Saint Mary's MFA Fellow, Rebecca Samuelson, reflects on her time with KSW
Dear Kearny Street Workshop,
I feel that it is necessary to express my experiences to you since our time is coming to an end. Even though our friendship is relatively new, you have created a resounding impact in my life that needs to be addressed for both of us to process it. It seemed the most practical to divide the impact of letters into five sections.
Letters of Acceptance: A year and one month ago, I received the Kearny Street Workshop Partnership Scholarship. I had deferred my enrollment to Saint Mary’s College of California for a year and this funding came at a time when I still wasn’t sure if graduate education was going to be a reality for me. Working two jobs among other responsibilities was more than stressful and then I get this email. Private education felt impossible without some divine intervention and this notification that you chose me seemed to be just that. Crying in the middle of a shopping mall with my email open in my hand, I didn’t know what set me apart. Why I was granted this money as well as an internship in arts administration to be completed the following semester. In an instant I had plans set up not only to make schooling possible but to advance my career in a direct way. I see now KSW, after a lot of hours put in, that you choose individuals who belong here. To transcend borders that I had initially put on myself and to provide a sense of belonging I wasn’t aware I was missing. At the time when I was writing my scholarship essay, I saw myself as one of many but my entrance into all that you offer, KSW, is slowly changing that perception. The acknowledgement, validation that hard work presents you with opportunities you never dreamed of is simply one of your numerous benefits.
Letters of Inquiry: To run a multidisciplinary arts organization for 45 years, there must be a technical aspect to gain momentum. I had the opportunity to not only get a glimpse at what it takes to run a nonprofit but to have an active role. From meeting project deadlines to getting event supplies at Costco on a Monday afternoon, it all involves asking. You exemplify all the effort to rebel against a closed mouth not getting fed. Asking for assistance from volunteers across many walks of life, flooding inboxes for in-kind donations, or spending entire days dedicated to calling wineries to speak to executives are all valuable contributions. For a majority of my life, I have been terrified to ask for help. Whether it was simple clarification on a task or tabling for clubs at school, opening my mouth seemed too terrifying. It has become apparent that asking is as important as listening. Kearny Street Workshop has forced me to at least create cracks in that wall. Tabling at BAMPFA or checking in people for Literoake may not seem like a huge deal for most but it is my impact. It may be small but all it takes is a ripple to become a wave.
Letters of Recognition: Most of the time there is more of an emphasis on differences than similarities. We feel as individuals that no one could possible relate to our experiences or the choices we have made seem so farfetched that there isn’t anyone who could have possibly traveled the same road. Although I did not encounter anyone from my hometown of Hayward, CA during my time at Kearny Street, education is what seemed to connect me to others. I came across multiple people who endured the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California and even had some of the same professors. This opened a floodgate of discussions on teaching styles, the impact of different genres, and even the MFA application process itself. As the semester went on, I did not feel so alone. There were others who clung to this program to provide life to their art and used the stepping stones they gained in their time as a graduate student to continue to give back through the arts. I had not expected a direct connection from the oldest multidisciplinary arts organization in the country to a liberal arts college in Moraga, CA. Kearny Street Workshop you have taught me not to set up walls or barriers when there are others who have paved the way even when a pattern wasn’t available. One of the last events I worked was by KSW Presents entitled “I’m Here to Do Everything But Fall in Love” and the stories ranged across the board. Whether it was commenting on how music can transport you to a time in your personal history or the ways family is shaped, all four of the readers spoke from their own experiences. They spoke in a way that was true to their personality, identity, and connections to the world around us. Each of them came from different cities, communities, and cultures yet here they were united under the KSW roof. This event was one of many reminders that integrating direct parts of yourself into your writing is tremendously valuable. This could translate into self- recognition or it could resonate with an unsuspecting member in the crowd. As for my own practice, I have often spoke on personal experiences but it has always been from a distance. Whether it was for fear that readers would not relate to a mixed poet or the fact that I did not know how to place myself into this literary landscape I created, these artists demonstrate the value of inclusion. Simply put if you want to tell your story, tell it.
Letter Writing: On March 31, an event entitled Open in Emergency by RAMS in partnership with Asian American Literary Review was held at Kearny Street Workshop. This conversation on mental health in our communities engaged in various forms of discussion ranging from tarot card readings to self-care cards but what struck me the most was the Letter Writing Workshop station. The paraphrased prompt was to “think about the things you aren’t supposed to say to a parent or close family member and consider what could you write in a letter you hope never gets sent.” Examples of letters written to mothers were gathered on the table for participants to read and attempt their own. The prompt ended with “reflect on what you wrote and why then take a break after writing the letter because it’s emotional work.” Emotional work is something I had never directly considered but have actively participated in. Kearny Street, you engage in emotional work firstly by creating a safe space for these letters to be written. You do this work by opening the mic to emerging and established artists. You value the written word in all its wonder and in all forms.
Letters as Art, Community, & Activism: On my first day, Jason Bayani told me that art, community, and activism come together in this space and that we have to be radical in our thinking. I initially had no clue how these spheres were going to intersect before my eyes or if they would at all. I understood that we worked in a shared office space but this was a heavy concept to digest. Despite not being indebted to me at all, you illuminated this connection for me Kearny Street Workshop. I’ve witnessed art in the form of spoken word, poetry, prose and hip hop to name a few examples. A palpable sense of community was presented amongst fellow Asian Americans at every single event I was present for. When you see a range of toddlers, young adults, and experienced generations all gathered in one room and sharing their stories it is impossible to ignore the thread binding them together. At the 45th Anniversary Gala I was honored to witness and be a part of the momentous occasion of April 19th being designated Kearny Street Workshop Day. The fact that the city of San Francisco recognized this organization shows that something special is taking place here. KSW’s sense of activism is present in the programming they arrange and aim to provide. With the Interdisciplinary Writers Lab (IWL) writers of color can participate in cross genre work to reverse the silencing that is commonplace and to create more examples of people of color in literature for the next generation. Providing a voice is the main objective with the annual APAture showcase which provides a platform for emerging artists and provides them the chance to network with the established community. Igniting change through art and conversation is valuable beyond measure and you embody this completely.
To conclude, my gratitude to you Kearny Street Workshop is immeasurable. I have been fortunate enough to listen to your stories and am beginning to feel the impact of a truly safe space. It is important to give back to your community, through whatever facet that applies, and I have seen realistic ways to achieve this goal that once seemed unattainable. Thank you for allowing me inside your world and for emphasizing education above everything. You have planted a spark in me and I intend to spread like wildfire.