By Imani Williams
LYONS, Mich. – It happens whenever there is a gathering of kindred souls. You can feel the energy, electric and vibrant, filling the air. There’s a connection between spirits who have never met face to face, a sense of familiarity.
The picture in the room was breathtakingly beautiful women of color: black, yellow, red, and brown gathered on a January evening in Lyons, Michigan in search of a writing community at the Women of Color Writing Retreat. The 16 women spent the weekend bonding and taking the first steps on the next leg of their writing journey.
They answered the call from around the country from as far away as Oakland, Calif. and Boston, Mass. Two international participants hailed from Toronto. The weekend retreat, appropriately titled, “Let me Rest Here,” took place mid way between Grand Rapids and Lansing at the Leaven Center, a social justice haven dedicated to changing lives.
Facilitating was Chrystos, a Native American activist who was born off reservation in San Francisco in 1946 to a Menominee father and Euro immigrant mother. Chrystos, an award wining writer and activist, shared her story and writing tips to help others unlock their legacies and put them on paper. The lessons of women of color, once documented, leave a well-defined message that says, “We were here, our stories are important, and we do, indeed, matter.”
Chrystos enjoys facilitating writing workshops for women of color namely because she feels it gets tiresome doing activist work with people who don’t understand what a life and death issue racism is. “I feel that the overall ignorance is massive. Racism affects quality of life,” said Chrystos.
At the tender age of nine, Chrystos started writing, and by 13 she was working on her first activist project. The project was a march on San Francisco’s segregated schools in 1960 during her first year of high school. It amazes her, she said, that San Francisco schools remain segregated today even with the mixture of ethnicities and races that reside there.
Retreat attendees were encouraged to read as widely as possible to not only understand the social justice movement, but also to improve one’s writing. “It is incredibly important for people to know who has fought for social justice and who has fought against it,” Chrystos said. She also implored aspiring writers to take responsibility for themselves. Her mantra is the more you explore cultures of other people, the better activist you will be. “People need to read and listen to music of other cultures,” said Chrystos, “your mind becomes stronger.”
On her list of shero’s Chrystos includes her friends Wilma Mankiller and Bea Medicine. There are also a lot of writers and cultural figures that she admires. She feels there is a great deal of misunderstanding from some of the people she admires most, like Audre Lorde. Chrystos said that Lorde was very supportive of native rights issues. She remembers Lorde giving away food to poorer people, even as her home was destroyed by a hurricane that hit St. Croix. Chrystos believes that great writing comes from those individuals who have lived life and that Lorde led by example.
“Crucial to the process is how you treat other people in the world,” Chrystos said.
Chrystos and this workshop were introduced to the Leaven Center’s Director Melanie Morrison through Carmen Lane. Lane, 30, is African-American and works at Michigan State University as the Advocacy Coordinator for the Sexual Assault Crisis Safety and Education program.
Of the retreat Lane said, “I wanted women of color to use the Leaven space, to cultivate their voices. I believe Chrystos is one of the most profound writers of our time and, particularly as our movement’s elders and our artists pass, it’s important for us to acknowledge, honor and learn from those women of color who are still here.”
Lane likened Chrystos to women of color like Lorde, Pat Parker, Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Cameron, June Jordan and Terri Jewel. “Folks who kind of created a foundation and led a path for us to do the work we do today,” Lane said.
Also attending the retreat was 28-year-old Ching-in Chen who identifies as Asian American and came from Boston. “Just being able to be here and having time to do our own thing was good. We needed that space to really be able to think about what is going on in our lives and to wrap our minds around that and then be able to get it out on paper,” Chen said. “It really helped me to get some perspective and be able to connect with other people and get their experience. When I heard everyone share their stories, it was amazing. I don’t think we really make space in our lives to listen to other peoples and to learn from their experiences. They’re really aren’t a lot of women of color writing spaces and it’s important to have that.”
At the close of the retreat, Leaven was filled with the joyful sounds of women who had connected through their collective experiences. Stories of pain, joy and triumph had been shared. Hugs were plentiful as were the promises to keep writing, to keep in touch, and to continue to let their voices be heard.