From Elmaz and Only Elmaz
In graduate school, a famous poet threw me out of his class, shamed me and my culture and ultimately made me a pariah in the program—because everyone liked who he liked, and ridiculed who he ridiculed. I didn’t blame the program, I put it on him and a lot on myself. For years, I didn’t understand that graduate school didn’t have to work that way—that we didn’t have to be humiliated to earn our place alongside our white colleagues.
That program was not dedicated to centering the silenced voices, bringing people in from the margins or standing on a foundation of social justice.
That’s an experience that seeded my participation in co-founding and being part of VONA. Humiliation, misconduct, shame and aggression are not values that are defensible. So I will never defend them. If you have had that experience in a VONA space, in my classrooms at Mills or at the Y, I am sorry because it’s a slash against you—maybe a shallow one that heals or a deep one that disrupts the psyche. It’s not good.
This is why I am working hard with the Board to repair the lost faith some of the community members have in us, that is why I have asked the petitioners and the NYC Alum group to meet with me and other Board members, that’s why I have talked to faculty and consultants, alums and loved ones to get a greater understanding of how to move forward and provide an experience for writers of color that they deserve.
We deserve to have this workshop for writers of color—it’s one of our only chances of talking about our work seriously, to have those good conversations about craft and those tough ones about being POC.
I’ve lived in the dream scape of my classroom and my community—not monitoring the atmosphere with the diligence that doesn’t let those behaviors happen. I was high on what my writers were doing, how the community lifted each other, how we drew a common breath in our focus on our work.
Our administration was small and overloaded. We trusted structures to happen and it took a while for us to understand that a good community needs more guidance—something more concrete than enthusiasm and trust.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I hope that VONA survives because, as I’ve said, we deserve it. But I wanted to reach out to you as a survivor, a writer and a woman, not as an administrator or a co-founder. You need to know why I stay and work on solutions, even while it hurts.
Thank you for reading this. People outside of our community will find VONA an easy target and that worries me. I hope you can exercise the kindnesses toward each other that we don’t get from the outside. I move forward with hope and an open heart.