East Palo Alto Storytelling, Part 3

Jake Arky is the co-founder of So Say We All. At the time that this article was published, he is completing a playwriting residency with TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley. The Young Playwrights Project involves writing new, original works for the stage and teaching performance/writing classes in local high schools.

Class 3:

So…what had the weekend done to these storytellers-in-progress? If anything, it evened them out and gave them a second wind. By no means was the class completely out of control, nor were they completely engaged in the writing prompts and activity, which might have been partially my fault. I think I brought the students a lot that they didn’t want to work with.

The idea I had was to give them prompts that would let some of their anger and dare I say it, aggravation, out. I wanted to see them challenge the privileged upper-class society that is only five minutes away from their school. What were their thoughts about people who lived in bigger houses than they did? About people never having to worry about finding a bed to sleep in at night? What about those who gear up and take action against a system.

The EPA students were given two prompts, both consisting of a quote and a picture, just like last class:

Prompt #1: Shepard Fairey

So you think money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is the root of all money? – Ayn Rand, American Writer

Prompt #2

If I wasn’t in the rap game/I’d probably have a key knee deep in the crack game

Because the streets is a short stop/Either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.

It’s hard bein’ young from the slums/Eatin’ five cent gums/Not known’ where your meals comin’ from…

– Christopher Wallace, Musician and Lyricist

The Biggie quote did not go over like I hoped it would. My intention was to bridge the gap between a lot of old-school hip-hop, showing that stories were being told in rap songs and that this type of music — along with almost every other — is essentially a medium for storytelling. It fell flat. No one knew who Notorious B.I.G. was and most of the writing had to do with the awesome parties they would throw were they given the chance to live in such a nice house.

That said, a few of the students did touch on the issue of homelessness in East Palo Alto, what it is like to be without a place to live and the embarrassment, fear, and hurt that comes when the most basic of certainties is pulled out from under you.

With the Shepard Fairey, an interesting story emerged involving gang violence. If you have read the last two entries in the East Palo Alto Storytelling chronicles, you’ll see that one of the students is a San Diego native who was transplanted to Northern California when jobs left America’s Finest City. She went into vivid and emotional details about the stabbing of her cousin, a Sureno gang member who lost his life when he crossed paths with a Norteno banger.

I got to know two of the students pretty well today. One has a bad attitude, but a pretty interesting creative side and admitted that he wanted to move to San Diego in order to join the Marines. The other one, who is very gifted and very talented, said she wanted to go to school so that she could eventually become a pediatrician. The one with his sights set on the armed forces really embodies the spirit of the storytelling class: angry, creative, and having a hard-time focusing. The future pediatrician embodies the potential they all have, as well as the need to speak up on important issues.

We’ve cracked the ice, but now we need to see everything that is floating in the lake below. My fear is running out of topics to touch upon or exhausting one issue the students (for now) enjoy writing about — East Palo Alto, a.k.a. “Ghetto Town.” However, if they like writing about EPA, then what’s the point in side-stepping something that works?

Here are some anonymous excepts from some of the work from this session at East Palo Alto:

“This house inspires me to make it in life, to be able to own a nice house of my own one day! I wouldn’t change my ways. I’ll always remember where I come from and my ways. No matter what neighborhood I’m in! It’s called ‘Dreamin’ A Life.'” – Response to Prompt #1

“Finding a place to sleep, my brother lived with my sister in Sunnyvale. Me and my parents hardly ate — it’s either food or a place to stay. I didn’t want anybody finding out I was homeless. 10 years old, I didn’t want friends coming over to ‘my house.’ I had to shower at my cousins’ house and sleep at my dad’s work place. I wasn’t allowed there, so every time the police came I would just stay there…nobody really knows what goes on in my life, but yet they love to hate on what they don’t know.” – Response to Prompt #1

“I went with him inside and you can tell the Norteno boy was mugging my cousin. Right when we left the Norteno guy stabbed my cousin in the lower back. I screamed for my mom. When I turned to the side, the guy had disappeared like the wind…after waiting for a while at the hospital for the doctor, he came out and told us what we didn’t want to hear. My cousin Jose died.” – Response to Prompt #2

“…if you don’t follow certain roles or don’t obey certain people you get it bad. You can live in peace, but you have to obey the rules of the world and sometimes if you don’t, you’re the one who loses the game.” – Response to Prompt #2