Unwanted Lives, Unwanted Stories

The “Music of the Mill” book tour proved to be a success – within the realities of tight book sales and the difficulties of garnering media and public attention in light of the thousands of books that fill bookshelves every year. The most vital aspect of the tour was the audiences who came to my readings – highly aware, astute and wonderfully argumentative. The readings became town hall meetings, engaged conversations about industry, destiny, power, powerlessness, scarcity, abundance, and the process and direction of social change. While a novel doesn’t seem to be a likely catalyst for such dialogue, Music of the Mill is not your average run-of-the-mill (no pun intended) novel. My next bookstore event is at Vroman's on Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena on June 5 at 4 PM.

The shift from mechanical industry to digital/electronic technology over the past 30 years has been momentous on a global and historical scale. Through the prism of three generations of a Mexicano/Chicano family in Los Angeles, these shifts find their dramatic pulse in the novel. I thank everyone who took the time to participate with their own stories, their own wisdoms, their ideas.

I barely got a day to breath at home after my two weeks on the road – and after an amazing assembly with hundreds of students at Venice High School – when I hopped on a plane to Washington DC to spend a couple of days with several middle-school students at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, VA, part of the “Story Circle Project” run by Leila Gordon and the Reston Community Center. I spent three hours each day watching and helping the immigrant youth transform their remarkable stories of passage, discrimination, sorrow, and triumph into stage readings and tableaus for a June 5 community presentation. The youth came from Egypt, Peru, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, China (adopted by an American family), Bolivia (she was also half-Polish), Lebanon, and from Sierra Leone/Africa.

These young people were endearing and brave. I became in awe of their spirit, their energy, their commitment. I wish them the best in this and any other performances/work they attempt to do. They are the world story of today.

The day after my return home, I then drove with Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural’s Coordinator, Mike Centeno, a young film maker and youth organizer, to the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation’s “Voices of Youth, Voices of Community” conference in the Malibu Hills. Co-sponsored by Homeboy Industries, Shade Tree Mentoring, Chicago’s Youth Struggling for Survival, Youth Opportunity Movement, Youth Mentoring Connection, and Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural, among others, we started with almost three days of work with youth mentors and leaders from around the country that utilized poetry, story, song, drumming, and intense talk to open up the heart and move the imagination to the possibilities of youth work based on language, story, and voice.

Then youth from Watts, Boyle Heights/East LA, South Central LA, San Fernando Valley, Chicago, Seattle, Pomona, San Francisco Bay Area, Culver City, Sudan, and other areas came for another three days of stories and poetic expression, culminating in a “Voices of Youth Celebration” at Mount Saint Mary’s College in LA. It was difficult to get the youth to slow down, pay attention, write and tell their most compelling, even if dark, stories, which would then be read to a community audience made up of their mentors, teachers, friends, and parents.

But we persisted, and the youth came through.

Michael Meade, Orland Bishop, and myself facilitated the work with little time or detailed organization. But in the end, the young people – ages 11 to 31 – came together like they always seem to do. The Community Celebration at Mount Saint Mary’s College brought close to 200 people. In the presentation, we incorporated break dancing and capoeira (thanks to Tanee, Check-It, and Chris of Youth Struggling for Survival), a Sudanese welcoming song (thanks to Santino Moses), spoken word (with Jacinda of Chicago’s Kuumba Lynx and Cristina of Pomona), music (drumming by Etai and Michael, saxophone by Jakob, and guitar with my son, Ruben), and welcoming words by Michael, Orland, and myself. The 50-plus youth rounded out the event with their most amazing words – many written just a day or two before they read.

It was a great time for all – but moreover, a time to see our young people anew, although troubled, uncertain, raging, and hurting, yet with beauty, ideas, skills, dreams, and intense truths. I was honored to be part of this crucial and necessary work. In the coming weeks, I have more schools and classes to visit. This celebration will carry me through these and more. The students' lives are largely unsung, unwanted, and pushed aside – as are their stories. But here’s the kicker – they are the keys to direction, meaning and purpose for all of us.


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