EDVersary

I just marked four years as an executive director. Every day I learn more about myself and how this position within the entire non-profit industrial complex (to read more about that I recommend the Revolution will not be Funded) brings out the worst in me.

Every day is hard in it’s own way. There are too many examples of people dying as a result of capitalism and colonialism and the myriad ways that manifests (addiction, houselessness, chronic illness). Within the non-profit structure – the cozy relationship with electoral politics, the competition for resources/cash, and the celeb status held by some people with my title and the organizations they run – I am reminded at how and why this system was created and how easy it has become- especially with fear of losing money/access means the real reason a lot of organizations -including the one where I work- is all too easily lost/forgotten.

I am also reminded how I started – as an organizer- not an administrator and how I wasn’t paid for that work and how I hustled at a bullshit super capitalist job(s) then hustled for myself. It was hard as fuck – I was always behind on my rent, the gas got shut off but I was way happier and less conflicted and I could be myself- something I really feel I have lost (and continue to lose) in this work.

I’m not as close to leaving as I would like. I don’t want to do the people I work with and for like that (although there are probably some people who want me to leave- which is fine). So in the meantime I need to find ways to be connected to community outside the npic, I need to draw clearer boundaries, and there is a part of me that wonders if I just need to shut the fuck up, put my head down and just work. I’m good at working. Not so much at shutting the fuck up.

On Movement & Creative Mentorship

Today I was reading Pleasure Activism and was struck at the way dear sister Doctor Alexis Pauline Gumbs wrote about the mentoring that was done by Toni Cade Bambara and how those mentees have served as examples to Lex. I was left breathless and a little jealous thinking, oh how I hope someone will write about me in that way but more important than my ego is the issue of mentorship in creating movement.

As I get older and farther from my days as a baby organizer and baby poet, I meet other fledgling activists and media makers and I honestly think my generation, those that are smack in the middle of middle age have done a pretty shitty job of mentoring those generations after us. We are often so caught up in our egos or just our day to day packed as fuck lives, that we forget to take time to share lessons while giving space for new failures (and successes). Often we are so busy wanting to mold the younger generations into copies of ourselves, not recognizing our own errors but also our own stubbornness. There also a healthy dose of fear here – fear of being made obsolete, fear of losing access, power or the trappings of it we think we have under the current iteration of disaster capitalism.

I don’t exclude myself from this criticism. I can name a number of times where I should have shown more patience, more love, more understanding to those seeking to push the movement(s) further, their creativity further. It is something that as of late I am trying to rectify by giving time and energy to younger organizers.

I have written about it before but it begs and is worth repeating, I owe so much of who I am and how I organize because I was mentored. I didn’t call it that when Richie Perez would have me stuff envelopes or learn how to do press releases in between teaching me the basics of protest planning and security and public speaking while handing me books and articles to read and sharing his own experiences but it was mentoring at it’s best. I still ask myself at least once daily what would Richie do or say in this situation I find comfort and courage in his lessons.

But when does the need for mentorship end? Can one be both mentee and mentor? These are some questions that came up in conversation today with a dear fellow mama writer and npic worker when I was lamenting my inability to find a literary/poetic home and the closest I have come is my academic work which is forcing me (in a good way) to play with poetry again on rigid deadlines and within the constraints of assignments. My dear friend, who was seeking advice on navigating a new role she was in, offered concrete suggestions and advice for me. And I will admit I was dismissive of some of her suggestions. They included writing groups that were filled with younger writers whom we both agreed may not get some of nuances of being middle age mamis while wanting to create (for example even as I’m writing this I’m lamenting how I should have been in bed an hour ago since I have to wake up to pack lunch plus there is a sink full of dirty dishes and dinner leftovers that need to be put away). I also was loath to join a writing group with a super popular current darling of the LA latinx lit scene that I just don’t get. Some of this was fear. A lot of it was arrogance but deep down I want(ed) a mentor to help me midwife the dozen of half formed writing ideas and plans that I have been incubating.

In the end my dear friend and I are sort of mentoring one another as we continue to push the boundaries of what women of a certain ethnicity and age are supposed to be doing while also mentoring those who are still coming up.

Reviving the Sleeping Poetisa

This is my third semester in college and it quite a doozy (did I really just use that word?). I haven’t considered myself a poet in a long time and one of my classes is a poetry class with the final project being a chapbook. I have wanted to create a chapbook for a long ass time but always felt a little bit at a loss as to how to even start. Where to even begin. So I am grateful that this class will give me some structure, guidance and hard deadlines to just do it.

Entering my fourth week of the poetry class I have found myself struggling with how to translate my thoughts to poetry. It’s not that I’m reaching for new ideas but rather how to bring back up to the surface some ideas that have settled in my belly (no other way to really describe where those feelings sit). Some of the themes that have found a deep home in me include displacement, cohabitation, and the twin sisters of longing and loss.

My first assignment was to write a series of haikus. I focused on ancestral altars, preparing to ride the bus in a still new to me city, things left behind by those who left, and sort of still lifes from my terrace. I thought they were shit. My instructor, who had a PhD in Puerto Rican studies said he wanted to read them on my terrace with coffee, said they invoked a poetic legacy I was part of. Maybe I could be a poet again. Maybe I never stopped being one.

In New York my poetic life was built on routines centered around readings. Having a reading in my calendar meant I had to have something new to share. Not that I couldn’t share older material but I needed to test, get public feedback on (would the audience laugh, nod their head, or stare blankly) new things. So I would always be working on new things, at night or early in the morning, when the kids were asleep, when I wasn’t chatting with lovers who lived cross borough or cross country.

After living in Los Angeles for 7 years I haven’t found that routine here yet. I haven’t found a poetic home that I feel embraced or safe enough to experiment/test in. I haven’t found a poetic family. And honestly when you’re over 40, a parent, a student, an executive director – the spaces I have found seem so compartmentalized – people see me in one way and crossing into another identity makes me and others uncomfortable in a way I haven’t been able to navigate (yet).

So for now I’m just going to keep writing, in a much more solitary way or through my class (which since it is an online program still can feel pretty solitary) and hope that it will be enough to get me through and keep me disciplined.

Second Semester

Paperback of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs on a grey fabric background
Paperback of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs on a grey fabric background

I am in my fourth week of my second semester since returning to college to finish the undergraduate degree I began over twenty years ago. I am taking two courses in this six week block. One is a multi-genre writing course with a professor whose feedback last semester helped me imagine and name myself as a writer again. It’s funny the way external feedback works. Once upon a time it was through blogging, reading/performing in public spaces, drunk and sober whispers with friends, lovers, fellow creatives that helped prop up my self created identity but here in Los Angeles, with my Executive Director title, I felt so far from that until school gave me discipline and feedback loops from people I wasn’t fucking or fangirling with. External validation is one hell of a drug.

My second course is a Literature class looking at Black mixed race women’s narratives. I instantly like my professor when I read her syllabus and see we are going to discuss not just race, gender and narrative but also critical race theory and I”m asked to write about myself and my light/bright almost white NYRican-ness.

While writing and researching my first paper, I first list all of the brilliant scholars I know. Jessica, Moya, Lex, Bi. I look up their names in the journals and for the first time read them as scholars, not just conspirators and I wept when I read them citing other beloved ones in my life: Sydette, Lisa, Brown Femi Power. I sobbed when I saw my own name. Not out of sadness but deep joy and gratitude.

In all the years since I dropped out of college I have struggled with the fact that I don’t have a degree and yet have enough deep experience and knowledge that I have spoken at colleges, in the media, etc. I have a bad case of impostor syndrome but in that moment, the moment of researching and writing and feeling like I was among friends and like I could be and maybe am a little bit of a scholar.

Semester 1 – Week 4

Like most important decisions of my life I did it on a whim. What if? One weekend day I completed an application to go back to college and then returned to my life of cooking, cleaning, doing work from home, taking care of my 11 year old kid. I kind of forgot about the application until they called me to interview me and then accepted me.

Mural in Austin Texas. Background paint is deep blue with a zebra skin pattern border and the text of the Violeta Parra song "Gracias a la Vida"

Oh shit.

So on a sort of whim I accepted. It was such a whim that I didn’t even tell anyone. I have to admit that part of me was ashamed. I wasn’t ashamed that I didn’t finish college when I was supposed to. People who have been following my writing online in its various forms know that as I have gotten older, struggled with raising one then two kids as a mostly single mother, worked my ass off as a writer, stripper, furniture and men’s clothing salesperson, organizer and now executive director of a nonprofit – I have often stressed how not having a degree doesn’t make me (or anyone else) less smart, less valuable. I’ve done, accomplished enough, in fact a lot. Maybe from dumb luck but more than likely it’s because I’m kind of smart (my sister says my intelligence makes her sick).

So what was I ashamed of?

I bought my books and jumped into classes (I’m doing a 100 percent online format- once again the internet comes to my rescue) and two weeks and four papers into classes I still hadn’t told anyone.

I was ashamed that I dared to do something that was just for me. I don’t need the degree to get a promotion. I’m not looking for a job. I’m not applying to grad school (yet?). I don’t have a grand plan of eventually getting such and such title. I was doing it because it was something I wanted to do. I want to read and write and discuss things and analyze. I’ve always liked that about school and since I’ve been out of school I still like it. Deep down I’m kind of a nerd.

I was ashamed because I was being selfish and didn’t feel like I deserved it.

It felt like an indulgence. I am working at a job that requires long hours and honestly I’m a little bit of a workaholic so I never really am “off”, despite the admonishments of my family and even my work team. I, like many women, carry the bulk of the household duties and the planning behind that from cooking, cleaning, kid school shit, kid life shit. Plus, something that I have alluded to but haven’t gone into explicitly here or other online spaces where I share pieces of my life, is that my personal/romantic life is in somewhat of a crisis.

So who the fuck do I think I am that I should, that I can, that I would dare to do this thing that I don’t really have to do but kind of want to do? Who says I can or should make the time from my already heavy, busy life that requires and uses so much of my brain, heart and spirit energy.

I slowly started to tell people. Casually. I posted a few things on social media and I recieved so much support. I didn’t (don’t) think I deserve that most of the time so that was nice and affirming.

I’m now deep in week four. Yesterday after a grueling day that started at 4 am so I could take an early flight to Oakland for a meeting and then come back to LA to cook dinner for my kid I stayed up past midnight working on a draft paper I needed to submit. I’m definitely not getting enough sleep. My body, heart and head are tired but my spirit is pushing me. Plus I’m getting all A’s.

No shame in that.

The Day After…..

 

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A brightly colored mural in Austin, Texas showing a cart with la Virgen de Guadalupe, water, and a candle. 

…is really just another day. Although this morning, I did observe that the buses and trains were emptier. Was everyone out organizing like they said they were going to do the day after elections? Was it because the mass transit wasn’t free? What wasn’t emptier this morning after was the street where I change from one bus to another. Los Angeles residents were packing their tents along Spring Street, along where a huge new development is being built that according to the banners “ was now leasing”. What wasn’t empty was a conference hall where a white woman challenged the daughter of a domestic worker saying that a housecleaner could lessen her exposure to toxics by using gloves instead of asking the employer to not use toxic chemicals. The disconnect between what is promised and what is real grows wider.

 

On the near empty bus, my 11 year old child asked me about the election results. Who won? What propositions lost? I went through the list. There were more women of color in certain offices including the youngest woman – a Boricua-like my child- in Congress. We still won’t have rent control. The mastermind of state turned national anti-immigrant policies was out of office. White women voted a Texas Republican Senator to serve another term. One racist Sheriff was replaced by another who will probably be just as racist but under the cover of a Latinx last name.

I sat at a table with house cleaners, moms, immigrants and not a one asked me about the election. They were too busy telling other women how they organize and educate, educate as organizing.

In so many ways today is just like another day because our lives don’t revolve around election and other spin cycles. In so many ways it’s a day where people wait and see if the promises made, the ones they bought into in exchange for a sticker they can post on Instagram , will be kept. It’s a day where the organizing that never paused continues, at least for some.

My daughter asked me if people would be talking about the election today then she asked me for money for ice cream. It’s another day for us to continue to move forward and redefine what power looks and feels like beyond pushing a button, pressing a pen into a little circle.