Some Thoughts on College Graduation Rates

It is so amazing how quickly perception changes. In less than a decade (or, just at the decade point, if you consider my matriculation year), the expected amount of time to graduate with a bachelor’s degree was 4 years. Flat. 4.5 years if you “took your time” and still, it was considered unacceptable to finish in that amount of time, or else, people gave you the before-it-was-a-thing side-eye. Like: what took you so long? And now, national numbers of college graduation rates give a standard spectrum of 4-6 years. Today, it is almost considered a miracle to finish in 4 years. Sometimes, it is a miracle.

A lot of information and programming of CBO’s (Community Based Organizations) today goes towards getting our NYC youth into college, but a lot less of nonprofit funding and city money is invested in getting our NYC youth through college and towards graduation.

My work right now is within a CBO which was founded on getting middle schoolers into highly selective high schools and support them through that process, and through the college application process. The official program ran from middle school through high school graduation with some light college-prep programming in between. Anything that happened after August of their senior year was a fringe benefit of having graduated from the program, and on an ad hoc, as you ask basis. Many other CBO’s in the city are like this. Except maybe SEO or Posse. Their programming starts later (SEO–high school through college; Posse–8 months before college and through college graduation). But the conversation we had was: since we know these students so intimately–some, like my program, for more than half their lives–how can we implement programming or what can we do to not only get our students into college, but to completion?

I have to admit, sometimes, it is a miracle I made it through, in four years. I had no model (mama Lucille Clifton). I “transferred” out of Chapel Hill because I was upset about the ticket price for having crossed a state line and my NC peers paid exactly 1/6th of what I did. But then, I got into the classroom of the SC school and knew within two weeks that I would not get my degree there. That was how I understood the price of quality education and what I was paying for. And even though it was unfair I was paying such a higher premium, it would have been an even higher price to stay where I transferred to by the time I graduated. So when I got back to Chapel Hill, I had to take 18-19 hours three semesters straight to make up for some of the lost time (I dropped a course before I transferred out of Chapel Hill, and one class in the SC school wouldn’t transfer back) and to graduate on time. This is in addition to working at a Credit Union and at an Art Museum on campus. And, discovering I didn’t want to leave college without having some semblance of a social life (I was all work and no play for 3.5 years..). Somehow, I made it. And somehow, I can draw upon those experiences to help me in my current work.

Being an academic advisor for students who might not have been fully ready for college for two years forced me to develop effective methods of translating the importance of college, higher education, as well as the importance of the financial investment the students are embarking on. I recognized that because the students never actually put any physical money down (they were coached on how to fill out loans, their parents might have paid the deposit, etc), nothing is quite at stake. So if they stop going to class, the concept of their having just thrown 3000 out the window for that one class is foreign. They didn’t spend any money.

Additionally, the college-going machine has somehow translated the schooling one should get after college into looking more like a trade school: if one wants to be a doctor, one should only take science classes. If one wants to be a nurse, one should only take nursing classes. Etc. The idea of liberal arts education–much to the college’s need for its prominence is not a selling point for college. Surely, my Historian self would be even more of a minority in college today. But I remember at orientation so many people introducing themselves as future English, Communications, Journalism, History, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology, Music majors. In fact, those are the exact majors of many of my friends and myself. But my students feel a sense of shame to speak about their interests in Creative Writing, or History or even Political Science. They have been conditioned to believe it should be Biology, Mathematics, Engineering. They have been conditioned to believe that those majors = careers = big paychecks.

Even some of the literature I used in my workshops before I started to develop my own were pointing the students in this direction, with trying to acknowledge the reality they put not only myself down, but anyone who may potentially have an interest in the fields. This workbook said that students are frustrated by the binary, of “wanting to make a big pay check and be financially secure versus wanting to work in the non-profit field.” This is not to say that I have a big paycheck, but even in trying to suggest it’s OK to consider working in the non-profit (or, liberal arts fields in general) sector, by choosing that route, they are automatically not in the camp of “making a big paycheck”.

I’m going somewhere with this. So then you have schools who have core requirements, which say that students should receive a liberal arts education in order to be “well-rounded” citizens. The students do not understand why they should have to slog through two writing classes, two history classes, two humanities courses, or a diversity course if all they want to do is perform surgery, write prescriptions, or design and build robots. So they lose interest. They believe that it’s a waste of time. They want the paycheck and the money and they don’t want to be made to read Shakespeare or care about African Colonialism. Didn’t they have to learn this in high school? They argue. And because they can’t equate this sociology class about race into a career which is then translated into a paycheck, they lose interest (if it was even there to begin with), and flunk out. Or stop going all together. Because they know if they were working at GAP or Pathmark or Victoria’s Secret they would get cold hard cash at the end of their shift, and that alone could be some (if not enough) food on their table. And they didn’t have to read a book. This is not even spending an increasing amount of argument time on students who are just not strong in math and science but who insist that in order to be successful they have to study the subjects in which they are weakest in the hopes of getting a degree “that matters” and, you can already see where that line of thinking may lead.

And I haven’t even gotten into the economic catastrophes that happen for those students who stop going to the classes they have signed a loan for, but who do not understand the investment they made. And how crippling it can be. On a real level. Sometimes, when I think of my last job as an academic advisor, at a place that was tuition-driven (read: invested in #’s and not on the student, despite my own wanting to care about the student…), I think about some of those students and feel like a used car salesman. I didn’t admit the students so by the time they got to me, they’d already made the investment, but I tried my damned hardest to make them understand that they needed to fight like hell to get through. That this–college–wasn’t just some thing you do after high school without understanding the why.

My students now understand a bit more the importance but less so the necessity of finishing as soon as they can. Because surely, their education will not end at bachelor’s level. They will still have 1-2 more years of even more costly education after that. Guaranteed. And so to push back the average graduation rate to 6 years is saying that this generation of students might be finishing college at say, age 24. With more debt than if they hustled until 22. And then add two more years and you’re in the mid-to-late twenties and only just now trying at entry-level (because let’s be real. A large part of getting a graduate degree is only saying you might not work at McDonald’s these days) job or at least entering the first years of your professional-level work and salary and only starting in your mid-to-late twenties with paying back that education, despite the fact that you may be thinking about wanting a family and to get serious and to find your own place, you’re in no position to do so.

Multiple things must happen, and happen fast:

  1. stop budget cuts to colleges, which are increasingly lowering the amount of aid offered to students even those with very high need. 
  2. This should happen for college-going students or not: increase financial literacy workshops, programming, learning. Help students understand financial implications of certain huge investments. even if it means you have less students choose to enroll or matriculate to college.
  3. Talk about what 25k, 50k, 100k in loans looks like in the pay-back period with an average salary, taxes and living expenses. (I am reminded of the Cosby episode where Clif and Theo are talking about Theo’s desire to be grown and pay his own bills and what the reality of that looks like. And how Theo didn’t understand until Clif started literally taking money out of his hands for each of the expenses Theo didn’t consider.)
  4. Talk about transferable skills. And what kind of work one can get with a liberal arts degree.
  5. Talk about gaining experience, and combining that with a college degree to get the level of and type of work you desire (let’s be serious. I’m not using my history degree. *but i do have experience and “relevant coursework” for the types of jobs I have had)
  6. Those who are on campus and struggling, efforts need to be made to teach students to advocate for themselves and understand that they have the same right to ask of their professor’s time, to utilize the tutoring center and career center and any other college resources as anyone else.

I always have to remind the students to have fun, too. But not at the expense of grades or gaining experience. It’s not the “best four years” of your life, but it is a very unique experience and environment that will probably never occur again (especially considering the reality that almost NO ONE is in a financial position to retire these days).

Meditations on Educator + Writer

I have believed for a long time that 30 will be when my age and my accolades and abilities will finally mesh. Though some facts will still remain: As a Writer: I published my first book of poetry at 24 (I was 23 when it won the award). My mid-twenties put me in a position to represent myself as a poet in two vastly different international settings: Germany + Nicaragua, and one of the biggest festivals in the country: The Dodge Poetry Festival. The title poem of my book appeared in ESSENCE MAGAZINE (though *how* it appeared is a different story for another day). My Alma Mater commissioned me to write poems for a Jacob Lawrence Exhibit, and one day I found myself in front of hundreds of high school teachers instructing them on how to integrate poetry and visual art into the English Literature classroom, or being asked to return again and again to small library in Queens where the residents had requested I come back and do more Jazz poetry, or Poetry about their Past. Or that I have creative non-fiction published in magazines, that my prose, before my poetry, had been nominated for a Pushcart, that I worked at the New Yorker, that I helped edit several books which have won several many prizes. Or when I think about the poetry and fiction classes I taught at NYU, and the students who got to read poets and short story writers from all over the world (I focus heavily on world literature)…Putting it here, it’s a shame that many days I still feel inadequate as a writer.

Something that happened in my early twenties that I definitely did not announce: I was an adjunct professor at 22 (!!). Meaning, three months after I had graduated from college with a History Degree—I was in a position to teach first year students methods of rhetorical writing in response to historical documents. After that, I worked at the New York Historical Society as a museum educator  while also developing curricula and teaching Writing and Grammar for a high school supplementary educational program. I was the youngest on the staff, but the most energetic, someone who was passionate and able to connect with the students and effectively teach them. Ironically, because I was thrust into the classroom at 22 (a place I honestly never imagined I would end up if you had asked me 3 months before I graduated from college), I began to become passionate about education and access. It was that I was shocked at what was so missing from these student’s writing repertoire at the college level that I made the argument to go back to high school, and there I felt like I was able to affect some change, make a difference before  students left for college. Seeing some of those students now getting ready to graduate from college or being leaders in their respective universities (when I had met them and they were on “academic probation” and we worked together to get them off…), I believe I was effective enough. Or when I taught at Goldwater Hospital with the elderly writers who just wanted to tell a story and tell it well… Or when I visit my friend Randall’s classroom and lead a workshop on Writing Neruda-esque odes and someone he never expected to come out of the woodworks and literally give the class chills (sadly, on the last day of class…)…or when, as an academic advisor, I have that moment that students just *get it* and we both smile—I am then re-passioned to continue to pursue my desires as an educator despite once deeming it “just a job to pay the bills”

What am I saying? When I went to NYU, I think, and when I started imagining a professional life as a writer and–still in my early 20′s–believing that it could be. That the ground I was making as a teacher didn’t matter because it was just an, “in the mean time” gig or “until I have have my writing pay for my living” and you know, 2009 and 2010, when I was traveling sometimes every week, I marveled that I could pay months of bills from just honoraria and it made me believe that all of it was possible, and that writing was my passion and not teaching. No. It was just something I was pretty good at but had no intention of continuing.

So what happened during the recession–I have to say it, teaching kept me afloat. There will always be a need, in some capacity, for teachers–and everyone started to duck and cover and take refuge in the institutions…what we are now seeing is the result of a lot of people coming out of those institutions with an inflated sense of self and accomplishments, and no institutions to hold them. I was guilty of it. I went to NYU in the middle of the recession (2009)–I did not, however, stop working to do it. I had a studio with a solid rent and I liked to eat fresh vegetables from Fairway. But I went because I recognized that if I wanted to make more money, I needed a higher degree. And I went because I had a free ride, and I understood that I should not pay for my MFA (after one semester of not understanding,  elsewhere), and that it doesn’t matter what your masters is in sometimes, just that you have one. So there i was at NYU. And there, things shifted. I began to see that if I wanted to be a professor of creative writing and potentially get enough accolades to support myself on lines of poetry alone, I needed another degree. And I became cutthroat. And I wanted more and more (despite the awesome list of things I did to open this post)..and even went “on the market” for a full time teaching job (i had a book, I had a MFA)…and wanted more…until I just didn’t any more. That’s where I am right now.

But my interests and underground career as an educator kept me well fed and housed and a little money to spend when I went to Nicaragua and Germany. So when I read articles like the Chronicle of Higher Education, sassily titled, “Adjunct or Starving Artist” found the reality that a LOT of my peers are faced with because they are still holding on to the hope of the big break. But remember when I said what happened with the recession? Our proverbial cup overfloweth with writers and people with degrees that deem them writers and we all want to be full time professors but then the Chronicle of Higher Education blog writes another article that speaks about the dwindling popularity of English, not to mention the ever-increasing ability to “test out” of required English classes…well, you have quite a conundrum.

Last year, when I was sitting at my academic advising desk at a university in Brooklyn, thinking about my next steps, because it surely was not there anymore, I considered my options. And really really what made me happy. Teaching learners to embrace the opportunities higher education offers was important to me. Being in the classroom was important, but not as important as I thought it was. Being in a position to be a mentor was important to me. Being in a university setting was nice (access to libraries! woot!) but, not 100% what I needed. I started envisioning a few jobs down the line–and this is something I think those folks written about in the Chronicle Articles don’t quite yet do–and imagined myself in my dream position (by 35? I hope so!), being at a place that more wholly encompasses my interests and strengths–a lover and advocate of the arts AND education; one who is investing in community and cultural enrichment. So I knew that meant that I needed to go back to non profit work, and begin to meet with community stakeholders in Brooklyn–my current community. But I didn’t have that forward thinking opportunity when I was just chasing this one dream of being a writer. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t fully actualized as a person until I allowed myself to put down the pen and paper and just listen and look at what I’m doing: educating a LOT of people in New York City and beyond…staying black…investing in my immediate Brooklyn community…And look for careers and ways to support myself financially (I no longer have a studio, but I’ll soon have a husband and we both like vegetables from Whole Foods :)…while also nurturing the creative/writer/artist side and the ever-always-present educator side.

Thoughts on First Generation College Graduates

Over Memorial Day weekend, I had the privilege of watching two students of my educational program graduate from Cornell University.

The type of work I have done in New York City (and for a short stint, Newark, NJ) since my arrival in 2007 has largely been working with students with whom I share a similar background: students of color, first generation, low-income family. And as I get older and more knowledgable about the several systems that serve these students, I understand more and more who my parents were in helping to create me, today, and how extremely hard it must have been for them, and still, how I choose to identify with the students I am working with, with my colleagues, with the officials at the universities I have the privilege of working with on a regular basis.

In 2011, I attended a NASPA Conference (National Association of Student Affairs Administrators [in Higher Education]) where I participated in a smaller panel about white privilege and identity. I know. I wanted to see who was in attendance and who was facilitating it, and what discussions would be had. So, I’m the only Person of Color in the room, and they are talking about being white educators, and one of the persons in my small group began to talk about how she chooses to reveal her sexuality to her students. That it is a slow process: get to see how they feel about it first, and then, come out to her students if she wants to/feels the need to. She didn’t see it as a kind of privilege. I was happy to be there to point out that it was. I was smack dab in the middle of a semester teaching Introduction to Creative Writing at NYU to a class of 20 students, none of which were students of color. I was the teacher and the diversity in the class. I called what she had an “invisible identity” which is something she can choose to identify, or not, where as my color is non-negotiable.

I have several invisible identities myself, though. And I’m only learning now that I could and do play a similar game: when to reveal? When to keep secret–some type of Trojan Horse play where I infiltrate a place I maybe should not be, and then reveal my difference. For example: I do not have a Southern accent and find myself in the middle of circles in New York City comprised of a lot of people who have opinions about people from the South. Or worse, Black people from the South. When I let them say what they were meaning to say, I then tell them that I’m from the South, from South Carolina, and they look as if I had betrayed them.

When people learn that I went to UNC Chapel Hill (as an out-of-state student), that I have a M.F.A. from New York University, and that I am the first of my immediate living family to receive any of these (when I reveal another invisible identity), in New York City, generally a follow-up question is “how did you do it?” And because I have built my professional career in New York City (outside of Writing and publishing) in supplementary educational programs and college advising for first-generation students, the assumption is quick: “Did you go through a program?” and I answer: I did not. And then, they ask again, “How did you do it?”

Only now am I spending time thinking about that process, and now am I thinking about how I did do it, and how can it be modeled?  I’m obsessed with lists lately (so, too, is the trend on articles lately. Have you noticed?) and so I have a few thoughts to share. It is my hope that these meditations are leading us somewhere. Is there one answer? No. This is part of my answer.

  1. I am the first in my immediate family to get any sort of higher education degree much less a master’s degree. (Much less teach at institutes of higher education; I am not the first teacher, however).
  2. I am not the product of college preparatory programs, but I am the product of a Gifted & Talented track in Elementary and Middle School (selected by my test scores only) and Honors & AP Classes.
  3. I have had a job since i’ve been able to work legally; before that, my father paid me $3.00 an hour to help with my mother’s daycare.
  4. Somewhere along the way, I learned the importance of learning from adults that were not my parents who had experiences my parents did not have nor could give me. I learned to form and foster relationships and to never let them go [see my post about my high school teacher, Stan Whittle]
  5. Only now am I able to understand the extent to which my parents sacrificed so that I could be here: they made every desire possible–after school activities like band (they bought me a flute and piccolo), track & field, marching band, newspaper, the list goes on and on…
  6. My parents gave me room to be stubborn and hard-headed. They would tell me what they thought but understood that I would make my own decisions, make my own way. I was going to do what i was going to do. They let me.  Maybe this is because they realized there was little they could do to stop me. I don’t know. But I had little resistance when I saw something i wanted to accomplish, even if it was against their plans (like: Going to Chapel Hill/out of state for college; Like: moving to New York City).
  7. Looking back, I am at a point where I am able to give so much more credit to what my parents did for me to support me every single educational pursuit I wanted to before I went off to college. Though, when I was in it, I realized that I let my unhappiness with my family life weigh in on my desires to do well in school in order to “escape” what was wrong at home (though hardly not even any where near what I see my students and their families experience on a a day to day). Where I’m from, so many people didn’t leave. And those who stayed…were suffocated.
  8. I was determined not to be suffocated.
  9. I filled out all of (two) my college applications by myself, secured a free ride to college that I gave up to go to Chapel Hill, and filled out my FAFSA and CSS Profile alone.
  10. I worked on campus and off campus three out of four years of college. The first year when I didn’t work, ironically, I had the lowest GPA.
  11. I quickly made friends with seniors and older people who could show me the way.
  12. I made my own mentors.

And now, having watched students go through programs that support students in literally every life decision, I often find myself–I’ll say it–jealous. But at the same time, I get to re-live and re-experience college and all of the successes of growing up and growing out of the environment from which you came to be this new person over and over again. I get to be a midwife. I get to birth these new adults into the world, and help them walk and talk a new language. And only now am I in a space to recognize the work my family put into it. I can’t imagine it, really.

Achieving the Brooklyn Dream: Education + Business in BK

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Last week I attended a Panel at the Brooklyn Law School bringing together two seemingly disparate things: business and education. On the advertisements for the panel, the question is posed: “What will it take to ensure that Brooklyn’s children can eventually live and work in the borough they call home?”

And I think it’s an important question, and while the business side of things is a large part of the equation, I feel like the focus 100% should have been on the state of education in the City, in Brooklyn, should have been the focus–because if we are not getting the students out of school, then the chances of them getting employed are slim (this is not even a question of school being a prerequisite, but more like: what kind of character traits one builds when they commit themselves to going to school, to graduating with a high school diploma).

Another large component of the equation that was absent for this conversation are the officials—the people who could make our suggestions real were not in the room. And so I always wonder about these types of events, their usefulness. Certainly, to get people thinking and talking, and to put people who run schools that are doing it right in front of people who are here because they care (a sort of preaching to the choir, if you will) about this topic–like myself–but who are in no position alone to change anything, and who are coming from such disparate backgrounds, what is there to do after this conversation but write a few blog posts and hope something happens/reverberate? I wanted…no needed…game changers in the room for me to have left the conversation and felt like something would happen more than just…another panel like this with more schools and different colleges and businesses and the question still existing: “What will it take to ensure that Brooklyn’s children can eventually live and work in the borough they call home.”

That question, for the most part, was not addressed. But I did appreciate the Dean of Brooklyn Law School’s message: “Hard work and luck are important  [to the equation], but education is key.”  

Moderating the panel was Errol Louis. Panelists: Morty Ballen (Explore Schools), David Banks (Eagle Academy Foundation),  Karen L. Gould (Brooklyn College), and Carlo A. Scissura (BK Chamber of Commerce). 

Some of my transcriptions from the event: 

MB: “BK is at this moment. Students aren’t getting what they need to be a part of the American Dream. 54% Regents Diploma; 64% (second-lowest borough) graduation rate. Poverty presents barriers to knowledge/education. Our students have 9 hours a day of education. Work with families. Hard work, effort, persistence. (on the topic of co-location, charter) It’s in our best interests to make it work. Leveraged the charter for accountability. ‘Measure ourselves against ourselves.’

DB: 50% unemployment in the city for black men. 7 NYC Neighborhoods make up 70% for state of NY inmates (!!). Eagle Academy serves 2000 young men and families. Traditional Public School. We’re bringing in people who are about the work (re: teachers and extra work hours). Poverty is a challenge but bigger thing about success is opportunity and access. Grit. Cultivating grit through experiences and sharing. Favorite quote is Ali: “Get up. I’m not supposed to be on the ground.” Parent Engagement is key. Boys need mentors. 32% of AA males have no father figures.

KG: Hold the college accountable for student success. 2/3 of new students are transfers. We expect to find established habits of learning. BC has 80% retention rate overall. 85/86% fresh–>soph year. New challenge now: sophomore–>junior year. 

CS: Trinity of BK child success–these things need to work together: Business, Schools, Churches. 

DB: I want to write a 2-3 page white paper of critical issues that [mayoral] candidates need to address on education. 

KG: We really need to continue to help people become aware. Education is really a problem consisting of: nutrition, single parents, family responsibilities. NYC has this disconnect between what it wants to pay for (in taxes) and what it wants to get. 

So we still have a lot more discussions that need to happen, and I would love to be a part of some of the movement. I was thankful to be able to listen and think and continue to define how I see myself fitting into the equation, but a lot of work needs to be done to improve the state of the classrooms…..to get students engaged and learning and caring. That’s what I want to talk about. And I don’t want the answer to be: create a new school. I want it to be within the institutions that already exist. Where students are already spending hours of their days. How do we change (and fix) that?  That’s the question I’m asking and pursuing these days. That’s what I’m looking for by way of answer from the Mayoral, BK Borough President and for District 36 candidates. 

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The Great Brooklyn Donut-Scape (part 1)

If you knew me circa 2008 in NYC, you might have known that I had a thing for cupcakes. I was working at the New York Historical Society and there was another young black girl who worked there and we were both new to NYC and hit it off and formed a friendship over meeting up weekly to find great cupcakes.

I still pride myself on my knowledge of cupcakes, and knowing where one can find one of the best, for the best price, or, if you’re looking for size and price is still an option or size and price is not a thing to you but you just want THE BEST. Not many new cupcake places have come into NYC since then to blow me out of the water or contest my findings. I’m happy to share if you’re interested.

So the not-so-new thing with me + C (Brooklyn Foodies now, I suppose–though he is the real Brooklynite) are Donuts.  Apparently the world is big on them, but I swear we knew about DOUGH before anyone else. Rather, C knew about DOUGH and put me and my friends onto it before my first Half Marathon back in 2011.

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Anyways. So, I had a random day off in which we were going to hang out in Queens, but suddenly I wasn’t feeling it. C was joking with me and asked, “Where’s your sense of adventure?” And so I came up with what we should do on the spot. It was a 4-shop tour of Brooklyn Donut joints–sans DOUGH, which we’d dubbed as far superior up until that point–in different neighborhoods in one day complete with a rating scale with the ultimate factor being: Can it replace Dough?

Here’s the List of places:

  • Nostrand Donut Shop
  • 7th Ave Donuts
  • Peter Pan Bakery
  • Dunwell Donuts

The criteria we used:

  • TYPE: YEAST/CAKE
  • YEAST: 1=GUMMY   5=DOUGHY (BITE)
  • CAKE: 1=HOCKEY PUCK    5=SUPER FRESH (PINCH)
  • PRESENTATION: ON LOCATION/ACTUAL DONUT
  • ON LOCATION: 1=EVERYDAY     5=CHARMING
  • ACTUAL DONUT: 1=MEH      3= YUM    5=LIP SMACKING
  • TASTE: SUGAR CONTENT/FLAVOR DIFFERENTIATION
  • SUGAR CONTENT: 1=CARDBOARD   3=SUGARY CONFECTION    5=DIABETIC COMA
  • FLAVOR DIFFERENTIATION: 1=WHAT FLAVOR?    3=IT WORKS   5=HIGH DISTINCTION
  • VALUE: 1=ATM    5=BANG FOR BUCK
  • REPLACEABILITY FACTOR (CAN IT REPLACE DOUGH?): 1=DOUGH SUPREME     3=SAME AS DOUGH     5=WTF IS DOUGH?

Part two I will give the rankings! :)

If you know these bakeries—which do you think won? Is there a category we should consider for the future? 

For Colored Kids Who’ve Considered Suicide or Outside Community (when the Institution is not enuf)**

My first Cave Canem circle was in 2006. I was 21, the youngest member at the time in all of Cave Canem. The oldest member at the time was Carrie Allen McCray, 93 and living in my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. It was an interesting parallel–so many generations of black poetry in one space. My first Cave Canem was magical.

What happens in the circle stays in the circle, we say, but I remember listening to stories of people who had gone off to an MFA program, usually in an all-white town, so thus, an all-white program (save them, The One), and the thought that they had a chance to gather at a table with non-white poets and share their stories and their poems opened up their tears to flow.

Quick educational history: I went to a high school where there was a significant number of minorities on campus. In the honors and AP courses, however, that number was inverted and it was usually 3:25 (black:white ratio). The neighborhood I grew up in was all black, but those my age didn’t go to the same school I did; my father drove me across the tracks, down the road (or interstate, for high school) to the “better” schools. When I was choosing colleges, a big part of my decision-making was not only the caliber of the school, but the percentage of African-American students on campus. I had set this arbitrary number, and decided I would not apply to a school below 8% African-American students. This knocked many private schools off my list. Ironically, the school with the highest percentage at the time–17% African-American students– was the University of South Carolina, but that was 20 minutes from my parents house, and I refused to stay in Columbia any longer. I came across the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, a modest 11% African American, and felt that it would “feel right.” It did. But, like my high school, once I got on the class-room level, it was often times only me. I remember sitting in an English class titled “20th c. Major American Authors” and I was the only black face in the room. We were to discuss, as the first text, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, and I wanted to know what it was going to be like listening to a room of white people talking about a black text. I refused to speak. I took notes, and looked engaged, but I refused to speak in this class for these four sessions, and knew the teacher could/would not call on me.

I took my position as sole minority as a position of power. They’d quote Douglass and look at me. It was a quote. They’d speak about the perils of being a black man/person in America, and look to me to speak. I took notes on every word they said. I would speak to anyone after class, should they really care to know what I felt, and I did, and I talked to the teacher in office hours, but I felt I was granted a–if tense, if jaded–first-row seat to being a fly on the wall of white folks talking about black people. I was okay with being “the only one.”

I think I was okay with that, and with being the only one in the few writing courses I took while at Chapel Hill, because I had a community outside of UNC Chapel Hill where I got my source of nourishment. I was living with a friend who was a Cave Canem poet at the time, and a fierce writer, and someone who pushed me to write, and pushed me to submit for publication. She’d introduced me to this writer’s group, the Carolina African American Writer’s Collective, and I could join the table of professional black writers on the first Saturday of the month, and at the time I was 19 and timid and they encouraged me, and loved me and whatever young writing I brought to the table and gave me the courage to enter the world of publishing and writing with an erect spine. So that when I’d go back to the workshop at Chapel Hill, and sat at the table with a white male instructor, and all-white workshop participants, I had the words to defend myself, to fire back, to ignore their demands to explain my desire to write about black things, to invoke Southern dialect, to play with syntax and rhythm by the addition or subtraction of words. I had the ammunition to fire back at my instructor and demand he open up a space for me at the table and see my work as equivalent to everyone else in the room.

I want to express this idea that I received my comfort and confidence in my self as a black writer outside of the Institution of the writing workshop on campus, the place I was paying to receive credits to prove that I had acquired something. It was outside of the classroom where I learned to hold my ground, so that when I came inside, I had my boxing gloves on.

So, when I got to Cave Canem that year in 2006, it felt comfortable, home. It wasn’t revelatory, but it offered enough of a safe space that I could build deep relationships–I’ve met some of my best friends that summer–could write about the things that scared me, without having to have that straight spine in the room. And the instructors were black, the person guiding my poems on the workshop table were black. And some of the poems that were brought to the table my three summers at Cave Canem were some of my strongest yet.

This is a long introduction to what I was preparing to speak about, what the title suggests. I remember leaving Cave Canem my second year and having such high hopes about my next adventure: pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry up in the Northeast. The BIG northeast. I was a southern girl who had lived most of her life in the Carolinas (North & South, save the first three years of my life in Indiana which I don’t remember), and it was my first time moving to the Mid-Atlantic region, my first time living so far away from my family and comfort zone, but, I thought: I’m running into the arms of the people who support me. My program will be near The Big Apple. My program had an abundance of colored folks on faculty. My program has even more colored folks coming to read on campus, most of them I’d met during my years at Cave Canem. I approached this venture as a type of homecoming.

I hope to describe to you the extent to which I was wrong (and sometimes, right) without [further] offending anyone:

I was 22 and only months out of college. I drove the twelve hours in my Honda Civic from South Carolina to the northeast. All of my worldly possessions that I felt I could not live without were stuffed in my two-door car, affectionately named Nuba. She was a trooper, and only asked for some gas every other state. I was moving in with a friend of a friend. I’d never met her, but my friend knew me and my friend knew her, and knew that we would get along pretty well. Because I was more concerned with living with someone I “knew,” I sacrificed proximity to my campus. This was a boon, however, in that rent was cheaper and the streets were quieter, and I only had to move my car once a week, and structured my schedule around it. I’d stopped working at the State Employees Credit Union as a teller a few weeks before and had several hundred dollars saved up, enough, I thought, to get me until the money for my teaching (note: adjunct pay is not the same as a teaching fellowship. lesson one) would come in, and if it was dispensed how I planned, I should have enough to get by. I never expected more than that: just enough to pay my bills, to eat, to get to class so that I could dare venture to write some poems.

Before I get to the dynamics of the classroom and the institution, I care to take a moment to discuss what happened on the home front. I always believed that your home space determines how you enter and maneuver in the world, and if your home ain’t right, well, it’s that much harder for you to be a fully-functioning citizen. Long story short: I only had enough money saved up for rent and things to get me through Sept 1 (I moved July 27). I had been informed that through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, my first check for my adjunct teaching gig would not be dispersed until the end of October. I had a long, deep gap to fill.

Insert community. At the call of a dear friend of mine, several beautiful, beautiful people from Cave Canem opened up their purses and helped me pay my rent for October. I’m forever indebted to them. My roommate, who was still in undergraduate school at the time b/c she took a year off, had applied, before I arrived, for Food Stamps, and that is how she put food on the table. She was Muslim, and a staunch believer in community and charity work (more so than some of my Christian counterparts hold), and saw that I was struggling, and as she would do her grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s before returning to the apartment, she asked if she could get me anything. I found that a bag of pasta and a jar of sauce could go a long way. As well as a bag of rice and a bag of beans.

On the institution front, I sought out help in anyway I could: can I take on more classes? Is there part-time work here? There? The people who opened their pockets were then financially invested in my experience in this new venture. I’d tell them how I felt, no holds barred. Now I know better. I know that despite my amount of hurt, I have to guard my feelings, my words. Words can be misconstrued and used against you. I had some difficulties with my peers, wishing they were more challenging, wishing I was getting more for this education that I was paying and starving for. I said these things as well. Often, someone would ask how I was doing at a reading I was attending, and I’d think about my Friday nights spent kneeling in my bathtub washing my laundry by hand because that expense could get me to class, and I’d start crying right in their face. I’d cry because I never imagined this venture to go where it did.

And I wondered about the colored folk on the faculty and community in the institution and who could help me. Some of them offered words. Some of them told me they had heard news that I was speaking about the program to others. Some of them offered hugs and a shoulder. Still, I went home to my cupboard of food purchased by my roommate by her own ration of Food Stamps. I wondered why I wasn’t getting the support I needed from the colored folks in the institution, the ones who brought me there, who sold me the program and convinced me that it was going to be a glorious time, and I thought it was, hell, that’s why I went so blindly into it. I wasn’t expecting them to open their personal wallets in order for me to eat a meal that was purchased with real dollars. I was just looking for help.

Anyways. I went to the person in charge. That’s how I’ve always learned to get things done. Folks will talk your ear off for days. Will tell you what you want to hear, will tell you I’m sorry, will listen and watch you cry. But if they are not in a position (or not willing to use their position) to make changes, well then you go to the source. So I went to the person holding the money, and felt I made a pretty decent argument about my situation, as well as tried to clear-up the third-party information being gathered and delivered to them behind my back. Maybe people don’t like to discuss the hard stuff in the flesh. Maybe it makes them uncomfortable. My intentions were translated into something so totally horrible in my face that I decided trying to erase what people said-I-said-about-them-and-the-institution was futile, and the person in charge flat-out stated that my financial situation was not going to change by any of their doing.

And what’s sad is, I thought my journey was unique to me and my journey to the Northeast, small-town-girl getting swallowed by the big city type situation. But it keeps happening again and again to my young poet-friends-of-color. And then I started understanding the tears shed in the opening circles so many times at Cave Canem. The people who went to a place thinking they were given a ticket to a great big kingdom. Only to find that the ticket they were cashing in was not at all what they were promised.

Either way, I think we get sold into believing to suffer is the first step of success. I think the person-in-charge I went to for support thought that if I were denied, I’d stay because, well, where else would I go? What else would I do? They wouldn’t have to budge, and I’d have no choice but to work it out and make it happen. Oh, but to know me and my resolve. The next day, after I was told there was “no reason to for me to believe that once I got to that institution that I would be eligible for additional funding,” I returned to the office with a letter stating that when the fall semester was over, I would not be returning.

I felt like I was being pushed into a corner. I was not going to die in the mousetrap. I was going to be the mouse biting its ankle off to get out.

Eventually, I left. And I can eat real food again. And days, I drop off my laundry to be washed and folded. And I still write poems. And I still love those people, still believe in the promise of the institution, and believe it can be great for someone else–and it has been!–but I wish to stop this cycle of brown-kid-goes-to-study-poetry and gets-beat-down by the institution, by the people she/he hoped would support him most, and has to find his salvation in the world. Why must we look outside. What’s the purpose of having an inside?

**This post first appeared on The Tidal Basin Review Blog in February 2011. I am just trying to collect some of my writings and bring them to one home.**

BK District 36

(and District 35, District Attorney, Borough President)

I’m not a new resident to Brooklyn, but I did move to the Borough/Neighborhood with a kind of senseless wonder–how much cooler than Harlem! I can ride a bike! There’s farmer’s markets galore! Street Fairs! THE ARTS! First Fridays! I took a year to learn to love it and give over my full love to it. This is important to note, because when I was in Sugar Hill, nothing else in the world mattered (in fact, I’m still writing my Harlem break-up essay).

But now, a seasoned Bed Stuy resident, and someone who is getting married (!!) and seriously considering a life somewhere, I am also learning the importance of civic engagement, community involvement, and, learning the importance of contributing [to our communities] according to our strengths. I did* develop the groundwork for this mindset when I was in Harlem: even though I worked in Brooklyn or the Bronx or on Wall Street (where the non-profit was based), I wanted as best I could to spend my money uptown or spend my off-moments in the however-many-block radius that was “River to River, 110th street to 155th Street” Harlem. I learned, from Mr. Greene on St. Nicholas Avenue that even though I was brown-faced like him, because I could afford to pay the price for my studio, I too would be considered a gentrifier, and that I shouldn’t over look that fact, but that because I was so sweet–stopping to talk to an old man while I was walking through St. Nicholas Park, I was OK. I liked Mr. Greene, mind you. He kept it real. He taught me that the only way I could get to know a place, or really, the only way I could call myself a New Yorker was if I knew the bus systems. In South Carolina, people who didn’t have cars or friends/family with cars, rode the buses. Namely, no one I knew. I brought that mentality here. I listened to Mr. Greene, and challenged myself to integrate more into where I lived.

I only know now how much harder that was for me in Harlem now that I’m no longer in Harlem, or else, my focus has changed. I’ve had some years of teaching in and around the NYC public school system to toughen me up. I am at a place where I am considering where my future (so distant! but still) children will go to school and what options we will have as a family, and I am still sad that I travel to Manhattan for groceries, wishing for an institution that carries consistent fresh, organic produce that is in my neighborhood. But whining about it to C doesn’t do anything…

Such a long introduction into why I decided to attend the Candidate Meet & Greet last night for my District, 36, and for the neighboring district (where I spend a lot of time), 35. Also on the bill were District Attorney candidates and one of the candidates for Borough President. I felt like it was a perfect time for me to start getting more involved, to start learning  more about where I am living, who I am living with, who is controlling the streets where I live, and who can help me get some kale on Stuyvesant Avenue on the regular.

I did my research and have decided that I am judging candidates on how they address Education and Health Issues. There are so many additionally important issues, I am aware, but I am but one person, with few passions, and I believe in playing to your strengths and interests, and I truly believe that if education is fixed so many other fundamental things that are wrong with a system might fall in line (another post about an Educational Panel I went to this morning at the Brooklyn Law School).  I am still undecided, and still have a lot of time to learn and challenge each candidate, but I enjoyed seeing how each candidate decided to use his/her 3 minutes on the mic in order to move the crowd–a definite study in rhetoric and appealing to audience, indeed. I took some notes on all of the candidates (the 35th district is SO close, and SO important to pretty much all of Brooklyn), and will say that on a purely surface level, I loved Laurie Cumbo’s delivery and her stance on cultural enrichment as a way to grow a community, but will not be offering much else on those candidates. I am only transcribing right now, not offering any thoughts, just—what I thought important enough to write down from last night’s events. Here’s my take-aways (I wrote notes) on BK District 36:

  • Cornergy: Commited, Consistent, Compassionate. Legal Policy Analyst. Working with the aging/veterans. Appointed in 2012 by Obama. Two main pieces of legislation: 1) Occupy Wall Street–called to honor right to assemble 2) service members–Department of Justice/Service members should be analyzed for their mental state–NYPD. Mayoral control of education is wrong.
  • Foy: 20 years in public service. National Director for Criminal Justice. Public Advocates Office. Director of Inter-Governement Affairs. Eliminated electronic files of young black & Latino. Give back to people who grew Brooklyn (seniors). Property tax abatement for seniors who are barely surviving. Education. Place for public and place for charter but not at the same table. Two separate tiers of public education (used Brown v. Board as analogy). Federal intervention for education.
  • Taylor: It’s time for youth to step up. “I’m Fresh”; livable wage at 15.00/hr. Invest in our communities–don’t wait for developers to “create” affordable housing. Community-based banks. We need to do what needs to be done. Invest in jobs for youth.
  • Tillard: Education: on the board of Boys and Girls High School & Bedford Academy. Chair stakeholders committee; serious. Education is single-most important factor in the future. (You can’t ask people to come live here and then pay for private school in order to get a decent education). I come from crack-era Harlem. Phd from Sidewalk University. Fighting this fight for 20 years.
  • Waterman: “Black Brooklyn We’re In Trouble”. Public school teacher–5th grade. Understood the importance of family and good education. You got a lot of politicians who want to be politicians. I’m a servant. At my church, we’ve created programs that made sense for the community.

Some other facts for the night. 13% of primary showed up last voting round. The introducer for the whole event said, “We want to make sure you’re at the table and not on the menu”. I didn’t stay for the rest of the meet and greet, but I look forward to following the campaigns for the next few months and continuing to shape my own passions and concerns and begin to choose for whom I will vote in September.

MOCADA Poetry Reading, Friday March 29 @ 6pm

MOCADA Poetry Reading, Friday March 29 @ 6pm

Poetry Reading and Performances
Friday, March 29 | 6-8PM
MoCADA | 80 Hanson Place, Brooklyn

Esteemed poets come together to read and perform works inspired by and engaging with Black music, film, and visual art. Featuring Tyehimba Jess (leadbelly), DéLana R.A. Dameron (How God Ends Us) and Harmony Holiday (Negro League Baseball). Seating is limited. Please arrive early.

New Poem!: up on The The Poetry

New Poem!: up on The The Poetry

December 28, 2012

Just in time before the new year comes in. I have a new poem from my manuscript Weary Kingdom up on The The Poetry today. Click the link above, check it out, and the others, and send me a note! 

Happy New Year!

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Literary Bazaar @ the Shevchenko Scientific Society

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Today I celebrate my poems translated into another language: Ukranian. I am honored to share a podium with poets and scholars from all over the world (Poland, Ukraine, Armenia).

I will tell you another story about how I came to meet a poet on a Volcano; it ends with a beer in Union Square; and then an invitation for a reading. But for now, I’ll share a picture from a parade of poets (including myself) reading on the streets of Granada, Nicaragua. Then I’m headed into Manhattan. 

What a way to wrap up a year! Come and hear some poems!

Literary Bazaar 
featuring poetry readings by Anna Frajlich, DeLana Dameron, Lola Koundakjian, Alexander Motyl, and Vasyl Makhno, who will also emcee the evening.

Copies of the authors’ literary works will be available for purchase.

5:00 PM 
Shevchenko Scientific Society
63 Fourth Avenue
between 9th & 10th St.
New York, NY 10003, USA
(tel) 212-254-5130
(fax) 212-254-5239

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