LaTosha Brown, jazz singer and project director of Grantmakers for Southern Progress, told a story on herself:  Having gleefully decided to break her diet, she passed a homeless man eating outside the Atlanta restaurant she had chosen. Brown went in, savored her fried chicken and saved half for later. When she exited, the man asked her for her leftovers.

On a stage in the Louis Stokes wing of the Cleveland Public Library, Brown stamped her foot, mimicking her frustration.

“I get this from my grandmother: if somebody tells me they are hungry, I don’t ask questions, I give them food,” she said. “But I had saved that chicken wing and I wanted it for dinner. I said, ‘You probably eat better than me.’ And he said, ‘You think I shouldn’t?’

“And I didn’t sleep all night.” Brown, a quarter century into her activism in civil rights, felt humbled.  The man was right—she had considered herself more deserving, despite a lifetime as a church-going Christian.

Brown challenged her listeners, gathered by the Foundation Center-Cleveland, to get uncomfortable, and to examine who makes them so. The audience, assembled to consider “the intersection of Black male achievement, LGBTQ issues and the empowerment of low-income women,” had real individuals to think about—thanks to a lightning round of storytellers, played back on tape.

Timothy Tramble spoke about his childhood in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood as it is reflected today in the lives of young black men growing up in the Garden Valley Estates public housing, part of his territory as executive director of Burton, Bell, Carr Community Development, Inc.

“Many people growing up in a dysfunctional environment don’t recognize that dysfunction,” Tramble said. “To think out of the box, you need some time out of the box.” For him, that time was college.

Max Rivers, a new graduate of St. Martin de Porres High School, said he likes Chipotle, writing and sweaters – and wearing a tie. “I like the tie; makes me feel male, which is not always easy for me.”

Assigned female at birth, Max said he worked for his tuition and could not afford the surgery available to wealthier transgender people. He said he came out as male to his lesbian mother on Pride Day between his sophomore and junior years – a declaration she rejected. Now he worries his college applications will be voided as he legally changes his name.

For her part, Fatimah Zahra described herself as “a proud Cleveland State Viking,” having already earned an associate degree. The daughter of a single mom with eight children, Zahra said she grew up amid hunger and zero expectations.

“I literally came from nothing,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was good enough. I had people tell me I wouldn’t be nothing, that I belonged in a kitchen. I was surrounded by drugs and violence and could have went down that route.”

Instead, she made her way to Seeds of Literacy, which tutored her toward a GED, earned on her third try.  Zahra, the mother of a five-year-old son, told her story for “Rising Tide: Empowering Low-Income Women.

Brown took in these stories and declared, “talk about intersectionality: too poor, too black, too gay. For all these folk, somebody always thinks they deserve more than them.”

Brown keynoted an afternoon called “Rising Tide: Remix,” seeded in a conviction that “a rising tide of philanthropic support and social innovation can solve entrenched problems and address community challenges head on.”

Brown said, “In philanthropy, we act upon people, we aren’t directed by them. And when people aren’t part of the change, they are not part of the change.”

Nelson Beckford, senior program officer for strong communities at the St. Luke’s Foundation, mused about whether any foundation would fund Mahatma Gandhi—with no board of directors, without other funders: “We probably wouldn’t fund him.”

Brown added, “Charity doesn’t necessarily create change . . .When we try to help the other without asking them how, we’re simply treating them as an experiment.”

In a poignant op-ed for The New York Times, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalls his time spent with Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the South Carolina state senator and leader of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church who was among the nine people gunned down in his historic church. Gates, who chairs the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards jury, interviewed Pinckney three years ago for his PBS series’ “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” on the legacy of black leaders in the post-Civil War South.

A small snippet:

To know him, even over the course of an autumn Carolina afternoon, was to know a man who cherished the values on which our republic was founded, and who held an abiding faith that the great promise of America could, one day, be fulfilled. He was a unifier who, this past spring, taught us how to mourn in communion with one another, following the police slaying of Walter L. Scott, a black man, just north of his city. I don’t believe that he had the capacity to imagine the depth of malice and anger that came down on his congregation, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, on Wednesday night.

Read the rest of his op-ed here. Below, watch Pinckney discuss the importance of black political participation in an interview with Gates:

Writer Ruth Behar and poet Richard Blanco have launched Bridges to/from Cuba, an ambitious collaborative fueled by 20 years of friendship. The duo has started an online forum for poets, authors and scholars to “lay bare the laughter and sorrow of being Cuban.”

As geopolitics shift, these two Cuban Americans call out for literature, writing, “For it is not simply a political and economic embargo that needs to be ‘lifted,‘ but also the weight of an emotional embargo that has kept Cubans collectively holding their breath for over fifty years.”

The two are uniquely positioned to lead. Blanco, inaugural poet for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, has brought out two memoirs on his life as a young, gay, Latino immigrant. Born to Cuban-exiled parents and raised in Miami, Blanco’s poetry threads through themes of cultural identity and belonging. New Yorker Ruth Dehar, born in Cuba, teaches anthropology at the University of Michigan. In the early 1990s, Behar was editor of Bridges to Cuba, a groundbreaking anthology featuring voices in the Cuban Diaspora, including many second generation writers.

The pair crafts a beautifully symbolic first post, a fusion of two poems: “The Island Within,” for Ruth Behar (by Richard Blanco) and “The Island We Share,” for Richard Blanco (by Ruth Behar). Read along here.

The project brings a bit of Anisfield-Wolf flavor to the party: two former winners, Edwidge Danticat and Sandra Cisneros, serve on the five-member advisory board.

by Ann Kowal Smith + Rachel Burstein

This post was originally published on the Books@Work blog.

Reading, writing and discussing poetry has the power to open windows in life-changing ways, giving readers the freedom to tell their own stories and view themselves as capable learners and contributors. Our current partnership with the East Cleveland Municipal Court and From Lemons to Lemonade (FL2L) bring Books@Work to a group of single mothers and other women whose lives rarely afford them the opportunity to read, let alone reflect.

The majority of the women in the group have suffered extraordinary personal hardships; they often struggle to provide for their children. But these women’s stories don’t have to end there; with the right support, single mothers and other women finding themselves in difficult circumstances can build community and face life’s challenges together. This is the governing philosophy behind FL2L, and avowed cycle-breaker Judge William Dawson’s approach to sentencing at the East Cleveland Municipal Court.

In the fall of 2014 Books@Work launched a partnership with FL2L and the Court with generous funding from the Eva L. and Joseph M. Bruening Foundation, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships Alumni Venture Fund and an individual donor. Since January, Professor Michelle Rankins of Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland State University and other area colleges has facilitated a conversation with the women in the group around Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.

Part poem, part play, part choreographed dance, For Colored Girls is a deep and powerful examination of the experience of being a woman of color. The book weaves the stories of seven different women — named for the colors they wear — across 20 different poems. The text examines such topics as rape, abuse, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, and other themes and experiences that are typically taboo.

For Colored Girls resonated deeply with participants, as they were able to see their own stories in the characters in Shange’s work, allowing the text to suggest a path forward, with a degree of healing.

One woman reports, “We read something in the book about one of the women who was just giving herself to men and just she felt dirty inside. She was just giving herself away just because she wanted to feel loved. It was my ‘aha’ moment, like okay, well maybe that is the reason why I stuck with a person that I didn’t have to stick with.”

Another participant comments, “There’s a story where the girl is basically speaking about how she’s learning herself, don’t really need a man to define her and that stuck with me. I’m like, ‘Yeah I don’t need a man to define me.’”

Professor Rankins’ poetry writing prompts, and the experience of reading the work aloud with one another, also empowered the women in the group to tell their own stories, and to see themselves as part of a longer and larger narrative tradition. The practice of writing has had a profound influence on many who continue to write on their own, beyond the sessions at the Court.

One woman explains that the experience of reading, discussing and writing, “helped me to now I’m to the point where I can actually speak to someone without me being just so snappy. It really has. Made me write it.” Now, “Instead of [getting angry], I just write and I let it go.”

Another woman says that “the poems we actually wrote, it made me feel better about myself when I left here. I’m reading it in the car and [thinking], ‘You know what? I am strong.’… Sometimes you need that, to just tell yourself.”

The Books@Work program at the East Cleveland Municipal Court reminds us that guided discussion around serious literature can be much more than an intellectual exercise.

As Frechic Dickson, the founder and President of FL2L explains, “We are serving a group of people who have been through such emotional and traumatic experiences – it’s hard for them to say, ‘My name is so-and-so and this is what happened to me.’ If you give them an opportunity through poetry [to say,] ‘I feel this,’ or ‘I remember this,’ they identify those lines with events in their lives. It makes it artistic rather than transparent.”

The women who attend the FL2L life skills program at the East Cleveland Municipal Court aren’t typical Books@Work participants. They are united not by a common employer, but instead by their involvement in the criminal justice system. As the name suggests, FL2L seeks to turn the negative — sometimes violent — acts committed by the participants into an opportunity for real and substantive personal and community change. Books, and the critical discussion that emerges from reading and reflecting on those texts with peers and a professor, change the way that participants at the East Cleveland Municipal Court view themselves, their communities, and their potential for future success.

Ann Kowal Smith is Executive Director of That Can Be Me, Inc., facilitator of Books@Work. Rachel Burstein is the Academic Director of That Can Be Me, Inc., facilitator of Books@Work.

Additional reporting by Tara Jefferson

When Isabel Wilkerson comes to Cleveland, she sees Alabama.

An authority on the Great Migration—the departure of six million African-Americans from a South lynching them at a rate of one every four days over six decades of the 20th-century—Wilkerson is steeped in the ways of movement. She can pinpoint the families that “left along three beautifully predictable streams: up the East coast, into the Midwest and Far West.” She is conversant in the food, folkways and the names of churches that traveled with them.

“I am thrilled to be back in Ohio, one of the receiving stations of the Great Migration, one of the places people dreamt about when dreaming about living their lives in freedom,” she said to a gathering celebrating the tenth anniversary of PolicyBridge, a Cleveland think tank on policy that intersects black and brown lives.

After visiting more than 100 universities and speaking on four continents, Wilkerson, 51, delivered pinpoint geography in her remarks: Jesse Owens’ family of 11 left Alabama sharecropping for a better life in Cleveland even as Toni Morrison’s parents traveled to Lorain from an Alabama where no black child could obtain a library card, where they raised a daughter who remade world literature.

Likewise August Wilson’s maternal grandmother walked all the way out of North Carolina into Pennsylvania and Miles Davis’ people left Arkansas for Illinois. The parents of Theolonious Monk migrated from North Carolina to New York City, where his mother could earn enough to buy an upright piano. Yet another woman fleeing North Carolina, the widow Alice Coltrane, arrived in Philadelphia in 1943 and bought her son John an alto saxophone that first year.

“All these people were a gift to the world, and thus the Great Migration was a gift to the world,” said Wilkerson, who laid down this knowledge in her landmark book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2011. She asked her audience to imagine the generations of creativity squandered to rice and sugar plantations, the God-given talent extinguished in cotton and tobacco fields.

Dressed in an orange suit with turquoise jewelry, Wilkerson began by acknowledging that Anisfield-Wolf prize, and the 15 years it took her to interview 1,200 participants in the migration. She joked that “if this book were a human being it would be in high school and dating—that’s how long it took.”

Five years after publication, Warmth‘s heat is undiminished. In May, FX announced that producer Shonda Rhimes would be working on turning the historical narrative into a television series to premiere in the fall, with indie writer Dee Rees working on the script.

“The freedom to be able to decide for oneself what to do with your God-given talents is a very new phenomenon for African-Americans in this country,” Wilkerson observed, noting that some audiences have a hard time imagining a time when stepping too slowly off a sidewalk for a white pedestrian could cost a black person his life.

In conversation with Hawaiian high school students—”beautifully removed” from the realities of the segregated South— Wilkerson described for them driving in a region that prohibited black motorists from passing a white one.  Students suggested honking or tailgating, indignant at the notion of being stymied behind the wheel. “You had to stay in your place,” she reminded them. “This is what it means to be in a caste system.”

Randell McShepard, co-founder of PolicyBridge, said reading Wilkerson’s book “shook me to the core.”  Politician Nina Turner called it “riveting, beautiful” and a lesson in “using our two hands, to reach forward and to reach back.” David Abbott, executive director of the Gund Foundation, said the great gift of Warmth was “that we see ourselves in the story when we read books like this.”

The audience applauded the notion of making Wilkerson’s book required reading in high school. And McShepard announced that PolicyBridge was adding a sixth core value—social justice—to its work this year.

This year, two strikingly opposed vistas marked Book Expo America, the largest annual book industry trade show.

Shiny black stretch limos deposited representatives of dozens of Chinese publishing houses onto the sidewalk of the cavernous Javits Convention Center, where Ambassador Cui Tiankai, China’s lead representative to the United States, joined a 500-member delegation spread across almost 25,000 feet of floor space. Amid bamboo and soft light, 10,000 books were featured, and 26 prominent authors from the mainland flew halfway around the globe to attend. Another 50 events highlighting Chinese literature—readings, films, panels—were sprinkled around Manhattan.

But on the steps of the New York Public Library, protestors gathered to lift up placards demanding “Free Expression”—a challenge to widespread censorship in China. Novelists Ha Jin and Murong Xuecun spoke publicly of their dismay, standing alongside American writers Jonathan Franzen, A. M. Homes and Paul Auster.

The protest, organized by PEN America, noted the widespread censorship within China, often suppressing writing on gay rights, repressed Chinese minorities, Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America, had a bruising experience of the translation of The Noonday Demon, his landmark book on depression.

Without his knowledge, all references to Solomon being gay were deleted, gutting the book of its raison d’etre and infuriating the writer. (He won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2013 for Far From the Tree.)

“I think there’s a suggestion that because China is an enormous market, we have to defer to the Chinese internal standards of censorship,” Solomon told the New York Times. “It’s somewhere between naïve and hypocritical to engage with China and not acknowledge the severity of this problem.”

The marketplace is huge – China is adding 20 million English readers a year, the Times reported.  And the Chinese book industry has expanded into an $8 billion annual business, second only to the one in the United States. Steve Rosato, event director for Book Expo, called the Chinese presence at his trade show a watershed:  “We’re going to remember this for a generation, because it’s going to be the beginning of opening some doors.”

After Book Expo concluded, Ha Jin, who has been barred from returning to China, gave an interview to the Asian American Writers Workshop, focused on his new novel, A Map of Betrayal.  And the tensions around censorship shifted to the Chinese governments’ attempts to filter and control coverage of the capsized cruise ship on the Yangtze River, where perhaps 400 passengers are feared dead.

A crowd thick with alumni packed the City Club of Cleveland to hear from leaders at their beloved alma maters: What, exactly, will be the future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)? Panelists Robert Michael Franklin, Jr., president emeritus of Morehouse College; Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of Central State University; and Claude G. Perkins, president of Virginia Union University, gave their best prognoses.

The 107 HBCUs in the United States have a storied history, small but mighty. Representing only 3 percent of U.S. colleges and universities, they educate 11 percent of all African-American students. Black colleges produce half of all black public school teachers, half of all future lawyers, and eighty percent of black judges. In an 2013 address, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised HBCUs for “almost single-handedly creating an African-American professional class in the face of decades of Jim Crow discrimination.”

Highlights from the panel discussion:

1) The value proposition of HBCUs must be more readily acknowledged

During his tenure as president of Morehouse, Franklin established the “Five Wells” of a Morehouse Man—being well-read, well-spoken, well-dressed, well-traveled, and well-balanced. HBCUs build leaders, he said, yet most guidance counselors view them as little more than “safe” schools: “Are all of our top performing students being exposed to a diverse menu of educational options?”

Predominately white institutions (PWIs) are too often touted as the best fit for all students, Perkins said, but his interactions with students at Virginia Union convince him otherwise. “I have seen students who could easily become physicians and went to some of the other schools and end up majoring in social work. Students get recruited to the larger schools and those students don’t do as well because it is not a culturally affirming environment for them. Here, you’re a person first.”

2) The wealthy (individuals and government) need to provide more financial support

Increasing alumni giving has long been a focal point: donations to HBCUs have languished under 10 percent of all graduates. Some schools, like Texas’ Prairie View A&M University, have begun campaigns for current students, to instill the “giving back” mentality before students graduate. Pressure to increase alumni giving comes as both state and federal funding decreases, leaving many HBCUs scrambling to fill the gap.

“We can’t let the African-American affluent class off the hook,” Franklin said, lamenting the $70 million gift hip-hop pioneer Dr. Dre gave the University of Southern California in 2013. Dillard University president Walter Kimbrough wrote in an Los Angeles Times op-ed: “This gift is gravy for USC; for a black college, it would transform not just individuals but whole institutions and communities.”

“Our alumni, our churches, our friends — they understand our story,” Perkins said, “but at the same time, the Obama Administration has made it very difficult for our historically black colleges and colleges that are serving moderate-to-low income students.”

“Of course if Mr. Obama had graduated from an HBCU, he would have understood that,” Jackson-Hammond added.

3) Alumni must become more vocal advocates

While the “can-do” spirit of HBCUs builds character, it ultimately diminishes the school’s capacity to undertake larger, critical projects.

“I used to work at a PWI,” Jackson-Hammond said, “and one observation is that at a PWI you usually have ten people doing one job. At an HBCU, you have one person doing ten jobs.”

The Central State president encouraged the Central State alumni in the room to do their part, to use their voice to reach potential students. “We can not wait for these students to just drop down from heaven,” Jackson-Hammond insisted. “There has to be an open dialogue about how HBCUs and K-12 institutions can work to develop a pipeline for a seamless transition. And that conversation has to start as early as preschool.”

4) Globalization and diversity must be a renewed focus

Hispanic and Latino enrollment at HBCUs has jumped 123 percent in the past 30 years, with Asian student enrollment increasing 60 percent. This has been no accident. With  PWIs like Stanford offering tuition waivers for families making under $125,000, there has been more competition for black students, with black colleges’ share getting increasing smaller.

Franklin recalled a recent trip to South Korea, where he bumped into Kevin Rome, president of Lincoln University, a small HBCU in Missouri. He was en route to a meeting with Korean education officials: “Other students outside the African-American community see value in our schools and they want to be a part of it.”

Perkins urged the audience to consider HBCUs through a mission-focused lens. “We are institutions that are willing to do the heavy lifting,” he said. “We are institutions that help our young people understand they have serious responsibilities to make this nation a better place … Any business, if they looked hard enough, would say, this is where we need to invest our money.”

New York, NY – Some 20 years ago, when novelist Alexander Chee was working for Out magazine, its owners commissioned a study of American book buying habits. The results: on average, lesbians bought 22 books each year, straight women, 14; gay men, 10; and straight men, one.

Although the data is outdated, there was a sense at the Center for Fiction that the portrait hasn’t changed that much. Critics and writers gathered for a panel on “Race, Gender, and Book Reviews” nodded in recognition.

With blue-chip reviewing outlets, said Hawa Allan, a lawyer, critic and contributing editor for Tricycle magazine, “the readership they imagine is not the readership that exists.” Noting the 2013 Pew Research study that found the most likely person to read a book was a college-educated black woman, Allan predicted that the legacy media offering book criticism will “adapt or die.”

Chee mentioned his disquiet with vocabulary, particularly the word “diversity.” It “expresses the problem in a hygienic way, when what it really means is fighting for your life.”

This ardor exists 180 degrees from some views posted to a story about the panel by Mark Rotella in Publishers Weekly.  “Great! More lunacy,” wrote Brad Carpenter of Rosemont College near Philadelphia. “Someone let me know when we go back to the idea of judging a book by it’s (sic) merit . . . not by the author’s skin color, political background, sexual orientation, gender, weight, height, ethnicity and what not.”

Indeed, Walton Muyumba, a critic and professor at Indiana University in Bloomington began the May 27 session with the question: “Does any of this matter?”

Miriam Markowitz, deputy book editor of the Nation, said, “If you think books matter then presumably you think writing about books matter.”  In December 2013, she wrote “Here Comes Everybody,” an influential examination of gender inequity in publishing.

Allan suggested that people at the margins often make the best critics, citing James Baldwin’s response to a television interviewer who asked him about the deep disadvantage of being poor, black and homosexual. “Oh no,” Baldwin said with a laugh, “I thought I hit the jackpot.”

Cate Marvin is a poet and co-founder of VIDA, the ground-breaking annual tally of whose book is reviewed in which magazines by gender, which served as the spine of Markowitz’ examination. “This is a thorny, slightly controversial but interesting conversation,” Marvin said, “especially to have in public, on the way we think about race and ethnicity and gender, sometimes together, sometimes not at all.”

Chee was more emphatic: “In my time on the planet, I’ve seen [book] criticism go from an august institution to something no one thinks they have to pay for and maybe everyone can do.  It matters enormously, especially with the decline of book criticism sections and the rise of book blogging. Believing it doesn’t matter is part of the problem.”

Markowitz pronounced her magazine’s own VIDA numbers “unfortunate,” and said two economies were at work: the material and the prestige.

Marvin said she has restructured her own curriculum choices as a professor of English at CUNY, based on what she learned with the VIDA count. “Curiosity is important and pressure is helpful,” she said. “I was slow to coming around, and I needed the pressure of the woman-of-color count.”

For his part, Muyumba described American culture as frankly misogynist and racist, which doesn’t mean there can’t be space for other perspectives. He recalled a moment in the class of Indiana University English Professor Susan Gubar, who co-wrote the seminal 1979 book of feminist criticism, Madwoman in the Attic:

“I sat there as a 20-year-old and she put books by women in front of me and said, ‘I dare you’ and I took that dare and it changed me radically.”  Or, as Allan put it, “If someone wants to read, they will read.”