Sharing Your Voice

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Have you wanted to submit your writing or start a blog and not been sure how do to either? Do you already publish your work or write a blog, but want some ideas to ignite your writing?

This workshop will be for both the person who has never submitted his or her work and for the already published author. I will share ideas for submitting your work to both online and print publications. I will also give you ideas to start a simple blog to highlight your writing. You will leave with lots of new ideas to jump start your writing practice.

We all have a story to tell and blogging in one way to share your story with others in a relatable and easily accessible way. Blogging is a vehicle through which you can get your story out there and receive feedback and affirmation.

The second half of the three-hour workshop will be about submitting your work, another way to share your voice. Sending off your writing is one great way to get feedback on your work and to share it with a broader audience.  We will discuss how to submit and places to submit your work.  The writer Elizabeth Berg said,

  • Have something to say (and you do)
  • Say it well (you can)
  • Send it out (you must)

Join me at The Spectrum Center this Saturday, February 17 from 1 to 4 pm here in Houston. To register for this $75 workshop, contact rosa235@earthlink.net. She will send directions to the Center (located in the Heights) after you register.

Speak Up Mississippi

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write for mississippi.pngAfter the election, a friend shared a Facebook post with me about a GoFundMe campaign to bring writers into high school classrooms in Mississippi to inspire young people to think about change. The campaign was created by a native Mississippian “in light of the recent political turmoil and deep historical burdens.” The idea was simple bring writers into all the high school classrooms of Mississippi to to generate poems, stories, and essays around the prompt “What’s a problem in your community? How could you try to fix it?” and then to publish the best of the resulting pieces in a book that could be redistributed across the state.

Disheartened by the climate in our country, this one person believed she could be a force for change beginning with her native state. The fund raising campaign was called, “What Can We Do for Our Country? and Katy Smith, the creator of the project she called, Write for Mississippi, raised almost $5000 online. Then she was able to get many high schools on board and recruit an outstanding group of writers in just a few short months. Just look at the line up of writers she was able to pull together – 39 writers from our state including Curtis Wilkie, Beth Ann Fennelly, Kiese Laymon and Rheta Grimsley Johnson. Students from throughout the state are already submitting their work for the anthology scheduled to come out later this year.

When I heard about Katy Smith‘s Write for Mississippi, I immediately donated and contacted her. Because I believe in the power of the written word and the importance of giving our young people a voice, I wanted to help.  My job with Writers in the Schools here in Houston takes me into schools all over the city encouraging students to write and create.

After several emails, Katy sent me to Baldwyn High School in March. I was already in Mississippi for another event, so it was my pleasure to spend the day in this wonderful high school. The students gave me hope in the future of Mississippi as we talked about problems and solutions. Together with the students, we read an excerpt from Sherman Alexie‘s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. We talked a lot about a quote of Alexie’s, “Don’t live up to your stereotypes.”  Then we made a list of problems they saw in their community.  These problems ranged from bad cafeteria food to interracial dating. The students weren’t afraid to speak up and nor did they hesitate to put their thoughts on the page. The prompt was: “What’s a problem in your community? Where do you think it came from? How could you try to fix it?”

I have not yet seen their work because students revised and wrote on the computer in the days after I left the classroom, but I know they wrote personal essays, fiction, poetry and even a rap song. And many of these juniors and seniors shared their work with me while I was there. Their words were strong.  I know these young people will make a difference in the future of our state. But the most amazing thing is that one writer Katy Smith, a published novelist and a product of Mississippi public schools, created this opportunity to give our young people a voice. Thank you, Katy.

Still I Rise

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I see the gleaming towers of Houston reaching to the sky. This bright image is set against a the ruins of a community. A recent visit to Houston’s historic Fourth Ward led me to meditate on this question: Do we want to be transformed by the glint and glitter of modern progress or by the renewing of our hearts by a meditative journey on the ground?

freedmans-town1Freedman’s Town

This neighborhood was once a prosperous community of freed slaves creating a life for themselves near the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Freedman’s Towns were formed all over the country after the Civil War.  This 37-acre settlement on the west side of downtown Houston remained owned by Freedman descendants from 1865 to 1939.  In 1939 the eight remaining black families, who still owned Freedman’s Town, took their case to the Supreme Court and lost their land. A few years later, Housing Authority officials built a public housing project on the site for all-white returning World War II veterans. The neighborhood was further eroded when Interstate 45 cut through the middle in the 1950s. Many of the residents began to move to other parts of the city and the thriving community that once with filled with business and nightclubs and at least 23 churches slowly became a ghost town. Recent efforts to preserve parts of the area, which is being taken over by condominium developments, were the focus of my recent walk in Freedman’s Town.

fullsizeoutput_b82aWalking the labyrinth is a meditative practice. A meditative journey on the ground can be a “cross cultural blueprint for well being” as the sign on the labyrinth at the former Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church said. We can be transformed by opening our hearts. Rather than looking up to the modern, gleaming skyscrapers downtown, we can look to the earth and our own feet as we walk the labyrinth. Walking these streets to try to understand the past is also a form of prayer or meditation.

We are walking in someone else’s shoes on today’s journey getting a dim glimpse of the life of freed slaves in Houston’s early days. As downtown grew and developers started building condos and apartments here, this history could have been lost. But visionaries have transformed the site of former churches, a school and soon a beauty shop museum to bring to life the stories of the people who once lived here.

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I walk these bricks.

These bricks soaked by the muscle and sweat

of my father.

I walk these bricks.

These bricks baked in the relentless sun

of this city.

I walk these bricks

everyday to serve another master.

They may say we are free but

we are still bound.

Bound to meager wages and the never ending toil

along these bricks

I walk.

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Bethel Park, the site of the former Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, stands as a reminder of this church that was originally built in the 1890s. The building was destroyed by the elements – wind, water and fire – over its long history but always re-built. The park stands as a reminder that we must never lose hope. The promise survives in the sound of the water overflowing a fountain within its walls. We also see promise in the words engraved around the sacred space: prayer, compassion, hope, service, peace, community, worship, love, forgiveness.

img_8347No visit to Freedman’s Town is complete without a visit to the African American Library at The Gregory School. This school first opened in 1870 as the first public school for African Americans in Houston. The exhibits within its walls tell the little known stories of the residents of this area. Luminaries like Dr. Thelma Patten Law, the first female black obstetrician, and Heman Sweatt, who integrated the University of Texas, come to life here. Adinkra symbols like this one at the entrance remind visitors of the importantance of knowledge about our past.img_8341

img_8346Another sign of hope in this once vibrant community is the move to create a museum to celebrate the rich history of beauty and barber shops and to further preserve the stories of this area. This summer an original stage play called  “In All Thy Getting: The Forgotten Story of Freedmen’s Town” will be presented at  The Ensemble Theatre in nearby downtown Houston.  Walking tours of the area are also offered on a regular basis through the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum. This foundation was created by the great granddaughter of the original founder of Freedman’s Town, Rev. Jack Yates.  The promise of transformation remains in this unique area of Houston.

As I end my meditative walk, I am reminded of the words of Maya Angelou in her inspiring poem, “Still I Rise” —

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise.

More Telling Our Stories

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 “Our lives are a collection of stories,” according to researcher and author Brene Brown. Author and poet Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”   Because we all have stories to tell, this spring I will once again offer a four-week evening adult writing class. This is for adults who have always wanted to write, but can’t seem to find the time.  This workshop-style class will encourage you to find your unique voice through discussing the craft of writing, using writing exercises and prompts and sharing with other writers. Whether you want to write informally or to publish your memoir, this class will help you learn to craft your story.

An article in the New York Times pointed out that research has shown that writing and re-writing your personal story can make your happier.  Yes, this writing class can also improve your mood.

This past October I taught a new version of the class to yet another group of wonderful writers through Spring Branch Community Education. They were young and old, male and female, working and retired, mothers, fathers, grandparents. This amazing group looked at their lives and the craft of writing to authentically tell their stories. I will repeat the same MORE TELLING OUR STORIES class this spring. If this interests you, contact SBISD Department of Community Education here. The class will be on the four Monday evenings beginning March 21, 2016 from 6 to 8 pm.  See you there! I can’t wait to hear your story.

Telling Our Stories

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 Author and poet Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  This spring I will once again offer a four-week evening class is for adults who have always wanted to write, but can’t seem to find the time.  This workshop-style class will encourage adults to find their unique voice through discussing the craft of writing, using writing exercises and prompts and sharing with other writers. Whether you want to write informally or to publish your memoir, this class will help you learn to tell your story.

A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that research has shown that writing and re-writing your personal story can make your happier.  Yes, this writing class can improve your mood.

This past October I taught the class for the first time to eight wonderful writers through Spring Branch Community Education. They were young and old, male and female, working and retired, mothers, fathers, grandparents. This amazing group looked at their lives and the craft of writing to authentically tell their stories. If you are interested in the April class, you can contact SBISD Department of Community Education here. The class will be on the four Monday evenings in April 7 to 9 pm.  Next October I will offer a new class for adults who want to tell MORE stories. See you there! I can’t wait to hear your story.

Tired of Waiting

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I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

8.6 million people re-tweeted that line from a poem by Langston Hughes last night after the grand jury in St.Louis did not charge the police officer in Ferguson who shot and killed an unarmed black man last summer. The world seems so unfair. Is there no justice? Will black men continue to be gunned down in the streets of our country?
These are all questions that Jesmyn Ward asked in her most recent book, Men We Reaped:A Memoir. She said, “Demond’s family history wasn’t so different from my own, did that mean we were living the same story over and over again, down through the generations? That the young and Black had always been dying, until all that was left were children and the few old, as in war?”

I just finished reading Men We Reaped yesterday; the same day the grand jury in St. Louis announced their non-conviction.  As I watched the riots in Ferguson and the peaceful protests across the country on television last night, I felt only despair. Like the words by Langston Hughes, I am so tired of waiting. Demond (in the quote above) could be Michael Brown or any one of countless numbers of unarmed black men killed by authorities.

As a White woman from Mississippi, I felt guilt and shame as I read this painful memoir by Ward, just like the shame I felt hearing the grand jury decision last night.  The Men We Reaped was a difficult book to read, not because of dense or confusing writing, but because of the sad, sad story this young woman was compelled to tell. Jesmyn Ward is the National Book Award winning author of Salvage the Bones, one of my favorite books. That novel tells the fictional story of a south Mississippi family living in abject poverty during Hurricane Katrina. Men We Reaped is not fiction as Ward pays tribute to five young men, including her brother, who died within four years in her south Mississippi hometown of Delisle. These beloved young men’s deaths were all separate incidents and had different causes, yet the history of poverty and racism in her hometown compelled Ward to look at why they died and see a connection. “Death spreads, eating away at the root of our community like a fungus.”

In her last chapter, Ward shares some of the statistics about “what it means to be Black and poor in the South.” Thirty five percent of Black Mississippians live below poverty level, compared with 11 percent of Whites. And one of every 12 Black Mississippi men in his 20s is an inmate in the Mississippi prison system. And poverty, lack of education, and poor social support contribute to as many deaths as heart attack, stroke, and lung cancer in the United States. All these statistics don’t tell the story as well as Ward’s very honest tribute to each of these young black men in her community that died between 2000 and 2004. I read the last chapter in tears as Ward said, “By the number, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.”

Ward describes the despair she felt for years after the death of her brother by a drunk driver was followed by the deaths of four other good friends in her home town. The drunk driver who killed Ward’s beloved younger brother received no DUI, no manslaughter charge, only a conviction for leaving the scene of an accident. He never paid restitution and only served three years in jail.  Is this fair? How long must we wait?

I can only imagine how emotionally demanding it must have been for Ward to write this book. I heard her speak in Houston a couple of years ago and she talked about this book being one she had to write. She said this book was the most difficult thing she had ever written. She is brave and honest in depicting her life and the lives of her family and the people in her community.

Ward writes: “We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

Everyone should read Men We Reaped. Unless we try to understand the world these young black men inhabit and acknowledge their darkness, we will all keep waiting for Langston Hughes’ beautiful and kind world. I am praying for Ferguson this morning and for the mothers who lose their children too young and for courageous writers like Jesmyn Ward who shine the light in the darkness.

Also published in my book blog, http://wordsplusideas.blogspot.com