Pray, trust, and do the dishes.
The YWCA Leader Lunch award didn’t get me off welfare, but it certainly made me more determined to figure out how to become self-sufficient. I stayed with W3 another three years and also continued to grow my secretarial service. But I eventually grew tired of working at home. Tania was about to graduate from high school, Ebony was in middle school, and Iris, Julian, and Stevie had left home to begin their adult lives. I was ready to move on to an outside work environment.
I took a job in one of our neighborhood’s social service agencies. I don’t remember what position I was hired for, but I remember that I wasn’t happy there after working in the arts. I spent a lot of time in the year I worked there questioning the logic of my feelings. Shouldn’t I be grateful for this job, to finally be able to tell the welfare department goodbye after ten years? Indeed I was very grateful, but that didn’t make the job satisfying.
I had been invited many times to visit with the executive director of the Loft Literary Center, who wanted W3 to partner with them on one program or another. I always declined, fearing that what I had worked so hard to build would be co-opted by that large, internationally recognized organization whose reach was so much broader than mine. Also, their reputation was that they catered mostly to white writers with means and swallowed up smaller efforts to accommodate writers who were not in their primary demographic. But one day I learned that their program director was leaving.
Despite my misgivings, I saw an opportunity to return to the arts. I decided to apply and was hired. For the next five years, from 1989 till 1993, I was able to build on what I had learned in the arts administration classes Lawrence had sent me to. I learned much more about directing programs and the many aspects of running an arts organization that was much larger than W3 had been. But it was not without difficulties.
I was the first person of color to hold a leadership position at the Loft. As is so often true, the problem with being the first is that you are invited into an existing structure where others do not know or understand that our way of being is different from theirs. It was a constant struggle. My views and opinions were constantly questioned or outright dismissed as unacceptable or invalid. In addition, I felt pigeonholed by their members. As program director, I was responsible for their signature programs as well as Inroads, the new program they had started for indigenous writers and writers of color just before I was hired. Yet during my entire time there, I often heard comments from constituents that showed they thought that my job was only to manage Inroads—no matter how many times I stood at the podium to introduce featured authors or winners of competitions. It became clear early in my tenure there that my values were very different from theirs.
I left nearly every day feeling hurt, humiliated, and angry because of things that were said or done to me. But at the same time, I had developed a deep fondness for many of the writers I met or worked with. I didn’t want to leave them or the position that had given me a certain amount of prestige in the community of writers. Also, Tania and Ebony were still living at home. I didn’t want to take a chance on taking them back to poverty.
Over time, the stress began to wear me down. The final straw happened when I brought in a well-known author for what was then a month-long creative nonfiction mentorship. Within the first week of his visit, I became very ill and was diagnosed with viral meningitis. The writer called me at home after learning that I was going to be out for a while. I don’t remember his words exactly but the gist was something like this: “I’ve been watching how they treat you. They’ve made you sick. Don’t let them kill you.” The illness forced me to miss my first granddaughter’s birth the same week. Enough is enough, I thought, and submitted my letter of resignation.
The director asked me stay on part-time for six months so she could figure out who might be the right person to replace me. I didn’t have another job lined up so I agreed. As word spread throughout the community that I was leaving, I started receiving calls and emails from writers, some who had participated in W3 programs, suggesting that I start another organization to expand opportunities for Minnesota writers.
At first I was reluctant, but at the end of the six months I changed my mind. I called my friend Fred Meyer, founder of Ideas To Go, an innovation process consulting firm where I sometimes worked as a Creative Consumer®. He volunteered to lead an ideation session using his principle of “forness” rather than “againstness,” to help the participants focus on brainstorming what a new organization for writers would look like rather than wasting time complaining about what we felt was lacking in the literary community. Eighteen writers showed up—a diverse group in terms of race, age, sexual orientation, experience, and genre, and the result was that a new organization would fully embrace my values. It would be based in a small office and would engage in multiple collaborations, taking its programming out to the community rather than asking everyone to come to us. In this way, we could keep it accessible to individuals at a wide range of income and experience levels.
We named the new organization SASE: The Write Place and playfully called it Sassy. The name was intended to be a play on the S.A.S.E. (self-addressed, stamped envelope). All artists know to include a SASE with submissions for grants and publications. If your SASE is returned, it means you didn’t get what you had applied for. We joked that our name was a twist on that concept: at Sassy, everybody won.
A week after the meeting with Meyer, one of my neighbors saw the name of W3 in the Unclaimed Properties section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I followed up and learned that a $1,000 donation had been waiting for us for five years. I used the funds for SASE’s start-up costs, changing the name of the Whittier Writers’ Workshop to SASE: The Write Place. We rented a small office in the 711 building on Lyndale Avenue and Lake Street in South Minneapolis, and we opened our door in fall 1993. I was fortunate that Minnesota’s major arts funders, particularly the Jerome, McKnight, and St. Paul Travelers Foundations, and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC), remembered me from W3 and the Loft and were eager to help get SASE off the ground.
We were able to start some of the programming envisioned in the ideation session immediately. Board member Julie Landsman arranged a meeting with the principal and social worker at Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis, which resulted in the Breakfast Club, named after the popular 1985 teen film. The school had a Saturday school program that gave students who had blown off detention all week a final opportunity to serve their detention on Saturday morning. The drawback was that the students had to sit in a room for four hours with nothing to do. SASE’s Breakfast Club invited them to spend two of those hours in a separate room where they were given donuts, juice, and a poetry class. We hired poets to teach the classes and gave a neighborhood mother a stipend to keep order. The program became so popular that students returned even when they were not on detention. Word spread throughout the school, and more students began to attend. Then parents and other neighborhood residents started attending, and the community newspaper, Camden News, began publishing poems written by participants. This encouraged us to develop writing programs for teen parents in other high schools and interdisciplinary programs in partnership with social service agencies such as the Wilder Foundation and the Sexual Violence Center, where clients could explore issues they were contending with through writing and other arts mediums.
I was eager to pay things forward by using the gift Lawrence Hutera had given me. He had provided the impetus for me to start W3 and had supported me every step of the way. I wanted to do the same thing at SASE, so I decided that if someone came to me with an idea, I would help them get it off the ground. Over time, our programs for practicing writers included exciting programs led by writers. The SASE About Town reading series, suggested by Brenda Bell Brown, became a place where writers could curate monthly readings in community gathering places of their own choice. Readings were held in coffee houses, libraries, and community centers, broadening opportunities for writers to share their work. With thanks to MRAC, we were the first program to regularly provide the curators and presenters with a small stipend. An unexpected benefit was that individuals who just happened to be on the premises during a reading often reported that they learned that writing wasn’t something mysterious reserved only for a few lofty individuals: it is also for everyday people.
Writers kept coming to me with viable ideas, and those who were serious worked hard to put them into practice. Sherry Quan Lee started a mentoring program where small groups of emerging writers were mentored for a semester or longer, and e. g. bailey helped me start the Verve grants, the first grants in the nation for spoken word artists. Both programs were graciously funded by the Jerome Foundation, which also funded a small grants program that we called the SASE/Jerome Fellowships. Each year’s winners selected finalists and then, by interviewing them, chose the next years’ winners.
Diego Vazquez asked if SASE would consider sponsoring the National Poetry Slam (NPS). It took three years of going to NPS headquarters in Chicago before they finally agreed. During those three years, I became known as Slamgranny, a title I still embrace, though I rarely attend poetry slams anymore. Through the efforts of an amazing team led by Cynthia French, NPS 2000 was named the best National Poetry Slam at the time because we were so well organized. Sixty-five teams of poets from all over the country as well as one from Canada and another from England spent five days in Minneapolis. The competitions were held in venues in the North Loop, then known as the Warehouse District. Finals night was held at the State Theater and was opened with a ceremonial dance by a group of Aztec dancers.
Other programs I’m proud of were a curriculum we developed with Deaf poet Cara Barnett in collaboration with Metro Deaf School. Following that, we published a book written by poet and ASL interpreter Morgan Grayce Willow. Crossing That Bridge is intended to help arts organizations’ efforts to provide interpretation for the Deaf.
I started teaching at Hamline University during my third year at SASE, and soon students began to intern with us. One of them, Brandon Lussier, eventually became our director of programs. A world traveler, Brandon visited a poetry library in Scotland one summer. When he returned, he wanted to start a poetry library in our small office. He recruited another intern to help him establish the library and to seek donations of poetry in all forms. Soon we had more than five thousand volumes—books, recordings, anthologies for adults and children. The Brandon Lussier Poetry Library was the only library in Minnesota dedicated solely to poetry.
MY INTENTION was to stay at SASE for five years and then to focus on my writing. But it kept growing in ways that were very satisfying. In our tenth year, I began to feel the signs of burnout. I wanted to move on but didn’t know how. Eventually, I told trusted board members how I was feeling. To my surprise, they said they already knew. We had been having financial difficulties for a while, and one board member pointed out that when the leader is no longer engaged, it shows up in the organization’s health.
Over the next few months we pondered what to do. SASE would still be my “baby,” and demand was still strong and growing: our grants programs, and our classes and mentorships were still in demand, and mainstream and alternative schools, social service programs, juvenile justice programs, and other organizations serving youth and adults were still requesting our services. How could we free me up yet remain responsible to our constituents?
The St. Paul Foundation awarded us a grant to develop a transition plan led by Diane Espaldon of Larson Allen Weishair, and support from the Bush Foundation enabled us to strengthen our management structure by hiring a part-time executive director who we thought would eventually replace me. However, through our year-long process of visioning and planning, it became clear that rather than bring in a new leader a merger might be the best way to accomplish what we were looking for. But who would be a merger partner that would respect our vision and further our programs?
I had been partnering with Intermedia Arts since my time at W3 and had a solid relationship with them. I approached Sandy Agustin, then Intermedia’s interim executive/artistic director. She and Daniel Gumnit, who would become their next executive director, agreed. As their name suggests, Intermedia Arts engaged the community in multiple arts disciplines. But writing and spoken word were not among the programs they offered at the time. The merger would bring SASE financial stability and would add writing to Intermedia’s programming. We continued our planning over the next year. Before the merger could be completed, we would need to retire a deficit we had acquired. We approached the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and St. Paul Travelers and were happy and relieved when they agreed to support the merger.
On Thursday, June 8, 2006, we celebrated SASE at Intermedia with a mock wedding. Neal Cuthbert of the McKnight Foundation “officiated.” Cynthia Gehrig, then president of the Jerome Foundation, Nancy Fushan of the Bush Foundation, and Mary Pickard, then president of St. Paul Travelers Foundation, each gave the “marriage” their blessing by reading a poem they loved. And then the audience erupted in a standing ovation when Neal read the first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” as Daniel and I held hands, officially marrying SASE with Intermedia Arts.
Following the ceremony, SASE’s board co-chairs, Shannon Kennedy and Leslie Wolfe, along with Intermedia’s board chair introduced poets who performed. Then, like any other wedding, there was a reception with cake, food, and dancing.
I am grateful to Julie Bates-McGillis, whom we had hired to manage SASE’s programs at Intermedia. For the next ten years, she took great care of our programs and always kept me informed about changes she was planning to make in order to take them to the next level. But her efforts as well as the efforts of other staff came to an abrupt halt in fall 2017 when Intermedia suddenly closed. Hamline University accepted our poetry library holdings, but unfortunately they were unable to provide a designated space for them in their library.
FOUR YEARS after SASE’s merger with Intermedia Arts, I received another award that validated my service to Minnesota’s literary community, the Minnesota Book Awards Kay Sexton award, which is presented every year to an individual or an organization to recognize their long-standing dedication and outstanding work in fostering books, reading, and literary activity in Minnesota. My dear friend Sherry Quan Lee nominated me and recruited several others to write letters in support of her nomination. Like the YWCA Leader Lunch award, I represented another first. The Leader Lunch committee had created a new category in order to honor me. I was the first person of color to win the Kay Sexton award since the inception of the Minnesota Book Awards twenty-two years before, in 1988.
I invited my friend and mentor Andrea “Andy” Gilats, co-founder of the University of Minnesota’s now-defunct Split Rock Arts Program, to introduce me. “It is vital to keep asking ourselves, ‘Who will I be while I do what I do?’” she said. “Carolyn believes that if we see a need, we can work to meet it. Her instinctive, respectful practice of cultural entrepreneurism, her remarkable persistence, and her sheer joy in seeing others grow and thrive are lessons in living for us all. By consistently choosing affirmation, optimism, and progress over anger, complacency, and exclusion, Carolyn has created models for people and communities everywhere.”
Then she said, “Carolyn has always brought her personal history to bear on her professional work, and the results have imprinted themselves on the literary arts in Minnesota.” I listened to Andy’s inspiring words, grateful to the friends who nominated me and the committee who had selected me. I looked at my beloved family who were sitting at my table with me—my mother, my children, and my grandchildren, and I nodded in agreement with Andy’s words, grateful that this time they could share the moment with me. Indeed my personal history deeply informs my work.
MY EFFORTS to focus on my writing eventually had results. It took a while because during my thirteen years at SASE, my focus had been on keeping it going and growing. I wanted to become known as much as a writer as I had been for being someone who made things happen in the literary arts community. I knew I had accomplished my goal when I was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant in 2016.
Recipients of this grant are required to give a presentation in the community. Like the work I had been doing since I started W3, I wanted to do something that would impact the community rather than simply giving a reading. Several years before I received the grant, I was invited to read at a local bookstore. I invited some of the women in my writing group, Twin Cities Black Women Writing, to read with me. During the Q&A section, an audience member expressed surprise that we were all “so different.” I was appalled by her comment, yet fascinated. I know her to be a kind and caring woman, and I’m sure her comment was sincere and that what she said came from a belief that she shares with many other whites—a belief that lumps Black people together as though there is only one voice from which we speak, as though there is only one Black experience.
I decided to create a community experience that would address that issue. My relationship with the Loft has changed greatly in the years since I was employed there. The organization is much more open now than it was back then, and I enjoy my current relationship with the Loft. I teach classes there now and served as a mentor in its Mentor Series program, one of the programs I managed during my employment there.
Thanks to Bao Phi and Sherrie Fernandez-Williams, Loft program director and program manager, respectively, I was able to do something meaningful at the Loft for my community project. I developed a series of three panel discussions that featured Black women writers—the first was African American women, the second was women with Caribbean backgrounds, and a third featured women from East and West Africa. I was happily surprised by the community response: we filled the auditorium with each discussion.
The response showed me that once again I had created something of value, so I decided to continue the discussions. The next year, while I was talking with Sherrie Fernandez-Williams about Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which she warns against fostering stereotypes by treating one story of a people as their only story, Sherrie suggested that I name my series More Than a Single Story. At the time of this writing the series is in its fifth year. We have had many discussions that feature writers from a variety of indigenous and of-color communities, and we have covered many themes. Author/activist David Mura has moderated discussions with men of color focused on issues of importance to them, and we have developed relationships with the Hennepin County Libraries, St. Paul Libraries, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, and other venues where we hold our discussions.