Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Fighting For Justice: An Interview With the Authors

Today, in our third and final post in this series, we're so excited to welcome three authors: Stan Yogi of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up; Arisa White of Biddy Mason Speaks Up; and Laura Atkins, co-author and organizer of the Fighting For Justice series, which includes the aforementioned books. Everyone, thank you so much for joining us.

Allie: Can you share your origin story? How did you get started in this work?

Stan: Thanks, Allie, for letting your readers know about the Fighting for Justice books. I got involved with the series because of Malcolm Margolin, founding publisher of Heyday. In October 2009, Heyday released Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, a book I co-wrote with my friend Elaine Elinson. Several months later, Malcolm asked if I’d be interested in writing a children’s version of Wherever There’s a Fight. I thought that was a great idea, and I agreed. Our initial vision was to tell the stories of 10 Californians who fought for civil rights. That plan morphed into a series of books, each one focused on a different civil rights activist.

Malcolm Margolin, Stan and the book Wherever There’s a Fight.

Fred Korematsu’s biography launches the series in part because his story is a keystone to Wherever There’s a Fight. I also feel a personal connection to Fred because my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts were incarcerated during World War II, just like Fred and his family, because of their ethnicity.

A picture we show in our presentations of Stan’s mother graduating from high school at Manzanar. Stan asks, “Why do you think my mother was sent to a prison camp when she was fifteen years old?”
When I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the early 1980s, I heard Fred Korematsu speak. He impressed me, not only because his story is so dramatic (defying the government’s orders to leave his home, getting arrested, challenging in the Supreme Court the incarceration of Japanese Americans but losing his case, discovering decades later that the government had lied about the justifications for imprisoning Japanese Americans), but also because he was such a soft-spoken, humble man. He taught me that I can make a difference if I speak out against what I think is wrong and if I stand up for my beliefs. Ever since then, Fred has been one of my heroes.
An image of Fred Korematsu as an older man that we share during presentations

Around the same time that I first heard Fred Korematsu speak, I participated in the movement among Japanese Americans to seek an apology and monetary redress from the U.S. government for Japanese Americans who had been unjustly incarcerated during World War II. My work in the redress campaign nearly 40 years ago has resulted in a lifetime of activism, including working 14 years at the ACLU of Northern California, where I met my Wherever There’s a Fight co-author, Elaine.

Laura: Thanks so much for the invitation to share our stories and feature the series! As Stan and I share when doing school presentations with Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, I was raised in a family of activists. My dad was involved in the Freedom Rides, and both of my parents were part of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 1960s. My mom was an early feminist and a member of a women’s activist singing group, and my stepmother volunteered with the farmworkers’ movement. So I was steeped in a tea of “speaking up” as a young person. That led me to become a young activist myself, starting in middle school — something I also speak to in our school presentations. I was arrested twice in high school as part of the anti-nuclear and anti-Apartheid movements.

A slide from our presentation, showing Laura at an anti-nuclear group meeting in middle school, and getting arrested with a group of Berkeley High School students blockading at Lawrence Livermore Labs.

Activism has been a core part of my identity for as long as I can remember. So getting to be part of helping to tell civil rights stories from our nation’s history, well, it’s a dream come true. And getting to do this by co-writing with different authors whose lived experience connects to the story being told, well, that’s even more of a dream come true. I’ve been a children’s book editor for around 25 years — as an assistant at Children’s Book Press and Orchard Books, and then an editor at Lee & Low Books — and more recently, offered freelance editorial services to people who are indie-publishing their own books. Working collaboratively fits me perfectly, as I’ve been working with folks on telling their own stories for a very long time. I believe that we are all part of an interconnected world and narrative, and that each of our well-being is based on collective well-being. I see this work as grassroots community-based storytelling, with a lot of voices influencing the telling.

Arisa: The black lesbian mother warrior poet Audre Lorde was the first to articulate for me, in her Sister Outsider essays, that the “personal is political.” She is part of the lineage of my social justice work. As well as growing up Rastafarian, two to six years of age, oriented me toward a distrust of government, to be vigilant of white-supremacist conditioning, to question everything. Injustices were close to home. My mother and stepfather gathered friends for food and groundation—talks of politics in the US, Jamaica, and Guyana, back-home nostalgia, about the similarities and disappointments of anti-blackness across the globe.

Over the years, I was involved with more “formal” public actions against anti-oppression, often finding a way to incorporate my poetry. Writing and reading poems in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, safe spaces for women, for the end to the Kosovo War; working with a Zen Buddhist priest to bring poetry writing and meditation to incarcerated youth in Brooklyn, NY. When I went off to graduate school, where I began dating someone in the master’s program for social justice education, we started a series of monthly parties and conversational gatherings for queer people of color. LeftOut was a space for QPOC to form community while existing in predominantly white towns and colleges. With the same partner, I learned some of the language, theory, and pedagogy of anti-oppression work and began to apply that knowledge to my poetic practice, teaching, and self—thinking about the ways our socialization inhibits authentic self-actualization and promotes fear of other, and doing the personal-inner work needed for a radical love ethic necessary for individual and collective change. The ambitious root of each of my poems is this epic desire to repair.

Allie: I’m noticing a connection between art and activism, both in your personal stories and in your work--Arisa, you talked about this specifically, in both how you fold your own poetry into your anti-oppression work, and in advocating for others to have access and resources to express themselves via art. Your books are about activists; and, they themselves are a form of activism, both in form and content. How did you decide to tell these stories in verse, rather than a straightforward narrative? What was the poetry-writing process like when you were working collaboratively?

Laura: I came on board initially to work with Stan as a developmental editor, and he had been approaching the book as a more traditional prose biography. I was then asked to pitch as co-author and I suggested the use of the poetic biography alongside what we call insets: sections with photos, drawings, timelines, definitions and questions for the readers. Once Heyday decided they wanted to go in that direction, I took the lead in writing the poems and Stan took the lead in writing and conceptualizing the insets. With the second book, Arisa, as a poet, took the lead on the poems and I swapped roles to leading on the insets. Though I’d say that Arisa and I did more co-writing on both sections, maybe because it was the second book and we had to go further in conceptualizing how to approach telling Biddy Mason’s story. And our editor, Molly Woodward, helped enormously with all of the writing and thinking for both books.

First poem and first inset page from Biddy Mason Speaks Up

We had a few motivations for choosing free verse for the biography. We did a focus group with librarian Heidi Bartsch from the West Contra Costa County School District and several of her fourth grade students. She suggested that, while we were aiming at a fourth grade reading level, we write below that as many of her students read below grade level. We liked the idea of using short lines with lots of space on the page so that struggling readers could more easily decode the book. We also were drawn to the idea of engaging students directly with these people’s stories, using a present tense poetic narrative. Starting the first book with Fred getting a haircut, which was a wonderful suggestion by author Betsy Partridge, meant that all readers could relate to Fred’s experience. Because we all get our hair cut. We’ve also had students share their own poetic approaches to telling stories, and it seems a form that young people can relate to and replicate naturally, in their own voices.

First poem and first inset page from Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

Allie: I’m struck by Stan’s description of Fred Korematsu as a soft-spoken, humble man. This flies in the face of the common image of changemakers as loud, oppositional combatants of the powers that be. What can we learn from him, about different “modes” of activism? What personal lessons have you all learned in researching and writing about the subjects of your books?

Stan: Fred Korematsu’s life as a civil rights activist taught me two key things. First, people have different journeys to activism. Fred was initially motivated by love, not Constitutional principles when he defied the government’s orders that all Japanese Americans on the West Coast leave their homes to be imprisoned in camps. He wanted to remain in Oakland with his girlfriend. But he also understood that the government was violating his rights. After his girlfriend ended their relationship, Fred soldiered on with his lawsuit because he firmly believed that the government was wrong.

In the early 2000s, Fred connected the racism Japanese Americans experienced during World War II with the hatred directed at Muslims after 9/11. He submitted a “friend of the court” brief to the Supreme Court in solidarity with Muslim men whom the U.S. government had detained without charges or trials.

My initial activism centered on issues that directly impacted me as an Asian American and as a gay man. But, like Fred Korematsu, I too saw parallels between my experiences and those of others who face discrimination. Recognizing those connections motivated my work with the ACLU in support of immigrants, women, youth, as well as people of color and LGBTQ individuals.

I also learned from Fred Korematsu and Biddy Mason that there isn’t just one way to make a difference. We can’t all deliver rousing speeches before thousands of people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King or go on hunger strikes like Cesar Chavez. But individuals can speak out for their beliefs in ways that are organic and meaningful for them. Fred Korematsu liked speaking to students and educating them about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. In doing so, he encouraged them to stand up for justice. Biddy Mason provided financial help to Los Angeles flood victims and others in need. When Laura and I present to students about Fred Korematsu, we tell them that if they like art, they can create drawings or paintings that depict unfair situations, like people did through artwork that we include in our book. Or if they like music, they can sing protest songs. Or if they like to write like Laura and me, they can compose stories about ways to fight against injustice. Speaking out in ways that fit our personalities and utilize our unique talents not only creates meaning for us but also enables us to sustain our activism over time.

Example of how we include art created by Japanese Americans in Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

Laura: I love Stan’s answer and don’t have much to add. Just that I’m inspired as I research the lives of people who persevered even in the face of enormous obstacles — living as an enslaved woman, being unjustly imprisoned by the government. People like Biddy Mason and Fred Korematsu inspire me to keep on standing up and speaking out. I hope that we can change the world for my 11-year-old daughter, and all the young people in the next generation who deserve a world that accepts and embraces all of them, no matter their “race, creed or color” (as Fred Korematsu said in his speech in the courtroom when his criminal conviction was overturned).

Arisa: Biddy Mason reminds me of the collective effort that goes into our liberation. You do what you can, where you can. She incited in me a curiosity about plants, their medicinal qualities, and my life became illuminated by the nature around me. There is spirit as there is air, and we must nurture our spirits because it’s a force that has effect. I understood more deeply the politics of care held between black women. Biddy Mason helped me see myself a little bit more wholly. She is a lesson in digging into the silences to find what was not told to us.

Example of how we include plant remedies in Biddy Mason Speaks Up

Allie: Who do you see engaging in the “politics of care” today? If you were to choose a contemporary activist to highlight in a Fighting For Justice book, who might you choose?

Laura: It’s a good question, in part because we are developing the idea for the next Fighting for Justice book, and this may be someone (or more than one person) living today who is an indigenous Californian. This is still very much in early development, so nothing set. I’m especially inspired now by young people who are speaking up: Emma Gonz√°lez and all of the young people creating a powerful and inclusive movement to speak out about gun control. Also Greta Thunberg who is taking direct action on climate change, and getting the whole world to pay attention. I’m honored to be working with Regina Evans to develop school presentations on Biddy Mason (Colby College hired Arisa to teach poetry, so she is now based in Maine and will Skype in to visits when she can). Thanks to Arisa’s connection with Regina and her work, we featured her story at the end of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, showing how Regina is a survivor of trafficking herself, and that she has become a modern-day abolitionist using creativity, theater, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and love to support current young people who are survivors of trafficking. She could have a whole book about her and the amazing work that she does to support her community.

Feature on Regina Evans at the end of Biddy Mason Speaks Up. You can see a video of the powerful talk she gave at the launch event here.

Stan: Thanks, Arisa, for bringing up the politics of care framework. In difficult times like now when so many communities are under attack, it’s important to remember the politics of care—for ourselves and for others. Like Laura, I think there are many inspiring contemporary activists who are speaking out on specific challenges, as well as leaders like Rev. William Barber, who are making connections among different communities and issues. I’m especially impressed by Marielena Hincapi√©, the Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center, an organization defending the rights of low-income immigrants. Marielena immigrated as a child from Colombia to Rhode Island. She’s not only generated positive societal changes through her work as a lawyer, advocate, and educator on behalf of immigrants. But she’s also an amazingly kind person who cares deeply about the negative impacts of xenophobic policies on individuals, families and communities.

Marielena Hincapié, executive director of National Immigration Law Center speaking outside the Supreme Court after oral arguments on Trump's latest Muslim Ban, photo by Lorie Shaull
Arisa: There are so many people that it’s hard to pinpoint one person. Who immediately comes to heart is Rev Angel Kyodo Williams, writer, activist, and ordained Zen priest for the spiritually-engaged transformative work she’s doing, reminding us all of the importance of personal accountability for collective change. Choreographer and dancer Amara Tabor Smith, who uses her art to bring healing attention to the mental health of and violence faced by African American women. Scholar, educator, writer and doula, Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is active in illuminating the scholarship and cultural productions of queer black feminists with her academic and community teachings, intergenerational archival projects, and experimental creative writings that embody the intersectionality of queer black women.

Rev Angel Kyodo Williams

Allie: What advice do you have for the generation that’s reading your books and wondering how they, too, can become changemakers?

Stan: I echo the advice Fred Korematsu shared when he talked with students: Don’t be afraid to speak out for what you think is right. I add to that: Don’t be discouraged if the changes you seek don’t occur immediately. Big societal shifts take time and the efforts of many people. Change is oftentimes incremental. There may be one step backward before two steps forward. As civil rights activist sang in the 1950s and 1960s, “Keep your eyes on the prize” of your ultimate goal and don’t be disheartened (at least for too long) by setbacks.

Arisa: Let your desire to make change be connected to your heart.

Laura: Nourish yourself along the way — find the things that feed your soul. I love being in community, so am happiest when working with others with shared values towards change, while also enjoying each others’ company and learning from one another. And remember, we are stronger together (as rad children’s book creator Maya Gonzalez says and expresses beautifully through her art). We can lift each other up. I love sharing information about important children’s books that don’t always get attention in the mainstream publishing world (you can see a bunch of awesome social justice and mostly #ownvoices Bay Area creators at this website). Let’s amplify the good work and support each other along the way.

The powerful art of Maya Gonzalez graces the Activist Children’s Book Creators and Activist Books Facebook page.

Allie: Thank you all so much for sharing your time, wisdom, and expertise. I and so many others will continue to learn about courage, activism, and speaking up from your answers and your books. I can’t recommend the Fighting For Justice series highly enough; these books should be in every Middle Grade collection and classroom.

Illustrator Yutaka Houlette, Laura, editor Molly Woodward, and Stan at the Fred Korematsu Speaks Up launch event. You can see videos of Stan and Laura’s presentations on the Fighting for Justice school visit page.

Arisa and Laura at the launch event for Biddy Mason Speaks Up. We have all of the videos from our launch events shown on our revamped Fighting for Justice website.

Cave Canem graduate fellow Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst, and is the author of Perfect on Accident, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, Black Pearl, Post Pardon, A Penny Saved, and Hurrah's Nest. Her poetry has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, NAACP Image Award, California Book Award, and Wheatley Book Award. The chapbook “Fishing Walking” & Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife won the inaugural Per Diem Poetry Prize. She's the co-author of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, the second book in the Fighting for Justice series for young readers. Arisa serves on the board of directors for Foglifter Publications and Nomadic Press and is an assistant professor of poetry at Colby College.

Stan Yogi is the co-author with Laura Atkins of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, an award-winning children's book. He is co-author with Elaine Elinson of Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California. He is the co-editor of two books, Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley and Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. His essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Daily Journal and academic journals and anthologies.

Laura Atkins is the author of the picture book Sled Dog Dachshund, and co-author with Stan Yogi of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award, New-York Historical Society Award, ILA Social Justice Book Award, and the Jane Addams Honor Award. With Arisa White, Laura co-wrote Biddy Mason Speaks Up, just featured in the New York Times. Laura spent a decade working at traditional children’s publishers and now freelances as an editor with individuals and publishers, including Cassava Republic Press and Parallax Press. With an MA in Children's Literature and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Laura is passionate about diversity and equity in children's books. She and her daughter live in Berkeley, California.

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