Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/

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Fellowship at 2012 NYC Fashion Week: Sisters Celebrating Sisters

2012 NYC Fashion Week, Sarahi Showcase

Traditionally, NYC Fashion Week impressed me as an exclusive event.  The crème de la crème reveal and show off their dernier cri and totemic textiles. A-listers are awash in worship from photographic flashes.  The illuminati offer praises like flowers at feet of fellow elite.  Those of us who have no anchor in the sea of high fashion will rely on the reports of the select few broadcasts allowed harbor and entrance.  Somehow this particular Thursday night the stars aligned, because I was given access to such a coveted event. What I would encounter was far from the images and assumption I initially endorsed.

At first, I felt as though I was “crashing” a selective soiree.  Working in education, and now a stay at home mother expecting my second child, such pathways rarely make for opportune interceptions with the chic.  It seemed irregular, unlikely, to sit alongside “those” who regularly lined the esteemed runways.    I wasn’t a blip on the elite radar of the houses of Monique Lhuillier, Michael Kors or Ralph Lauren, so being a guest would be out of the question, or even the assistant of esteemed stylists like Rachel Zoe.  Benevolently, my ticket came from the heart of a sister editor-in-chief, Shawn Chavis, whose gratitude to her staff and writers at Bronze Magazine gave us entre into this grand world, landing us at the premiere Sarahi showcase at RSVP, which her magazine was sponsoring.

I didn’t go to be seen, temporarily immortalized in this week’s tabloids and newspapers.  Attending for me was an honor, as I would meet fellow women writers, affix flesh and blood to online personality, whose fellowship was garnered mostly online due to our remote locations.  Working as a contributing writing and copy editor, Shawn has given me unwonted space to transition from working as teacher, professor and consultant to fulfill my aspiration of freelance writing.  Emelyn Stuart and I had been corresponding on Facebook in anticipation of our initial meeting; first reading about her in a previous issue of Bronze Magazine, her humor and receptive spirit made me excited to meet her. And others I would meet would become for me tour guides of dreams, unexpected touchstones of inner pain and the strength, courage, and wisdom that emanate from them.

I arrived early to RSVP, erring on the side of caution give my long commute by public transportation. I landed midst the hum of tuxedoed wait staff priming final touches and hoisting the poster of sponsors, greeters coordinating guest lists, and models practicing their many faces and stances.   Photographers, writers, and support staff buzzed away in preparatory tasks. The hive was hopping. Yet in the mix I felt welcomed, as people scooting by me made time to pause, smile, and even say hello. They provided a welcoming atmosphere I was not expecting.

By chance one such smile came from VJ Ameliaismore, a local celebrity. Instantly we started talking. She became a guide for me that evening, not just for that event but as an example of someone diligently on a mission and living to fulfill a dream. Like a big sister to little sister, she shared her life history and work, funny stories about being the single mom of a son, and a short retrospective on her life as a teacher, model, and business woman. It was her intimate sharing against the backdrop of the busyness and buzz that powered the pondering of my own dreams, and hollowing a space to wish her dreams their deserved flight and height.  Quickly disappearing backstage, she pointed me to where Shawn was.  I embarked to meet my colleague and mentor.

I recognized Shawn as soon as I saw her. Her spirit casts an aura of welcome and receptivity, even while standing still in the chaos of patrons indulging the open bar and cocktail hour (alas, how I craved sampling the sushi and steak tartare).   She shared her gratitude for the work I’ve done, particularly for last-minute copy editing. Here I was meeting the fountainhead of an inspirational magazine thanking ME. It was wondrous and wonderful to finally meet her, feeling far more like homecoming.  Her grace and warmth were contagious, enveloping me, like dwelling in the company of a dear friend.

Me and Shawn Chavis, Editor-in-Chief, Bronze Magazine

Standing right next to her was Emelyn Stuart.  I recognized her by the cool confidence she exudes, and in the striped dress (inside joke).  Media magnate and prolific film producer, her repertoire and resume remained quiet within her.  She didn’t greet me with her resume or reputation. She doesn’t bring them into our conversation at all. Instead, she bestows an authentic invitation to learn about one another.  In fact, she asks ME questions that have me since thinking about where and how I want to direct my future endeavors in writing.  She offered advice on how to gain sponsorship for my blog to build its readership and reputation. Being around her was like being released to explore and dig deeper into one’s dreams, and I found myself rattling off all that I wanted to be and become in this new chapter of my career and life.  She offered her phone number and suggested we keep in touch.

Even more than what I learned from the outpour of sisters like Shawn and Emelyn is learning what we can offer others.  Before the start of the show, acclaimed model and business woman Njie Sabik informed us of the silent auction going on as well, with proceeds going to two charitable organizations.  She bravely shared that one was created in tribute to her mother; the designer, Suzette Kelly, earlier informed us Njie just buried her mother days before the show.  Such character to remain committed to participating in the show and disclosing such a personal tragedy marks Njie as evidence of resilience.  After the show, she was swept away for a barrage of photos. Between the flashes I snuck in to share with her how I was moved by her celebration of her mother. I told how I too lost my mother to cancer (AML), and offered for inspiration that eventually better days do come. I relayed my admiration of how brave she was to disclose what she did, staying committed to the show, and that I believed her mother would be proud of her for her endeavors.  Njie embraced me in a long understanding hug. It felt fulfilling to know that even in sorrow there is the root of kinship, and that even as strangers we can each be healing balm for one another.  Not to mention her power on a runway. She rips it with methodical presentation and presence. She owns a room when she enters, and leaves it mesmerized when she exits.

Njie Sabik at 2012 NYC Fashion Week
Njie Sabik at 2012 NYC Fashion Week

The House of Sarahi definitely lit up the night.  Yet this night proved more to be a walk through the power and potential of sisterhood than retinal reverie.  Amelia, Shawn, Emelyn and Njie irradiated my soul. I returned home, and in high heels and red swing dress, resumed the maternal work of feeding my son and rocking him to sleep. Out of sheer gratitude I thanked my husband who worked from home that day for this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Back to work . . .inspired.

Suzette Kelly (far left), designer of Sarahi, with models

Woman, Wife and Mother: An Evolving Intersection

As a new wife and mother, I experience jubilee and juggling.  I receive constant fulfillment yet expend breath and best guesses finishing challenges.  I stand in an intersection of past/present/future.  This triptych daily positions me to negotiate divergent responsibilities, prior obligations and new undertakings, obliging yet unifying them all.  Hopefully my intimacies, epiphanies, and suggestions offer footstools into your own possibilities.

Professionally, my career spans being a high school ELA teacher, assistant professor, educational consultant and fledging writer.   I’ve enjoyed fortune and mistakes on my own terms. Then I met my husband, and with him anticipated blessings and unanticipated compromises unfolded.

While single, we’ve been rightfully selfish with our lives, doing what we want to do when we want to do it and how we want to do it.  Consequently, we’ve come to this goal of incorporating flesh and future with dissimilar tastes in music, different perspectives on how to manage money, divergent expectations on best uses of time, disparate notions around planning for the future, etc. You get the picture.  It’s a clumsy walk.  Now we have to collaborate in little and big decisions.  Identify priorities for our relationship and agree upon ways to fulfill them.  Budget money for immediate expenses AND allocate it toward long term goals.   Learn what it means to be a partner while also honoring and providing space for each other’s independence.  Accept flaws and mistakes without later using them as leverage against one another.  Work in partnership raising our first child.

After the marital oath of cleaving as one flesh, our grafted limbs are evolving to thrive collaboratively.  But we have to share in creating answers.  What do we need to do to prepare for the future?  What are the best approaches to solve problems?  How do we nurture interdependence and maintain independence?  What do we lose in order to gain? As woman AND wife, a pressing duality I constantly address is how to prosper us AND be true to myself?

Here’s what I am discovering . . .

Being a wife is a new role. Grow into it.  You don’t simply step into the role of a wife like a wedding dress. You evolve to fulfill it.  So don’t clutter your growth into this role with assumptions or comparisons.  Let go of ideals and magazine exaggerations.   Explore and invest in what it means for you to be a wife for yourself and to your partner.  Give yourself permission and time to experience, evaluate, and even revise accordingly.

Dialogue.  Devote space and time to broach and disclose fears, concerns, and dilemmas.  Uncomfortable topics that go undiscussed (like money, parenting, a need for quality time alone, etc.) eventually fester.  Making them transparent and in the open diffuses their cancerous potential to leach from your primary goal to grow as allies.  But be careful not to bulldoze your partner into meetings.  While I thought it efficient to have weekly conference calls while planning our wedding—agenda and all—my husband thought these meetings at times were burdensome overkill.

Preserve what is personally important to you.  It is very easy (and implicitly expected) that upon becoming a wife to sacrifice personal happiness for the “greater good” of marriage and family.  Yet if you are not happy, what fruits of yourself can you offer others?  Marriage and parenting WILL impact the amount of time you can devote to fulfilling your passions, but foregoing and sacrificing them altogether is an unhealthy solution.  Find ways to maintain what feeds your core.  While now I have to fit writing in between schedules I have with my child and husband (like writing blogs at 2am), doing so maintains my wholeness.

I wasn’t tooled with blueprints to structure this marriage.  At times I fray at edges and peel at margins. What I am learning from the daily walk is that I unfold the answers through folded hands (physical and spiritual).  Surrendering to the unfolding helps me carry out and accomplish these roles as best I can.

(This blogpost occurs simultaneously in MBAMOM’s May 2012 newsletter as “Wife and Mother: What I Wonder”).

(Artwork: Woman Thinking by Stephanie Clair)

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This Woman’s Work: Blueprints for Being an Activist

Article for Bronze Magazine Anniversary Issue, November/December 2011

a woman sleeps as if
tomorrow a war will begin” –Vera Pavlova

For the 1st anniversary of Bronze Magazine (http://bronzemagonline.com), I wrote this article about the activism of women locally and internationally.  It highlights the involvement and investment of women in efforts spanning environmental issues, AIDS awareness, exposing governmental tyranny, educational advocacy, self- defense, and helping adolescents plan and prepare for the future.  But the writing of the article extends beyond telling about the impact of others.  I wrote it to also make a space for women to tell about the work they too are doing here and abroad.  To create an open space to share what each of us is doing to make a difference, move others from margin to center, contemplate a new world, and speak truth to power. 

I invite you to share at the end of this article the ways YOU are making a difference.

 

This morning I began drafting a blog about inspirational women, meditating on the living examples of goodness they harbor and promote.  Sister friends like Carla, Lisa, Kim, Karen, and Tonya balancing being employed while raising children, pursuing personal passions, and nurturing relationships. Deceased kindred such as my mother, aunt, and Eastern Star sisters who by bloodline and example exemplify what can become possible.  Their dreams pulse now in my blood.  Writers like Audre Lorde who used words as tools to instigate and liberate, playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy who pushed the envelope of drama by tooling it to shed light into our darknesses.

Yet, I indulge the guilty pleasure of watching the “Basketball Wives” and “Real Housewives” franchises, with a fascination of what will happen next.  Who will be the next woman to get a drink and then a fist thrown at her, a knife of venomous words plunged into her back, a secret put on blast, a reputation that gets her thrown under the bus?  But the actions and outcomes are cyclical.  After repetitiously seeing the cattiness, two-facedness, duplicitous fidelity, diabolical planning, sinister backstabbing, escalating emotional bullying and downright physical assault, a command for different is radiating from inside. I think I reached the saturation point of witnessing the broadcast of the basest aspect of womanhood, and the affirmation such shows get in the forms of high viewership and popularity.  But at the end of the hour, what can be culled as inspiration, a lesson, experience, strategy or new outlook that we can glean from watching women on “reality” shows to then employ and emulate in our life’s work?  There’s nothing new to learn.  So why are such shows so popular, despite the nullifying examples of trailblazing women like Suzanne Malveaux, Shirley Chisholm, Cathy Hughes, Rolonda Watts, Malkia Amala Cyril, Shirley Ceasar, Ursula Burns, Cicely Tyson, Carol Jenkins, Donna Brazile, and Oprah Winfrey?

I’ve reached critical mass.  A new reaction beside distaste and criticism has to occur.  Taking my own thoughts off the video editing floor, I am taking some time to reflect on the tenacity, resilience, spirituality, talent, sacrifice, perseverance, benevolence, insight, intelligence, ferocity, savvy, surrender and serenity harbored and offered by the phenomenal women who use breath other than to bait kindred for public entertainment.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

Marypat Hector, in her recent blog “Enough with the Basketball Wives, Let’s Talk About Girl Power!” identifies several young women under the age of 30 whose lives, while not regularly broadcast on a weekly show, demonstrate contributions that confirm what our hands can produce when devoted to creating change instead of slapping a woman in the face and decimating her worth.[1]  Through her efforts as Executive Director of the National Action Network and contributing writer to NewsOne, Tamika D. Mallory uses her life and access to media outlets to bring to light issues of violence within the African-American community. [2] Dominique Sharpton, Director of Membership for the National Action Network and thespian, employs her talents resulting in the near tripling of the organization’s membership from since 2008, producing her father’s syndicated radio show, organizing marches and rallies, and creating several venues and outlets for youth to express their artistic talents.[3]  CNN Hero, activist,  author, college student and black belt martial artist Dallas Jessup, after seeing in the news the abduction of a young girl, uses her life to train girls and women in self defense through self-produced training videos, and facilitating activism within communities worldwide through her non-profit organization Just Yell Fire.[4] Environmental activist and author Jordan Howard, after being a Green Ambassador at Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles, employs her learning of the environment to galvanize others, using films to educate the masses about sustainable living, leading and organizing the Rise Above Plastics “Student Speaker Series” that trains fellow young adults in how to promote environmental awareness within their communities, and participating in various political and social forums to raise awareness.[5]  AIDS activist and living testimony Hydeia Broadbent devotes her life experience of being born with HIV to inform the consciousness of the world, doing so through several national television and radio shows, educational institutions, panel discussions as well as international forums.[6]

And I’d also like to add three friends who are phenomenal agents of change. Angela Romans, currently Senior Advisor on Education to the Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has worked in several community-based organizations, public schools, institutions of higher education, and political capacities to avail post-secondary opportunities to under-represented youth. [7] Tiffany Gardner is founder and Executive Director of One World Foundation, whose mission is to “develop and place young leaders (18 to 25) from poor and under-represented backgrounds in human rights and development service projects and prepare them for leadership in both the public and private sectors.”[8]  Finally, school social worker and aspiring graduate student Tonetta Collins works tirelessly in her job and within the organization CEOKids of Atlanta,[9] describing her work within the organization as helping “middle schoolers connect what they are learning in school to real world professions . . . to realize their gifts and strengths at a time when their need for social acceptance becomes important and connect them to the possibilities.”

One-sentence descriptions of the activists mentioned here is an injustice to their selfless intentions and the impact of their work.  But, the point of naming each of these women and their contributions is to reclaim space polluted with exaggerated and bifurcating depictions of women:  we have media suggesting the “best” of women that is “worthy” of extensive broadcast is the banality of the actions of a select few.   Such is the purpose, nature, and success of the beast of media. These depictions are a concerted effort toward what Martha Lauzen in the documentary “Miss Representation” associates with symbolic annihilation.  Such depictions kill off a consciousness of what we are and can be other than what is harmfully exaggerated, intentionally manufactured and massively promulgated.  “You can’t be what you can’t see,” admonishes Marian Wright Edelman, which is the point of why some media images of women prevail over others.  Ask any of us to rattle off the names of “Basketball Wives” or “Real Housewives” cast women and it can be done in a heartbeat.  Ask us to name several contemporary female activists and HOW they pave roads for change, and we become mute, having first to do some research.

The women activists in this text counter such toxic messaging.  They are mirrors for us to see an affirmative reflection of ourselves, a counter portrayal illustrating purposeful uses of our breath in harnessing and improving others’ lives.  Mirrors that empower by deflecting the media’s transmission and instead position us to learn blueprints for making a difference locally and abroad.  The “reality show” wives are not extraordinary, nor are the scope and mission of these activists outside your own reach.

The message?  Contemplate how you ARE doing something to make the lives of others better.  Why is such reflection essential to our personal and collective existence?  Because the stakes are really high.  Consider the following statistics from the documentary “Miss Representation” that illustrates the disparity in the portrayal of women, and their actual presence in important media and political junctures:[10]

  • Only 16% of protagonists in films are female
  • Women comprise only 16% of all film writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors
  • Women own only 5.8% of all television stations and 6% of radio stations
  • Only 7% of directors and 10% of film writers are women
  • Women make up 51% of the U.S. population but only 17% of Congress
  • 34 women have ever served as governors in the United States, compared to 2,319 men
  • 67 countries worldwide have had female presidents or prime ministers, of which the United States is not one of them

In examining yourself, what are the ways YOU make a difference in households, schools, communities, and board rooms, regardless if the cameras are on our off?  And are you broadcasting how you make a difference in the lives of others?  Who knows the work you are doing, and using YOU as an exemplar to learn how to replicate and reproduce it?

Broadening the scope of women’s work worldwide, we recently received news of three remarkable women who do not spend their time pointing out flaws and blasting the past of cast members.  Instead, they present palms and hearts to other women as allies to prove themselves embraceable.  Use their voices for the protection of others. Offer themselves as sister kindred to create chains of solidarity.  Harness and promote others’ potential.  Their lives are proffered as a sacrificial proof of commitment.  While their stories have taken time to traverse the oceans (regrettably), Leymah Gbowee mobilizes Liberian women to save their country from 14 years of civil strife, Yemenite Tawakkul Karman protests for the rights of journalists and an end to governmental corruption, and  Liberian President Ellie Johnson Sirleaf works in private and public sectors to rebuild her beloved country.  They have, now with the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, arrived on the shores of our minds, and I hope garnering a growing consciousness for what WE can do as women across borders physical and mental.

Leymah Gbowee is no stranger to the afflictions of war.  She was no stranger to children conscripted as toy soldiers and catalysts for a war they did not create but would be responsible for exploitatively executing (literally).  Young girls and women’s bodies were commoditized and brutally raped as the spoils of war.  Hunger became the crown and shroud of too many Liberians, with starved children dropping as new food for flies.  Liberia’s history of strife between warmongering avaricious warlords and a corrupt political regime, and its consequences, were regrettably familiar.  Having had enough, she prayed for peace. While pregnant with her third child, she incubated perseverance and persistence, birthing them into a mobilization of women to “pray the devil back to hell.”[11]

Leymah’s first work was transcending assumptions of religious difference, moving beyond fears of diluting or soiling each another’s religious dispositions.  Armed with conviction, and with fellow women compatriots, she mobilized Liberian Christian and Muslim women to unite in the commerce of peace, forging a collective effort to pressure religious leaders to advocate for them.   These “Market Women,” the fodder for what would later become WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Network), initially began protesting in white garments along roadsides of the presidential convoy so their need for peace would glare against the tinted windows.  Despite refusals of an audience, they continued to peacefully protest until gaining an audience with President Charles Taylor on April 23, 2003.  Stepping on fear and into faith, Leymah vocalized their position statement, presenting their entreaty for peace within their nation.

Following this presentation, peace talks between then President Taylor and warring factions convened in Accra, Ghana.  Assembling with Liberian women refugees already in Accra, together with the women of WIPNET they stood guard, daily vigilant to the need for peace in their country and attentively watching the warlords and President make progress to this end. After almost two months of posturing and jockeying for position, and seeing these men enjoy comforts of hospitality they did not enjoy while in the bushes, the women were fed up, and on July 21, 2003, they locked arms around the building where the talks were being held, asserting they will not allow the men to leave until the peace talks were taken seriously, and a treaty was reached.  Subsequently the talks changed in tone, content, and direction, and with eyes and pressure offered from the international world (the threat of funding to be cut off), change came.  Taylor was exiled to Nigeria, and a transitional government was installed.  WIPNET under Leymah’s efforts, knowing that the struggle for peace just began, returned working in their communities to promote the reconciliation of Liberia (such as forgiving the rebel soldiers), as well as educating their people about the candidates, laying the fodder for sister Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 to become the first woman elected President of Liberia.

I write about Leymah’s work in detail because I had never heard of her, this radical mission or the incredible accomplishments of these Liberia women, until the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize and then watching the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” in October.  Given this event occurred in 2003, not knowing this women’s work until eight years later sheds a glaring spotlight on my own myopia.  Saturated with too many colonizing lies.   You may have experienced the same.  The rallying of women who were stripped of all things but belief, makes the rallying of women over futile gossip and fabricated drama pale in comparison.  On the “Racialicious” Blog, a blog about the intersections of race and pop culture, guest contributor RVCBard writes about such colonization in his post “Fandom and its Hatred of Black Women Characters.”[12]  Both the author and several dozen respondents commiserated that the syndicated depictions of women of color lack multi-dimensionality, yet fans’ responses have been vitriol.  To this observation, RVCBard comments that “what gets overlooked is that the way these characters are hated [referencing such characters as Martha Jones, Tara Thornton, Guinevere, and Mercedes Jones] happens in a particularly racialized and gendered way that echoes a lot of stereotypes about Black women.”[13] I would add to this mix “reality” shows as well.  Why aren’t there reality shows about women activists?  It has to go beyond simply the suppositions of low ratings and lack of interest.

Again, this is why it is so important that the work you do to make change be made known, not for kudos, but as catalysts and models for others illustrating what can be done, and how.  It took an announcement for such work to get a blip on my radar.  I am sure I am not alone.  Imagine if we pipelined the work we were each doing to improve the community and world, this information would not be exceptional.  Maybe I/we need to develop better pipelines to disseminate such information and role models to one another, instead of allowing the media to spoon-feed us stereotypes and caricatures.

Speaking of pipelines, Leymah’s work was the precedent and ground-laying foundation for another of the Nobel Peace Prize sisters.  Kindred recipient and countrywoman Ellie Johnson Sirleaf, veteran in finance and political sectors, has grounded her life’s work in nation building. Out of ashes of political strife and economic exploitation, she has been instrumental in helping the phoenix of Liberia resurrect itself.  She has served in several professional and political capacities and women’s groups.  Over the span of four decades, she served as one of the founding members  of  the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership Liberia’s Minister of Finance, President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), Vice President of CITICORP’s Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Senior Loan Officer at the World Bank, Vice President for Equator Bank, and under the auspice of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) served as Assistant Administrator and Director of its Regional Bureau of Africa with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.[14]   Even in exile she continued to work on initiatives to prosper Liberia, such as the Kormah Development and Investment Corporation, a venture capital vehicle for African entrepreneurs, and Measuagoon, a Liberian non-profit community development organization that helps war-devastated rural communities rebuild themselves (doing such things as in 2002 bringing improved sanitation to the Budumbura Camp, a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana), and later subsidizing young girls’ education.[15]  In 2003, when Charles Taylor was exiled and the National Transitional Government of Liberia was formed, she served as Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission, later culminating in her unprecedented inauguration on January 16, 2006 as the first female President of Liberia.  In this role, she continued her work to build her country by fostering relationships with regional partners and the international community, and attracting resources to rebuild Liberia’s infrastructure.  She has served on several peace-oriented, women-empowerment, transcontinental and international initiatives, and several advisory boards.

The Nobel Peace Prize trinity of transformation and advocacy is completed by Yemenite Tawakkul Karman.  Journalist and human rights advocate, she has taken the tools of her voice and beliefs to collect and rally her people.   The catalyst for her activism was the refusal of the government to intervene in the intentional displacement of 30 families expelled from their village so the land could be given to a tribal leader close to the president. [16]   To quote Karman, “They never responded to one of our demands.  It made it clear to me that this regime must fall.” Engaged in weekly protests since 2007, she established with compatriots a tent camp called “Change Square” in the heart of the capital city of Sanaa.[17] [18] Tawakkul’s work has been advocating for the rights of free press, heading such groups as “Women Journalists Without Chains.”  Additional advocacy entails demanding the release of political prisoners, unabashed protest against granting immunity to corrupt government officials of the current political regime, and being a parliament member of Al-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform).[19]  She is both the first Yemenite and Arab woman to receive the award.

An intersection shared by all three NPP peacemakers is that they are all mothers.  They harness motherhood as motivation for their activism, an impetus for improving the lives of all, especially children, so they may inherit a better world.   Interestingly enough, motherhood is also a commonality shared with their “reality wives” counterparts.  The difference? The former spend no time labeling potential comrades in struggle as “worthless,” “jumpoffs,” or “crazy.”  They do not use voice or venom to garner and manufacture divisiveness, alienate or create pariahs from potential allies.  These activists employ their energies and talents to fling fists not at one another over fabricated squabbles, but to the brick and mortar of oppression.  They use their talents to channel and forge new pathways and possibilities.  They neither agitate already festering wounds, nor manufacture confrontations that last across episodes and legacies.  Leymah demonstrates cunning ability to transcend potential religious barriers to unite Christian and Muslim women in a united front.  Tawakkul transcends religious, political, and gender barriers to unite the voices of Yemeni people into one.  President Sirleaf integrates various initiatives to unite a people torn by war into a country of prosperity.

We don’t have to act like Pavlovian dogs conditioned to respond as “trained” by the media. We can bolster and build instead of berate or resign ourselves to pre-determined corners.  Our national sheroes and three Nobel Peace Prize Women Warriors offer alternative routes and models for how to use our energies and resources to magnify ours’ and other’s talents to promote and harness them all for the greater good of both gender and world. “Miss Representation” closes with offering suggestions for how we can do such work . . .

  • Stop scrutinizing each other
  • Support media that champions accomplished women
  • Boycott media that objectifies and degrades women
  • Write your own stores and create your own media about powerful women in non-traditional roles
  • Be a mentor to others
  • May we all make empowering other women and girls a priority

I am hoping at the end of this blog you will take a moment to write and post the ways you ARE an agent of change.  This could be the pipeline that activates change in others.  Please share your blueprints, and pass them down to us.  After reading a draft of this article, my friend/brother/mentor John Jenkins shared with me its impact on him:

“I am inspired to use my mouth and mind to spread good positive stories of impact so that others gain the authority to do the same. And in this way we will begin to create the counter-narrative of who we are, who women are in this world.”

In tribute to the women mentioned, and to you, I share an original poem about the fortitude of women activists and the lessons they pass down.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

****************************************


 

The North Star (for All Women Warriors)

Women/compose the North Star/

visions from their minds endow its shine,

spin its beams wide from dreams, and give it

pulsation from ripening affirmations/

transmitting from the transcended to the transcending.

 

Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

clasped my hand,

hastening through muck and

dark with steeled steering

commanding, “Follow the North Star!”

 

They relay my hand to Ida B. Wells

who deposits pen into palm

to record and remind the world of

the law of lynching and lynching of the law

decreeing, “Write the North Star!”

 

She brought me to meet

Mary McCloud Bethune

who conferred my other hand with a degree/

with mind elevated, emancipated by education

declaring, “Teach others of the North Star!”

 

Then Zora Neale Hurston

visited on campus/

witnessing pen and degree advised

“Now chile, youz got th’ degree fo’ da mind,

Now ya need th’ degree of da spirit!”

Took me down to the muck,

shaking me all through

the Everglades, New Orleans, and the islands,

sprinkling dialects and roots on me,

and unleashing, “Conjure with the North Star!”

 

Then Septima Clark came forging through/

recruiting/opening Citizenship schools that

farm the word and grow the vote/

took me into crowded back rooms with adult kin

compelling, “Build a bridge for others to the North Star!”

 

She carried me West to Angela Davis

who on sidewalk and in classroom

vivified the intersections of politics, activism and

the responsibility of change/

escorting me from California to Cuba,

showing me light in prison of industry and prism of mind/

shot my arm straight into the sky

demanding, “Protest in the name of the North Star!”

 

Then we traipsed to the dance festival where

Judith Jamison and the troupe

were summoning the spirits.

The Black Swan, as principal, in principle

pulled me to her stage,

and sauntered, careened, strutted, sundered

my body into chanting limbs

proclaiming, “Dance in the name of the North Star!”

 

I pirouetted cross country back to the East

where Ntozake Shange recognized

who I was to be/

put a stage in my mouth/

sat me over roses to menstruate/

performing surgery on the art of me/

expunging mayhem/so it emote milk/

uttering, “Make language/for the North Star!”

 

Then my mother,

forger of road from heaven to earth

put her hand to her stomach

feeling for my hand back,

beckoning, “Now, come. Be the North Star!”

© TMY 2011

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It’s my sincere hope that this article/blogpost serve as a launching pad for others to become inspired by learning and familiarizing themselves about the work YOU do, to use YOU as a role model, and to contact YOU to contribute. If this blogpost does this, then the mission of writing this article has been fulfilled. To post your response, click the red “Response” button at the end of this blogpost.  A box will appear where you can type in your response.

Write a response in which you share about what organization (or movement)  you support, what communities you work within and support, the work you do, the impact you are trying to make, and contact information for more details.  Whether in your home or across the world, whether large or small scale, telling what you do MATTERS.  Amplifying your contributions to the audience hear helps us learn and grow.

Finally, please also support Bronze Magazine by purchasing a print or digital copy of the anniversary issue.  The founder and editor-in-chief, Shawn Chavis, created the magazine to invigorate and affirm fellow women and their work.  It is replete with information, insight, and inspiration. The site is  http://bit.ly/vtX9U6.

To read others’ responses, or to write your own, please click the red button below.  

To read previous posts scroll to bottom right side of page and click on title of choice.


[11] “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is a documentary profiling Ms. Gbowee and the work of several women to bring peace to Liberia. http://praythedevilbacktohell.com/

Movies as Mirrors: Reflecting on “For Colored Girls”

This blog describes the impact of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem on my identity as a woman of color and a writer, compared to the impact of attending Tyler Perry’s movie adaptation with my husband. 

In the late eighties, one book changed my life.  Ms. Kupperman-Guinals, our drama teacher and teacher extraordinaire, pulled me to the side after class and gave me a copy of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf to read.  Already a self-proclaimed poet, I was writing poems as mirrors of my days–the hardship of being a teenager, the beauty of nature, using big words to say small things, lamenting the crushes I had, and short stories about falling in love with Prince.  When I look back on the reading of that book, it has become a pivotal event in my life.  I know now was given a tool and mirror into so much deeper.

For Colored Girls was the first play I read written as both poem and play–a choreopoem.  In content and structure, it gave me inspiration as a fledging writer to see what can be done with a narrative about being a woman of color, with a unique frame within which to explore and share that phenomenon.  Told from multiple vantage points personified in colors, it bore witness of who we are (and I am) on paper.  Stories of trials, tribulations, triumphs, excavations and epiphanies all woven in a metaphoric tapestry of a rainbow.  A rainbow of womanhood.  Reading the play, I felt like I was seen.  Known.  Believed.   More than a statistic or stereotype.

For Colored Girls has become for me a tool and mentor text for using writing as confession, revelation, empowerment, sharing.  I thank Ms. Kupperman-Guinals for giving me this torch to see myself and the world I could create.  It later fueled for me the inspiration to write an undergraduate honors thesis on the works of Ntozake Shange (“The Negotiation of Silence in the Female Characters in Ntozake Shange’s Texts”), as well as an original play (titled “Episodes of Womanhood/Mahogany Women’s Movements/A Blackened Woman’s Voice from a Different World”).  Years later, in 1992, while writing my thesis, I would have the honor of meeting the original torchbearer herself at Crossroads Theatre who inscribed my copy of  The Love Space Demands with saying “Thank you for being who you are.”

Ms. Shange and Ms. Kupperman-Guinals gave gifts that keep on giving.

So when Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” came out, I was excitedly reserved.  Would the movie he produced captivate me the same way as did the author?  Would I feel the same epiphany and inspiration in being a woman of color again, or would they be muted by the sacrilegious interjection of Madea in womanface?  For me, “For Colored Girls” is one of those works that “should” stay as a text.  Something different, even disappointing, can happen when the vivifying of a text is done onscreen.  Some things get lost in translation, which is what I felt with both “The Watchmen” and especially “Beloved.”  Beloved emerging out of the water and speaking in first person impact the reader in a way that the delivery of an image cannot fully capture.

Bad colds and conflicting dates kept me from seeing the movie with sister friends who wanted to make a dinner and a movie event from seeing the movie.  We knew we would have much to talk about.  Ironically, my husband, a movie buff, volunteered to go.  Fingers crossed . . . we attended.  Afterward, we spent an afternoon walking around the movie theatre parking lot debriefing.

Kerwin recounted that the movie upset him, leaving him to wonder if Tyler Perry hated men.  He felt objectified and shrunk to one dimension.  He disclosed that based upon the characterization of men of color in the movie, a man could only be  a selfish “down low” HIV-positive husband who intentionally infects his wife, a traumatized alcoholic war veteran who abuses his wife and throws his offspring out the window, a slick-tongued rapist, a two-timing non-committal gigolo, or a john.  Or absent.  The married good cop was just a flash in a pan.  To him, there were no layers, textures, complexity explored.  Just stereotypes delivered.  Again.  And when I told him there were no male characters in the original choreopoem, he was befuddled by why they were included by Perry in the movie.

I wished my husband experienced what I did in reading the play over two decades ago.  I genuinely wanted him to know what it felt like for me to see your complexion and complexity captured and given back to you as a gift, as I did with both my teacher and favorite author.  Instead, he saw himself shrunken, caricatured.  Again.  This time, by his own.

Since seeing the movie together, my husband’s sentiments leave in me a feeling of responsibility for using words and images so others can see themselves.  How can the poetry I write serve the goal of relaying my thoughts and ideas yet provide breathing room and a space for others to see and experience themselves?  Relative to the two of us, how do I serve as a mirror of his truthful reflections?  And, relative to us all, how can we live so that we serve as mentor text and mirror to our best and most possible selves?