"Can't Let it All Go Unsaid": Sistahs Reading, Writing, and Photographing Their Lives

In The Peaceable Classroom, Mary O'Reilley (1993) asks, "What would it be like to teach from the conviction that our students are artists, poets, indeed, from the knowledge that we ourselves are poets?" (p. 87). Throughout the 2002-2003 school year, I have been facilitating a photography and writing elective course entitled "Sistahs" with a small group of young women at a charter high school in Philadelphia1. Starting with the premise that we are all artists and poets, we have pursued critical engagements with autobiographical writing and photography both in and out of school. In conceptualizing our work together, I have been inspired by Lois Weis & Michelle Fine's (2000) contention that it is in the transgression of boundaries between schools, communities, and students' lives where "youths' sense of possibility, imagination, social critique, outrage, despair, aesthetics, and social action lie" (p. xii). Within the artistic and reflective practices we have been engaged in through the literacy and photography work of this year, recurrent themes of home, neighborhood, sisterhood, and self-representation have emerged. We have gathered these themes into the four sections represented above, which you can enter by clicking on the photographs above.

The work we have collected here provides only a partial, yet hopefully suggestive, representation of the young women's artistic and activist endeavors as poets and artists who, as Sonia Sanchez writes, "can't let it all go unsaid." Collected here are works-in-progress. Here are poems written in school while gathered around an oval-shaped table covered with journals, photographs, cameras, and photocopies. Here are poems written after the voices of June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, Sandra Cisneros, and Ntozake Shange have filled the room. Listen closely and you will hear these voices in the background, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting their connection. Here also are poems written on scraps of paper on a long bus ride home and poems written surreptitiously in math class. Here are poems composed in ten moments of concentration and poems desperate to be shared immediately and here also are poems painstakingly revised and worked through over time. Here are works written to and about the members of the Sistahs community and here are works created purposefully to make a statement to a larger audience. Here are writings composed in a flash of brilliance and sometimes in a cloudy atmosphere of doubt, boredom, confusion. Here are writings that find their source in the reflection on a photograph and a collaborative endeavor to make meaning from each other's images. Here we include images that speak to us in ways words cannot and that challenge dominant representations of young women of color. Here we have collected images of friendship, home, community, culture - images and words collected not solely for their aesthetic merits, but also for their personal and political meanings.

As a collaborative group, we made decisions together about how to present our work in this on-line journal. Here is how two of the students in Sistahs, Madonna Delfish and Yasmein James, describe the work collected here and the choices we made in the process:

We would like to share with you the writing and photography we have created together. We think this work is a reflection of the things that are left unsaid because of the scarcity of opportunities that are placed in schools for young, strong sistahs to find a way. As we do in almost all of our classes, we will share poetry written by women of color. We will also share our own poetry that was written in and out of the classroom. Our individual poems emerged from our past and present experiences, the problems we face as young females trying to make our way, and the way we are being represented in society. We start with a section on sisterhood, since this is a very important part of Sistahs; it shows how women have come a long way through writing in terms of expressing themselves. We also include two sections on our photography projects - "Where I'm From" and "Self Portraits" - that we are working on. Finally, we share some reflections on writing.

The Sistahs course also serves as the site for my practitioner inquiry dissertation2. In my research, I seek to develop and document an educational arena for young women of color that is collaborative in nature and that recognizes young women as meaning-makers, image-makers, and storytellers of their own lives. I am curious about the possibilities of creating feminist and anti-racist arenas in schools and I wish to explore how young women - to paraphrase Paulo Freire (1987) - read, write, and image their worlds. I am also exploring the nature of the literacy and photographic practices that occur within a setting designed to provide opportunities for making explicit and on-going connections to students' out-of-school lives. Perhaps most importantly I am curious about exploring with the young women how we - as educators, students, activists, community members - can work toward the creation of educational spaces that support young urban women in "making a way."

I would like to extend special thanks to the staff of High Tech High Philadelphia Charter School, particularly Deborah Stern and William Walker, for their support of this work. I would also like to thank Lalitha Vasudevan who devoted her considerable creative vision and technical knowledge to bringing the Sistahs' work to this venue.


I Want to Write

In my practitioner research, I have noticed that the Sistahs' literacy practices - both written and visual - are certainly full of creativity and self-expression. Yet, the more I consider their creative practices and the more we talk about their work in interviews and group discussions, the more I see their literacy practices reflected in Jacqueline Jones Royster's (2000) concept of "literacy as sociopolitical action." Royster develops this theoretical framework to consider the writing of nineteenth-century African American women writers, specifically essayists. She writes:

These women were publicly asserting themselves not only as writers with skills and abilities but also as writers with intellectual, social, and political intent. Their essays offer us prime examples of the will and capacity to use literate resources in order to participate in public arenas, and also of the desire to generate, and not just participate in sociopolitical action…These writers demonstrate that they see language/literacy/rhetoric as action. (pp. 24, 50)

The poems gathered here were written in response to Margaret Walker's poem I Want to Write. In rich and complex ways, these poems suggest the deep social and personal significance of writing in these young women's lives. Here literacy is envisioned as a kind of forum for writing about life, documenting it, exploring it, and perhaps transforming it. Following Royster, I would argue that to share these personal and political writings in the Sistahs community and to share them in the even more public arenas in which we have presented this work can position the young women as authors with "social and political intent." When the students share this kind of writing, their literacy work moves from a private transaction to a more public kind of action. This action often inspires, educates, and affirms other students in Sistahs. In addition, it is also possible that in making this work more public this "literacy as sociopolitical action" may intervene in and challenge the dominant discourses that shape public perceptions of young women of color.


I want to write
I want to write about the struggles of
being a teenager growing up in a world
where you have to scream to be heard
I want to write about being heart broken
by someone you loved and having them
not feeling the same
I want to write about wanting
to live out our dream and wishing it comes true
I want to write about holding on to the
past and not being able to see the future
Surviving the present
I want to write about happiness that
lasts forever, and not only in my dreams.
I want to write about the pain and stress 
that I have endured from being me.
I just want to write.

By Lauren Vaughn (listen)

I want to write.
I want to write about the pain that I endure.
I want to write about the hurt that will be forever mourned.
I want to write about my tear-filled eyes.
I want to write about my calling sighs.
I want to write about the laughter in my words.
I want to write about the freedom like a bird.
I want to write.

By Yasmein James (listen)

I want to write
I want to write about the mentally oppressed
and we females who are distressed
I want to write about discrimination
that is blinding our generation, causing us the
youth of tomorrow's future to fall in the line
of demoralizing the we's and us, and the they's and yours 
I want to write about the givers of
life, showing the world their strife, to come up
from under dominant figure
I want to write about our liberation
and will, to win this rat race
I want to write
I want to write about life.

By Madonna Delfish