On Wednesday, May 26th 2010, 5 women were honored at a DreamSpeaker event in San Francisco, hosted by the Purple Moon Dance Project and Jill Togawa, Artistic Director, in association with the National Queer Arts Festival, advertised as a “celebration, honoring the lives and contributions of lesbian and women of color artists whose work has inspired social change, peace, and healing in our community.” The five DreamSpeaker Honorees were Avoteja, Brenda Wong Aoki, Stephanie Anne Johnson, Judith Smith and a poet I’ve known for over twenty years: Penina Ava Taesali.
The women were honored with a weave of spoken word, music, and dance performances by others. At the end, each DreamSpeaker was invited to speak for several moments (since our hosts meant to give the honorees the experience of being in the audience, simply receiving after so many years of giving). Our hosts spoke of the importance of women’s spaces; in that spirit, I hounded Penina Ava Taesali for her extended thoughts about how she came to be a Dream Speaker.
I want to preface her interview with the bio that appeared in the DreamSpeaker program:
Penina Ava Taesali is a poet, writer, activist, teacher, and community organizer. Of Samoan and German working-class descent, Penina’s commitment to social change and the arts is rooted in her own personal history, identity, and intercultural complexity. Penina bore the vision of sustaining the arts in Oakland as a vehicle for working class, immigrant, and minority communities to confront the challenges of economic deprivation, violence, and criminalization. Penina served as Artistic Director and founder of one of Oakland’s groundbreaking community arts collaborative the AYPAL TRAC (Asian Pacific Islander youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership—Talking Roots Art Collective) for nine years.
Penina recruited local, national, and international artists to bring 10-14 arts programs annually to underserved high school and middle school students, including cultural and modern dance, hip hop, popular theater, shadow light puppet theater, creative writing, music and mural projects. Penina also founded and was managing director of the Pacific Islander Kie Association (PIKA), providing services to 60 Pacific Island youth and parents each year. Her interest in poetry inspired other projects, including “Poetry in the Kitchen,” an intergenerational program she co-founded with beloved oral historian and poet Al Robles. She received the “Best Spoken Word Performance of the Millennium” Award from KPFA FM. Presently she works to bring underrepresented families into school councils in the Oakland Unified Schools District.
Can you talk about what it means to you, the term DreamSpeaker?
I’ve been thinking about those two words and how Purple Moon Theater wanted to honor women using these two words. Dream is the ability to see something not yet manifested and when we speak we give form to the dream through the breath, through the language, and maybe language and action.
To work for change you have to have that ability to dream BIG, to see past the obstacles real or imagined, to not be in denial about the obstacles or challenges but to see the sun of the potential and possibility taking form, taking space, letting things work out and not lose focus when the work gets hard and tiring. But most of all be brave and nurture that small seed of the dream; when the magic happens, you can become proud and humble as you nurture that dream (with a little help from your friends) into reality.
A DreamSpeaker is a person who fights and speaks for someone who may not be allowed to have big dreams, like some of the youth who have been sheltered in strict families (perhaps their parents have already chosen who they will be and where they will be in their future). Dreamers in my eyes are the countless heroines and heroes known and unknown that make life worth living (poets and artists, community activists like MLK Jr., Cesar Chavez and Ida B. Wells to name a very few).
Can you talk a little bit about what it means to you to have been chosen for this award?
Since peers nominate for this award, I felt that my peers think my work is important, that it speaks for itself, even if the management or leadership in an organization doesn’t feel it important to celebrate accomplishments. So I am grateful that my peers nominated my work.
My friends and family seemed more excited than I was when I sent the e-mail notice about this award; it began then to mean much more to me than I thought it would. Being recognized encourages me to keep dreaming BIG. There is a sense of justice at play here. Honoring me is really honoring the work and people who love and care about me.
I think we are in a time when we crave ceremony and want to support one another through prayer, ceremony and ritual. I think people are hungry to reflect and celebrate and those venues are far and few between. We celebrate birthdays once a year, Oscar parties, Grammy and the like. One of the things I loved about working with the young people in the arts is that we had many recitals that led up to the annual arts festival. Having those recitals with parents and friends in the audience cheering for the youth validated the youth’s efforts and accomplishments. It was an awesome exchange.
What brought you here, to the stage, tonight?
I believe in the healing power of storytelling on the stage, in film, or in a book; people transform when witnessing the transformation. I believe the stage should be considered a temple. It is a place where magic happens, where community becomes community, where those who thought they could never relate to the actor, poet or dancer become connected. It is one of the great mysteries: how the arts and storytelling heal.
Both personally and professionally I believe that the arts make life worth living, for the arts teach us how to become human beings. I have experienced this first hand in my own healing. I found spiritual proprieties in dance and for many years I considered myself a spiritual dancer and was very enthusiastic about dance as a medium for healing.
Reading literature has a similar though less dramatic degree on me than live theater but I believe literature teaches us how to become human as well. Also the act of writing and reflection has been a great counselor to me; I have found through the act of recording dreams what the dream is trying to tell me.
In your work with students, would you be willing to share with us a few stories of how you came to realize how deeply you affected others with your teachings/offerings/programs you offered?
First, I have to say that working with teenagers was easy for me and the staff. We were absolutely crazy about the youth. And the youth knew it. They could feel that we had their backs and we followed through. So the youth would open up and they shared their stories, broke silences, shattered cultural taboos, broke generational gaps and were able to deeply express who they were and what they wanted for themselves and their families.
There are so many stories, but the one that comes to mind happened in our Poetry in the Kitchen class with student Cheo Satern. Cheo didn’t know she was a poet/writer/ spoken word performer until she found her voice in the workshops. She blossomed from a shy young female into the most requested poet to perform at major public venues in Oakland and the SF bay area.
Cheo inspired her other youth that may have been taught that young Mien females shouldn’t raise their voices and never take on feminist issues. Here she was: this young person who had so much fire and she just blew folks away. She told me she had some idea that maybe she was a poet because she loved music and poetry and had always written but never shared her writing. She thanked me for the class and took the workshop the next year.
There are many stories I can share but I think the under-story for me is how easy and natural it is for me to work with young people. They would just give me the world: their beauty and love unconditionally. I think it's very sad that our society may fear urban youth. It’s really tragic.
Did you face certain turning points in your life that caused you to commit even more deeply to your vision?
It took a lot out of me working on the frontlines for the youth and the artists. Our hearts were broken many times because we were gentrified out of the cultural center – we fought hard to save our space but lost it. Then bigger issues hurt our communities like Prop 21 and Prop 209. The zero tolerance climate high school students were up against during their public education would break anyone’s heart. For me it was the conditions that the youth were living under that kept my vision strong. We wanted to change those conditions. This was a youth organizing and arts education program, so we did have lots of victories as well as losses.
One victory would be the AYPAL youth who started the program back in 1998-2000 who successfully planned the AYPAL 8th reunion event in 2007. Those youth--now college students or working--kept true to a desire to help their communities. It was phenomenal to come to a planning meeting for the reunion and see 12 youth that had become young men and young women planning a huge event for AYPAL youth. They hadn’t changed much--they still had that burning desire/dream of justice.
I think it was the young people who would visit me and the staff, who kept in touch over the years, that strengthened my vision. It was truly a relationship and community development magic that I haven’t seen any place else.
When we were gentrified out of the cultural center my father encouraged me to go back to school, but I would stay another 5 years keeping the arts and the Pacific Island site going. I am glad I did because some of the arts programs have expanded and the Pacific Islander site is thriving.
What is your vision?
I have a vision all about the young people demanding their human rights: education, health care, and employment. I do believe the political leaders in Oakland have failed the young people. It should be a crime to fail the children. They give you everything and they are the future. The leadership in Oakland is a crying shame.
My vision has to do with young people learning the core values of brotherhood and sisterhood. That they make unity a groovy trend and reject American values such as having money and things. I came of age during the 60s and the 70s and there was a tangible, concrete sense that people cared about me and my family. That the educational institution made it possible for poor folks to get a higher education. My vision is for the young people to enjoy what I had as a teenager – education, trees, the fist of justice working for them.
But they have to do it now themselves. I see the young people rejecting the American values system as it is today. I hope the youth could also reject their I-pods and I-phones and texting all the time, for they need to reconnect with each other in a real grass-roots way. They need to learn how to be in relationship and communicate with voice and art. I think the technology advances in the past 10 years keep us isolated.
Who are the DreamSpeakers you have been inspired by in your lifetime?
The reason I am still standing and fighting for the community through the arts is because of my father, Iopu Taesali. My father encouraged me to dream and to make the dream happen. I guess my father was a dreamer as well. He was also a man of faith. He echoed many times when the doubt would sneak into my thoughts: “Daughter, you’re on your way.”
He would speak to me in metaphors when I would question my future as a writer or as the Artistic Director for AYPAL. “The pen cannot stand up alone.” “I was at Safeway today and I picked-up one bunch of bananas – they were heavy and I looked at the bananas but there were two bunches…solid gold.” Then he’d laugh and laugh. He’d share passages from the Bible too when I’d call him with some petty issue I was having (biblical passages I’d not really heard interpreted quite the way my father does). I really am a good listener – I think that is why AYPAL and PIKA were able to really flourish and expand.
My dear friend Sister Barbara is an amazing poet and DreamSpeaker I met years ago at a poetry reading. I’ve never met anyone like her. She trained men during World War II to skydive, to land on a tiny island in the Pacific, Mop, bringing medicine supplies for the people. She meets up with her other parachute buddies once a year and still sky dives. I could write so many Sister Barbara stories--she is my cheerleader and spiritual mother, coaching me never to give up. She plays this role for many women in her life.
There are so many DreamSpeakers that strengthen and inspired my values and passion working in Oakland with the young people. I became fast friends with Alicia Yang, Alan Laird, Jason Jong, Gina Hotta, Ellen Beep, Kallan Nishimoto, Dan Chumley, Al Robles, Bill Sorro, Julio Magana and Kawal Ulanday; they are like these gigantic gallant galaxies for all aspiring DreamSpeakers. My sister Eloise Taesali who is a DreamSpeaker Womanista who is now living her dreams as an artist.
And then there are the writers and poets, DreamSpeakers that have deeply impacted my desire to break the silences and write - -- Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Wright, Walt Whitman, Gary Snyder, David Robertson, and so many of the youth poets I was privileged to work for and with.
What is your vision for the women artists/writers, for them to build community and succeed?
My vision is that the funders start funding the arts, public space for the arts and the program staff to keep the arts going strong.
What would you say to a young woman starting out? What will she face, how should she stay strong?
I hope the young men could step up in this work too.
But I’d tell the young women to be flexible and not compromise the vision. Stick with it. Maybe they’d have to fake a smile and nod from time to time, but do your thing at all costs. I’d tell them: Stay true to their vision and surround yourself with like-minded spirits who believe in your work. There will be what the youth call “haters’”--those who want to see you and your work crash and burn because they have that human feeling of jealousy--but don’t take them seriously. There will be more people on your side if your vision is true to yourself.
And remember that people who want to make it happen somehow--one way or another--fall out of the sky from heaven and show up strong and willing to help. Accept this help, don’t question and analyze, for there are so many people who have the desire for Reverence and Justice. I’d also say take care of the self--including eating 3 healthy meals a day, exercising and paying your bills on time.
What is your next step?
My vision for myself is to live a healthy and creative life. I need to take care of my debts and my physical health. I am grateful that I get a second chance to put myself ahead of the community. I see myself easing up a bit on my high expectations. I need some serious R&R.
Any specific writing projects in the works (besides attending graduate school in creative writing at Mills this fall)?
I hope to write many essays, poems, novels and screenplays. I want to be the bridge for my relatives that were denied voice in Samoa, Portugal, Germany and here in America. I want to hear their stories desperately, so I have to make room in my mind and my heart to let them breathe because I know many folks will be able to relate to these stories.