This quote, hanging on a screen above the stage, gives audience members something to ponder while waiting for my show to start.
Earlier this month, I sat alone in the Kerr Theater in Scottsdale, looking at this screen before the theater opened. I thought of a James Baldwin quote, which I googled and found immediately.
It was too late to switch out the quotes, but moving forward, I plan to use Baldwin’s words as they capture what I strive to do: whether it’s performing my play at theaters, speechifying or storytelling at conferences, presentations in the corporate sector, or meetings with student groups. Through sharing stories and real-life experiences, I hope to offer people a different way of seeing and touching their hearts and minds.
2023 was a fast-paced and exciting year with performances in theaters and universities in Tennessee, Texas, and Arizona. I was a featured speaker at a multi-racial conference of women realtors in Southern California and at another conference for Latinas who work in all sectors of the economy in Silicon Valley. Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, an immigrant rights organization, invited me to be their featured speaker at their annual event at Nashville’s historic Public Library. Throughout the year, I met folks who inspired me with their stories of perseverance and the numerous ways they are working to make the world a better place.
Many invitations/opportunities to present my work occur through word of mouth –someone who saw my play or heard me in a podcast recommends me. A Zoom interview with The Tennessean (Tennessee’s largest newspaper) before my shows at Nashville’s TPAC (Tennessee Performing Arts Center) was shared within the Gannett news organization, and Vamos Forward, the Latino Employee Resource Group (ERG) invited me to a roundtable discussion about identity and representation. Later in the year, Vamos Forward and Gannett’s MENA (Middle Eastern North African) ERG did a joint program on identity and anticipated changes in the census and how different groups are placed into racial categories and was again invited to be one of the speakers. These programs allow me to learn about other communities and the work people of color (whatever we call ourselves) are doing in journalism, media, law, finance, and social services.
A LinkedIn “Help, does anyone have a speaker suggestion for Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month?” request led my friend Nancy to offer my name. I was invited to give a presentation via Zoom to a national organization that serves folks with developmental disabilities. The common thread in all these presentations is a heartfelt exploration of how we can create workplaces that value employees from different backgrounds and communities.
My work as a playwright/performer/storyteller/public speaker keeps me learning and engaged and feeling amply rewarded with the wonderful feedback I receive. In preparing for this work, I follow the news and read widely, studying almost as much as I did in law school, but this is much more fun. Thanks to the hundreds of excellent webinars sponsored by universities, news outlets, and organizations on diverse subjects, I can watch webinars about law, politics, democracy, and social justice several times monthly. I attended the African American Policy Forum’s (AAPF) Critical Race Theory 5-day Summer Institute for the third year. I was especially interested in the national efforts to take over school boards, ban books, and teach inaccurate versions of our nation's history.
Founded in 1996, AAPF is an innovative think tank that connects academics, activists, and policy-makers to promote efforts to dismantle structural inequality. Here’s the description from their website. “We utilize new ideas and innovative perspectives to transform public discourse and policy. We promote frameworks and strategies that address a vision of racial justice that embraces the intersections of race, gender, class, and the array of barriers that disempower those who are marginalized in society. AAPF is dedicated to advancing and expanding racial justice, gender equality, and the indivisibility of all human rights, both in the U.S. and internationally.” Check out their website to learn about their excellent webinars and live programs.
This year, I also revived my Stairwell Teatro Series, which I had started during the pandemic. A freak accident back in 2021 tore three of my four rotator cuff tendons, and post-surgical complications sidelined me for several months, so I stopped recording these stories in 2022. This year, I decided to revive the series and am having lots of fun sharing cuentitos I’ve collected over the years. Thanks for watching these stories, and for sending me your own name stories. Please keep them coming.
I continue to plug away studying French, which I've done off and on for decades (by myself and with an occasional class or tutor). I got back on Duolingo in 2022 (thanks, Marcia) and now have a streak of over 700 days. It’s great fun, and they have interesting podcasts that support language learning. If serious about gaining fluency in a language, one needs to do work beyond Duolingo, but I highly recommend Duolingo to anyone interested in studying another language.
I’m a big Duolingo fan and admire the founder, Luis von Ahn, whose goal is to make language learning free and available to everyone. Supporting the Premium App version helps support this goal. Luis, originally from Guatemala, recognizes that speaking English (which he studied while growing up) enabled him to come to the United States for university. He is an enormously successful computer entrepreneur and a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award. Before starting Duolingo, he was a co-creator of CAPTCHA. Learn more about him here.
In preparation for a trip to Egypt, I spent many hours over three months studying Egyptian Arabic on my own and with a tutor twice a week. My modest goals were to greet people, have rudimentary exchanges, and express appreciation and politeness. It was a humbling experience to study something so outside of my comfort zone. You can't imagine my excitement when people understood my greetings and simple requests.
My spouse, Mark, and I also had several travel adventures this year. We returned to South Africa and Botswana and visited Zambia, where we enjoyed the natural beauty and World Heritage sites like Victoria Falls. Seeing animals in their natural habitat is a thrill that is hard to describe. In South Africa, we saw friends we had last seen 15 years ago. We traveled to Egypt for two weeks, spending five days on a sailboat on the Nile. That country has many wonderous sights, many thousands of years old. and amazingly well preserved.
We also participated in a Civil Rights Tour of Alabama, visiting Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, and other important sites. One interesting aspect of this tour was that half of the people in our group were students from the College of Wooster, which happens to be in Mark's hometown, and one of the adults in the group accompanying the students was someone he knew from high school. Every day, we met folks who had participated in the civil rights marches and protests and those who work at these historical sites.
2023 was also a year when I logged many miles hiking the trails in Northern California and city streets near my home and wherever I traveled. I love walking alone and with friends; it’s the best Rx for clearing one’s head and keeping an even keel.
I am grateful for my good fortune and all the enriching experiences I’ve had this year. I am also mindful that many folks have faced significant challenges this year. Several friends are dealing with serious health issues of their own or with loved ones. Others are dealing with the deaths of close family and friends. Tens of thousands of innocent people are dying in the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas as a result of genocide, wars, drugs, and other catastrophes caused by climate change: droughts, fires, floods, and famine. In our own country, there is a rise in hate crimes, with sharp increases in antisemitism and Islamaphobia, and the stoking of racism by white supremacists against African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and the LGBT community, to name but a few of the targeted groups. Many of us are siloed and rarely speak to folks with views that differ from ours.
Still, I remain hopeful that enough of us are doing something (no matter how small it may seem) to help create a greater sense of compassion and understanding. As James Baldwin reminds us, each of us can change the world. I wish you well in 2024.