Dear SFPC community,
We would like to share with you a message about the School for Poetic Computation’s transformation. Over the past year, a group of students, teachers, staff members, and organizers have begun stewarding SFPC. The people working together to steward SFPC during this transition are: Zainab Aliyu, Todd Anderson, American Artist, Neta Bomani, Emma Rae Bruml, Luke Demarest, Melanie Hoff, Tiri Kananuruk, Celine Wong Katzman, Taylor Levy, Ashley Jane Lewis, Galen Macdonald, Sebastian Morales, Amber Officer-Narvasa, and Che-Wei Wang. We’re learning together now, developing new leadership models as we go — committed to working cooperatively with each other and allowing fluidity within the group as we make this transition. We express our deep thanks to former administrators Lauren Gardner, Zach Lieberman, and Taeyoon Choi for their continued support.
SFPC in 2020
For the past year, in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the ongoing Black liberation movement, the stewards, along with other SFPC teachers and workers, have been advocating for SFPC to make transformations towards becoming a healthier place to study and work for people who have a variety of identities and needs.
In August 2020, SFPC workers organized around actively changing two longstanding patterns in SFPC’s culture and operations:
- a pattern of harmful exploitation, inaction, and failure in addressing racism and especially anti-Blackness within the school.
- a pattern of exploitation of the care and trust of its workers, rather than the creation of healthy boundaries, contracts, and job security.
We want to plainly speak to SFPC’s culture of anti-Blackness here: SFPC’s previous administration maintained a culture of gatekeeping in admissions and hiring processes. Black students have disproportionately held work-study positions, often spending time working for the school while their peers spent time studying and working on projects. Black people and people of color have experienced unaddressed racist macro- and micro-aggressions due to the school’s inadequate Code of Conduct and administrative policies. SFPC also tokenized Black students, using their work and photographs in marketing materials to suggest the school was more diverse than it actually was.
We also want to plainly speak to SFPC’s misuse of trust, “care,” and enthusiastic positivity as stand-ins for the messy and difficult work of negotiating power relations between admin, staff, students, and the community. Staff, who worked on short-term contracts, often felt pressured to perform feminized, uncompensated labor to prove themselves as valuable to be re-contracted. Emails to administration about late pay, lack of promised contracts, and other workplace issues were answered late if not ignored altogether, and staff were expected to pretend these conflicts did not exist in order to maintain SFPC’s outwardly-facing narrative advertising a learning environment built on care.
This pattern was not only harmful to teachers and teacher assistants; these practices created a culture that expected Taeyoon to speak to issues of racial and social justice as the only administrator of color; and expected Lauren to perform undercompensated labor beyond the scope of her duties as the only woman administrator. Often, Zach and Taeyoon’s busy schedules outside of their SFPC duties led to students feeling neglected, and placed the emotional labor of student support almost exclusively on Lauren and other staff. These patterns did not come from admin only. As past teachers and long time believers in the school, we take accountability for participating in the culture that allowed these patterns to persist.
We place these critiques within the reality that SFPC has been a place for pleasure, transformation, and connection for all of us, in spite of everything we are seeking to address. We are sure it has been for many people reading this post. Doing so allows us to acknowledge the ways that the current and past admin and leadership has let down the community, while also honoring the enormous contributions that Lauren, Taeyoon, Zach and others have made in creating spaces where hundreds of people have learned and built life-changing relationships. It offers us a chance to (re)build trust by doing work that we’re excited about doing together — work that can reawaken SFPC from its public dormancy, address the concerns of both the institution and its workers, and grow it towards the “beautiful school” it has always been ready to become.
Towards a Beautiful School
The Summer of 2020 forced us to find new ways to work, organize, learn, and care for one another. In August, teachers and staff wrote a list of demands to Lauren, Taeyoon, and Zach, urging them to address problems within the school before scheduling new classes. The demands are a testament to our collective investment in SFPC, and lay out a vision for working towards a “beautiful school.” The letter asked that the school immediately draft a new Code of Conduct, offer anti-racist and accountability training as professional development for all staff, and provide transparency about SFPC’s 2020 finances. Lauren, Zach, and Taeyoon agreed to work with us to meet the demands.
Between August 2020 and February 2021, during this process, all three administrators stepped down, and we are now collectively stewarding the school with their support. Statements published by Zach and Taeyoon about these transitions are here, here, and here. We thank them all for supporting this process, and for continuing to help us work towards a beautiful school.
We’re committed to transforming SFPC into a place for transgressive study. A place to learn at a pace that counteracts accelerationism within tech spaces. A place where we explore computation, but computation isn’t the point. A place that centers Black, Indigenous, racialized, gendered, disabled, Queer, trans, underrepresented, oppressed and minoritized makers. Where our approach to computation doesn’t end at the poetic, and where care and trust are built through the work we do with each other. We ask what it means to acknowledge that study is always-already work, just as teaching is.
Below, we’re attaching our collective vision for a beautiful school, as articulated in our internal demands from last year. We now have the opportunity and responsibility as leaders to enact the changes we demanded as organized workers. It will take time, and it’s our intention to be forthright about our limitations, and our plans to alleviate them, as we go. We ask our community to remind us to take accountability for this vision. We highlight point number 10 from our vision, that a beautiful school should acknowledge that its members are capable of making mistakes. We have already, we will again, and we’re grateful to those who will help SFPC keep its compass pointing towards a beautiful school.
For now, we invite you to join our mailing list, and to look out for announcements of summer and fall programs, which we’re excited to share with you soon. If you have questions or want to reach out, please email us at email@example.com. Thank you for reading.
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The following demands were co-written during the summer of 2020 by Zainab Aliyu, American Artist, Max Bittker, Neta Bomani, Emma Rae Bruml, Nabil Hassein, Melanie Hoff, Celine Wong Katzman, Ashley Jane Lewis and Galen Macdonald. We have added minor edits to the language to reflect shifts in our current thinking.
We believe that a beautiful school should:
- Actively work towards supporting Black, Indigenous, queer, trans, disabled, and communities of color who are connected by interlocking forms of oppression by dominant systems including but not limited to white supremacy and capitalism. We believe in doing this inside and outside of educational tech spaces in order to live in the world we imagine being possible.
- Incorporate critical theory and history into all classes. Computation can’t be separated from its historical, political, and social impact.
- Have guaranteed need-based tuition, or no tuition at all. Wealth should be actively redistributed via scholarships and just payment and should be invested in under-represented, oppressed and minoritized communities.
- Practice radical financial transparency. The budget, income from tuition, income from donors, and salaries of employees should be public.
- Protect its workers against economic precarity. Contracts must be issued and signed before teachers and teacher assistants begin work. These contracts must contain guaranteed minimum pay and a fee paid to the teacher for classes that don’t reach enrollment capacity to run. Contracts must clearly lay out the roles and responsibilities for each staff person. No unpaid positions or internships, even for school credit.
- Have a cooperative leadership structure. This includes the co-creation of teaching resources, classroom environments, shared agency and responsibility of teachers, administrators, organizers, and students to cultivate shared learning environments; allowing for there to be clear and shifting roles without the harmful effects of hierarchy.
- Treat students as collaborators and formally acknowledge the power of students to determine their experience & education. There should be clear avenues for developing/running/participating in new programming before, during or after becoming a student.
- Extend into wider communities and welcome new communities into the school. Encourage students to be active members of their community, including outreach and volunteering within grassroots organizations. A beautiful school is not an incubator.
- Actively support our communities by being a genuine platform for grassroots organizing around collective actions. It’s not enough to talk about movements or otherwise engage in “activism,” we must participate in movements to show true solidarity. For example, we should use our platform to (re)distribute resources and wealth or put public pressure on bad actors. We should use our space as a resource for protestors: distribute PPE, harm reduction supplies, food, water; let people use the bathroom.
- Acknowledge that its members are capable of making mistakes. Commit to transformative justice approaches to changing the school based on the needs and desires of those it serves and supports.