Poets highlight impacts of oppression and the media portrayal of people of color

by Kirsten Garcia, Department of Natural Resources and Parks

This summer I’m interning with the Department of Natural Resources and Parks in the Wastewater Treatment Division. I’m providing cross-sectional support to the Environmental and Community Relations and Finance and Administration sections on policy changes, planning outreach, communications, and budgets.

In my first week with DNRP, I assisted with and observed the June 15 poetry symposium on “Reflecting on Race and Racism through Spoken Word, Story, and Conversation,” an Equity and Social Justice project created by the Wastewater and Solid Waste divisions. About 90 King County employees listened to and reflected on work by local poets Anis Gisele and Shin Yu Pai.

One employee commented that “this experience reminded us of the need to be cognizant of what we should do to create space for all people’s points of view.”

Anis Gisele 2

Anis Gisele

The audience listened intently to Anis Gisele’s poems about inter-generational pain, long-term impacts of oppression, and under-representation. Gisele addressed growing up within a patriarchal society in the Philippines where suppressing feelings is a result of centuries of colonization. In one of her poems, she referenced the first time she met her therapist who spoke of how her skirt reminded her of all the time she’s spent in Haiti doing community service work. Gisele questioned whether her white therapist was trying to help her the same way she was trying to help the community in Haiti – through a white person’s filter of the “other.” I nodded in agreement with Gisele’s words because many of her experiences resonated with me.

I, too, question how readily someone who doesn’t understand the oppression and struggles I’ve experienced would be able to help me. Our institutions and services need to better reflect the diverse populations they serve. For example, last year, as a student worker in the University of Washington Tacoma’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, I along with my colleagues noticed that while our university prides itself on a “diverse” campus, our staff and faculty do not reflect who we are as students.

Gisele’s poems demonstrated the struggle and conflicts that people of color face. They made me consider how Filipino culture has shaped me. They reflect my own activism, such as my involvement last year as community outreach coordinator for the Filipino Student Association at UW Tacoma.

Shin Yu Pai2

Shin Yun Pai

The two poets took turns performing their work. Shin Yu Pai’s poetry dealt with the way people of color are portrayed in the media: either in a negative light or not at all. She referenced the death of an Asian American college student who set himself on fire, a tragedy that wasn’t acknowledged in the news or on campus. On the other hand, the media directed much attention and support to Amanda Knox who was awaiting trial for murder in Italy. Pai’s poetry also described how the BODIES…The Exhibition resembled bullet holes in unidentified specimens because the exhibit displayed bodies of Chinese migrant workers without proof of their consent. 

The audience asked questions such as, “How has the city of Seattle compared to anywhere else that you’ve lived?” Gisele said that in Seattle she’s met people with similar life experiences. Pai agreed, saying that Seattle was a place where she saw her values reflected in the community. “Being in Seattle has allowed me to speak my narrative and start the life I want to live with my partner,” she said.

The discussion was not confined to issues of race and racism, but also touched on other topics such as the poets’ thoughts on gentrification and transgender rights. Gisele and Pai offered ways King County employees can move forward in creating a more equitable workplace. These are among the ideas mentioned:

We must be mindful of and vulnerable and compassionate to others’ experiences. We must recognize credibility and understand that although we have events with microphones and speakers, we cannot just use this platform. It is important to immerse ourselves within the community and go to where the people are. We must not forget that we need to be culturally sensitive, aware, and appreciative of the diverse communities we serve.

The symposium showed me how poetry can be used in civic discourse to dive deeper into the conversation on race and racism. I am thankful for the opportunity to have heard the experiences of these poets and the discussion it generated among the county employees in attendance. I’m hopeful that such events spark change in our daily lives, in the workplace, and beyond. The next poetry symposium is September 13 at Eastgate Public Health Center (14350 Southeast Eastgate Way, Rooms. A & B, Bellevue, WA 98007), which will feature two young poets – Kiana Davis and Djenanway Se-Gahon. I hope to see you there.

Kirsten Garcia will be a junior this fall at the University of Washington Tacoma where she is pursuing a Bachelors of Arts in Healthcare Leadership with a minor in Business Administration.