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Building political community beyond the classroom

The Community Engagement Fellows’ work powerfully demonstrated the potential of building creative community and solidarity across countries, language barriers and gender.

On April 11, graduating fellows Manar Harb ’17, Avren Keating ’17 and Karina Muniz ’17 all presented their work in the Reinhardt Alumnae House, reflecting on the challenges and triumphs of their time as fellows.

Harb, who grew up in Palestine, moved to the United States in 2001 to escape the Second Palestinian Intifada. She moved to Oakland to pursue her master’s at Mills in book art and creative writing. The theme of moving across boundaries, both political, geographical and intimate, is prevalent in Harb’s work.

“How can we re-imagine the process of communication and what it really means because it seems like it’s getting blurred,” Harb wondered.

Harb’s interest in communication found a focus in the practice of letter writing when she saw a Facebook post by poet Suheir Hammad. In the post, Hammad shared her mailing address and asked people to write to her. Harb was fascinated with the idea of receiving letters from strangers, and this initial fascination grew into an obsession that powered her work. This work took on the shape of anonymous letter writing. Harb asked participants to take a moment to write a handwritten letter to someone that they didn’t know.

She started looking for letter writing participants at local Bay Area schools, including Envision Academy and Berkeley High. She was also able to return to Palestine and get a public elementary school involved in the project. Harb’s intention was to resist computer technology to foster connection, with attention to promoting handwriting among youth.

Community Engagement fellow Avren Keating created a podcast, “Waves Breaking,” to confront the lack of transgender representation in the literary world and highlight the voices of trans and genderqueer poets.

“I lived most of my life in a town off a freeway used to get to other places. I know what it’s like to live in a place that doesn’t recognize you,” Keating said.

Keating came out as trans during their last year as an undergraduate at San Francisco State University. Initially, Keating wanted to focus their project on interviewing transgender youth. However, Keating found it difficult to work with youth, saying that many are terrified of being outed and are therefore in a vulnerable position. Keating re-focused their project and decided to feature the voices of adults in the podcast.

In the beginning stages of the project, Keating said they asked participants: “How is your writing like your gender?”

“But when I talked to more poets, I noticed resistance to the correlation of body and text,” Keating said, adding that many participants rejected the notion that because they identify as genderqueer, their writing must be a hybrid of some sort.

In their presentation, Keating played a sound bite of an interview with writer Aristilde Kirby.

Reflecting on the sound bite, Keating said that Kirby was able to realize who she fully was through her writing, and that writing was the place where she learned to articulate identity.

Keating noted that they grappled with the “weird ego trip that happens when you become the interviewer.”

Karina Muniz, a queer, mixed heritage, Chicana writer from San Francisco, launched a creative writing project.

“I would not be here today if not for the women in my family who migrated here,” Muniz said.

She fell in love with both writing and teaching, and said she is inspired by bell hooks’ belief that teachers must be vulnerable.

“Though our stories may be rough, don’t look at me with pity, see my power,” Muniz said.

Muniz brought Lulu Reboyoso, Claudia Reyes and Maria Hernandez, three women from the creative writing group, with her to the presentation.

Hernandez read a poem that the women collaboratively wrote together aloud in Spanish, and Muniz provided the English translation.

“Sometimes I fail at this, but I carry with me a desire to continue,” Hernandez read in Spanish and Muniz repeated in English.