WHAT IS A COMMUNITY ARTIST? MILLS COLLEGE creative writing alumni discuss the liberating power of words

Alumni of Mills College’s creative writing MFA program curated a special panel discussion on April 9th 2014 to discuss the impact of their work in the program’s community-engagement fellowship.

Launched three years ago, the fellowship provides students with the means to design and implement a writing-related community project in a particular area of focus. The fellowship enables students to develop projects “that explore ways of making literature available outside the academy, broaden access to the arts, and utilize creative approaches to writing as a force for social change”.

Moderated by poet and Mills professor Truong Tran, the evening featured presentations by the program’s first three fellows: Melissa Sipin, Freddy Gutierrez and Tessa Micaela. Along with sharing the impact of their projects, the fellows questioned and reflected upon what it means to be a community artist.

“What does community art look like?” Micaela asked the Mills crowd. “What does it mean to make poetry as a community transformative project?”

Despite the simple-seeming nature of her questions, each of them addresses that strange and often complex query of how art functions, and what roles it might play, in daily life.

One of the ways Micaela is seeking answers to these questions is by conducting creative writing workshops with incarcerated women at San Francisco County Jail.

In a college classroom, the aim to discover and create connection by teaching poetry is at least feasible, but in a prison-space where, as Micaela says, “love is literally against the rules,” an enormous barrier has to be overcome.

“For the first six months, I was terrified to fail,” she said. But, over the course of the fellowship, she discovered failure was an inevitable and surprisingly healthy stage of learning to get back up and grow.

“One thing about being a teacher is you might never see the results,” she said. “You just have to trust if we don’t do it, there will be no results.”

Though she’s witnessed a great deal of struggle and hardship at the jail since the first days of her fellowship, Micaela has also watched inmates share their life stories, and has participated in the creation of prison-community-produced zines.

Micaela said she discovered through the fellowship that, indeed, “poetry is useful and imperative for community-based work. [It is] the imagining of what could be.”

Melissa Sipin echoed many of Micaela’s words in her experience as a fellow in the program: “You have to go at it knowing you’re going to fail,” she said.  “You’re in it for the long haul.”

Sipin is the creator of TAYO Literary Magazine, a Filipino/ Filipino American arts and culture publication. Alongside the production of her magazine, Sipin taught Filipino literature in workshops and intensives for her fellowship. Her students spanned a wide range of communities, including high school and college students as well as professional writers.

Sipin said she discovered the link between writing and community at a young age. She grew up in a big Filipino-American community in which storytelling played a significant role. Comparatively, her high school looked like a prison, had a thirty percent dropout rate and had fifty to sixty students in each class.

“I had one teacher who saved me,” she said. The teacher exposed her to Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things. “After I left, he was fired, the one teacher who cared. But I knew I wanted to help people with similar backgrounds like me.”

Sipin plans to continue to build community through writing, teaching, and her efforts at TAYO with the understanding that this is a lifelong endeavor.

“Entering a community is like joining a family, and a family is something that takes generations to build,” she said.

The final fellow of the night, Freddy Gutierrez, incorporated two projects into his fellowship. The first was the production of a foto novella put together by students from Dewey High School in Oakland.

“Dewy High School is the last place high school kids go before they’re kicked out of the district,” Gutierrez said. “‘You’re working with the throw-away kids,’ someone said to me.”

The project came together as a collaborative effort between Gutierrez, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, the Pacific Institute’s Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice Program and the students from Dewey High.

The novella highlights restorative justice and community empowerment in contrast to policing and school push out, Gutierrez said. It tells the story of a group of people grieving the murder of one of their friends, Jose. The narrative incorporates student-taken photographs of local landmarks and community treasures. Many of the images include comic-book speech bubbles, info-graphs, and facts on public policy and youth empowerment.

Gutierrez also runs an ongoing weekly group out of San Quentin. Dubbed The Artistic Ensemble by the group’s members, Gutierrez works with the men on music, song, poetry, theatre and dance. At the prison, he uses what he calls a “page-to-stage” approach.

“The men bring in poetry and prose, we discuss it, and then find a way to make it come to life for the stage,” he said, adding that most of the material is concerned not so much with social justice as it is with their personal narratives.

Gutierrez plans to continue working with The Artistic Ensemble and said they are preparing to produce and show a full-length play that is written and performed by the men at San Quentin.

Part of why he believes in the work of the community artist is to offer space and provide access where none is available, such as a prison or juvenile detention center. He also wants to give agency to all the unheard voices and, in particular, wants to challenge what he calls the three core myths of incarcerated people:

  1. That incarcerated people are incompetent
  2. That incarcerated people are violent
  3. That incarcerated people are liars.

michael shufroMichael Shufro is a journalist, poet, storyteller, and playwright. Michael is also the host of The Parnassus Revue, a SF literary arts radio program and live show. Michael has worked as the Santa Rosa Correspondent for The Press Democrat, a then New York Times company. His writing has also appeared in the North Bay Bohemian among other publications. He is currently at work on Blunderboar, a play about a depression-era family of circus performers struggling to recover their memories lost in Time. Michael resides in San Francisco. Send Michael an email.