The Fire Within: Celebrating the Life of Audre Lorde

By Charity Goodrow

On this day in 1932, Audre Lorde was born in Harlem to Caribbean immigrant parents Linda and Frederick Lorde. I often heard this lyrical name, Audre Lorde, in passing during my residencies at Goddard College’s Plainfield, VT campus. Many of my peers seemed deeply moved by her work as a poet, essayist and activist. It felt natural for me to include The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde in my studies since my work focused primarily on feminism and writing from the female experience.  

My goal this semester was to find my feminist voice. I hoped to build up the courage to translate my voice into a collection of personal essays, poetry, and fiction. I believe that certain people (in my case authors) reveal themselves to us during the exact time we are seeking guidance and inspiration. While studying Lorde’s collection of poetry, I developed a deep admiration for her. I quickly realized she possessed a fire within that blazed a trail for women around the world to express themselves. There’s no question, Lorde’s work ignited a fire within me that has illuminated my path as a writer.  

The poem in Lorde’s collection that inspired me most was “A Litany for Survival.”  While fear can be debilitating, this poem reminded me that silence is far more destructive; silence can destroy a person’s soul.  Audre Lorde once said, “I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We've been taught that silence would save us, but it won't.”  

As an aspiring writer, there have been times when my fear of rejection, judgment or being misunderstood has disrupted my creative process. Sometimes I feel as though I have so much to communicate to the world, but the powerful voice within me comes out as a whisper.  If you’ve ever had a dream where you try to scream and nothing comes out, then I’m sure you can relate to this feeling of being locked in by fear.  What I admire most about Audre Lorde is her ability to embrace fear.  As I read “A Litany for Survival,” first silently then aloud, I began to understand that fear is a basic human emotion that we all experience and if we welcome it as we do joy and happiness, let it pass through us, we can discover its origin, allowing us to move forward and reject the isolation of silence. 

The following lines have since taken up residence in my soul and I am forever grateful for Audre Lorde’s wisdom and honesty:

"when we are loved we are afraid

love will vanish

when we are alone we are afraid

love will never return

and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid"

 
Lorde had an impressive career. She attended Hunter College, where she received her BA in literature and philosophy.  She also received an MLS from Columbia University. She worked as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library as well as Town School Library in New York City.  She had two children with Edwin Rollins and after their divorce, met her partner Frances Clayton while working as a writer in residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Lorde was a mother, poet, activist, and feminist who was involved in the civil rights movement as well as the Afro-German movement which inspired the documentary Audre Lorde - The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992. In 1968, Lorde’s first collection of poetry First Cities was published. Some of her most popular work includes Coal (1976), The Black Unicorn (1978), and The Cancer Journals (1980). Audre Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and liver cancer in 1984. She passed away on November 17, 1992.

Today, we celebrate the life and important work of Audre Lorde. Let us be reminded that we all possess a fire deep within and sometimes all it takes is a little inspiration to ignite it.     

 

 

Life Lessons: Don’t Disqualify Yourself

By Cameron Price

In March I will be graduating from Goddard's BFA in Creative Writing Program. It feels spectacular to thumb through the 88 page manuscript of poetry and critical writing that I labored over and revised more times than I can count. In fact I printed it out just so I could hold it in my hands (I'll reuse and then recycle the paper, don't worry.) I'm very proud of the work that I've done at Goddard and grateful for the invaluable lessons and friendships I've gained.

At this point, many people know I'm pretty much DONE with my undergraduate degree. It’s an amazing feeling, don't get me wrong. I like being congratulated as much as the next guy. However there's that question. You know which one. It's the question that keeps (or did keep) you up at night as a young 20-something on the verge of beginning a new life chapter: "So what's next?" And, of course, this question may keep you up at night regardless of your age. We seem to hear it everywhere when we're about to finish a milestone. What's next, what's next, what's next....

It's an enchanting notion right? Life’s endless possibilities. The sky is the limit. Actually, as we all know, it's much messier than that. In the past when faced with the inevitable unknown, my emotions more closely resemble a tight and vicious knot of nerves and ecstatic excitement than a clichéd white-winged eagle soaring easily up to the lofty heights of aspiration. It's a terrifying question. And often it just feels easier to make something up. We are kind of making it up as we go along anyway.....right? Instead of worrying incessantly about the unknowable future, I've sought ways to approach the end of my degree differently. There must be a better way to look at all of this, I've thought to myself many times.

By far the advice that keeps coming back to comfort me are the words of Chicana author and activist Stephanie Elizondo Griest. She was Goddard's visiting writer last Fall. Griest is a colorful speaker who has lived an even more colorful life. Her stories of beautiful, terrifying, and transformational experiences from living everywhere from Russia, to China, to Cuba enthralled us all. However, one idea stood out to me: Don't be the one to disqualify yourself from an opportunity. Let that be someone else's job. Don't you be the one who tells you you don't have what it takes.

She figured, someone had to win that fellowship, write that book, get that job, receive that grant, tell that story. So why not her? Why not me? Why not you? The trick was not to NOT get rejected. The trick is not to be the one to tell yourself not to bother, that you wouldn't get it anyway. Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s advice: Give it your best shot and don’t get in your own way.

This means a great deal to me as a poet. My poetry easily gets rejected more often than it gets accepted. But I know now that if I had let just one of those rejection letters shut me down and hold me back, I may not have gotten my work accepted at the places I have. A good example of this is when I made an experimental video piece based on a poem I wrote. I wanted to try something different in an unfamiliar medium so I had fun with it and made something I was proud of. A little thought came to me that I should submit it somewhere. It was as simple as Googling "video art submissions" to find an avenue to potentially share my work. One of the first opportunities that came up was for the 6th Cairo Video Festival in Egypt. I browsed their website, marveling at the quality of the work I was seeing. A little thought came again that I should submit my little film to them. I scoffed. Um, helloooo, I shot this 2:45 second video on my iPhone 4. No way. But I did it anyway because there was no submission fee....

I totally forgot about the submission until months later when I received an email from Egypt telling me that my video piece had been selected to be screened in their upcoming festival! I was in shock. How did my iPhone movie make it into this international video festival!? The only thing I did know was that it wouldn't have been accepted at all if I had never submitted it. Though I had my doubts, I didn't disqualify myself from the opportunity. Well, maybe more accurately, I followed my gut before I could talk myself out of it and lo and behold, something great came of it. On November 17, 2014, my film played on loop in a gallery somewhere in Cairo. I've never been to Cairo—I may never go to Cairo, but my iPhone video did!

I am remembering this now as I am about to graduate. I am trying to imprint it in my mind, make it my mantra: I will not be the one to disqualify myself. That's someone else's job. I just have to go for it. And I share that with you now, dear supporters of Duende. May it light your path as it has illumined mine. Remember that you are your best advocate! Don't be the first one to tell you that you, your writing, your craft, your dreams, are not good enough, not attainable, not realistic, not "reasonable." Let that be someone else's job. Your job is just to kick ass and go for it (and of course, to submit your brilliant creative work to Duende Issue 3 starting March 1st…).

 

Striving Towards Empathy: Why Diversity in Lit Matters

By Amy Sterne

A few weeks ago I finished reading The Empathy Exams, a recently released collection of essays by Leslie Jamison.  Like most great books, certain portions of it kept popping into my head long after I had sadly soaked up the last sentence.  In the opening essay that bears the same name as the collection, Jamison recalls her experiences working as a medical actor.  In her position, she acts as a patient and evaluates the level of empathy of the medical students while they pretend to treat her.  While this is simply the premise for Jamison’s deeper exploration into physical and emotional pain and the ways that we share that pain with others, I couldn’t help thinking, would I pass an empathy exam?
    
Scientific studies show that many of the same areas in our brain that are active when we are in pain are also active when someone we care about is in pain. Being empathetic towards those that we love comes naturally to us. We see a close friend or family member emotionally wrecked, or physically suffering, or over-the-moon joyful and we share those feelings.  However, when we witness the suffering of someone that we don’t already love, that we don’t know, that perhaps we feel we don’t even understand, empathy becomes more difficult.  I think as imperfect people, it is normal for us to err on the side of apathy rather than empathy. Apathy is the easier of the two actions, but certainly not the most helpful.
    
I started thinking about how we can fight those apathetic tendencies and engender empathy in ourselves and others, particularly when it is the most difficult. How can we use empathy to grow? I think one of the answers lies in diversity.  When we expose ourselves to unique and interesting voices, we hear people who on the surface seem completely different from us. Sometimes these stories challenge and overcome our prejudices. Sometimes these stories give us a context for someone’s actions that give us a deeper understanding of a whole situation. The more we listen to these stories, the more we understand the individual pain and our shared humanity. Stories connect us, and those connections become the building blocks for empathy. Roslyn Bresnick-Perry, the author of Leaving for America, said, “It’s hard to hate someone whose story you know.”  Sharing stories, telling ours and listening to others, not only creates empathy but also diminishes hate.
    
I like to think that while Duende’s mission statement is to give a voice to underrepresented groups in today’s literary scene, what we are really doing is helping to spread empathy around to those that need it most. This is not to say that certain people deserve more empathy than others, but that the stories that come from groups that are underrepresented in the literary community simply are not seen. Their voices are valuable, they have the ability to bring depth and breadth and texture to our ever-expanding understanding of what it means to be human. Without a platform those voices can only reach so far.
    
I think the other way that we can create empathy is by pushing ourselves in the direction of it. Jamison says it more eloquently than I could near the end of The Empathy Exams, "Empathy [is] a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse . . .The act of choosing simply means we've committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations. . .

This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones."
    
Let’s make it our intention to self-evaluate and strive in the direction of empathy instead of apathy. Let’s be grateful for the diverse stories in the world today, learn as much as we can from them, and allow them to move us to celebrate our similarities rather than our differences.
    
    
   

Reinvigorating Your Writing Practice for the New Year

By Catherine Chambers

I don’t know about you, friend, but 2014 was a trial by fire for my loved ones and me. I’m sorry to say that I went weeks without picking up a book, without writing down a single word. However, in the midst of post-holiday wintertime blues, I find there is nothing more comforting than a story, read or told. The question is: why is it so difficult to keep it up during hard times? For creative types (a generally sensitive bunch), the littlest thing can set us off. I once didn’t read an assignment for a week because there was snow outside and my kitchen was dirty. To be honest, this year, my writing suffered, but I’m determined to change that.

Personally, I think people aim too high when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. My motto: Keep it Simple. Setting realistic goals you can accomplish will feel much better than drinking kale juice every day for a month only to go on a donut binge. If I can overcome cleaning a three-day-old crusted-over crock-pot, you can overcome too! We can do it together in three easy steps.     

Step 1: Practice.

From writing, to yoga, to business analysis, everything we do as humans takes practice. Make writing (even if it’s an especially witty grocery list or a diary entry) a part of your life every day. To take an example from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, sitting down to write your magnum opus after a hiatus is like saying, “I can go for a run today because I stretched last week.” I’ve been particularly bad about this one lately. The stress of moving, finances, the holidays, its all added up. 2015 will be about overcoming my outer problems and easing the pain with writing every day. Granted, sometimes sitting down to write will be a pain, but as one of my fellow editors pointed out, sometimes art is hard.

Step 2: Stop Caring About What Everyone Thinks.

Trust yourself when it comes to your work. Not everything you write is a gem, but what matters is getting it out. If you don’t get your work onto the page, how are you supposed to pick through it to see what can get shined up?

Another of my favorite Goldberg-isms is, “You should listen to what people say. Take in what they say… Then make your own decision. It is your [writing] and your voice.” Personally, I struggle a great deal with putting my writing out in the world whether for peers to read, submitting for publication, or even just letting my partner take a glance at it. It’s like sending my child go off to kindergarten only to worry about bullies taking her lunch money.

People have opinions and they love to share them, but it doesn’t mean you have to listen. The same thing goes for your ego. Don’t listen to that jerk, either. The societal anxieties you picked up as a child, the need to please and be perfect, none of that has a place in your writing practice. Writing is not a good profession for prideful people. Rejection letters paper our inbox, we work mundane jobs to pay the bills, but we press on. Always press on.

Step 3: Be Present.

This is important. Take deep breaths. Go out barefoot in the snow just to see what it feels like. Document every little thing that you see and love and feel. Observe your world as it’s happening to you. Pull an Anne Lamott and carry an index card in your back pocket in case of emergency poetry. Say yes to reinvigorating your writing practice one day at a time. If you skip a day or two, don’t beat yourself up, just get back to it and write. Truth is, in creating you will find your solace.

No Silent Night

By Jørn Earl Otte

The holidays, however you may define them, will soon be upon us, and for too many in America, they will be spending those holidays in the shadows of grief and loss. Where I live, in the heart of Appalachia, while the tree-covered mountains have long since lost the robust colors of autumn, the houses throughout my neighborhood are covered in glittering lights, and as the old song says, “in the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas.”

Like many writers that I respect and admire, for me, there is a feeling in the air that has very little to do with the so-called joy of the season. Depression encroaches upon the heart of the melancholic writer as much as the eggnog, and turkey, and gift-giving seem to do. For those who suffer through this dark time, the anxiety, sadness, and grief they must deal with comes from a variety of places – memories of loved ones who died too soon, struggles with illnesses, divorce, financial difficulty, or a myriad of other issues. I have experienced depression through the holidays for many of those reasons, and in other years I have celebrated, and enjoyed the positive feelings synonymous with this time of year.

This year, however, I am faced with a depression that comes from a different place. It comes from a growing anger, sadness, frustration, and bewilderment I have at the way my country is treating its own citizens of color. As a white male who is perfectly aware that I come from a place of privilege, I feel the need to speak up, and acknowledge that my country is sick, and I am sick with it, and I don’t know the cure.

The written word is what I know, and it is all that I know, and it has brought me comfort before during the darkest times. So what to do? Some of the people who are near and dear to my heart don’t have the same kinds of conversations with their children as I have with mine. I have a 15-year-old daughter and a nearly 10-year-old son. Never once have I had to tell them how to behave if confronted by an armed police officer. But people I love have to coach their children in ways that I can’t imagine, and then they have to pray every single day that their child will make it home alive.  

So again I ask, what to do? At times, I feel helpless, but I also know that I am privileged to have the opportunity to make a choice – I can either speak up, or I can be silent. Thankfully, I am both a writer, and an editor on the staff of a progressive literary magazine so I can speak up in multiple ways.

Writer and blogger Nancy Arroyo Ruffin wrote on her website recently that “Everyone agrees that there is injustice going on, and while some protest or burn down businesses to release their rage— as an artist, as a writer, I do the only thing I know how. I write. I read. I try and educate myself and others and then I write some more. My art is the only weapon I have. My words are how I fight back because in the end my words are all I have.”

I have suffered some of the worst that depression can bring – I have drowned the thoughts in alcohol, I have laughed in the eye of the storm, I have wrestled with the Almighty, and I have stared down the demons who wished me to end it all. In the end, I have found the most solace in the written word – both my own, and the works of others. Ruffin is spot-on. I can only use words to fight this battle. Whether they are the words of others (William Styron’s Darkness Visible, which chronicles his descent into the darkest worlds of depression, helped me come to a greater understanding of my own battle) or my own words, words are all I have.

Being a part of the staff of Duende during this time of year, I have found another weapon in this battle, and that is the wonderful opportunity to read amazing works from writers spanning the globe and representing such beauty and diversity that I can scarcely take it all in. But I will take it in, and then I will share it with the world in the virtual pages of Duende. For I have taken a solemn vow around a table of my peers in a small building in a remote college campus – to help make a literary magazine that reflects “the true beauty and diversity of the U.S. literary ecosystem.”

I am reminded of the words of the German Protestant pastor and anti-Nazi activist Martin Niemöller, who wrote, “In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist; And then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew; And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

So as an editor and writer, I speak. I hope that my words and my choices can make some small millimeter of awareness and change in this violent American landscape. I hope that my fellow privileged white brothers and sisters will take a moment to reflect upon what is happening to our black and brown countrymen, and then, on the Holy Silent Night, lift up a silent prayer to whomever they believe hears such things, and then raise a loud voice to the people in power who can enact meaningful change.

Despite my growing frustration and anger at the country I live in, despite my sadness and fear for my brothers and sisters who have more melanin in their skin than I do, and despite the depression that has constantly and consistently for multiple reasons afflicted me each and every winter – dammit, I still love Christmas. And perhaps what I love about it most of all is the fact that it reminds me, at the most basic level, that we are to love one another. As a father, I love my children and can help them to be better members of society by raising them to love people of all colors, creeds, sexual orientations, religions, and so forth. As a writer, I can speak out about atrocities that are a disease in my country. As an editor, I can make a conscious effort to showcase the talents of people who are otherwise marginalized in the literary landscape. As a human being, I can give hugs, I can share food, and I can shout for joy and shout in protest. What I cannot do, what I must never do, is be silent, no matter how holy the occasion.

Duende Selects 2014 Pushcart Nominees

Wendy Call
BFA Faculty and Literary Journal Advisor

In a year of blood and anguish in Ayotzinapa, Damascus, Ferguson, Gaza, Marysville, and so many other places, what is the point of another tiny, upstart literary journal? I have asked myself that question more than once during the twenty months I’ve worked with Goddard BFA students to create a new, student-edited journal.

Our BFA students have a clear answer: raising voices. The voices of Duende weave a narrative of our world today, in all its heart-breaking splendor. Here are just a few examples from our debut issue:

“She wonders and worries often about our civilization and whether or not we will survive acid rain, the holes in the ozone, the melting polar ice caps and what has happened to all those poor, poor bees. Don’t worry about her….”
    ~ Bianca Spriggs, “Mixed Media in the Age of Anthropocene” (poem)

“Can a sign be plaintive? I think it can. It was the way she tipped the letters for please that did it, each plastic piece perfectly aligned, leaning slightly to the right.”
    ~ Robin Koman, “The Secret Letters” (short story)
 
“This skin is the cry of black wolves,
burned tires and broken beer bottles,
the sea of Moses stripped down the middle,
mocha-skinned mothers lugging bodies”
    ~ Nadia Alexis, “Black Soliloquy” (poem)

“[E]ach loss brings up previous losses, each bout of grief awakens dormant sadness. And I hold my breath; brace myself to absorb the impact because the grief of my children will always be mine.”
    ~ Goddard BFA alumna Seema Reza, “Places Temporarily Submerged” (hybrid prose)

Through the work of these writers, and the thirty-one other writers and visual artists who generously contributed to Duende this fall, our journal lives its mission: “Duende aspires to represent the true beauty and diversity of the U.S. literary ecosystem. A majority of the writers and artists in our journal come from groups that are underrepresented. That is to say, most of the work we publish will be from writers and artists who are queer, of color, differently abled, immigrant, working class, youth, elder, and /or otherwise from communities that are too often overlooked by literary gatekeepers.”

Duende’s student editors are proud to nominate six works of poetry and prose from our debut issue for Pushcart Prizes:

Nadia Alexis’s poem “Black Soliloquy” ~ for its awe-inspiring rawness
Ellen Hagan’s poem “Grits” ~ for our editors’ collective “hell, yes!”
Robin Koman’s short story “The Secret Letters” ~ for its elegant pacing and satisfying resolution
Seema Reza’s hybrid prose piece for “Places Temporarily Submerged” ~ for its strong, evocative metaphors
Bianca Spriggs’s poem “Mixed Media in the Age of Anthropocene” ~ for its emotion and resonant sensory detail
Anastacia Tolbert’s short story “Alice” ~ for a killer opening and stylish friction that stays strong right to the end

Congratulations to these six writers!

We are thankful to all our contributing writers and visual artists for manifesting the spirit of Duende. As we read the more than seven hundred submissions we’ve received for Spring 2015, we’re grateful for the opportunity to connect with socially engaged literature and art from across the country and around the world.

 

This is Art; This is Hard

By Ilana Wilson

All art has one thing in common: it’s hard. Art comes from a place of inspiration, from an unexplained impulse to create, from a feeling that this is important. As a writer, my stories are
woven from threads of myself. Often they are beautiful, messy, and heartbreaking. And yet, despite all the emotional vulnerability and knowledge of craft that goes into creating my art, that is still not the hardest part.

When a friend recently congratulated me on the publication of my short story in a literary magazine Geek Force 5, I laughed and said, “It’s no big deal. I’ve made about three dollars.” Her response was, “Yeah. Get used to that.”

Most artists are poor, or struggling. Some may live out of shopping carts or sleep in subway
stations. Others may have a roof over their head, but still live in tears. The weeping and penniless artist is a stereotype, I know, but sometimes it feels all too real. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt the need to explain to strangers why I am getting a creative writing degree, why I may be working in restaurants until I am 50 years old to pay off these student loans. “Don’t worry,” I say to people. “I know I won’t make money writing novels. Maybe I’ll go into editing.”

I figured out something crucial to my life in the past few months. Editing is hard. I am a co-­fiction
editor for Duende, and it is up to me to give the art I am reading proper consideration, to find jewels among mountains of rock. But was my published story really a jewel? I know what it’s like
to be on the other side of this screen, uploading onto submittable.com, stomach twisting with
anxiety at the thought of yet another rejection. As an editor, I am always thinking about the fact
that no matter what I think of a story, to the person who wrote it, it is important. It is art. And I
have been given a huge responsibility.

Of course there are some editors out there who are not artists, or who are in it for the paycheck,
who edit purely scientific jargon or business postings, who simply have a love of diction and
punctuation. I think many, however, are like me. They love the art of words, and that means that in addition to working with someone else’s work, helping get it out there in the world, they create material of their own. The people who work on literary magazines are almost always writers themselves, and so are the people who read them. This is what we do. We read, we write, and we do our best to get our work and others’ out into the world.

Money and art don’t necessarily go hand-­in-­hand. The odd part about this is just how expensive art can be. Getting a degree takes quite a lot of money, creating the art itself takes big bites out of paychecks, and publishing and promotion takes everything from volunteer labor, to fundraising, to grants, to straight up begging. And yet, aside from those few celebrity cases, it does not make money. In fact, it might not even get readers.

If something is a work of art, even if it is still the rock and not the polished jewel, how much money it makes does not equal its real value. I will repeat that in case you didn’t get it; I find
myself forgetting all the time. Profit does not equal value! My first royalties check was $1.56, and I framed it. Value is also not determined by Amazon ratings, Goodreads reviews, or the number of book clubs reading your work. No amount of anything determines the value of art. And that is why it is so hard. How do you sell something that doesn’t and can’t have a real numeric value, but costs so much to make?

Since the first American magazine containing literature was published in 1741, lit mags have
steadily grown in popularity. During this blossoming internet­-age, journals are springing to life
constantly, and all fighting to survive. There is a reason most of these magazines are solely digital. Because of the strains in financial resources, it is most difficult to maintain print magazines, and print books.

Duende has embraced the noisy world of the internet. Every issue is free to view on our beautiful website. We are all about giving. Look, we have this new, brilliant piece of work for you! Read it right here. We make nothing off of you clicking that link or reading those words. But, we are not the only ones giving. The writers gave us their art to publish. Giving away art is something anyone who creates it wants to do, even though it doesn’t pay the bills.

The hardest part of being an artist is finding the courage and means to share that art with the world, with the hopes that others will appreciate it, and that one day, through your art you’ll find stability. The hardest part about being being an editor is being responsible for what happens to other people’s art once it is in your hands, and being the person to send those rejection letters we all detest receiving. And guys, this is important. Duende is a magnificent compilation of stories, poems, and visual pieces that when put together is itself a work of art, and that means it is hard. It takes a chunk of all of our souls to complete each issue, and it is well worth it.

 

Free Speech: Use It; Don't Lose It

By Kat Richardson

Twice a year, I cross an ocean and a continent to attend college. I travel more than 9,000 miles round-trip, and fly over hundreds of schools to get to Goddard College, in the remote hills of Vermont. This Fall, I land dead-center in the middle of a civil rights controversy when outgoing graduates choose Alumnus Mumia Abu-Jamal as their Commencement Speaker. Mumia was convicted of killing a Philadelphia Police Officer in 1981 and ordered to die, surviving nearly thirty years on death row until 2011 when his sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.

I’m fascinated that the 2014 graduates have chosen Mumia to speak, and wonder first about logistics, until I learn he has already pre-recorded his words from prison. The possibility that people would try to stop his message from reaching us, doesn’t even occur to me, until news cameras show up. Suddenly, there are virtual death threats, bomb scares, and pressure from politicians and the Fraternal Order of Police to cancel Mumia’s speech. College officials reassure us that the graduation will happen, but some of the protocols have changed and with the added media presence, there’s something that just feels different on campus.

It’s graduation day and the joyous ceremony happens uninterrupted, three hours ahead of schedule.  A group of protestors assemble along the property line bordering the campus. Fortunately it’s a peaceful demonstration as I approach one of them. We begin a dialogue exchanging views and asking questions of one another. He thanks me for listening and I thank him for speaking up about what he feels strongly about. We acknowledge that we haven’t changed each other's opinions, but we know we were heard and there’s satisfaction in that. We shake hands two times before I walk away.  

Only two weeks later, in response to Mumia’s private speech for Goddard College, and a failed attempt to silence him, both the Senators and Representatives of Pennsylvania have introduced bills quickly voted upon, passed, and signed into law by the Governor, effective immediately.  It happened that fast. Bam. Bam. Bam!

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania criticizes these fast-tracked laws as “overbroad and vague and completely undermines the fundamental value of free speech found in the First Amendment of the federal constitution.”  In a letter requesting the Senate and Legislature to vote against it, the ACLU argues, “Both of these bills attempt to shut down public speech by people who are currently or formerly incarcerated by giving a victim, the district attorney, or the Attorney General the power to file a civil action against a person before the speech occurs if the conduct “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” This is defined as “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.” No one seems to acknowledge how far-reaching these laws can get, yet Governor Tom Corbett signs them anyway.

The fact that these bills have so hastily and sloppily become law in Pennsylvania, motivates me to project my voice louder and farther, lest I lose my right by not using it. The First Amendment was created with great foresight to protect future generations from suffering at the hands of a corrupt government. Taking free speech away from prisoners is an incremental step towards taking it away from other marginalized groups, or whomever else those in power don’t want to be heard. This is dangerous. It’s important that we hear everyone! Blocking prisoners from this basic right creates an umbrella of censorship over us all.     

Peace officers sworn to protect us are the ones who have initiated these bills and protested against Mumia’s right to free speech and in a sense, censoring our rights, validates for me, the ongoing need to advocate for the importance of upholding First Amendment Rights for all. I didn’t know when I arrived at Goddard, that I would learn the importance of protecting and preserving our free speech from a death-row survivor or the Fraternal Order of Police. In my own self-sequestered by privilege existence, I had not heard of either one of them until this semester.

Students and inmates are known to be outspoken and prone to protest against the establishment, but only at Goddard have I encountered police protesting against students and an inmate giving a prerecorded speech.  Thank you Goddard College: our new interim President Bob Kenny, faculty, administration, and staff for embracing us 100% with your support and protection. You held strong in the heat of scathing public insults and personal threats. Your strength and support during this very odd attack on the school’s reputation and attempts to discredit faculty and embarrass students, reinforces how pleased I am that this is the institution from where I will earn my degree. And Mumia, thank you for your powerful voice, and for not being afraid to use it.