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Meet Mills creative writing faculty Lisa Gray

Sitting at her desk with her glasses perched on the tip of her nose, surrounded by a flurry of papers, Lisa Gray punches out a quick email to one of her mentees before she forgets.

As a graduate of both Mills College and Spelman College, Gray has been dedicated to empowering women and uplifting African Americans on campus since she began teaching at Mills in 2011.

For Gray, it was a visit to campus that confirmed her desire to attend Mills College. She was eager to work with the esteemed professors and loved the convenience of being able to travel from Mills to her home in San Francisco.

Upon completing her MFA in Creative Writing and English at Mills in 2010, Gray was asked to return as a professor. While working with Mills, Gray became committed to spreading her passion for social change and social justice, as that is where her heart lies. She hoped that she could inspire the women at Mills to become more involved in leading and organizing social justice movements, and becoming agents of change in the Oakland community, as well as their own.

Accordingly, she became the interim director for the provost office’s Institute for Civic Leadership, a leadership development program for students interested in social justice, and taught courses centered around women’s leadership.

“Lisa worked as a TA in one of my African American literature classes years ago,” said Mills professor Ajuan Mance, who met Gray while she was an MFA student. “Lisa is smart, funny, creative, irreverent, and very knowledgeable about African American history and literature and culture.”

Additionally, 2017 marks Gray’s third year of being Mills’ Black history month coordinator.

Gray has revolutionized the way Black culture is celebrated on campus. She has worked very closely with Mills’ Black Students Collective (BSC) to champion BHM365, which hosts events to honor Black history throughout the year, instead of exclusively in February.

“I feel like there needs to be a place for Black women at Mills,” Gray said. “As a graduate of an all Black women’s institution, I’m very clear on the fact that when you are afforded spaces and places to be you, wonderful things come out of that.”

BHM365, which began in 2016, is designed to allow the Mills and Oakland communities to engage in black history and culture in a variety of ways. Kicking off in November, BHM365 hosts workshops, lectures, dances, movie screenings, and more throughout the school year, in an effort to provide a more holistic view of black culture.

Members of the BSC are often eager to work with Gray and participate in planning events for BHM365. Many also look up to her as a mentor.

“I see her as someone to look towards for advice and just generally admire her work ethic,” said Alyssa Rudolph, the current president of the BSC. Rudolph also said she is proud to know Gray.

Women who have worked with Gray refer to her as “a dedicated mentor,” “passionate,” “driven,” and “a talented writer.”

“Lisa works hard to ensure that the Black voice on Mills’ campus holds space and is validated,” said Shay Thornton, one of Gray’s mentees and a BHM365 organizer.

Since returning to Mills as a faculty member, Gray credits the institution for helping her further her writing career. Gray has published three short stories, curates reading series that focus on black women, and opened a consulting firm for social justice organizations. Gray also won the Henry Jackson literary award in 2013, and became a fellow at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto in 2014.

As she continues her journey at Mills, Gray aims to help young black women on campus identify opportunities, while simultaneously sharing her knowledge with a broader audience, so that others can understand what it means to be a black woman. She also hopes that she can call upon her training as a Community Partnership Coordinator,  to increase the interaction between Mills and the broader Oakland community, through events hosted by the BSC and BHM365.