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Supporting Storytellers of Color: the how and why of it all

This article was originally published by , an organization which seeks to "empower women and nonbinary writers by creating physical and virtual spaces for sharing information, supporting and encouraging submissions to literary journals, and clarifying the submission and publication process." If you're looking to start your journey into publication, check them out.

Before I found my way to leading writing and story workshops, I’d already spent several years facilitating in the domains of personal growth and spirituality. During that time, I worked with students from a range of backgrounds but, thanks to their ability to invest time and money into their own transformation, a majority of them were affluent white women. I grew fatigued. As a mixed Latina from a historically disadvantaged community, the contexts of race, difference, and economic inequality through which I interpreted the world were mere blips in their consciousness; unless I began to augment my existing curricula with the kinds of DEI and social justice content I cared about, I knew that I’d remain unsatisfied. 

When I shifted my focus to the realms of writing and storytelling, I took what felt like a huge leap of faith; I decided to work primarily with people of the Global Majority. I did this not only because I was seeking students whose perspectives and values more closely aligned with my own, but because I wanted to create spaces which centered writers who are routinely marginalized in predominantly white classroom environments. Since then, I’ve led workshops to immigrants and first gen Americans, Black, Latina, Asian, and Indigenous women, and a growing number who, like me, identify as “mixed.” Among these writers, I’ve found a shared vocabulary of experience and perception that was lacking among my white students and, rather than drained, I feel energized from supporting the development of stories that have potential to upend the status quo.

Prior to making this shift, I’d already sought to create workshop settings that supported diversity and individuality but, when I added creative writing to the mix, I began to think more intentionally.

about what had been missing from my own learning experiences.

I set out to design the kind of environment I’d yearned for but never had: one in which a white male mindset wasn’t the default, white male aesthetics weren’t the ideal, and explorations of gender equity weren’t limited to white feminism.

Growing up Puerto Rican and Jewish in the Bronx, all my teachers, with the exception of my 11th grade trigonometry teacher, were white. Nevertheless, I was always on the lookout for creative role models whose backgrounds reflected my own and I was always disappointed; just as I was disappointed in my desire for books and films, which affirmed my identity and my community. With little else to choose from, as a teenager I sought to emulate the work and craft of mostly white men. Later, at college, I worked closely with my advisor who was a kindhearted Henry Fonda type from Kansas. Though he encouraged my attempts as a playwright and screenwriter, he couldn’t provide the guidance. I longed for.

My challenges were so unlike the ones he’d faced that he could sympathize with me but couldn’t advise me. By the time I graduated, I’d decided not only to become a filmmaker whose work validated the experiences of other little girls from marginalized communities, but one they could turn to as a mentor and role model. 

In my twenties, I moved to Hollywood and honed my craft in screenwriting programs, eager to write the kinds of stories I dreamed of seeing. I wrote a magical realist coming of age story, a Sci-Fi adventure with a biracial heroine, and a noir script about Caribbean colonization. While both peers and instructors recognized their potential, my continued lack of guidance left those stories underdeveloped. While my readers regarded my background and settings as colorful, none could help me unravel their complexities or embed them meaningfully into my work. Despite my best intentions, I’d fully absorbed the message that my viewpoint didn’t matter in a white-centered world, and I found myself stuck, my capacity to develop an authentic authorial voice stunted.

Despite the difficulties, I still enjoyed the writing process and valued the emphasis my instructors put on narrative structure. Hoping that technical excellence would compensate for my struggles to be authentic, I devoted myself to mastering it. As had been true in my entire life, my instructors were all white men and, like my college advisor, they were generally kind. To quote Joy Castro’s “Racial and Ethnic Justice in the Creative Writing Course essay, “I was never mistreated,” but I remained unmentored.

During this period, I didn’t meet a single Latina screenwriter, never mind a Jewish-Latina one. Finally– creatively and mentally spent – I hit rock bottom. Burnt out after eight years, I broke down in my therapist’s office; I’d forgotten what, and why, I’d wanted to write in the first place.  It was not long after that tearful confession that I stopped writing, let go of my dreams, and began considering a different future. 

When a friend recommended that the local Arts High School hire me as a creative writing teacher, I found myself standing in front of a classroom. Now on the other side of the divide, I knew what was at stake for my students from marginalized backgrounds. I decided that my classroom would not only be a place for learning craft but a place where writers could develop a strong sense of self and the confidence to tell the truth.

In his essay “On Teaching Writers of Color,” Bill Cheng writes that the best workshop leaders make their students feel that they are invested in their work; “they don’t just nurture nascent talent,” he says of such teachers, “they build relationships…they are open and honest not only about their hopes and ambitions but also their failures and their insecurities.” As an instructor who took a long and winding road to teaching, that is the only thing I can do.

After five years, the classroom environment I create is informed by a range of influences that go beyond the places where I learned to write and includes sacred spaces in which I experienced personal transformation and healing from my writing trauma. In the classroom, I make the following promises to myself:

  • To see my students as three-dimensional human beings whose genius lies in the fullness of who they are, whatever their background or experience,

  • To act as “the wall,” a guide whose steadfast belief in another person never wavers,

  • To address each student and their work with curiosity rather than critique, 

  • To acknowledge and celebrate the fundamental desire which inspires each writer to tell their specific story, and 

  • To support them in writing for the readers who matter to them: not for me, not for their teachers, and not for the generic (white) reader who, for so many years, they’d been taught to write for.

  • I welcome each person who crosses the threshold as an already beloved community member,

  • To act as “the wall,” a guide whose steadfast belief in another person never wavers,

  • To trust the unexpected and potent associations that arise spontaneously in creative spaces.

Imbued through all of this is respect for the writer’s vulnerability and faith that mindful support and mentorship can transform writing that is adequate into writing that sings with its author’s true voice.

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