The idyllic Mills College campus — which is characterized by tree-lined roads, ornate Julia Morgan-designed buildings, and even a footbridge over a creek — feels like a different world compared to the streets of East Oakland outside its gates. But new community writing workshops funded by the private school are working to connect these seemingly disparate places.
Led by graduate students in Mills' creative writing program (of which, full disclosure, I am an alumna), the free workshops are designed to serve marginalized groups who would otherwise have little access to writing resources. Now in its second year, the program has reached out to incarcerated women, formerly incarcerated men, and Filipino-American activists.
Mills pays the full two-year tuition for MFA students who teach the workshops. "We thought about how we could use this new funding to further our mission around art and social justice," said program director Stephanie Young. "Creative writing is at its most relevant when it's in communities and not in institutions."
So far, three students have been awarded this assistantship. It's the only fully funded opportunity in the creative writing graduate program, and possibly the only one of its kind in the country, according to Young. Prestigious MFA programs like The Iowa Writers' Workshop at The University of Iowa fund students based exclusively on the merit of their writing, but Mills wanted to do something different.
"Institutions come in and say, 'We know what the community needs. Don't you want it?' We're going for really thoughtful engagement to build long-term relationships," Young said.
Mills modeled the assistantship after similar community programs, including June Jordan's Poetry for the People, Mark Nowak's poetry workshops with auto workers in the United States and South Africa, and Heriberto Yepez's public poetry/art movement in Tijuana. From there, Young said it came down to choosing the right students for the assistantship — ones with a passion for social justice, teaching, and writing. Students apply for the assistantship by submitting a proposal for a workshop and explaining its benefit to the greater East Bay community.
The first recipient of the assistantship, Tessa Micaela, had worked as a longtime advocate for reproductive justice before applying to Mills. Through her professional connections, Micaela was introduced to Forward Together, an Oakland-based sex education and reproductive rights organization. Micaela spent her first semester designing a workshop that used creative writing as a tool to help women write about their health and bodies, then found students by partnering with local nonprofits. Her current workshops at San Francisco County Jail address health issues, both emotional and mental, specific to incarcerated women. She cited the practice of shackling pregnant inmates while they're in labor, which was only recently banned under California law, and the fact that women who give birth while incarcerated are separated from partners and family.
"Women are often the ones that hold families together," said Micaela. "When a lot of that support system falls away, it's hard for them to stay resilient, which will affect their health."
The chaos of teaching in jail doesn't seem to faze Micaela. She recalled how one of her students was released in the middle of a workshop: "We were all writing and all of a sudden her name gets called. Then we all started crying and did a free-write about her release." Even though her students change every time she teaches, Micaela said she's figuring out how to build connections within the strict parameters of jail. She's enlisted local writers, including Brittany Billmeyer-Finn and Cheena Marie Lo of Oakland's Manifest Reading Series, to start corresponding with her students about their writing. Micaela eventually wants to publish the writing that comes out of her workshop, even if it's after she graduates this year. "I'm not going to stop once school ends because it's a long-term commitment of mine," Micaela said. She's working on a blog to host student writing and hopes to make a chapbook (a 'zine-style, DIY book).
Publishing workshop-produced writing is not a requirement of the assistantship, but it seems a likely outcome for Melissa Sipin's Filipino-American students. Before coming to Mills, Sipin cofounded TAYO, a literary magazine devoted to the Filipino and Filipino-American experience. For her five-week workshop, held in late 2012, Sipin convinced esteemed local authors like Barbara Jane Reyes to discuss the way writing combines the personal and political, specifically the movement for democracy in the Philippines.
Oakland poet Mg Roberts — one of the more experienced writers in Sipin's workshop — compared the experience to getting her MFA at New College. Roberts' prose poems explore the Filipino immigrant narrative, drawing from personal history like her go-go dancer mother marrying an American GI.
"It was so mind-opening for me," Roberts said. "The workshop forced me to ask myself, 'How much can I write about narratives that don't belong to me in the context of my culture? Who has a right to tell certain stories?'"
Roberts is working on the second draft of her collection of poems, titled Missives of Appropriation and Error, and has established a writing group with people she met in Sipin's workshop.
"I still can't believe it was free," Roberts said. "I wrote more in those classes than I had in years."
Editor's Note: The original version of this story erroneously stated that one of the workshops catered to Filipino-American immigrants; it actually catered to Filipino-American activists. This version has been corrected.