Avid about AVID

As I waited for the office clerk to sign off on my time sheet, after a day of substitute teaching the fourth grade class from somewhere not of this planet, I encountered an AVID teacher and was reminded of all the high school students I once established a relationship with who graduated and went on to college because of AVID. Many of these students had been marginal performers when they first came to the school, and over the years I was able to watch them blossom into motivated, self-monitoring, engaged students.

AVID is an acronym for Advancement Via Individual Determination. The key word being determination. For these students, AVID was truly a blessing they never anticipated receiving. It is especially effective for those who tend to be marginalized by a system that is overburdened by such complex issues as integrating students with diverse backgrounds into a classroom setting that will benefit all.

For the most part, many of the students I worked with came from lower and working class families, although the program was not exclusive to these social classes. AVID seeks to teach students skills they will need to become successful in the academic arena. It’s objective is to provide support and tutoring to students who are unfamiliar with methodologies that will ensure their academic success, now and in the future. AVID accomplishes this by building strong relationships between students and the teacher.

The relationship built with the teacher develops effective skills for communicating academic needs, and establishing goals that will facilitate both academic and personal success. It helps by building a foundation of trust between individual students and the teacher. The establishment of peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher relationships is especially effective with those who may have a difficult time seeing how education will benefit them in the future.

I specifically remember one student who came to high school carrying baggage from her difficult home life that caused her to seek support from those who proved not to be supportive. She became a gang member during middle school, and was so deeply involved in her plight, she saw no other options for creating healthy relationships.

The gangs became her family. And she is typical of the mentality that many female gang members have. That mentality being that gang affiliation is fluid, depending on which gang her boyfriend or girlfriend at the time may be involved in. AVID showed the young lady she had options in life that she never considered before. She said the program raised her awareness of what it takes to become successful in a world where she has seen so many fail. The time spent was not without pitfalls, but by her senior year she had turned everything around, and became an A student.

She was admitted to a prestigious university program that would help her reach the life goal she set for herself, to become a dentist. Over the four years prior to that, I had watched her change from disconnected, discontent, and sultry, into a dynamic leader who decided that she deserved more in life than the path she had chosen before AVID. Ultimately, at her high school graduation she was aglow with anticipation for a future she never expected to pursue when she first walked across the esplanade and through the doors of Denver’s flagship high school.

 

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Where Are All the Black Science Fiction Writers

I often wonder, where are all the black science fiction writers? When I peruse the shelves at my local bookstore, and I find a title I might be interested in, I always check the inside cover to see if the author is black. Hoping. But, more often than not, disappointed. I then surmise that if the author is not African American, then any characters, which are black, will only be used to move the story along. That has almost always been our traditional role in science fiction.

Of course, we can look to the works of Martin Delany, Samuel R. Delany, WEB Dubois, Octavia Butler, and N.K. Jemison. But, after doing some research, I was surprised to learn there are many more. For instance, on forharriet.com, you can read about seven accomplished black female science fiction writers. If you search for African American science fiction on GoodReads.com, you will come up with 201 titles.

But, if you keep reading some of the reviews and comments from African Americans on GoodReads, the common thread appears to ask where are the main characters of color; who are doing extraordinary things? Many are questioning why so many emerging authors of color are being overlooked. I am one of those African American science fiction authors wondering the same thing.

An article written by Samuel R. Delany was insightful. There have been many African American science fiction writers, dating back to the early 1800’s. As he also points out later in the article, those same writers never got the recognition they deserved because of the color of their skin.

Delany is not only African American; he is gay. So when his peers at the Science Fiction Writers of America Nebula Awards Banquet covertly ridiculed him in 1968, he took it in stride. He even took it in stride, after receiving his award, when Isaac Asimov leaned over to him at the table and whispered, “You know, Chip, (Delany’s nickname) we only voted you those awards because you’re Negro…”. As Delany so eloquently puts it, “Racism is a system. As such, it is fueled as much by chance as by hostile intentions and equally the best intentions as well.”

When I go on social media and join in conversations with my groups, I see the same concerns. Where are the black science fiction writers? Well, we’re here, right in front of you. You might not find us in your local bookstore, because most of them only sell books published by traditional publishing houses. But if you go to Amazon, GoodReads, and Barnes and Noble Online, you can shop until you drop. Check us out at your online bookstore. Sit back, relax. Read a good science fiction novel with black characters, written by a black author. And enjoy!

Writing Black in a White Publisher’s World: Getting Started

Navigating the world of publishing is a daunting task when an aspiring writer is looking to publish the first book. My first stop was the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, only because I was not familiar with how the publishing industry works. So, the workshop was the ideal place to start because they gave me access to experienced professionals; and some of them have decades of successes behind them.

These people are bestselling authors, freelance editors and life coaches, as well as literary and creative writing professors. In addition, the group sponsors readings by bestselling poets, authors, and playwrights. So if there is a writers’ workshop available in the area, that is always a good place to start. You can also go to Lighthouse’s website and enroll in online workshops, after joining Lighthouse for a minimal fee. Online workshops generally last four to eight weeks.

Once you have gotten some concept of how the industry works; albeit through research, classes, or workshops, you are ready to find an agent. Literary agents open doors that are not available for those looking to submit an unsolicited manuscript to traditional publishers, such as Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins, and more. Most major publishers like Scholastic will not accept a manuscript that has not been proposed to them by a literary agent. Some do, but those documents generally sit in a slush pile until someone has time to read it. Which is rare, because agents and publishers get about a hundred queries a day. So, eventually they will trash them without ever having read them.

Queries are letters that writers send to agents and publishers that introduce their book by providing a brief synopsis, and telling the reader why the book was written. They also give agents and publishers a sense of your writing style, or what writers like to call “voice”. Query letters need to be carefully crafted, so it is best to look to the publisher’s or agent’s website to see what protocols in crafting the letter are expected. Otherwise, they will reject it before they finish reading the first sentence.

It is also important that the writer submits the manuscript to the person or company that will be most likely to at least take time to read the query letter. For instance, I submitted my Young Adult speculative fiction novel to those agents who are interested in, and have experience representing authors who have published in that genre. If you are writing nonfiction, you will need to find someone who is interested in, and has success in getting other authors published in that genre.

I queried about thirty literary agents before deciding to self-publish. Not because they showed no interest, but because they showed interest, but the book did not fit their narrowly defined market niche, or it was not something they were interested in publishing at the time. Encouraging, nonetheless, because they at least took the time to craft a reply rather than send a canned response. It can take years, sometimes, before you will find a publisher or agent who is willing to take your project on. Another reason why I chose to self publish, which will be the topic for the next blog. Should I seek out a traditional publisher, Indie publisher, or self publish? Keep on writing!

Writing Black in a White Publisher’s World

Writing offers it’s own personal rewards. But, what good is a manuscript if it gathers dust in the closet? One of the most popular topics during Lit Fest, at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, surrounds publication. The majority of writers are eager to begin the publication process, so they can see their name in print after taking so much time and investing so much effort into creating a work they can be proud to share. But for an emerging writer, this can become one of the most daunting parts of publishing.

First the writer must determine whether to self-publish or try to find a traditional publisher. There is one other option, and that is submitting their book to Indie publishers. I tried traditional before exploring the option of self -publishing. But first I had to find a literary agent to represent me, so my work wouldn’t end up in a slush pile that grows over time, and the manuscript eventually ends up in “file thirteen”, the trash.

That is where my challenges began, because almost every agent I queried replied with an answer that suggested that although they found the storyline compelling, and what they read showed promise, my novel did not fit into their specific market niche. Or, this was not what they were looking for at the time. And I must add that I could only find one African American agent in my search, and she quickly turned me down. That was when I learned that all the publishing industry talk about embracing diversity in literature is just that, talk.

Speculative fiction is another challenge. Especially for women and people of color. And the fact that the Science Fiction Writers of America – SFWA – are the ones who hold signgicant influence over what should be published in that genre is most disconcerting. SFWA is the organization responsible for presenting the prestigious Nebula Awards. The SFWA officers are composed of writers who are white. There is one member of Cuban descent, but once again, she is white. When faced with such disparities in the publishing industry, the task of finding someone to publish my manuscript became an exercise in futility, so I decided to self-publish.

My affiliation with the Black Science Fiction Society and others has taught me that I am not alone in this dilemma. In this organization I was able to find a support system that helped me keep focus on my longterm goal – to leave my mark, among many other black writers, in speculative fiction. I now have access to a network of talented and accomplished members of the literary world who face the same struggles as myself. People who have found ways of thinking outside the box when looking for help in publication. Members who are reviewers, editors, animators, and accomplished authors who have paved the way for others like me who struggle with the barriers presented when publishing while black.

 

Access to Diversity in Literature

The young adult market for good books seems to be in flux right now, with all the major publishers volleying for position. But publishers are not sure what the demand for that market is. Do YAs and Millennials want more fantasy? More super heroes? Zombies? Nonfiction? And if it is nonfiction they’re looking for, what topics are the younger generations interested in?

For me, the decision to write Immersion was less analytical as it was an attempt to redirect the readers’ attention from social media for a moment, to encourage them to take time to enjoy and re-establish an appreciation for the literary arts. And in Detroit, where I now reside, there is a very active movement to do just that. Mainly because the underfunded school district has to think of innovative ways to improve the academic growth of so many students who lack the basic foundation of good reading skills.

My observation in the education arena is not that the schools are failing our students, as much as the economic system is placing our students at risk of not being able to compete in a global labor market. For instance, the Digital Divide exists between those who are fortunate enough to afford computer technology and Internet access at home and those who cannot. There is a difference between a classroom in the inner city, where 30 elementary-school students have no iPads, while in the schools with good funding, high performance, and high enrollment students may have their own assigned iPads that they can take home over the summer for reading assignments.

These factors, along with lack of access to affordable tutors, or something as simple as an in-school library, have served as hindrances in assuring all students have an equal access to a quality education. But, one factor that can tip the balance is the writing community’s desire and drive to provide compelling literature for all to read and engage in.

When one student asked me, “What makes your book different? Why should I read it?” My response was, “Because the characters in this book look and act just like you.” Their reaction resulted in a rousing round of approval. One young lady said, ”I’m buying your book today just because of that!” If that’s all it takes to get our younger readers to consider picking up a book to find answers, or as a source of entertainment, I feel I have accomplished my goal to just get them reading good literature again.

I find it amusing to hear the far right rhetoric about America belonging to the white man because they were the original colonists. And then using that same rationalization for deporting hardworking Mexican immigrants. If it’s true that Europeans were the first settlers, who were all those people the “original colonists” massacred as they spread their seed across the land?

The colonists took lives from the very same natives who helped the struggling settlers stay alive by providing food to feed their starving families, and sharing natural remedies they had used successfully for centuries to treat their own ill. To the far right, “Indians” were not considered “American” then, any more than their descendants are considered American now. Neither are the African Americans who were brought here by force only to be sold into slavery,  or the free black men who came to America of their own volition in the early 1500’s. Some would even argue that Africans were here before the Mayflower landed.

And there are those of Mexican descent who called a large portion of the western territory home before the movement of the European population west. They, too, were here before the “original” settlers. While living in Colorado,  I often thought of these immigrants as the masses who were once displaced and are now returning to the home they once knew. How many others will be displaced in this new era of rising nationalism? Maybe the Muslims? Or the Jews?

According to William Lauren Katz, who wrote Black West, of the 46 original founders of Los Angeles, 24 were black, two were Caucasian, and the others were Native American. A large number of California’s population, at the time of the Gold Rush, was Mexican. While the governor, Pio Pico, was a black man from Bolivia. The diverse populations managed to coalesce and coexist effectively then.  Why are we having difficulties doing the same now?

And what would the far right consider someone who is a mix of African, Mexican, and Native American descent?  In fact, when my cousin on my grandmother’s side of the family got back her DNA test results she found out that despite outward appearances, we are not as much African American as we are Native American, representing 27 tribes as far North as the Aleutian Islands and as far south as the Aztecs of Mexico.

Which makes me wonder how many of the tribes that are now considered eradicated still exist behind the facade of  black, brown, or white skin. Would we not be considered among the original settlers of this country? So if America is a country of immigrants, I ask you to please remember those of us, not of European descent, who migrated here long before the Mayflower landed.

Corporate Meets the Cognitively Diverse

IMG_0081The young adult market for good books seems to be in flux right now, with all the major publishers volleying for position. But publishers are not sure what the demand for that market is. Do YAs and Millennials want more fantasy? More super heroes? Zombies? Nonfiction? And if it is nonfiction they’re looking for, what topics are the younger generations interested in?

For me, the decision to write Immersion was less analytical as it was an attempt to redirect the readers’ attention from social media for a moment, to encourage them to take time to enjoy and re-establish an appreciation for the literary arts. And in Detroit, where I now reside, there is a very active movement to do just that. Mainly because the underfunded school district has to think of innovative ways to improve the academic growth of so many students who lack the basic foundation of good reading skills.

My observation in the education arena is not that the schools are failing our students, as much as the economic system is placing our students at risk of not being able to compete in a global labor market. For instance, the Digital Divide exists between those who are fortunate enough to afford computer technology and Internet access at home and those who cannot. There is a difference between a classroom in the inner city, where 30 elementary-school students have no iPads, while in the schools with good funding, high performance, and high enrollment students may have their own assigned iPads that they can take home over the summer for reading assignments.

These factors, along with lack of access to affordable tutors, or something as simple as an in-school library, have served as hindrances in assuring all students have an equal access to a quality education. But, one factor that can tip the balance is the writing community’s desire and drive to provide compelling literature for all to read and engage in.

When one student asked me, “What makes your book different? Why should I read it?” My response was, “Because the characters in this book look and act just like you.” Their reaction resulted in a rousing round of approval. One young lady said, ”I’m buying your book today just because of that!” If that’s all it takes to get our younger readers to consider picking up a book to find answers, or as a source of entertainment, I feel I have accomplished my goal to just get them reading good literature again.

Does Economics Trump Race and Religion?

Because of the clamor in the media about all the problems that Trump purportedly inherited from Obama, there have been more fingers pointing than ever before as to who is responsible for the growing income inequality in America. The Appalachian miners are struggling because the change in demand from coal to clean fuel alternatives has resulted in economic collapse for entire communities. And despite the rhetoric coming from the White House on saving a dying industry, coal mines are shutting down across the country.

Yet Wall Street continues to rally as the plans for increased infrastructure spending and tax breaks for corporate America are beginning to be rolled out to the anxiously awaiting public. And at first, I was impressed with Ivanka Trump’s proposal for a Childcare Tax Credit. But then I saw this commentary in the Chicago Tribune and realized that our lower and middle income families could be in for a major disappointment because it will be those who make over $200,000 per year who will benefit most from this credit. Those who need it most will receive the least assistance from it. The president also plans to get rid of the Earned Income Credit, which helps single parent families.

At the same time, hard working people who have been here for years, are in fear of being deported. Because even though they might not have committed any other crimes, they committed the crime of entering the country illegally. So while we are threatening Jewish synagogues, and profiling Mexicans and African Americans, and accusing one group of taking jobs away from another, maybe we should be looking at the White House and the plans it’s proposing to push through Congress. As our President and his staff continue to turn more and more of Trump’s campaign proposals into policies, we need to stop and consider if what sounds good on paper, or on the news, will benefit us all in the long run. Or will we see the income gap continue to grow?

 

We All Have A Story To Tell, So Why Not Tell It?

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How often have you been in a situation where you said, “Hey, that would make a great story”? Or, “I should write that down.” Then you file the episode away in a remote place in your grey matter and quickly forget about it. Or you take the initiative to put pen to paper and manage a paragraph or two before you are distracted by a presidential Tweet. I can’t tell you how many times I have played out similar scenarios, until I finally decided that the time to write is now or never.

Blogging is my way of sharing my worldviews, and experiences as an emerging author. When I began, I only had a vague storyline in mind. And no clue where to begin. Those classes in creative writing that I took decades ago needed to be retrieved from the depths of my memory, but that wasn’t enough to push me in the right direction. So I became a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop, in Denver, Colorado. And I began my journey into becoming a “bona fide” writer.

Never mind that a writer needs no credentials to be a writer. Any more than an author becomes an author by attaining critical acclaim. I learned, from my workshops and subsequent publication, that all it takes is a story you want to share, the desire to craft a work that’s engaging, and the necessary tools. And you have become a writer.

But if it’s that easy, why are there not more people out there publishing works that you would like to read? Novels, nonfiction, poetry, and prose that represent your ideals, your perspectives of life? My question to you is, why wait for someone else to write your story when you can write it yourself?

For some writers, the craft is a solitary affair. For others, especially those interested in nonfiction, it can be a very socially engaging. I fall in the former category, being an introvert. My stories are mostly a product of an overactive imagination. Newscasters and columnists, on the other hand, tend to be extroverts. And they find stories in other people’s daily activities.

So why not begin with you? Who are you? What interests you? It’s hard to write about something you have no interest in or curiosity about. Because even though writing can be financially rewarding, the most important asset for a good writer is the compulsion to create a well-crafted work.

If you think you don’t have what it takes to be a writer, you will never know until you try. There are so many stories out there that we can share with one another. Stories that are not limited by race, sexual preference, class, intelligence, religion, or cultural influence. Sometimes even the mundane can make for the most evocative poetry, or an informative how-to book. And unless all of us share our stories, we shouldn’t criticize the publishing industry for not publishing books that reflect who we are, what we want, or what we know.

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