not be part of the co-op.” My team and I, which was me and one other person, Stephanie Zucasaca, who were co-developing this co-op. We were such a great team because my organization, the Center for Family Life brought in all the technical terms: how to become an LLC; what do your bylaws look like? Mission; vision; and values.
Important, yes. But what Stephanie brought was also important. She came from this organization called Children’s Aid, and it’s more of a social work organization. She brought in resources like bus passes and childcare. We had childcare at every meeting, and food. These are the human things that I think especially women need when creating companies. Because we want the world to be equal. We want there to be equal pay, but let’s be real, men don’t need childcare. Well, I mean, unless the father is actually taking care of the baby. But for the most part, it’s mothers who are fulfilling these types of jobs and tasks. So having the social work aspect was so powerful and then putting that together with the technical aspects I thought, wow, we can do this! So I think rituals, acknowledging our humanness, and giving ourselves the money, the resources, and the time to give ourselves support, like childcare.
Marina: That’s so beautiful. I love that. Who are the ancestors in your work? Because I think that one thing that’s really important to remember and part of what I’ve learned in my work with Art.coop and feels exciting to share with other people coming into the Solidarity Economy movement or remind those who are in it, is that these are old practices, as old as time. We are not inventing some kind of new technology. So I love how you were like, we bring in ritual, we bring in our humanity, we bring in the things as old as time. In your experiences, how do you bring your ancestors? Ancestors could also be the people in your lineage of knowledge; who have you learned from and how do their teachings show up in your work?
Sonia: Yeah, someone that definitely gave me a lot of inspiration when I was just learning the power of co-ops was Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard. I loved her book, Collective Courage. Even though it’s very academic – I recommend people watch her YouTube interviews because those are more engaging and then when you’re ready, get into the book. But the book is very powerful because it’s basically a history of cooperatives and a history of how we’ve been using this kind of system to free ourselves for a long time. Something that really resonated with me and told me that co-ops are the way, was hearing about how back in the day, slaves used co-ops to raise money and buy themselves out of slavery. Like, that’s just so brilliant! How beautiful and powerful and collective. When I learned about all of this and from her, I was just like, wow, co-ops are the way!
Marina: Beautiful. Yeah. Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s work – the way that she’s spoken about and shared the stories of that legacy – has deeply informed Art.coop. We’ve gotten to weave her into some of the things that we’re doing. She’s an incredible teacher.
Sonia: And also, I do want to give a really big shout out to one of my big mentors who I was able to learn from during the Brightly process. Maru Bautista, she’s such a brilliant mind. It’s so amazing to me how she’s created a team that has had the capacity to create the first co-op franchise in the U.S. That’s really thinking outside of the box! Like when I learned about her work and about the Brightly’s I was like, I have to learn from this! I love the conferences that they attend because many times it’s conferences where people like Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard are speaking and it’s powerful to get to meet people, and be like, “Wow, I love your work” – which I’ve definitely been a few times.
Marina: Me too. I totally fangirled!
Sonia: Yes. Because it’s like people like that that are brave enough to go outside of what is normally described, the economies that are normally described, and paint a picture for us. That takes a lot of work. So I really appreciate everybody who’s come before us and who has put down the time and the effort to show us that a different way is possible. Even with our music, the band I’m a part of, Death is a Business, we are finding ways to share it outside of the extractive economy. I know Spotify is super strong in the music game and so many artists are currently using them as a platform. But then there are other platforms like Resonate.coop which actually, when you compare how much Spotify pays compared to how much Resonate.coop pays, it takes like 700 streams from Spotify to make the same amount that you would make just from seven streams on Resonate.coop. It’s crazy, it’s insane! And I just hope that more platforms convert to this co-op model.
Marina: What are some ways that you feel like folks can make this work tangible? Like maybe you don’t have a group to start a worker co-op with, but what is a first step people can take where they are now?
Sonia: I think a great first step is possible attending a co-op conference because those give you so much energy. And I think that’s also another point of inspiration where anytime that I felt gloomy and like the world just sucks. Attending one of these conferences has given me life because, not only do you get to see examples of things that are already working and places where you could actually tap in, you actually get to meet the people behind the work! And that’s just so energizing. The United Federation Worker Co-op Conference is awesome! I love them.
Marina: Are there any final thoughts, any invitations you’d like to make to listeners?
Sonia: I would just like to share that co-ops are beautiful and powerful, but they are not easy. And some might say that a dictatorship is easier than a democracy because it is. It’s easy to have somebody tell you, oh, do this, do that, do that. It is harder to think for ourselves, but it’s so worth it and it’s so powerful. And so I hope that we all can bring that curiosity to explore these different possibilities and create these different worlds and also find these different worlds because they already exist!
Marina: Yes! Sonia, thank you so much. It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you. I can’t wait to do it more.
Sonia: I feel the same way. I know I always tell you that I’m so thankful for this community that you all have created. But I will never stop saying it because I want you all to know how much I appreciate this world that is being created. It’s so beautiful. It’s so powerful, and it’s so necessary.
Marina: Yeah. Thank you. I mean, you’re creating it, too. We couldn’t do it without you either.
Sonia: We’re doing it together.
Marina: We’re doing it together!
Sonia Erika (she/her) is a celebrated artivist and serial entrepreneur, focused on Solidarity Economics. Before graduating from Harvard University, she co-founded 3 weed organizations, The Cannabis Cultural Association, The Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, and EatMe.Land. All her companies are collaborative artistic statements.
As a formerly undocumented human, she believes a different world is possible. She solely focuses on cooperatives: worker-owned business.
She currently spends her time touring and recording music in various countries with Death is a Business.
Aside from global storytelling through music, she helps cooperatives develop their business strategy and brand. This includes coaching teams and individuals.
You can connect with Sonia here:
Marina Lopez (she/her) is a Mexican-American performing and social practice artist, massage therapist/somatic educator, and cultural organizer. Her experience as a bodyworker is essential to her practice as an artist because we can’t separate the art from the body that makes it. Her interdisciplinary work weaves together many voices and links to history, social movements, and tradition. She is a core organizer with Art.coop and co-coordinates a national Arts, Culture, Care and Solidarity Economy working group. Marina creates work that articulates and provides an embodied cognition of the ways in which art, culture, and care are foundational within a thriving society.
Gathering the News, with Integrity
“I’m not doing what everybody else does. What I do is a passion. People respect that. And I respect them by keeping it loyal. I respect the grounds they stand on. Knowing what to cover and not.”WYDEEN RINGGOLD
This series of interviews is a part of an ongoing dialogue and serves as an entry point into a project H. Herukhuti Williams and I have been developing since 2017: a collaborative book project titled Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze. At the epicenter of this critical collaboration are two sets of images: the work I completed as a photographer and journalist covering the city of Chester, Pennsylvania from 2008-2016, and photographs from my childhood archives. Using the latter, we built a visual glossary of white racial tropes to unpack my relationship to whiteness. We use this framework to reconsider my work in Chester and other contemporary and historical local media coverage of the city, to elucidate the ways the white gaze reflects its own values when reflected off of the bodies of Black people.
The book is also a collaboration of artists from the city who tell their own narratives, including Desire Grover, illustrator; Wydeen Ringgold, citizen journalist; Leon Paterson, self-taught photographer; and Jonathan King, activist and educator. Throughout the book, the co-authors are in conversation about my images through handwritten text that analyzes, critiques, questions, contextualizes, and interprets the nature of the white gaze that is placed on their community.
This interview, conducted over the phone, is a collaboration between Herukhuti, Wydeen Ringgold, and myself. Together, Herukhuti and I formulated questions that I asked Wydeen during our conversation. Every co-author in the book has been interviewed for the SoFA Journal as a method to more deeply explore some of the themes present in the book that did not fit inside.
Justin Maxon: How do you describe yourself?
Wydeen Ringgold: I describe myself as a reporter. I try to get information to people about what’s going on as far as the activities in the city, also learning and studying what’s going on, so I can better understand myself and how to stay loyal.
Justin: Why did you want to be a journalist?
Wydeen: Well, it goes back to when I was young. My mother lost our pictures. My childhood pictures are gone— when I was a young boy, with all this hair, bright-eyed sitting on the bed. There was one picture I remember: I was a baby and Mom had me on the bed. I only got two pictures, maybe three left. I wanted to keep memories alive from that point on. I wanted to keep up on everything with photography. I picked up the camera to see how things work. I wanted to learn something different.
Justin: What happened?!
Wydeen: My grandmom’s basement flooded. My mom told her she put them down there. Also, a lot of pictures got stolen from other family members in other states.
Justin: How did that make you feel? Not having those pictures?
Wydeen: It’s crazy; it hurts. Cause you know, I can’t go back and look at myself and try to determine and understand things through a picture. So I want to create more memories. I wanted to pick up a camera to help other people make memories.
Justin: That’s beautiful. All these years, I never knew that.
Wydeen: Also, I had a thing for fire trucks, and police cars. So I always chased them to find out where they were going — long before I even thought about picking up the camera. The camera just became my eyes at one point.
Justin: Why did you do that?
Wydeen: I was a fan, just going everywhere they did, just trying to understand them. I just had a thing for them. It was a challenge trying to keep up with them on a bike. You try to guess which way they went geographically. Say there’s two ways you can go— it was a challenge for me to find the best route. Because you can’t keep up with them with no bike. And I ain’t had no scanner then. So it was like, which way did they go? Like, ok, there’s another one coming. I can hear them, but I don’t see them. Ok, they over here to the west, trying to pinpoint the sound. I always wanted to be one too.
Justin: How did they see you?
Wydeen: They love me. They always shout at me if they are on a job and I’m there, or they go to a call and got their siren on and they see me, they shout my name. If they see me at the scene, they will come over and talk to me. They say, “Man, you might as well just fill out the application and come join. We need more.” Some people say, “Dang, how do you know so much about them or know about their work?
Justin: Do you think they respect you because you paid attention to them? Is that part of why the camera is powerful, because there’s a certain respect you’re giving them?
Wydeen: It ain’t really about the camera on that one. It’s just me being a person. Me being me: just thorough, and standing up for the people. They thank me for the information. The instrument is just an instrument I use to capture memory. That’s what I will leave behind.
Justin: How long have you been doing it for? When did you start?
Wydeen: I started back in 2009. There were a lot of shootings back then. In 2010, with the state of emergency (1). So I thought, man, I need to come out for this. So I started recording shootings, fires and accidents. 2010 is when I started to get noticed.
Justin: At that time you started your own news site, right?
Wydeen: Yeah, it was called Bird’s Eye View News. I was always there. I was even there sometimes before the cops arrived. They were like, damn, he was there before us. So, I started the website so people could look for information, stuff that they missed. They could have been out of town. Or they might have moved out of town. Now they can still see what’s going on. Because the local news companies don’t know a lot. They just know what is told to them. Me, I know it!
Justin: How many times did you post a day?
Wydeen: I was posting every day. All day. I don’t even know how many times. They would say, you know how many times he posts a day?! I get a lot of love. People always tell me, keep on doing what you are doing. You just have to have respect when you are doing it.
Justin: What stories do you remember covering most?
Wydeen: The state of the emergency. When the Police got fired on the east side of Chester, the SWAT team came trying to lure the guys out of the building. Damn, Jus, there are so many! Like, over town when they were giving out food to the homeless. There are car chase shootings, when a car is shooting and another car is chasing it.
- Via the World Socialist Web Site: The mayor of Chester, Pennsylvania, declared a state of emergency on June 19, 2010. Under the state of emergency anyone within five designated high-crime areas were subject to a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew unless they were able to demonstrate a “legitimate reason.” It also forbade outside gatherings of three or more people without a permit during that time period.
Justin: Why do those stories stick out to you in your mind?
Wydeen: They don’t happen every day. They are rare. People normally only see them in the movies.
Justin: So what are some of the challenges that you faced?
Wydeen: Knowing what to record, knowing what to step up on. It’s about being aware of yourself. Some people don’t like you to keep covering a city that’s violent and territorial. Some people don’t want to see anybody make it. Everything is repressed. It can just come out of nowhere. It could be someone you love and the next minute they feel some type of way. Or the authorities feel like you are getting in their way. It’s about slowing down on responding, trying to delay your response because getting there before the authorities, you could be a target. The police might think you know more than what you know. I told you I was rapid. My thing was, if I get there before them and I could help, I would help before I record.
Justin: Really? Wow! What were some things that you did to help?
Wydeen: Any type of assistance; like if I had to do CPR, give a person water, or sit there with them and wait for the ambulance to come. I would jump in a creek to rescue someone if I had to. I trained myself to assist the person who was injured before I started recording. It’s not right to start recording if someone is down from a shooting and sitting there dying. That ain’t done! That’s disrespectful.
Justin: Was there any specific situation that you did that?
Wydeen: Oh yeah, a couple of accidents; I had to pull someone out of their car; another time I had to jump in the car and put it in park to catch it from rolling back and hitting something else. There was a burning building and people next door didn’t know it was on fire, so I banged on their door as hard as I could to warn them. One of them was missing a shoe to their pair and I was like, no you need to come on, the house is burning up!
Another time, there was a police chase coming from 15th Street and Township Line Road. It was a Dodge Magnum and a training officer chasing him. When the Dodge Magnum went through the light, the officer tried to yield but was unsuccessful and crashed into two cars. One car was coming east on 9th Street and the other was coming from the north on Highland Avenue. All three collided and the Dodge Magnum just went on through the dust and the debris. The Police cruiser caught on fire. We tried to get him out. When we ran to the car to open his door, it went up and flames pushed us all back. Eventually, he got out of the car and the fire was extinguished. He was alright, a little sore. The Dodge Magnum went towards 3rd Street and crashed into a flower pot. He was coming down Highland too fast, he turned the corner too fast; it was a wide turn and he hit the flower pot, jumped out and ran.
Justin: Wow, you are like a citizen journalist slash superhero!
Wydeen: That’s when ESU [Emergency Services Unit] came out. I basically did what they did. ESU was rare. You only see that in big cities like New York City. That’s how bad Chester was that they needed an ESU.
Justin: You were doing all this without getting paid?
Wydeen: No. I was only rewarded by you. The lens you bought me and the book that’s coming up.
Justin: How does that make you feel that you did all that work and didn’t get any pay?
Wydeen: It wasn’t about that, it was what I wanted to do. That’s what I was into. I created my own path.
Justin: That’s respect!
Wydeen: Something’s going to happen regardless, at the end of the night. Someone’s going to pick up [the story]. I ain’t worried about that. I’m just running the ball, ain’t looking back.
Justin: That’s beautiful. You did things people get paid to do, right, but you did it for your community.
Wydeen: Right. I wouldn’t be any different. I try to inspire other people to be their own person. Not try to be everybody else; not be somebody else that’s on TV.
Justin: How do you feel covering the news of Chester as a member of the community?
Wydeen: I feel good. I feel great!
Justin: How do you feel about people who are not from Chester deciding what the news in Chester is?
Wydeen: They just are people looking in.
Justin: Do you think there is a difference in how you cover the news versus how they do?
Wydeen: They don’t cover it how we cover it. They come to us for footage and information. How we do it is authentic. We are from here. This is the homebase, this is the capital right here. They are coming in, they are driving in—we are already here. We respond from in here. You respond from out of here.
Justin: How do you think that affects the coverage?
Wydeen: They want to sell it. We are not trying to sell nothing here. We are trying to tell the truth so we can get some help.
Justin: That’s beautiful. They are trying to sell something while you are trying to make it better.
Is there anything you would like the local news to cover in Chester that they aren’t already, or that they don’t cover enough?
Wydeen: They don’t cover enough. They don’t cover the everyday, but if someone comes to shoot up a block party, you know they will come. Or if someone’s cat started a house fire, and when the house blew up a basketball flew out, went into a basketball court, and made a three. It might sound funny, but that’s when they are going to come. They are looking for the unusual. They are looking for things that go into a movie.
Justin: How does that affect how people see Chester when that’s all they cover?
Wydeen: They’re not constantly coming in to report. They are just looking for things to sell. They don’t care what’s going on. They just want a particular thing. The news is news. There are people who live around the corner from something and they ain’t even know what happened.
The things they do put on the news, there’s nothing good. So people move out, people migrate to different states. People don’t want to live here. Your kids can’t play. It makes it look bad. You know what it does to the history that’s here? It just ruins everything. It makes it look like a war zone. Like nothing else ever existed here.
Justin: It wipes away history?
Wydeen: Yeah, William Penn discovered the first land here. It’s the first city of Pennsylvania. We had a lot of schools here. Martin Luther King came here, he did his seminary. He marched here too. It was an original tourist destination. People would come here to take pictures of historical sites.
Justin: What have you learned about yourself in covering the news and Chester?
Wydeen: What I learned about myself, I’m a leader. I try to inspire people to be themselves. If everyone is themselves, if someone can pick up a camera and inspire another person to pick up a camera, or another person to become an author, out of all the people left, there would probably be only two shooters.
I might cause there to be a lot of reporters in the city in the future. Someone might want to be a cop, someone might want to be a firefighter or a paramedic. Someone might want to do what I’m doing, but even better.
Justin: That’s beautiful. It’s about giving people the opportunity to see the things they can become.
Wydeen: Yeah, exactly. But honestly I’ve taken a step back on reporting now, and I have taken breaks before in the past. Every time I take a break, I try to revitalize my vision or approach, because you can’t always keep the same way.
Justin: Why are you taking a break now?
Wydeen: I’ve been doing it for a while now and I’ve been going through things in life. I’m going through things that I repressed a long time ago and I’m trying to face them. I’m not the type of person to give up. And also, I gotta make money too.
Justin: I’m sorry to hear that my friend, I hope things get better for you.
How have members of the community responded to you as a journalist?
Wydeen: Like a celebrity. People come up to me and say, “Aaaah, ain’t you the boy… ain’t you the boy… be safe, be safe… man, I like your work, keep up the good work. I love you.” They see me in traffic, they be at a red light, they could be on foot, and they will just wave me down.
Justin: When you talked about respect, you respected people and they respected you; how does collaboration play a role in your work as a journalist?
Wydeen: The respect thing is about me being me. I’m out the way. I’m not doing what everybody else does. What I do is a passion. People respect that. And I respect them by keeping it loyal. I respect the grounds they stand on. Knowing what to cover and not. You can get hurt out here doing what I’m doing if you don’t keep that respect. This is a dangerous job. You’re running into the line of fire on both ends. The police and the gangsters. Everything I do is dangerous. Delivering pizzas is dangerous. Sometimes I don’t even understand, that’s why I keep going and going and going, but I try to learn as much as I can.
Justin: Yeah, sometimes we can’t always know what it is we are doing, but we just gotta do it.
Wydeen: I’m just doing my own thing. I’m just looking for land. I am scared that if I turn around, I might lose where I’m at. Like, wow there’s something over there. Damn, lets go over here, but hold up, I don’t want to get too far because I might lose where the hell I’m standing. Because it’s so dangerous. Let me look to the east, to the west, north and south, oh, alright, now I can go out.
Justin: These are life strategies.
Wydeen: There has gotta be some land over there because there is something that’s growing. There’s something cultivating over there. The sun is out.
Justin: I love that visualization.
One last question: what recognition, positive or negative, have you received for your work?
Wydeen: The positive recognition is that people look up to me. They won’t tell you that, but some people look up to me because of the bravery they see. I’m being honest, I’m not putting this work out there just to make something. This is real. The positive recognition is that I feel good to walk around freely and people recognize me as being a good person. They recognize me as being positive. I’m breaking through the concrete with this one. I’m coming out of the concrete on this one.
Justin: You made this all happen on your own!
Wydeen: Yeah, I never went to school. I just started reporting what I saw and what I knew.
Justin Maxon (he/him) is a visual journalist, arts educator, and social practice artist. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the socio-historical context from which issues are born and incorporates multiple voices that texture stories. He seeks to understand how positionality plays out in his work as a storyteller.
Wydeen Ringgold (he/him) is a citizen journalist and first responder, who was a local news anchor in Chester for years. He started his own Facebook News site called Birds Eye View in 2009, which he eventually passed on to another local citizen. For years, he lived in proximity to a police scanner, following first responders as they arrived at various events in Chester. He would post live updates of the events to his Facebook audience. Chester citizens would look to him for news.
**If you are interested in learning more about the book project, we have completed 5 previous interviews for the SoFA journal from the different co-authors in the book: Leon Patterson, Desire Grover, twice, and H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams, twice.**