🙄 fake-me-out Michigan "spring" update
making and breaking plans; the joys of facilitating; ease and stickiness; what i'm reading; and a story writing workshop
The spring equinox happened a while back but jokes on me because it still felt like winter in Detroit. Too soon to send a "seasonal" update, I said. In the meantime, I went to Puerto Rico with one of my favorite people / Puerto Ricans of all time, got extremely brown, and decided that a new season had, indeed, come to pass, even though I came home to hail and near-freezing temperatures at the end of April.
Edit: Since it naturally took me way longer than planned to write this thing, it’s finally beginning to feel like outside is actually maybe slowly realizing it’s spring.
Why did I decide to write a newsletter again?! I feel like I should have a better system for collecting my thoughts between missives. I'm sitting here grasping at journal entries and notes and random screenshots in my phone and things I've saved on Are.na from the last three months and it feels like a complete mess.
It actually wasn’t that bad and this is precisely the point of writing this newsletter. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sitting down with intention every few months to reflect on the last, gather the bits of memories I've stored in images and texts and scribbles, and pull it together into some sort of coherent narrative to share with you.
when plans go to shit in the best way
One thing about me is I always think I have a plan and then my little plan goes to shit. As a person who likes the perception of being in control, surrendering to the fluidity of working this way is a challenge, a growth edge, if you will. Sometimes, the plan going to shit is purely annoying, distressing, anxiety-inducing. Sometimes, however, the plan going to shit is the product of some serendipitous, emergent new opportunity that turns out to be both delightful and fulfilling. For example, last fall I proudly proclaimed my most ambitious plan yet: "I'm nOt TakIng aNy NeW woRk," I said. I lied. Since then, some incredibly irresistible opportunities keep arising and there I find myself "taKiNG oN nEw WoRk." Maybe, more accurately, I'm "selectively taking new work?" Scrap your well-laid plans for the month to host a worldbuilding workshop with Detroit organizers? Don't mind if I do! Drop everything to write a grant proposal in the span 24 hours to pay you, your besties + co-op comrades, and your garden homies to do some weird art shit? Say less, let's get this money
Sadly, we did not get that money but at least we tried.
Thanks to these kinds of unanticipated, unscheduled, emergent and fruitful opportunities, the last couple months have been filled with workshops and joyful work, more broadly, plus a much needed vacation. In this particular case, I'm grateful for what might've felt like interruptions to my carefully laid plans because without the pull of someone or something outside myself, I wouldn't have pursued some of these things. There's probably something to unpack there about why I'm more likely to pursue my own practice if I'm doing it for someone else, but that's between me and my therapist, thank you very much.
Last fall, I was connected with Ali Gali, a Legal Fellow at the Detroit Justice Center. Ali was embarking on their year-long fellowship project, which they described to me poetically in their first email:
Over the next six months or so, Ali and I would sit down every month or two, talk over what we were working on, and repeat. In March, we started nailing down a plan for a workshop at the end of the month that would kick off their monthly event series, and from there, Abolition as Process, Art as Methodology was born. On March 30, about 40 organizers gathered at We the People's space in Southwest to build worlds and make household objects from various abolitionist futures. You can read more about the workshop here.
I think I had forgotten how much I truly love facilitation: working with relationships, modes of relating, connections and questions, learning and questioning, as material. It's improvisational and porous and messy and I like that. In a way, facilitation is a perfect exercise for me—a person who needs (or likes) to have control over things—because while you can pretend you're in control during the act of preparing, you’re reminded of the limits of your control every time you facilitate. I tend to make intricate, minute-by-minute plans and then throw them to the wind when the thing actually begins and watch something come to life that I never could have predicted because it's no longer mine. It belongs to everyone participating. While executing those carefully laid plans, I get to improvise, responding to emergent questions, redirecting when my meticulously devised prompts don't land, listening for what the room is offering and what people need, letting out a sigh of relief when I see laughter and energy bubbling up, and staying out of the way as participants make the experience what it was meant to be. It’s a reminder to prepare meticulously, anticipate as much and as thoughtfully as you can, and resist getting too attached to the outcome. I like to think it’s kind of like jazz, in the sense that the structures afforded by chord progressions and time signatures are precisely what allows people the safety and assuredness to improvise.
I realize I’m making this sound like a cake walk but the reality is, to some degree, my meticulous planning habit is probably an anxiety-fueled hedge against uncertainty. For now, it feels like a healthy compromise, but… adding that to my list for therapy.
When facilitation goes well, it's fun and thrilling and rewarding to see what the people generate within the container you sketch out for them. When your plans go to shit, you learn some lessons, might feel bad for a while, and try to remind yourself that you're dealing with volatile elements that shape the experience just as much as you do (if not more) and no amount of preparation can trump what happens when those elements collide. You're dealing with humans whose feelings and thoughts and motivations and reactions you can attempt to prepare for but will always surpass or evade your predictions. You can anticipate but never truly know how it will go until all the elements are in place: the people, their feelings, the place, the materials, the weather, the food, the vibes, the technology.
This is also why I love teaching, if teaching didn't come with the inescapable dumpster fire that is higher educational institution baggage and abuse. I'm still sorting out what kind of relationship I want to have with the world of higher education. For now, I'm leaning toward dropping in occasionally to take their coins but not tying my entire livelihood to it.
Speaking of, I had the pleasure of joining a group of UM-Flint first-year students, design students, and Black elders from Flint for another workshop in early April. Similarly focused on futuring, A Highway is Not a Highway revolved around a prompt students in the first-year experience course had been tasked with for their final projects: reimagining the highway in Flint (475) as something else entirely alongside people who had been displaced during the wave of urban renewal that destroyed their neighborhood to build the highway decades prior. You can read more about the workshop here. Students and elders worked in groups to compose future news headlines, stories, and images. They were tasked with commemorating a point in the future far beyond the implementation of a new plan for the highway where the city would be celebrating the anniversary of its groundbreaking reimagining of the highway.
To be clear, I’m not above being upset when my little plans don’t work out; I just try not to sit in the upset feelings for too long. I’ll admit I struggled with these feelings after the Highway is Not a Highway workshop. I wondered why, after pulling out all my little tricks—randomizing story inputs, gamifying the act of storytelling, offering probing questions while groups worked independently—the vast majority of groups reimagined the highway as a community center. “Not very original!” I silently complained to myself. Why hadn’t folks been inspired to conjure weird and creative and unconventional spaces with their imagined futures?
Whenever I finish a project I write up a .. thing about it. For myself. No one else ever sees these little studio notes or memos or whatever they might be called—but I find them invaluable.
I try to avoid evaluating if the project was "successful" or not, though it’s hard to avoid. It's more about contemplating what the experience meant to me, how the process felt, and what emerged from it. After facilitating, I reflect on what came of the experience, combing through my original plans and the outputs that emerged to look for places where the emergent outcomes felt different from what I anticipated, moments that felt easy, where folks got stuck, and why. This is, of course, made much easier with feedback from the people in the room. I do it, I think, because I see these kinds of events as a starting point, not an end, so I want to be able to refine it or make sense of it in a way that moves me (and the work) forward. I ask myself what new questions surfaced, whether I have new directions I want to pursue or untouched terrains I haven't yet been able to explore. I ask myself how I felt preparing for and navigating the experience, if I was happy or miserable, if I felt like I grew and learned anything from my experience facilitating.
In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown writes—and I agree—that “facilitation is the art of making things easy, making it easier for humans to work together and get things done.”
So, after both of these workshops, I looked for places where moments that felt easy and places where there was friction and question whether that friction was somehow generative or if it obscured the point and prevented people from connecting or imagining or whatever else they've been invited to do. Those moments of stickiness or misunderstanding or misaligned interpretations are interesting to me, regardless of whether or not my carefully laid little plans "worked." A part of me wishes I could treat my personal relationships with this much healthy detachment about the outcome but.. that’s a story for a different newsletter and another time.
Something about the Highway is not a Highway workshop was sticky. What felt easy was the way students got lost in deep conversations with elders they’d been working with for months but hadn’t had the space to connect with intimately. What felt easy was the way in which elders delighted in sharing stories about their childhood memories with the group. What felt easy was how fluidly they recalled what had made their neighborhood caring, lively, and fun.
In this workshop about futures, though, the present felt almost too sticky. It gripped onto us over 40 years into these imagined futures. Many of the imagined worlds that emerged from this workshop—like, most of them—featured a community center of some form, which, to be frank, isn’t exactly the kind of boundary-pushing future crafting I’m usually aiming for. In the moment I had silently wished—and gently encouraged—folks to push their visions into weirder, wilder territories (and some did). In reflecting, though, I remembered that one of the last physical holdouts commemorating the St. John Street neighborhood, it seemed, had been a community center. The elders recalling their childhood neighborhood erased by urban renewal and the highway we were reimagining have witnessed waves of erasure and dispossession their entire lives, so acknowledging the need to reconstitute a space that had once united them was a fundamentally important outcome—even if uncovering that wasn’t my primary goal for this workshop.
A timely reminder that I am not my audience. A timely reminder to loosen my grip and embrace the easy parts.
what consumes me
I've been reading a bunch of unrelated things lately and I don’t know what they mean together but since they're all swimming around in my head you have to hear about them, too:
Ordinary Notes is here! Twice! I bought the UK version and the US version because that's how important it is and also because, books. I haven’t actually read it yet, but I did just finish reading this review and profile of Christina Sharpe in the Times magazine—“The Woman Shaping a Generation of Black Thought”—by Jenna Wortham says all we need to know. Like Wortham, “the more time I spend with Sharpe’s work, the more it inflects my ways of seeing the world,” and I can’t wait for Ordinary Notes to shape my view even further.
I’m reading Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora for absolutely no reason and it's blowing my mind. I can't even remember why I bought this book or when but boy am I glad I did. Africans were SWIMMING swimming, y'all—we were free diving and expertly swimming before white slavers showed up and, well, the rest is colonial history. Maybe this is dark, but I find it hilarious—in the terrible, sad kind of way—that while white slavers were out here stealing the top divers from the west coast of Africa to dive in their little shipwrecks and dive for pearls in the Caribbean because of their superior ability to breathe for long periods of time underwater, white slavers in North America were busy doing fake race science to “prove” that BlAck pEopLe aRe InHerEntLy iNfeRioR because of innately lower lung capacity. These fools even developed a lung capacity measuring device—the spirometer—that relies on the premise of biological differences between racial groups that was still in use widely until 2021 (and, for all I can tell, might still be in use).
I'm halfway through I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories. "I'll Wait for You" is a sad ass science fiction love story about waiting around for your one true love which sounds decidedly bananas but is a fun and enticing anecdote about time, a recurring theme in my work.
I started adrienne maree brown's Grievers while I was on vacation but I was looking for an escape and it felt WAY TOO CLOSE to home—a pandemic .. in Detroit, mentions of the Turkey Grille down the street—so I put it down (for now).
what's coming up
On May 18, I’ll be hosting a follow up to Abolition as Process, Art as Methodology at Room Project: it’s a story writing workshop where we’ll weave narratives around the objects created during the first workshop. It’s open, primarily, to the folks who participated in Abolition as Process, Art as Methodology, but we’re a small-ish group so, if you’re interested and in Detroit, you can sign up here. Registration will close on Friday, May 12.