Taken at LBC College childcare center when Oakley was president. He’d visit students and ask them what they wanted to be.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley
Growing up in the Florence-Firestone area of South Los Angeles in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, I didn’t hear a lot of talk about Dreamers or undocumented students. In a community that was 86 percent Latino and 13 percent African-American, and where less than 2.5 percent of residents had earned a bachelor’s degree, most of the focus was on running from Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies, la Migra, or a gang fight. Everyone just did their best to survive. There was talk about who had a green card or who was a “wetback,” but no one really cared. Everyone was family, except, of course, the Sheriff or la Migra. My family was typical. My dad was a U.S. citizen from Texas who was schooled in Mexico, and my mom immigrated from Mexico with her three sisters. I had uncles and family friends who ran the gamut when it came to immigration status. The one thing that everyone had in common, in addition looking for any excuse to hold a barbeque, was that they all came to California to make a better life for their children and loved ones. Although the Florence-Firestone neighborhood was hardly Mayberry, it was better than what everyone had left behind. It was California.
It wasn’t until the days of Governor Pete Wilson that I ever felt uncomfortable about being a Mexican-American, or growing up with family and friends who were suddenly considered “aliens” bad for California. It was a confusing time, and it forced many children of immigrants like myself to reconcile what it meant to be the son of an immigrant with being a native Californian. Ironically, as a member of the University of California Board of Regents, I visit that past every time I walk into a board meeting and think about how one former regent who served in the 1990s helped shape a negative attitude toward students who shared my heritage. That past, in fact, shapes my service as a Regent today.
Although California survived that period, there remains haunting shadows of that past which are clearly visible in this new Trump era, an era in which a growing number of anti-immigration sentiment, much of which is based not on facts but on emotion, is taking hold. Sadly, such sentiment ignores the facts—that our undocumented immigrants are critical to our economy, are serving in our military to protect our freedoms, and are working hard to become our future leaders. They are hardly a drain on society. In California alone, the state’s estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants are paying an estimated $3 billion in taxes each year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
According to the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, those who have been accepted into the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are an average age of 22 and are employed. Most are still in school. Nearly 1 in 5 are seeking an advanced degree. And in California, the number of DACA recipients enrolled in colleges and universities stands at more than 72,000, which means that nearly one-third of all DACA recipients in the state are in the process of earning a college degree or certificate.
What’s more, because they are better educated and are among our most productive workers, deporting the estimated 750,000 DACA recipients nationwide would cost the federal government $60 billion, along with $280 billion in losses to the U.S. economy over 10 years.
The memories of my experiences with anti-immigrant rhetoric remind me every day of the importance to make clear to the undocumented students in the California Community Colleges system that they are welcomed and valued. They need to know that just as California survived Propositions 187 and 209, they will survive the nonsense of “the wall.” The Dreamers in our colleges today are hungry to give back, to make our state even greater, and to raise their families in the light of the California Dream. Our colleges give first, second, and third chances to all Californians, and because of the struggles of all our students, including Dreamers, our communities are better places to live.
Human potential is everywhere throughout our state. Potential does not recognize residency or legal status. For many, coming to California was not a choice they themselves made. And capturing their potential is key to our future. Within our communities resides the next scientist who will find a cure for cancer, the next transformational artist, the next Steve Jobs, or the next governor of California. Why wouldn’t we educate and cultivate the potential of every resident in California?
I am privileged to serve in a system of higher education that believes in this potential and that proudly proclaims that we serve the top 100 percent of students in California regardless or immigration status, skin color, religion, or how or whom they love. California community colleges are the gateway to a higher education for the majority of people in our state and serve as the state’s engine of economic mobility. That is why our colleges are so important to the future of all Californians and why the future of California is so closely tied to our ability to capture the potential of all our students.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley has served as Chancellor for the California Community Colleges since 19 December 2016. Before this, he served as the Superintendent-President of the Long Beach Community College District from 2007, where he led one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation and provided statewide and national leadership on the issue of improving the education outcomes of historically underrepresented students. For his efforts, the James Irvine Foundation recognized him with their 2014 Leadership Award. In 2014, Governor Brown appointed Oakley to the University of California Board of Regents and in November 2016, President Obama recognized him as a White House Champion of Change for his work promoting and supporting the national college promise movement.
Editor’s Note: Michel Foucault (born Paul-Michel Foucault in 1926) was one of the central thinkers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Neither a traditional philosopher nor a trained historian, Foucault examined the intersection of truth and history through the specific historical dynamics of power.
In France, Foucault was a major figure in structuralist thinking of the 1960s and in the years that followed. However, in the United States, especially in popular culture, Foucault is often thought of as an inciter of the “French theory” movement that swept through American universities in the 1970s and 1980s. Often controversial, Foucault’s analyses of the uses of power in society, as well as his concerns with sexuality, bodies, and norms have been pivotal in the development of contemporary feminist and queer theory.
One early follower of Foucault’s thinking was Simeon Wade, assistant professor of history at Claremont Graduate School. A native of Texas, Wade moved to California in 1972 after earning his Ph.D. in the intellectual history of Western civilization from Harvard in 1970. In 1975, Foucault was invited to California to teach a seminar at the University of California, Berkeley. Following a lecture, Wade and his partner, musician Michael Stoneman, invited Foucault to accompany them on a road trip to Death Valley. After some persuasion, Foucault agreed. The memorable trip occurred two weeks later. This interview was conducted by Heather Dundas on 27 May 2017, and has been edited for length, clarity, and historical accuracy.
Foucault and Michael Stoneman in Death Valley.
Boom: What can you tell us about the above photo?
Simeon Wade: I snapped the above photo with my Leica camera, June 1975. The photograph features the Panamint Mountains, the salt flats of Death Valley, and the frozen dunes at Zabriskie Point. In the foreground, two figures: Michel Foucault, in the white turtleneck, his priestly attire, and Michael Stoneman, who was my life partner.
Boom: How did you end up in Death Valley with Michel Foucault?
Simeon Wade: I was performing an experiment. I wanted to see [how] one of the greatest minds in history would be affected by an experience he had never had before: imbibing a suitable dose of clinical LSD in a desert setting of great magnificence, and then adding to that various kinds of entertainment. We were in Death Valley for two days and one night. And this is one of the spots we visited during this trip.
Boom: What can you say about this photograph? Were Foucault and Stoneman already tripping when it was taken? And wasn’t it incredibly hot, Death Valley in June?
Wade: Yes. We rose to the occasion, as it were, in an area called Artist’s Palette. And yes, it was very hot. But in the evening, it cooled off, and you can see Foucault in his turtleneck in the cool air. We went to Zabriskie Point to see Venus appear. Michael placed speakers all around us, as no one else was there, and we listened to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing Richard Strauss’s, Four Last Songs. I saw tears in Foucault’s eyes. We went into one of the hollows and laid on our backs, like James Turrell’s volcano, and watched Venus come forth and the stars come out later. We stayed at Zabriskie Point for about ten hours. Michael also played Charles Ives’s, Three Places in New England, and Stockhausen’s Kontakte, along with some Chopin…. Foucault had a deep appreciation of music; one of his friends from college was Pierre Boulez.
Boom: That’s quite a playlist. But why LSD?
Wade: The revelation of St. John on the Isle of Patmos is said by some to have been inspired by the Amanita muscaria mushroom. LSD is a chemical equivalent to the hallucinogenic potency of these mushrooms. So many great inventions that made civilization possible took place in societies that used magic mushrooms in their religious rituals. So I thought, if this is true, if the chemical compound has such power, then what is this going to do to the great mind of Foucault?
Foucault and Michael Stoneman, Death Valley.
Boom: But why go so far for this experience? Why drive five hours from Claremont to Death Valley?
Wade: The major reason was that Michael and I had had so many wonderful trips in the desert. Death Valley, many times, and also Mojave, Joshua Tree. If you take clinical LSD and you’re in a place like Death Valley, you can hear harmonic progressions just like in Chopin; it is the most glorious music you’ve ever heard, and it teaches you that there’s more.
Boom: Until recently the very 1970s idea of, as you put it in your manuscript, a “magic elixir” to expand consciousness, was so out of fashion as to be ludicrous. But current research has called this quick dismissal of the psychedelic experience into question.
Wade: And about time! [During these trips] I saw the firmament as it truly is, in all of its glorious colors and forms, and I also heard the echoes from the big bang, which sounds like a chorus of angels, which is what the ancients thought it was.
Boom: So you wanted to give Foucault LSD so he could access this “glorious music”?
Wade: Not only that. It was 1975, of course, and The Order of Things had been published for nearly a decade (published in 1966 in French). The Order of Things treats man’s finitude, his inevitable death, as well as the death of humanity, arguing that the whole humanism of the renaissance is no longer viable. To the point of saying that the face of man has been effaced.
Boom: There’s the famous passage at the end of The Order of Things, postulating a world without the power structures of the Enlightenment: “If those arrangements were to disappear… then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”
Wade: I thought, if I give Foucault clinical LSD, I’m sure he will realize that he is premature in obliterating our humanity and the mind as we know it now, because he’ll see that there are forms of knowledge other than science, and because of the theme of death in his thinking up to that point. The tremendous emphasis of finitude, finitude, finitude reduces our hope.
Boom: So you took Foucault to Death Valley for a kind of rebirth, in a sense?
Wade: Exactly. It was a transcendental experience for Foucault. He wrote us a few months later that it was the greatest experience of his life, and that it profoundly changed his life and his work.
Foucault and Stoneman, Death Valley.
Boom: At the time of this trip, Foucault had just published the first volume of his projected six-volume work, History of Sexuality. He’d also published an outline of the rest of the work, and apparently already had finished writing several volumes of it. So when did this post-Death Valley change become evident in his work?
Wade: Immediately. He wrote us that he had thrown volumes two and three of his History of Sexuality into the fire and that he had to start all over again. Whether that was just a way of speaking, I don’t know, but he did destroy at least some version of them and then wrote them again before his premature death in 1984. The titles of these last two books are emblematic of the impact this experience had on him: The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, with no mention of finitude. Everything after this experience in 1975 is the new Foucault, neo-Foucault. Suddenly he was making statements that shocked the French intelligentsia.
Boom: Such as?
Wade: Statements more confidently out in the open, like that he finally realized who the real Columbus of politics was: Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham had been up to around this time a very respected figure, and Foucault had begun to find him an intellectual villain. And Foucault denies Marx and Engels, and says we should just look at Marx as an excellent journalist, not a theorist. And all of the things Foucault had been inching toward were bolstered after the Death Valley trip. Foucault from 1975 to 1984 was a new being.
Boom: You’ve mentioned that some people disagreed with your experiment and thought you were reckless with Foucault’s welfare.
Wade: Many academicians were very negative on this point, saying that this was tampering with a great person’s mind. I shouldn’t tamper with his mind. But Foucault was well aware of what was involved, and we were with him the entire time.
Boom: Did you think about the repercussions this experience would have on your career?
Boom: Was this a one-off experience? Did you ever see Foucault again?
Wade: Yes, Foucault visited us again. Shortly after his second visit, which was two weeks after this, where we stayed up in the mountains—it was a mountain experience.
Boom: Also with music and LSD?
Wade: No LSD, but everything else. After he left the second time, I sat down and wrote an account of the experience, called Death Valley Trip. It’s never been published. Foucault read it. We had a robust correspondence. And then we spent a fantastic time with him again in 1981, when he was at a conference at the University of Southern California.
Boom: Did you save Foucault’s letters?
Wade: Yes, about twenty of them. The last one was written in 1984. He asked if he could come live with us in Silverlake, as he was suffering from a terminal illness. I think he wanted to die like Huxley. I said yes, of course. Unfortunately, before he was ready to travel, the trap door of history caught him by surprise.
Simeon Wade and Foucault, Claremont, after the Death Valley experience.
The Editor wishes to thank Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Theory and Geography, Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, and author of Foucault’s Last Decade and Foucault: The Birth of Power (Polity Press) for clarifying a number of factual matters in this interview. Thanks also to Jonathan Simon.
 Editor’s note: According to Stuart Elden, “Foucault was much closer to Jean Barraqué, with whom he had a friendship and for a while a relationship. Barraqué was another significant modernist composer and this may be who is meant [here]” (email correspondence, 29 August 2017).
 “…such as the Sumerians, who invented everything, including writing, and the Essenes, who invented Christianity.” Wade’s thinking aligns with John Allegro’s theories presented in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1970). Most scholars rejected Allegro’s book immediately. However, the book was reissued in 2008 with an addendum by Professor Carl Ruck of Boston University outlining the continuing mushroom controversy.
 Simeon Wade, Michel Foucault in Death Valley, unpublished manuscript.
 The recent explosion of research into LSD and its effects is too vast for this article to document, yet some notable publications include Robin L. Carhart-Harris et al., “Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging,” PNAS 113 (2016): 4853-4858; Stephen Ross et al., “Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial,” Journal of Psychopharmacology 30 (2016): 1165–1180; Felix Mueller et al., “Acute effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on amygdala activity during processing of fearful stimuli in healthy subjects,” Translational Psychiatry (April 2017), http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v7/n4/full/tp201754a.html?foxtrotcallback=true.
 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 387.
 Editor’s note: The actual published vols. 2 and 3 were written to an entirely different plan than the original one, and several years later with completely different material content. So the claim that he destroyed and then rewrote is contestable. Furthermore, the original plan for vol. 2 was a discussion of Christianity, which was rewritten and yet was also reconfigured later down the publishing pipeline to be vol. 4 of the project. According to Stuart Elden, this volume is projected for publication in French in 2018 by Gallimard.
 Foucault discusses the change in his thinking and writing in interviews conducted in 1984, at the very end of his life. See “The Ethics of the Concern for Self,” “An Aesthetics of Existence,” “The Concern for Truth,” and “The Return of Morality,” all reprinted in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984 (Sylvère Lotringer, ed. Semiotext(e), 1989, 1996). Editor’s note: Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison was published February 1975 in French, and therefore with the Death Valley trip being June 1975 it is impossible for this later event to have influenced Foucault’s reading of Bentham, &c., as the critiques are laid out in Surveiller et punir, the English translation of which, under the title, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, was not published until 1977. The Editor wishes to thank Stuart Elden for clarification on this point.
 Simeon Wade left Claremont Graduate School in 1977. After adjunct teaching as an instructor of history and art history at several universities, he obtained a nursing license and spent the balance of his working life as a psychiatric R.N. at Los Angeles County Psychiatric Hospital and Psychiatric R.N. Supervisor at Ventura County Hospital.
 Michel Foucault died in Paris, 25 June 1984 at the age of 57. Simeon Wade and Michael Stoneman remained close until Stoneman’s death in 1998. Wade for many years lived in Oxnard, California, where he wrote and played the piano. Wade died 3 October 2017.
Heather Dundas is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her website is www.heatherdundas.com.
Sometime over the past decade or so, a new acronym began permeating public discourse, lumping together fields from marine biology to nuclear engineering to kinesiology to topology: “STEM,” shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. Appearing especially in federal reports and policy discussions of global economic competition, commentators argued that so-called STEM education and STEM fields held the key to future U.S. prosperity. These arguments sprang up everywhere from the business press to reports by the National Academies. California’s Department of Education frames STEM in similar terms, declaring that “Through STEM education, students learn to become problem solvers, innovators, creators, and collaborators and go on to fill the critical pipeline of engineers, scientists, and innovators so essential to the future of California and the nation.”
But as Rodger Bybee asks in his book, The Case for STEM Education, published by the National Science Teachers Association: “If STEM Education Seems to be the Answer, What Was the Question?”
For many industry stakeholders, the primary importance of STEM education is to ensure an adequate number of qualified workers in their particular economic sectors, to foster growth and global competitiveness. Absent such supply of human capital, the logic goes, these stakeholders see a U.S. “STEM crisis” of a particular kind, even while the existence and character of this purported STEM crisis is debated.
Yet these narratives of STEM education are inadequate to address growing crises of social equity, ecological sustainability, and democracy associated with current paradigms of U.S. economic growth. As an article in PLOS Biology recently put it, “Justifying STEM education through the economic imperative demands a consideration of what the limitations of this imperative might be. The purported relationship between STEM education and economic growth rests upon the questionable assumption that economic development has no ecological costs or that those costs can be eliminated through continued GDP growth….” Moreover, current paradigms of economic growth exacerbate social inequalities and environmental injustices, undermining possibilities for a truly flourishing society that supports everyone’s well-being. Merely increasing the number of students and workers prepared to fill “gaps in the STEM pipeline” will not address these more fundamental, structural issues.
Photograph provided by chuttersnap-233105 via unsplash.
These issues tend to be obscured by the supposed coherency of the STEM acronym, however. Contradictions often manifest across STEM fields—such as petroleum engineering, climate science, and public health—belying monolithic framings of STEM. Different STEM fields often involve disparate definitions and approaches to innovation as well, with new social justice challenges looming as automation and artificial intelligence gain ground, even as A.I. is viewed by some STEM advocates as a holy grail. Yet as President Obama reflected on the future, at the end of his term in office:
What I do concern myself with, and the Democratic Party is going to have to concern itself with, is the fact that the confluence of globalization and technology is making the gap between rich and poor, the mismatch in power between capital and labor, greater all the time. And that’s true globally. The prescription that some offer, which is stop trade, reduce global integration, I don’t think is going to work…. If that’s not going to work, then we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years…. [A]t some point, when the problem is not just Uber but driverless Uber, when radiologists are losing their jobs to A.I., then we’re going to have to figure out how do we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense. Because I can sit in my office, do a bunch of stuff, send it out over the Internet, and suddenly I just made a couple of million bucks, and the person who’s looking after my kid while I’m doing that has no leverage to get paid more than ten bucks an hour.
In California, campaigns such as Silicon Valley Rising, affiliated with Working Partnerships USA, are already grappling with these social contradictions of innovation, as analyzed in their reports on contract workers, by “taking on occupational segregation and severe income inequality with a comprehensive campaign to raise wages, create affordable housing and build a tech economy that works for everyone.” STEM education oriented toward health equity could dialogue with such reports and organizing work, as well as with books like De-Bug: Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley, authored by members of the San Jose-based social justice organization, Silicon Valley De-Bug.
STEM education could also engage with public health research shaped by problem-frames and evidence from both credentialed scientists as well as community-based “street science.” Silicon Valley De-Bug, for example, frames community organizing as a kind of science – a science for building community power, whether to mitigate power inequities in the criminal justice system or to fight displacement and gentrification. Through such STEM education, students would not only have opportunities to assess a wider array of evidence and evidentiary standards in the course of their inquiries; they could also pursue a broader range of questions about STEM fields and social values, the politics of research agenda-setting and policy-making, and the social relations and economic development paradigms toward which STEM fields are – and are not – directed. Many engaged with the April 2017 Marches for Science articulated inspiring visions along these lines.
Health Equity as Touchstone for Innovation and STEM Education
While Silicon Valley symbolizes the end of the metaphorical STEM pipeline for many, in California and beyond an array of organizations and a burgeoning body of research offer a touchstone for STEM education that is innovative on different terms: on behalf of health equity. Health equity emphasizes social justice and “attainment of the highest level of health for all people” as the foundation of a flourishing society, in which all people are valued equally. As the American Public Health Association elaborates, achieving health equity entails that, “We optimize the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, learn and age. We work with other sectors to address the factors that influence health, including employment, housing, education, health care, public safety and food access. We name racism as a force in determining how these social determinants are distributed.” Health equity initiatives strive to end the unnecessary, unjust suffering of so many people—particularly people of color and of low-income—experiencing premature death and illness in a country and state with vast economic and scientific resources. Health equity initiatives do not subscribe to a false binary between values—such as equity and social justice—and science. Rather, they draw on an extensive body of STEM research—variously referred to as social epidemiology or social determinants of health research—that examines population health and health inequities, with wide-ranging ethical implications. While this research is well-known within the public health field, it is too often unfamiliar to those in other fields of STEM research and education, from biotechnology to computer science. At the same time, the insights and causal relations surfaced by this body of research are often highly familiar to environmental justice activists, who have long been attuned to the ways in which the places and circumstances in which people “live, work, learn, and play” underpin public health and health equity.
In brief, social determinants of health are the resources and opportunities available to people in their daily lives, which in turn affect their health and well-being. Good jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing, clean air and water, freedom from racism and discrimination – these variables are most important to promoting health and health equity for all, as demonstrated by a plethora of social epidemiology and social determinants of health research. The Director-General of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health, Dr. Margaret Chan, noted at the release of the commission’s 2008 final report (“Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health”): “This ends the debate decisively. Health care is an important determinant of health. Lifestyles are important determinants of health. But… it is factors in the social environment that determine access to health services and influence lifestyle choices in the first place.” Recognizing these upstream, root causes of health inequities, the report called for “improv[ing] daily living conditions” and “tackl[ing] the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources” as integral, necessary, and urgent to achieving greater health equity, in the U.S. and beyond. An array of multidisciplinary research syntheses complement and reinforce these conclusions.
Environmental justice and health equity organizations have deep expertise and familiarity with these issues, whether explicitly or implicitly engaged with social determinants of health research. California-based organizations and coalitions collectively offer a crucial touchstone to orient STEM fields toward the type of innovative economy that all Californians, and people everywhere, deserve.
Air Watch Bay Area screenshot, with refinery fenceline and community air monitors, Richmond.
These reference points are all the more valuable given the challenges of responding to climate change and the relevance of environmental justice organizations and social determinants of health research in doing so. Extreme heat, drought, declining air quality, more frequent wildfires, and other environmental and economic upheavals tied to climate change are all impacting and poised to further impact public health and health equity for Californians. As environmental justice advocates and social determinants of health research demonstrate, it is vital to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent additional climate change, but also to contest and mitigate communities’ unequal access to resources and vulnerabilities in the face of climate change—to close the “climate gap” and work toward just transitions away from fossil fuel dependency and toward green job creation. Accordingly, California’s Climate Change and Health Equity Program observes:
Climate change and health inequities share similar root causes: the inequitable distribution of social, political, and economic power. These power imbalances result in systems (economic, transportation, land use, etc.) and conditions that drive both health inequities and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As a result, we see communities with inequitable living conditions, such as low-income communities of color living in more polluted areas, facing climate change impacts that compound and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Fair and healthy climate action requires addressing the inequities that create and intensify community vulnerabilities, through strategically directing extra investments in improving living conditions for and with people facing disadvantage.”
However, even as many concerned with STEM fields decry U.S. students’ rankings on standardized math and science tests compared with students in Finland or Japan, and sound alarm bells about global economic competition, these STEM discussions tend not to simultaneously highlight the U.S.’s global outlier status as a wealthy country with high levels of poverty, preventable morbidity, infant mortality, and health inequities. This is an underappreciated STEM crisis—a failure of economic and political decision-makers to learn from and act on social determinants of health research. As elaborated in a 2013 report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, while the U.S. is among the wealthiest countries in the world, it is far from the healthiest. Indeed, the report—the first comprehensive comparison of the U.S. and 16 peer countries in terms of multiple diseases, injuries, and behaviors across the life span—found that the U.S. is “at or near the bottom in nine key areas of health: infant mortality and low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections; prevalence of HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability.” The report ultimately argued that, “Without action to reverse current trends, the health of Americans will probably continue to fall behind that of people in other high-income countries. The tragedy is not that the United States is losing a contest with other countries but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary.” More specifically, other researchers have noted that, “[U.S.] public investments in broad, cross-sectoral efforts to minimize the potential effect of such foundational drivers of poor health as poverty and racial residential segregation are pitifully few in comparison with those of other countries.” Health equity is an innovative touchstone for STEM education in part because, despite pertaining population patterns of well-being, life, and death, social determinants of health research is not widely familiar in the U.S. or in California, nor have these been at the forefront of advocacy for STEM education and science literacy.
If STEM Education Seems to be the Answer, What Was the Question?
Attention to health equity and social determinants of health research suggests the need to reframe conventional STEM education narratives, with an eye to the kinds of economic growth that serve equitable prosperity, ecological sustainability, and democracy. Such a reframing, centered on social determinants of health and the crucial intersections of race, class, and place, is also needed to achieve existing STEM education goals, from closing achievement gaps to supporting underrepresented students in STEM fields. As one STEM education analyst commented on the “Sisyphean Task” of STEM equity and diversity, “While educators continue to do their part to improve the K-16 STEM learning and teaching environment, our efforts may be out-weighed by inaction or counter-productive conditions in other domains.” Yet another possibility is that these efforts may be aided by action in other domains, especially action by researchers, public health professionals, and activists working to promote health equity and environmental justice through multi-sectoral, system-oriented problem-solving.
In this era of proliferating assertions about STEM fields as sources of prosperity and problem solving, it is crucial to question what is meant by “STEM.” How does the public health field fit into the STEM landscape, particularly amid California’s combination of enormous wealth juxtaposed with deep health inequities? How might research on social determinants of health and health inequities reshape this landscape? How could all California STEM stakeholders contribute to the vision embodied in the California Office of Health Equity’s recent report to the California State Legislature? Conversely, how might some STEM discussions obscure rather than illuminate key puzzles of social prosperity and innovation—even or perhaps especially while flying the banners of curiosity, inquiry, innovation, disruption, and challenging the status quo? What is missed when challenges are framed as grand, global and national—rather than regional, or attuned to particular zip codes and neighborhoods? How do the questions asked, and not asked, shape the possible answers—the ways people puzzle through and piece together worlds? California’s vibrant environmental justice and health equity communities offer cogent and inspiring starting points for future STEM inquiries.
March to stop the incinerator, December 2013, United Workers via Flickr.
Thank you to the editors and anonymous peer reviewers at Boom for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
 Raj Jayadev and Jean Melesaine, De-Bug: Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley, (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2016).
 Jason Corburn, Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005); Jason Corburn, Toward the Healthy City: People, Places, and the Politics of Urban Planning (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009).
 Brian Martin, “Strategies for Alternative Science,” in Scott Frickel and Kelly Moore, eds., The New Political Sociology of Science: Institutions, Networks, and Power (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006): 272-98, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/06Frickel.html.
 Indigenous scientists, agency professionals, tribal professionals, educators, traditional practitioners, family, youth, elders and allies from Indigenous communities and homelands all over the living Earth, “Let Our Indigenous Voices Be Heard,” Indigenous Science March for Science Letter of Support, https://sites.google.com/view/indigenous-science-letter;
Cheryl Holzmeyer lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a postdoctoral fellow with the Fair Tech Collective at Drexel University. She conducts research and outreach for Air Watch Bay Area, a project focused on frontline community monitoring of air pollution from regional oil refineries. She completed her sociology Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and has taught courses on “Science, Technology, and Environmental Justice” at Stanford.
“We ought to love our own states and our own home places better than any others. That is our duty. But to love our own places is to recognize—or it ought to be—that other people love their places better than they love ours. This, too, is our duty. If we love our places, if we recognize that other people love their places, then maybe it is also our duty to refrain from bombing or in any way harming any place. Our own or anybody else’s. So I am speaking here as a Kentuckian, as I should.”
—Wendell Berry, The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, 25 September 2010
At the age of 24, the farmer, novelist, and poet Wendell Berry packed up and left Kentucky for California to join the creative writing program at Stanford in Palo Alto. What he did not pack for the journey was plans to return to Kentucky. Berry had absorbed the notion that homes—particularly homes in the dying rural communities of Middle America—were for leaving, and that, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Berry would later dispute this received wisdom in several essays and limn the contours of it in his fiction, but it took him careful reflection to get to that point. From the distance of several decades, these reflections are surprising to revisit since he is so closely tied to his place and has been since 1964. But what if Wendell Berry had just stayed in California like countless Americans before and since?
In a national literature marked prominently by restlessness, roads, and waterways, Berry has written eloquently about placed people, about those who have returned home or never left. Some American escapes have been romantic adventures, some desperate necessities, and some have been both. If the American past has encouraged and even demanded a national literature filled with stories of escape, at times making a romance out of a necessity, Berry has tried through his writing to open up possibilities for an American future that includes not just escapes but returns. Escapes may be riveting, but, whether the perception is accurate or not, an escape implies something deficient about the place and people that caused it. Escapes are not just adventures but fractures.
By rendering wholly, concretely, and imaginatively one place, Port Royal, Kentucky, through both history and fiction (“Port William” in his fiction), Berry has imagined for his readers the possibility of families, communities, and places that make a return more fulfilling, more joyful, and possibly even more romantic than an escape. But he has not just lectured Americans about why they should return to their places, as he did to his. His story is not simply about a return. It is about building places that inspire returns, where duty and desire coexist. He has lived and imagined a return to a place worth preserving; he has practiced an art of return. As readers of his work know, this is not because his place is better than other places, but because it is his, by both birth and choice. To care for a given place does not demand the denigration of other places: “There are no unsacred places / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”
The fact remains that Berry spent a meaningful part of his life in California, and we might not have Wendell Berry, Kentuckian, without Wendell Berry, Californian. This suggestion requires some extrapolation and we need to pry a little. It is true that he has lived most of his life in Kentucky and written almost all of his published work there. He has been reluctant to write extensively about other places. In the context of his lifelong endeavor to know and belong to his place, this reluctance to write about other places is consistent. He has refused literary tourism and travel writing. He has also refused the notion that travel is essential for broadening horizons: “I myself have traveled several thousand miles to arrive at Lane’s Landing, five miles from where I was born, and the knowledge that I gained by my travels was mainly that I was born into the same world as everybody else.”
But there are exceptions to this. He wrote parts of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, while on fellowship at Stanford from 1958-1960. He wrote an extended essay, The Hidden Wound, over the winter of 1968-1969 while a visiting professor at Stanford, and he wrote his short novel Remembering during winter 1987 while writer-in-residence at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
It seems fitting that of the other places he has lived, California is the place where he has spent the most time. He lived in the place that has sung the sirens’ song for so many migrants’ hearts for over two centuries, and is the place that represents American wanderlust more than any other. It is an exaggeration, but still illuminating to compare Berry’s return to Kentucky after tasting California’s sweet shores to Odysseus’ choice to return to Penelope and to Ithaca, made more poignant by the choice’s being resolved on Calypso’s island with a goddess, an island, and immortality on offer.
Berry admired The Odyssey, and he wrote movingly about it in The Unsettling of America. Focused attention on the allusions to California in his work and then the work that he did there suggests that California as Calypso’s Island comprises his primary relation to the state. Remembering is the most vivid example.
In the turning point of the novel, the protagonist Andy Catlett finds himself restless in an ugly San Francisco hotel room. To escape, he goes for a night walk through the city at 4 a.m. His restlessness is the consequence of two festering wounds. One started with a literal wound. Andy had mangled his hand in a farming accident, it was amputated, and he has been withdrawing into himself and away from his family in his sadness and anger. The other is his lonely opposition to industrial agriculture and the economic justifications for it, exacerbated by his participation in an agriculture conference earlier that day.
Andy’s walk through dead-of-night San Francisco is marked by heightened interiority and intense moral panic. He is completely inside himself, and surprised by any sensory perceptions. He sees the people around him as souls. They occasionally speak to him, puncturing his interiority but only briefly. His wanderings lead to a pier, “the whole continent at his back, nothing between him and Asia but water,” and Andy realizes that he is free, that he could forsake Kentucky, his troubled marriage, and his farm that he can no longer work independently. He could just reside in San Francisco and no one would find him. But this possibility begins to look more like the “freedom” of an astronaut cut off from the shuttle, careening away through zero gravity: “All distance is around him, and he wants nothing that he has. All choice is around him and he knows nothing that he wants.”
As morning breaks into this dark night of the soul, he is remembered into Port William through his past and begins again to choose. Port William will not let him spiral into space. He sees that he has no meaningful future without his past, and it is his recollections of specific people and places that bring his mind back into his body and enable him to act. Though he cannot replace his amputated hand, he is remembered in every other sense of the word.
At the risk of turning Berry’s character into Berry himself, it is reasonable to guess that Berry saw his own experiences in California similarly. His past grew hazy, his future weightless. Being outside of his place pushed him outside of himself. “Notes from an Absence and a Return,” published journal entries from his 1968-1969 visit to Stanford, grant some historical weight. After a midnight walk across a golf course, he wrote, “I have become, in a very cool, knowing way, hungry to be at home again. I want back the clear, exacting sense of myself that I only get from being at work there on my writing and on the place itself.”
But even if this is the dominant relation, it is not all that can be said about Wendell Berry in California. Berry himself has acknowledged the “necessarily confusing” difficulty of tracing influences in a writer’s life, or any person’s life. He has been surprised by much of what he has written. He has attempted to trace influences; however, and it is therefore easier to discuss his relationship with Californians rather than California without conjecture.
Mount Tamalpais State Park via Flickr user Steve Rhodes.
Among the Californians who influenced him, one stands above all others: Tanya Amyx Berry, to whom he has been married for over half a century. She was born in Berkeley in 1936, where her father was doing graduate work, and spent her early childhood there before her parents made their own return to Kentucky in 1945 so her father could take a position at the University of Kentucky. It is a fool’s errand to attempt to untangle the mutual influences between them in relation to their respective places, but from his published letters to the California poet Gary Snyder it is at least evident that Berry enjoyed developing his own affections for places, such as Mount Tamalpais, that were special to Tanya in her childhood.
Less difficult to elaborate is the influence of another Californian, the novelist, essayist, historian, and founder of Stanford’s creative writing program, Wallace Stegner. By awarding Berry a fellowship to attend the creative writing program at Stanford, Stegner opened the first possibility for him to leave Kentucky. But by being a regional writer who cared about his region, Stegner also opened for Berry the possibility of return (he also eventually suggested Berry for a position at the University of Kentucky, materially enabling his return in 1964). Stegner’s writing about his region went further than the standard creative writing program advice to “write what you know.” Though Berry did not really comprehend the lesson until after he had returned to Kentucky, Stegner had taught Berry how to be a regional writer who gives rather than takes. Stegner was a regional writer “who not only [wrote] about his region but also [did] his best to protect it, by writing and in other ways, from its would-be exploiters and destroyers.” Stegner knew he belonged to his region, shaped by its history for good and for ill. Among American writers, Berry thought Stegner was the first of significance to make that commitment to his region.
Berry contrasted Stegner with “industrialists of letters” who mine “one’s province for whatever can be got out of it in the way of ‘raw material’ for stories and novels.” In this, fiction is not simply harmless entertainment. Berry wrote, “I would argue that it has been possible for such writers to write so exploitatively, condescendingly, and contemptuously of their regions and their people as virtually to prepare the way for worse exploitation by their colleagues in other industries: if it’s a god-forsaken boondocks full of ignorant hillbillies, or a god-forsaken desert populated by a few culturally deprived ranchers, why not strip-mine it?”
In his reflection on Stegner, Berry writes that Stegner’s primary means of teaching was by “bestowing a kindness that implied an expectation, and by setting an example” and it seems that Stegner’s regionalism taught Berry as he was learning by his own efforts to become a generous regionalist himself. Being a few steps past Berry in the effort, Stegner proved to Berry that it was possible.
The point requires extrapolation beyond their writings, but it might even be the case that Stegner’s example almost shamed Berry into writing from his region. Despite similarities in style, sentiment, artistic range, and theme, their life histories were as different as are their native regions. As a reader of his work, Berry knew that Stegner’s regionalism was forged in a rejection of his father’s rootless wanderings across the West against his mother’s protestations, an experience embodied most vividly in his fictional account of his childhood, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Because his father chased booms throughout the West, from Saskatchewan to Washington to Utah, Stegner was from a region more than a place. Stegner found sensual comfort in the effects of aridity of the West, the ochres and parched whites under brilliant blue skies, but he had to choose a place to make a home (Los Altos Hills) since, like many deracinated Americans, he did not inherit one.
Berry’s sensual identification with the Appalachian forests of Kentucky was and is as keen as was Stegner’s with high desert plains and mountains, but Berry also had generations of stories and people awaiting his return. His regionalism was in part borne out of a renewed appreciation of his past as a moral resource. Though he was honest regarding the conquest of indigenous land and the institutional violence of slavery that accompanied his ancestors’ settlement in Kentucky and thereby made it possible for him to be a multiple-generation native Kentuckian, Berry valued these tangled roots too much to discard them. He had left several generations of family and friends to attend Stanford.
Stegner’s whole nuclear family had died just after he turned thirty and he barely knew any relatives or anyone else who had any recollection of him as a child. His past was contained almost exclusively in his own mind. There were no attics or relatives to remind him of it, to spark long unvisited memories, or to confirm hazy details. Perhaps Berry respected Stegner’s attempts to build a place despite his deracination; by observing Stegner’s efforts to find, keep, and respect a particular place over one lifetime, Berry then realized how rare and precious was his own generational rootedness to Kentucky and Appalachia. It was another of Stegner’s gifts that implied an expectation.
By Stegner’s own admission, and despite the example that Berry drew from his work, Stegner did not understand Berry’s attempt to write from Kentucky and in fact attempted to persuade him to stay on at Stanford following a visiting faculty appointment that Berry held in 1968-1969. Stegner thought Berry “owed it to [him]self and [his] gift to stay out where the action was.” “Fortunately,” Stegner wrote, in a retrospective article in 1990, “I got nowhere.” He was among the many of Berry’s admirers who thought he would be overwhelmed by his commitment to farming or underwhelmed by the intellectual companionship of his fellow Kentuckians and that the result would be the waste of a rare literary talent.
But Berry thought there might be “another measure” for his life than his literary output alone. He did not believe in Yeats’ choice between the “perfection of the life, or of the work,” a “fictitious choice” that “does damage to people who think they can actually make it.” He refused the choice by returning to Kentucky, and has reaffirmed it since then: “If anything I have written about this place can be taken to countenance the misuse of it, or to excuse anybody for rating land as ‘capital’ or its human members as ‘labor’ or ‘resources,’ my writing would have been better unwritten. And then to hell with any value anybody may find in it as ‘literature.’”
Mt Tamalpais via Flickr user Tom Hilton.
The visit to Stanford did not persuade Berry to stay there full-time, but it did provide him with the opportunity to reflect on the racial injustice that inflamed protests on the Stanford campus and the rest of the nation in the late Sixties. It seems that his observation of racism and race in California allowed him the distance to reflect on racism in Kentucky. It is here that it might be easier to think about how California influenced him as a place.
The Hidden Wound, an extended essay in which Berry traced the grim legacy of slavery and racism in Kentucky, and his family’s role in the perpetuation of these evils, was the result. The book was not widely read on publication in 1970, but it has been granted a second life through republication and the sustained admiration of poet, essayist, and activist bell hooks, another Kentuckian who went to Stanford a decade after Berry and later, partly due to Berry’s influence, returned to Kentucky. Since she returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College in 2004, hooks has been teaching from The Hidden Wound and wrote a sustained reflection on it in Belonging: A Culture of Place. An interview with Berry follows the reflection.
Berry describes the incidents that motivated him to write The Hidden Wound in the book’s “Afterword,” written for the 1989 edition. While at Stanford, Berry witnessed several outdoor meetings called by black students for the purpose of establishing a Black Studies program on campus. In Berry’s recollection, the meetings were what historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has called a “harangue-flagellation” ritual in which the black students condemned the white students and faculty for their racism and the whites in attendance nodded in agreement mixed with occasional applause. In another situation on campus, Berry found himself in the middle of a civil rights protest. When a student in the protest heard Berry ask his companion a question in his Kentucky drawl what was going on, his accent prompted the response, “You damned well better find out!”
Berry thought there was no way for him to speak meaningfully in that context, and so The Hidden Wound is what he would have said had the moment allowed it. He wrote it during the winter break in the Bender Room at Stanford University’s Green Library. The essay was motivated by the feeling that the civil rights milieu at the time was at a stalemate and would stay there if the focus on power eclipsed other possible ends. Though Berry agreed that racism was a moral evil and political problem, he thought the most visible sentiments guiding these events were dangerous. Just as in his writing about agriculture, nature, and land—and in his, “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam,” delivered at the University of Kentucky the winter before—he fought abstractions and the separations that oversimplify: of means and ends, of thought and emotion, intentions and actions.
He wrote that the “speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks where absolutely innocent of it. They were thus absolutely divided by their agreement.” In his interview with hooks he said more simply: “I thought guilt and anger were the wrong motives for a conversation about race.” People can be more “dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable.” By arguing that power is a necessary part of the discussion, but no more necessary than love, Berry refused the false dichotomy between structure and personal responsibility. During the demonstrations, in contrast, “one felt the possibility of an agreement of sorts, but nowhere the possibility of the mutual recognition of a common humanity, or the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the possibility of love.”
Berry’s essay was an attempt to acknowledge but transcend the double-binds that choke so many discussions of race, both then and now, by eschewing abstractions and turning to actual people and actual places. His thought was grounded in the assumption that “it is good for people to know each other.”  Berry’s essay includes an extended reflection of his love for a black man, Nick Watkins, and a black woman, Aunt Georgie, both of whom he knew in his childhood. He acknowledged that his relationship to them, including an understanding of their perception of and care for him, was always limited by segregation but also by difference in age, as well as the amount of time that had passed since they’d known each other. He had no way of knowing what they thought as he wrote the essay and was responsible in acknowledgement of his limitations, but he also knew that he loved them and that their example in his life was a “moral resource.”
For hooks, this is one of the most important insights of the essay, the acknowledgement that “inter-racial living, even in flawed structures of racial hierarchy, produces a concrete reality base of knowing and potential community that will simply be there.” These relationships can then serve to challenge the more common reality in which “all that white folks and black folks know of one another is what they find in the media, which is usually a set of stereotypical representations of both races.” What both Berry in the essay and hooks in her appreciation of it emphasize throughout is that places need holistic care: the inhabitants need to be open to each other and to strangers, and need to be sensitive to the limitations of the cultures and the flora and fauna that sustain it.
Berry’s reflections on his experiences in California are notable for what they are not and might very well have been—an exercise in distancing himself from his home for its racism or a rejection of the metropolis and retreat into jingoistic provincialism. Many in this situation choose, and then despise the rejected option. Berry chose Kentucky, but he chose a Kentucky that he both loved and sought to improve. He looked for his own native resources and tried to use them to their full potential.
If Berry’s return from California is more significant than his time in California, his call to make ourselves and our places worthy of returns and open to them is one abstraction that should not be limited by place. Berry has helped us imagine these returns as possibilities, and as possibilities that are meaningful and good. Not all of us can or even should return to our places of birth. But all of us—Californians, Kentuckians, Americans—should build places that make returns welcome, joyful possibilities.
Wendell Berry, photograph by C Guy Mendes, provided by Counterpoint Press.
The author would like to thank Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Eric Miller, Robert Corban, Katie Stewart, and the editors and reviewers from Boom for their thoughtful comments on this essay.
 Wendell Berry, “A Native Hill,” The Hudson Review 21 (Winter 1968-1969): 604-605. “A Native Hill” was republished in The Long-Legged House (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2003). Berry also discusses his reflections on his return to Kentucky in The Hidden Wound (New York: North Point Press, 1989), 65.
 See Wallace Stegner’s “Living Dry” and “Variations on a Theme by Crèvecoeur” in The American West as Living Space (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1987).
 Grace Elizabeth Hale examines the “romance of the outsider,” most prominent among white American men, and its historical significance in A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). She highlights the fact that escapes and rebellions are, to some extent, not an option for many Americans. Neither are returns, in many cases. Reading Jeff Hobbs’ The Brief and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newarkfor the Ivy League (New York: Scribner, 2015) as an escape and return narrative illustrates this point more concretely.
 I am grateful to Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn for suggesting this phrase.
 Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)” Poetry, January 2001.
 Wendell Berry, Imagination in Place (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010), 2. When he has written about other places, he has tended to write about their agricultural practices more than any of their other qualities. See for example, “Tuscany” in Citizenship Papers (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2014), 175.
 Some shorter pieces have been written away from Kentucky as well, such as “Notes from an Absence and a Return,” included in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), 36-55.
 Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1996), 123-130.
 Wendell Berry, Remembering (New York: North Point Press, 1988), 51.
 Mary Berry Smith, “My Mother’s Making of an Agrarian Home,” Edible: Louisville and the Bluegrass Region, June 2011.
 In a letter to Gary Snyder, Berry writes of Mount Tamalpais, “it was a place very important to Tanya” and that after he lived in California, it “became an important place also to me.” Chad Wrigglesworth, ed., Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2014), 245. Snyder is another Californian whom Berry has written to and about, and whose influence on Berry and vice versa deserves more recognition than it receives in this essay. The collection of letters is a good place to start.
 Stegner had a fraught relationship with California, but it was the place he chose to make his home, and he lived there from 1945 until his death in 1993.
 Mark McGurl has examined the influence of creative writing programs in the United States in the twentieth century in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
 Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990), 55. In a review of McGurl’s The Program Era, Louis Menand discusses the negative reactions of ethnic minorities whose cultures are revealed by ethnic minorities in creative writing programs largely for the sake of outsiders or what Menand calls “literary tourists.” The New Yorker, “Show or Tell,” 8 June 2009.
 This theme occurs throughout Stegner’s work. One of the best places to explore it is in Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (New York: Penguin, 1990), 127-138.
 Berry lists the regional writers that most inspired him in Imagination in Place, some of which predate Stegner, such as Sarah Orne Jewett. It is perhaps Stegner’s commitment to protecting his place more than his sense of belonging that led Berry to argue for his uniqueness (pp. 4-5).
 Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943). A cogent historical account of his childhood is found in “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood,” in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 3-21.
 Stegner discusses his sense of where he is from most extensively in “At Home in the Fields of the Lord,” which is included and contextualized helpfully in Robert C. Steensma, Wallace Stegner’s Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2007), 61-70.
 Included in The Long-Legged House, 75-88. Berry’s pacifism and willingness to take an unpopular stand in his home institution suggests that he did not need to go to California to “experience” the Sixties.
 Hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place, 182-83.
Matthew D. Stewart is a PhD candidate in History at Syracuse University. His dissertation explores the intellectual history of the modern American West through the career of Wallace Stegner. He was a scholar-facilitator for the 2017 Idaho Humanities Council’s Summer Teacher’s Institute, “Wallace Stegner and the Consciousness of Place,” and is currently a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities New York.
Many years ago, I rode on a team bus through the agricultural heart of California. Up far too late for a school night, we didn’t get on the road until past 10 p.m., and weren’t getting back to Los Angeles before 2 a.m.
Strange things happen when you qualify for the California state volleyball playoffs. In California, athletic regions are larger than most states. I was an assistant coach at my alma mater. I didn’t have to attend the match, but I enjoy a good road trip.
We took State Route 145 southbound, an empty a two-lane through cotton fields and almond groves to get to I-5. Amid the dark and quiet—the kind of quiet that you only hear after a team’s season has ended—one of our more whimsical players bolted upright and asked of the entire bus, “Is that the real moon?”
She can be forgiven for her incredulity. The moon rising ahead of us that November night was a reddish freak of refraction known only to the flattest of landscapes. It looked nothing like the modest disk she’d seen over west Los Angeles a million times before. As far as the players and I were concerned, we were traveling through a foreign land—California’s own version of flyover country. For all we knew, maybe it did have its own moon.
Doug Walters @dougwalters via Unsplash.
Back then, Donald Trump was just an inflated real estate developer. Even so, the town of Kerman probably would have voted for him back then. A typical farm town of 8,500 at the time, 20 miles west of Fresno, Kerman floats amid the politically red ocean surrounding America’s archipelago of blue. It is precisely the type of place in which urbane city-dwellers are unfamiliar just as cities are unfamiliar to many people in places like Kerman.
For all of Kerman’s Red State inclinations, the facts suggest that politically we were, if not in friendly territory, at least in territory that wasn’t hostile. In 2000, 53 percent of Fresno County favored George W. Bush over Al Gore. In the 2016 election, Fresno County favored Hillary Clinton 49 percent to 43 percent. Of the four precincts within Kerman’s city limits, only one favored Trump. In neighboring precincts, that number reached 82 percent.
Though Kerman superficially resembles many of the places where Donald Trump dominated—beating Hillary two- and three-fold—it was actually one of the few places in California that was relatively evenly split. Kerman actually teeters on the edge of Red and Blue, making it, paradoxically, an electoral microcosm of the country. And yet, with polarization and geographic sorting, it is near unique among American places.
Kerman’s brand of rural America differs from that in places like Oklahoma or Nebraska. As in communities in those states, many jobs—24 percent in Kerman’s case—are in agriculture. With a median family income of just over $34,000, it’s poor. But it looks different from its Heartland America counterparts. One explanation for Kerman’s political allegiance with urban America lies in demographics. Today, Kerman has 13,500 residents and is 71 percent Hispanic, up from 65 percent in 2000. How its volleyball team reflected its demographics, I honestly can’t recall.
Kelly Sikema @kelsikkema via Unsplash.
Until 9 November, I hadn’t thought about Kerman for a very long time. Come to think of it, Donald Trump probably never paid it, or its thousands of counterparts, much mind either. There’s not much of a market for skyscrapers on the prairie. And yet in the course of his campaign Trump saw his own moonrise the moment he left his tower and met with adoration in the unlikeliest of places. Hillary Clinton didn’t figure it out until the moment he won Michigan.
As I think about the way Trump’s America views my America, I can’t help but think about what Kerman thought of us or what we thought of Kerman. Some of our players probably didn’t think of Kerman at all—it was a team and a gym, and nothing more. Some may have been enchanted by the idea of a small town, so dissimilar from our metropolis. Some may have been less charitable.
And our opponents, the Lions of Kerman High? I hope they didn’t think of us at all. If they had, they might have been appalled. My school embodied every private school stereotype: wealthy, worldly, fashionable, probably a little spoiled. The children of what came to be known, soon thereafter, of the 1 percent. The girl so perplexed by the moon? She was the daughter of a celebrity, a rock star known in part for Vietnam-era protest songs. How awful must we have seemed to them. How backwards must they have seemed to us.
We’ve all developed notions of the noble struggles of the Heartland, the Rust Belt, Coal Country, and the rest. But until 9 November I think few of us realized just how badly the fuzziness of these notions could hurt us. What has become abundantly clear is that the hurt goes both ways: rural America, no matter how it votes, feels isolated from and therefore threatened by the cosmopolitan America of the cities and coasts. Cosmopolitan America does not recognize these threats and therefore ignores them. It probably believed that rural areas appreciated the urbanity and economic, intellectual, culturally-creative power of cities—looking to them admiringly.
I understand the Trump phenomenon better when I consider what his rallies must have meant to people in towns like Kerman—and in towns far more isolated and far more desperate. In those places, a volleyball playoff game might be the highlight of the year. A win in the state playoffs over a fancy private school might be the highlight of the decade. A Trump visit— one of those rallies where he pledged his allegiance to them and pledged inexplicably to stick it to the “elites”—might have been the highlight of a lifetime.
The beauty and tragedy of athletic contests is that they take place on the court. There’s a handshake and a coin toss and then the game comes into being. It is bounded by rules. Schools become teams. People become players. Places become venues. Participants relate to each other through the prism of the game. Then one of us goes home.
Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory by KimonBerlin via Flickr.
I wish we’d done more than just play volleyball that night. We could have gotten to know each other. Coaches could have chatted with coaches. Players could have made friends with their opponents. We could have had dinner beforehand or gone for ice cream afterwards. We could have gotten to know their names and found of what their lives were like. They could have done the same.
This is the type of encounter that, multiplied millions of times, may have prevented our national fracture. It’s the type that may be required for national healing. Gentle conversations, free of accusations and bitterness, may lead to empathy on both sides. That’s one school of thought, simplistic though it may be. The other school holds that the time for reconciliation is past and that the left must battle like never before. Of course, the right will do the same.
A little friendliness might not have saved the world. But I can’t help thinking of the power of small gestures of communion. Those kids grew up four hours from Los Angeles and four hours from the Bay Area. And yet, there’s a chance that none of them ever visited either or even met anyone from either. Their impressions would have been rightfully left to their own imaginations. Even a single encounter is memorable if it’s distinctive enough. We both could have come away with warm feelings rather than with the coldness of our assumptions. We could have reminded each other that we all live in the same state, in the same country, under the same moon. Maybe, seventeen years later, we’d have thought about each other, if only briefly, when we went to the polls.
To their credit, Kerman fielded a hell of a team. They whupped us fair and square. That’s one reason why that bus ride was so somber, celestial oddities notwithstanding. But, still, it was just a volleyball game. I wish all losses were so easy to take.
Josh Stephens is a journalist covering cities, and is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report, the state’s foremost independent publication dedicated to urban planning. He is also contributing editor to Planetizen.com and conducts its “Planners Across America” interview series. His work has also appeared in a wide-range fora including Planning Magazine, The Architect’s Newspaper, Los Angeles Magazine, Sierra Magazine, Grist.org, Los Angeles Review of Books, Volleyball Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, many of which are chronicled at joshrstephens.net.
UC Berkeley. Photograph by Charlie Nguyen via Flickr.
University of California President Janet Napolitano’s troubles over the State Audit are not a one-off case of mismanagement or bad governance. They are symptomatic of a larger and longer term problem: dramatically shrinking revenues have made the UC’s task increasingly impossible, triggering the fancy footwork by an Office of the President trying to safeguard its reserves and simultaneously manage the politics of what has become an untenable position. No doubt Napolitano is undermined when the constituent parts of the UC sing a different song to herself and the regents. No doubt also, the legislature and the public must know where things stand. But the real issue is that the University of California, and also the CSU, no longer have the public financing to fulfil their far-reaching public mandates.
It is a crisis that has been forty years in the making. The table (below) summarizes the funding trend from 1960 to 2010. The tax revolt and Proposition 13 in 1978 ensured that despite some good years in the 1980s the public funding of public higher education would never be as strong again as it had been in the great days of the 1960 Master Plan.
The table illustrates the rapid rise in total funding in the first two decades of the Master Plan as enrollment grew more rapidly than planned in the community colleges. In the 1970s the University budget slowed due to the combined effects of Governor Reagan’s opposition to UC Berkeley, and demographic factors. Nevertheless, the economy was up in the 1980s, and Governor Deukmejian made higher education a priority, granting the University of California a 30 per cent increase in its operating budget in 1983. Despite the gathering fallout from Proposition 13, the 1980s were on the whole a good decade for the University. State support increased for the CSUs and the community colleges also. However, Proposition 13 meant that in some years, community colleges had to turn away applicants, a sign of things to come. Also, the share of total state expenditures going to the UC and CSU fell, from 11.3 per cent in the Master Plan year of 1960, to 7.8 per cent in 1995. (Over the same span funding for prisons rose from 2.4 to 7.1 per cent of state spending).
The 1990s saw the end of funding growth in the UC and CSU, though the enrollment grew by 8.5 per cent in the UC and 2.5 per cent in the CSU. The final decade in the Table (below), 2000-2010, was considerably tougher. It saw a major reduction in fiscal support, much of it concentrated at the end of the decade, reflecting the effects of the 2008-2010 recession. State funding of the University of California fell by 24.7 per in real terms between 2000 and 2010, while the enrollment increased by a massive 40.2 per cent. There was a 14.8 per cent decline in California State University funding over the same 2000-2010 period, while the enrollment rose by 28.2 per cent. The funding of the community colleges increased by 14.2 per cent, which almost matched the enrollment growth of 16.2 per cent, but the community colleges had less opportunity to raise non-state revenues than did the CSU and UC campuses.
Student enrollment in public higher education, andstate and local government financial support, California, 1960 to 2010 (constant 2010 prices)
The 2008-2010 recession generated havoc in state revenues and was especially bad for the unprotected areas of the state budget. Douglass reports a cut of $813 million in the funding of the UC system in 2009 and 2010. Public funding, the bedrock of long-term planning in the early decades of the Master Plan, is now more volatile and less predictable than tuition revenues and other private sources. UC campuses are beginning to imagine a future in which state funding is negligible. In the decade between 2002-03 and 2012-13, state revenues received by University of California Berkeley declined from $497 to $299 million in current dollars, a reduction in constant price terms of 54 per cent. Successive state governments have learned that they can reduce university funding without a severe public backlash, but there is more likely to be public opposition if they sanction the tuition increases necessary for institutions to make up the shortfall. From the 1990s onwards, a new pattern was established, in which the years of funding recovery were insufficient to compensate for years of reductions. Small cuts were not undone and tended to accumulate. In this asymmetrical policy framework, and given the continued legal/fiscal constraints on the state, California’s recession-induced cuts now look to be largely irreversible.
Royce Hall, UCLA. Photograph by Praytino via Flickr.
Like their public sector counterparts in many other states, the UC and CSU finds (and will continue to find) it extremely difficult to secure state support to raise tuition so as to compensate for the effects of state cutbacks. Nevertheless, tuition increases sufficient to plug the gap in spending also carry problems. Public institutions depend on public support, both to secure favorable state policies and more generally, to function effectively in a highly networked society and economy. Public support is no doubt undermined by rising tuition, and this also eats into the access mission of the University of California, which so far has been largely maintained despite the circumstances. On the other hand, public support is weakened also by reductions in service quality due to insufficient funding, and the access mission needs to be subsidized. In 2013, after the recession, the student-to faculty ratio in the University of California was 24 to 1, compared to 19 to 1 a decade earlier, and 15 to 1 in the 1980s. The public university campuses find themselves positioned between the Scylla of a resource decline that would undermine all objectives, including the research outputs and quality on which so much else depends, and the Charybdis of public unpopularity and mission compromise. They feel forced to become more like a private university, so as to uphold their public mission effectively in social competition with the real private sector. They have limited options, with only research funding, foreign students and noncore revenues as potential sources of much needed additional resources. In this setting the University of California campuses have no clear-cut forward strategy.
The problem is specific to public higher education rather than general to higher education as a whole. The effects of the recession differentiated between the University of California, which depends partly on the Californian state budget and whose tuition is state regulated; and private universities such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, which are free to manage their prices and carry significantly larger endowments than Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego. Though both state funding and university endowments fell sharply in value in the first two years of recession, the recovery in each case was different. By 2014 endowments had been largely restored in value but the state funding cuts seemed at least partly permanent.
While the UC campuses and the beleaguered UCOP are struggling to cope, right now, the deeper effects of today’s crisis will play out over decades. Of all the jewels of American science, California public education has shined the brightest. As I discuss in my book published last year, The Dream is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education, the UC still houses four of the world’s top twenty research universities, in terms of the amount of high quality science produced—Berkeley, UCLA, San Francisco, and San Diego—and seven of the world’s top sixty. Not if present trends are maintained.
Money matters in research and education, as it does in most everywhere else. Past patterns show this. In a study of American science , James Adams finds that in the 1990s there was an overall slowdown in the output of the public universities. Though their share of federal research grants grew their revenues from their respective state governments fell, which ate into the capacity to sustain research infrastructure and faculty time on research. It is a sign of what is to come. The drop in state support across the country in the 1990s, studied by Adams, was nothing compared to what happened after the 1990s in California. Between 2002-03 and 2012-13 the proportion of Berkeley’s revenues coming from state sources dropped from 34 to 13 per cent. That decline is continuing. Unless the state, and ultimately the taxpayer, have a change of heart the UC position is going to get much worse.
Sather Gate, UC Berkeley. Photograph by John Morgan via Flickr.
 Clark Kerr, The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967, Volume 1: Academic Triumphs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 189.
 Patrick Callan, “The Perils of Success: Clark Kerr and the Californian Master Plan for Higher Education,” in Sheldon Rothblatt, ed., Clark Kerr’s World of Higher Education Reaches the 21st Century: Chapters in a Special History (Dordrecht: Springer, 2012), 67, 69.
 John Wilton, data supplied by Vice-Chancellor, Administration and Finance, University of California, Berkeley, October 2014.
 Neil Smelser, Dynamics of the Contemporary University: Growth, Accretion and Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 44-48, 85.
 John Aubrey Douglass, To Grow or Not to Grow? A Post-Great Recession Synopsis of the Political, Financial, and Social Contract Challenges Facing the University of California. Research and Occasional Paper CSHE 15.13 (Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California Berkeley), 7.
 James Adams, “Is the United States Losing its Preeminence in Higher Education?” in Charles Clotfelter, ed., American Universities in a Global Marketplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 44-66, esp. 65.
Frequently overlooked in California’s ongoing discussions about criminal justice reform are the places at which many individuals have their first experience of being detained—juvenile halls. In 2014, California had more than 86,000 juvenile arrests and more than 51,000 juvenile court dispositions.
Further overlooked is the fact that kids continue going to school while they’re awaiting legal proceedings or after they’ve been committed to a facility (which might be a juvenile hall, a camp, or a ranch). Like all kids, young people in the juvenile justice system are entitled to an education—the California constitution does not make an exception for kids who are locked up. They enter what are known as ‘‘court schools,’’ for weeks, months, or even a year or more at a time. It’s a window that offers kids caught in the system a chance to change their course, and the system a chance to connect with kids who have few connections.
They connect with various teachers as well, which are the same mix seen at any public school—some who have been doing this sort of teaching for a long time and are committed to working in justice settings and others who are there for much shorter periods of time. The subjects taught, hours per day for instruction, and people teaching vary.
More than 47,000 kids spent time in one of California’s seventy-six court schools in 2014. The vast majority came from low-income households and were Black or Latino.
The schools offer an opportunity to change kids’ lives while they’re a captive audience. But in California, that opportunity is being wasted because the schools are failing. In a state preoccupied with reforming education and moving away from mass incarceration, the schools that exist at the intersection of these movements are habitually ignored, under-resourced, and not held accountable.
In a study released this spring, Youth Law Center (a national firm based in San Francisco that works on behalf of kids in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems) found that more than 40 percent of the kids in court schools don’t make any progress in reading or math while they’re there. Many even find that their skills actually decline. Most of the kids aren’t even assessed academically, despite assessments being a federal requirement for long-term students.
‘‘Juvenile court schools can be the first stop on moving young people into the prison pipeline, or they can be an opportunity to intervene,’’ says Youth Law Center (YLC) managing director Maria Ramiu. According to Ramiu, the kids in court schools have ‘‘high aspirations for what they want to do with their lives.’’ They’re hungry to learn, and the system meets them with low expectations.
Ayanna Rasheed. Photograph by Anna Challet.
YLC’s findings are borne out by the experiences of many young people who have spent time in the juvenile justice system. Ayanna Rasheed, now twenty-two and living in Oakland, entered the child welfare system as a baby. Today, she’s studying to become an emergency medical technician and wants to do advocacy work on behalf of kids in foster care. Her adolescence was marked by a series of unstable housing situations, and she spent much of her ninth-grade year in a juvenile facility in San Joaquin County.
Rasheed says that all of the students were taught the same material, regardless of grade level: “The math was the same math we learned in sixth grade.’’ To her knowledge, she didn’t receive credits for any of the work she did there; she says none of it appears on her transcript.
Moreover, she expresses frustration that none of the teachers made much of an impression on her. ‘‘They need to put some heart in it,’’ she says.
And yet, Rasheed’s experience isn’t universal. For Eddie Chavez, nineteen, who spent time in juvenile hall in Fresno County, court school ended up being a turning point in his life. ‘‘You have to focus no matter what because you have a guard watching you, and it’s so quiet, and you can’t mess around,’’ he says. ‘‘I think that’s what was able to keep me focused on my work, because I can’t focus in regular schools. Regular schools just aren’t for me.’’
Chavez recalls having a substitute history teacher for about a week in the court school who brought in a suit of armor and had the students try on the parts while they were learning about the Middle Ages. He also had an art teacher who, in addition to teaching Chavez how to draw, drew him a portrait of his girlfriend and his new baby who were waiting for him on the outside. Chavez still has the portrait. He says he ended up earning the most credits he’d ever gotten in any school.
While he was still in detention, he came into contact with Barrios Unidos, a violence-prevention organization. A mentor would come to the detention center and talk to youth about job training, work opportunities, and education before their release. Chavez ended up joining the organization’s character-building program when he got out and started going to support groups. The organization helped him get a job at thrift store in Fresno.
Chavez’s experience was exceptional, and far too many juveniles wind up with ones like Rasheed’s. Overhauling the system to be more responsive to the needs of young offenders in court schools is a mammoth undertaking. Change will come slowly, if at all. Yet, a number of alternative facilities are creating new models of providing treatment and education, improving the futures of young people in the system.
Margot Gibney was the founding executive director of Youth Treatment and Education Center (YTEC) in San Francisco, the city’s first juvenile ‘‘drug court,’’ which provided treatment, therapy, and high school classes for juvenile drug offenders. An independent study of the school’s students (between 2006 and 2010) found that their recidivism rate after one year was less than 10 percent, says Gibney.
Eddie Chavez. Photograph by Charlie Kaijo.
The educational approach at YTEC echoed the suit of armor moment that captured Chavez’s imagination. Describing her time there, Gibney recalls, ‘‘The kids were rapping the Constitution, creating machines to talk about the Industrial Revolution. We’d have family nights and the parents would come in and kids would teach what they learned, and the parents could see their children in a positive light instead of just coming to court and hearing about all the awful things they’d done.’’
Gibney also says it’s crucial to have highly trained staff who have first-hand knowledge of the communities that the kids come from. ‘‘Their education and where they go with their education is such a strong determinant in the options and opportunities for their lives,’’ she says. ‘‘You have to help them find the things that they can get really excited about.’’
Dr. Teri Delane fits that bill. She’s principal of Life Learning Academy, a charter school on San Francisco’s Treasure Island that serves at-risk youth and those involved in the juvenile justice system. Delane spent time in juvenile detention after being kicked out of high school because of heroin abuse. She says that what saved her life was becoming part of a community at the Delancey Street Foundation, a non-profit in San Francisco that supports people dealing with substance use disorders.
Life Learning Academy serves sixty students, about 40 percent of whom are on probation. Delane says that in the school’s eighteen-year history, they’ve never had an act of violence on campus. And, she notes, they have a 95 percent graduation rate.
For Delane, ‘‘It is not just about staff and everybody else giving to the student. It is the students becoming their own community and helping each other,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s not about just giving kids things. One of the most important things is giving back—a piece of your life has to be giving back. The kids work together and they give their word to nonviolence.’’
At the same time, she says, ‘‘We try to close the circle around them. In that circle are family support, community support, mentor support, job support, friendships, and a safe environment in which to live.’’
About a third of the kids in the school are currently homeless or unstably housed. Despite this, they get themselves up and make it to school every day. Many are sleeping couch to couch, and Delane knows of one who sleeps in Golden Gate Park. Finding housing for her students is critical, and the school is working on raising the money to open a residential facility behind the campus. ‘‘There will not be kids in our school that do not have a safe place to live and a safe place to thrive,’’ she says.
The decision to house kids who don’t have homes is an obvious one, with an enormous pay off. It’s a lot like the approaches trialed by successful alternative models for educating juvenile offenders and at-risk youth.
Margot Gibney emphasizes the need for caring adults who have high expectations and hold kids accountable. ‘‘The research shows that if there’s at least one person in a young person’s life that follows them and provides support in a positive way, that can be the strongest determining factor. However, if you have a team of people, a community, then you just take those benefits and you maximize them,’’ she says. ‘‘Young people don’t need programs—they need family, they need community, they need opportunities and safety.’’
They also need the support of an educational system that takes their aspirations seriously. At minimum, this ought to include teachers and mentors who understand these kids as the future of California, as those who will be shaping this state in the coming years.
Youth Law Center’s findings about the failure of court schools, operated by County Offices of Education, come at a time when the State of California has dramatically reordered the way schools are funded. With the desire to direct more money to districts with higher numbers of underserved youth, a major reform measure, the Local Control Funding Formula, went into effect in 2013; it allocates more money to districts with higher numbers of high-needs students. While all students in the juvenile justice system are considered high-needs, at this point it is unclear what impact this is having with court schools.
What seems to be the case is that while California education reform is addressing important areas, court schools go completely ignored. If this is true, the education reform movement is entirely missing the opportunity to address the needs of a cohort of students who want to learn and whose futures hang in the balance.
Anna Challet is a reporter with New America Media with a focus on health care, public health, and issues local to San Francisco. She has also written about child welfare and juvenile justice; housing and homelessness; and criminal justice, education, and immigration reform.
Editor’s note: Having served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, Dana Gioia has long been known for his provocative essays, for his work in literary criticism, and especially for his poetry and advocacy of the craft. A native Californian born to Sicilian and Mexican immigrant parents in 1950 and raised in the southwest Los Angeles County industrial town of Hawthorne, as a first-generation college student, Gioia earned his BA from Stanford, MA in comparative literature from Harvard, and MBA back at Stanford, leading him into the business world decades before becoming a full-time writer.
With a seemingly ever-growing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in contemporary K-12 learning and in universities, a natural tendency has been to dismiss the arts and humanities as less important. This is as true in California as anywhere. And yet, as big questions remain and loom ever larger for California and its people, so does the importance of the arts and humanities for learning, for critical thinking, and for engagement with wider societal concerns. Consistent with California’s rich literary tradition, Gioia has contributed in many ways, with California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Heyday), The Misread City (Red Hen), his essay “Fallen Western Star,” and in poems from his many collections including Pity the Beautiful (Graywolf) and 99 Poems (Graywolf). Together with his essays, Gioia takes up the task of the poet, for whom California reserves a special place.
While the title of State Poet Laureate has been held by California poets for over a century, the position became official in 2001 and is overseen by the California Arts Council, which conducts an intense nomination process, after which the governor chooses the poet laureate from three top candidates; then the appointee must be confirmed by the California State Senate. On 4 December 2015, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. appointed Dana Gioia to this role. What follows is Gioia’s accounting of his work as California Poet Laureate, originally delivered to the California Senate Rules Committee and here revised with new questions for our Boom readers.
You are California’s tenth poet laureate, serving a two-year governor-appointment. California has changed a lot over the years, as has the dynamic makeup of our state. What do you hope to accomplish in this role?
My goal as state poet laureate is to bring the power of poetry and literature to as many people and communities as possible across California. I especially want to reach people and places outside the major metropolitan areas. The state poet laureate should serve the whole state. For that reason, I have set the goal of visiting every county in California. Reaching all fifty-eight counties in two years perhaps may be too ambitious, but it seems the right target. With proper planning and the active partnership of county libraries and art councils, that goal should be achievable. I will give it my best effort.
What are your plans to reach diverse regions and people in the state?
I want to reach all California. Our state is so large and varied that one needs to be systematic in covering the vast territory and meeting the diverse populations. That is why I have chosen the approach of trying to visit as many counties as possible. Of course, it will also be necessary to do multiple events in the metropolitan areas to reach different audiences. This second goal is easier since so many invitations come from urban areas. The key is to focus on invitations that reach different communities.
Why is poetry significant, and why does it matter in today’s society?
Poetry is our most concise, expressive, and memorable way of using words to describe our existence. Poems awaken the imagination and memory to make us more alert to life. On both an individual and communal level, poems provide the language, ideas, and images to help us understand ourselves, our society, and the world. That is why poems are so often used to great effect at public occasions. They give people the words to articulate what they experience and feel. That is also why poetry has always been used in education. It not only develops a student’s mastery of language; it also enhances creativity, empathy, and emotional self-awareness.
One of the functions of the California Poet Laureate, as with the United States Poet Laureate, is to create a cultural project during the appointment. Could you briefly describe your cultural project? How has it come to and involved artistically underserved communities?
My project has been to participate in at least one cultural event in every county in California—with a focus on creating a free event at each county’s public library. This approach is necessarily simple and flexible, then, and the events are either primarily literary or combine several arts, including poetry. In both cases, I have and will continue to involve local students, writers, musicians, and artists in each visit. I have already had local Poetry Out Loud high school champions participate in my public presentations and will continue to do so. By trying to visit every county, my public service, by definition, focuses on underserved communities.
You teach in the university, but how does poetry become accessible rather than a mere academic pursuit for cultural elites?
I have spent most of my working life outside the university—in business, government, and journalism. I believe the pleasures and enlightenment of poetry are open to most people, not simply to an academic elite. Although I take myself seriously as an artist, I don’t see much point writing in ways that exclude the average intelligent person. Art without an audience is a diminished thing. This is one reason why I have been and plan to continue working with local civic institutions, especially libraries and art centers—local venues that are open to everyone. They are the best avenues to reach a broad and diverse audience. Mixing poetry with music and the other arts also makes events more accessible to the average person.
How do you see poetry connecting to the minds of individuals in leadership and innovation throughout California, in both public and private sectors?
I have been and will continue to be open to invitations to meet and speak with leaders in both the public and private sectors. I have both held and have scheduled several talks at statewide or regional gatherings for librarians and high school teachers, with one for county officials. I also believe that our state finals for Poetry Out Loud in the Capitol building allows our elected representatives a chance to see the transformative power of poetry programs in the lives of students in their districts.
Do you plan to collaborate with your predecessor, Juan Felipe Herrera, now the US Poet Laureate, or the State Librarian of California Greg Lucas, or any other government group
It is impossible for me to be an effective state poet laureate unless I collaborate with arts councils, libraries, schools, parks, museums, and city book festivals. As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, I learned how much could be accomplished through partnerships. I consider myself a member of the State Arts Council team, and I involve them in everything I do. I am currently working with Greg Lucas to find an effective way of partnering with county libraries to help reach my goals. His support is essential to my success. As for the US Poet Laureate, I have also already done two public events—in Sacramento and Los Angeles—with Juan Felipe Herrera and have an invitation out to him for a third event in partnership with State Parks.
Who among our California poets do you believe have had the greatest influence in California?
California has an extraordinary poetic tradition. When I led an editorial team to create the anthology California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, I found it challenging to limit our selections to only 100 poets. If I had to pick a central poet for the state, I would choose Robinson Jeffers. His vision of California’s landscape and wilderness has inspired three generations of writers, artists, and environmentalists. There has also been a great bohemian tradition with writers such as Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Charles Bukowski. I also admire the great Theodor Geisel of San Diego, better known as Dr. Seuss. Among my favorite living California poets are Al Young, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Ron Koertge, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Kay Ryan. Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Award winner Ryan, who also served as US Poet Laureate, is probably my favorite living American poet. A master of ingenious, short poems that mix wisdom and surprise, she is California’s answer to Emily Dickinson.
Dana Gioia is the ex-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Poet Laureate of California. He received an MA in comparative literature from Harvard University and has published five full-length collections of poetry between 1986 and 2016.
In 2014, Aljazeera America ran a story titled “Fresno Rated Highly Livable for Young People.”1 The piece cited information gathered by the online news source Vocativ, which used everything from the cost of manicures to real estate prices as metrics for determining “all things that matter to younger people — especially in rough times.”2 Fresno took the number 24 slot on a list of 100 best places for those under thirty-five.
Many say that California’s fifth largest city has always suffered from an identity crisis. Others say that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Equidistant from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Fresno attracts citizens from its larger cousins who find themselves fed up with hour-long commutes and skyrocketing home prices. Here is one of the few places in California where you can find San Francisco Giants lawn banners jabbed into yellowing patches of grass while, across the street, a dusty Ford F-150 sports a decal proudly proclaiming that its driver “bleeds Dodger Blue.” Here you find a regional dialect that often fuses idioms and verbal ticks from both the Bay Area and metropolitan Los Angeles; sentences are sprinkled with liberal amounts of the adjective hella (from the North) while use of the definite article the when referencing local freeways (an LA staple) has become increasingly common.
Fresno, like its vernacular, like the fertile soil of the Great Basin—carved when an ancient ocean plate called the Farallon surrendered to the more aggressive North American Plate as Pangea broke apart during the Jurassic period—is constantly chafing against external forces determined to define it, to alter it.
Despite its strategic location, its deep agricultural roots, and its close ties with the farmworker movement of the sixties and seventies, in many ways Fresno remains stubbornly un-Californian, reveling in its misfit status. It is home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States. It is where in the sixties a man named Boogaloo Sam created “popping,” described as “a dance that combines rigid robotic moves with loose flowing moves.”3 Cher attended Fresno High School briefly before quitting at sixteen to pursue her dreams. The name Fresno means “ash tree” in Spanish, and it’s where Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company was born and raised, and to where she was ultimately banished when Suzanne Sommers, the actress who played her, was enmeshed in contract disputes with the show’s producers.
The topography of Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley, courtesy of NASA/JPL/NIMA.
Before relocating there, I thought of cities like Fresno as places people moved from, not places people moved to. “Fresno is not small. The city has more than half a million residents and is larger than the state capital, Sacramento. But because it’s in the heart of farm country, it lacks big-city glamour. What it does offer is a more compact power structure that allows even the young to make a difference.”4
I remember a relief map of California I made in the fourth grade. I pressed my thumb into the mixture of paste and flour to form the Central Valley. Then, using brown food coloring and water, I painted in wide fields of alfalfa and rows of lettuce and cabbage. I imagined people, cars, small towns, a schoolyard with swings and a metal slide, its patina worn and dull not from neglect but from years of friction, the kind of use that tells you that things as innocuous as playground equipment could be loved.
In the documentary, The City Addicted to Crystal Meth, widely viewed by Brits, reporter Louis Theroux examines the damaging affects the drug has had on Fresno. At the time of its airing on the BBC in August of 2009, the city had the highest number methamphetamine users in the nation.5 “It is quite charming—and this was an extraordinary film, a sad portrait of a very different California from the one you see in Entourage,” 6 wrote Sam Wollastan for The Guardian about Theroux’s documentary.
I had always dreamed of owning my own home. When I was a kid there was no such thing as privacy. When you have ten older siblings, there isn’t much opportunity to cultivate this luxury. I used to dream of space, of empty rooms and a quiet kitchen, a big yard with a giant tree, its branches rocking in a soft breeze carrying the scent of blooming jasmine and freshly shorn grass. I’d lie in a hammock and read and sleep to the sound of birds chirping and the low, lonely bark of a neighbor’s dog.
In 2005, I was fresh out of graduate school and living with my husband, Kyle, in a cramped apartment in Riverside. I was a part-time instructor teaching composition and creative writing classes. I kept an eye on my aging mother who lived nearby in a large house all by herself. I would shuttle her from her doctor appointments to her dentist appointments, grading papers in the lobbies while I waited. At night, I would work on my first novel, sitting at a desk in a dark corner of the bedroom in our small, shabby place. I remember thinking, If only I could get away from the stress of my family, be far enough away from the drama but close enough to drive if there were an emergency. If only we could afford a house.
In 2007, after my first novel was published, I decided to go on the job market. When I came across the announcement for the teaching position at Fresno State, there was only one thing I knew about Fresno: raisins.
On 22 January 2016, The Fresno Bee reported that the county’s unemployment rate for the previous year was the lowest it had been in nearly a decade. “In Fresno County and its neighboring Valley counties, annual unemployment has fallen in each of the past six years, dropping to levels not seen since the early part of the 2007–2009 recession.”7
According to United States Census Bureau, in 2015 52.4 percent of the population of Fresno County was Hispanic or Latino.8
Despite its large Latino population, despite its long history of cultivating artists of color, I was the first Chicano writer ever hired to teach in the MFA program in creative writing at Fresno State.
Call it regional snobbery, but many of my LA friends could not comprehend why I decided to move to Fresno.
“Really?” they asked.
“I’d commute from here,” another friend suggested. “You don’t actually want to live there, do you? Stay in LA and drive up just to teach your classes, man.”
The car was crammed full of boxes, and our dog sat on Kyle’s lap. As we cleared the Tejon Pass, I saw before us a wide valley floor, stretched flat. I remembered the relief map I’d constructed back in elementary school. I imagined a giant thumb parting the sky, the rivulets and swirls of my fingerprint denting the land to form rivers and thin roads that looped around and around one another.
Fresno is located in the fertile San Joaquin Valley in the central part of California, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The terrain in Fresno is relatively flat, with a sharp rise to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains about 15 miles eastward. The weather is usually sunny, with over 200 clear days each year. Summers are typically hot and dry, while winters are mild and rainy. Spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons.
Area: 99.1 square miles (2000)
Elevation: 328 feet above sea level
Average Temperatures: January, 39.6° F; August, 94.1° F; annual average, 62.5° F
Average Annual Precipitation: 9.86 inches9
The heat was like a blast furnace that first June. Two weeks of triple digit temperatures. Thankfully, the house we were renting had a swimming pool. In between unpacking boxes of books, we swam for hours. I used to love watching the cypress trees lining the perimeter of the backyard bending and swaying in that hot, dry breeze.
Located on Shaw Avenue, just east of Highway 99, the Forestiere Underground Gardens is a series of subterranean tunnels, grottos, and patios that were designed and built by a Sicilian immigrant named Baldasare Forestiere. It took him over forty years to complete, and he used only hand tools throughout its construction. “Forestiere worked without blueprints or plans, following only his creative instincts and aesthetic impulses. He continued expanding and modifying the gardens throughout his life. Baldasare Forestiere died in 1946 at the age of sixty-seven. After his death, the Underground Gardens were opened to the public as a museum.”10 He built it as a way to cool off during the brutal Central Valley summers. The Forestiere Underground Gardens is on the National Register of Historic Places and draws hundreds of visitors year after year.
Coming from Los Angeles, there were some perks to relocating to Fresno:
Hardly any traffic
Lower cost of living
A slower pace of life
I didn’t have time to miss Los Angeles that first semester. I was too busy getting a handle on my new job. Between teaching classes and committee meetings, there was hardly a moment to take in my surroundings. During that time, my mother grew increasingly ill. My sisters and I decided not to tell her that I had relocated. Me being the baby of the family, her favorite child, we thought it would devastate her to know I had packed up and headed north. Immediately after she passed away, I had dreams of her holding the relief map I had made as a kid. In the dream, she squeezed it hard. Dried tan and green-colored chunks broke apart and fell to the ground. She’s scolded me, her face red, her forehead beaded with sweat. “Why did you leave?” she asked. “You weren’t supposed to leave. What were you thinking?”
I should have told her. My mother never knew I left. She died thinking I was still near her.
In a story dated 9 March 2015, Men’s Health ranked Fresno number 1 on its list of drunkest cities in America. “Our statistical sobriety checkpoint shows that the inebriated people there have one of the highest death rates from alcoholic liver disease (per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” they wrote.11
Mt. Pinos and the Carizo Plain in the distance, courtesy of NASA/JPL/NIMA/USGS.
Men’s Health included the following details on measures used to determine Fresno’s “dangerous drinking” ranking:
Deaths from Liver Disease: 2nd
Deaths in DUI Crashes: 16th
Binge Drinking: 33rd
DUI Arrests: 4th
Harsh DUI Laws: 80th
We’ve also been voted among the “dumbest cities” in the United States. On 26 July 2016, the Fresno Bee ran a story citing a national poll that ranked cities in the San Joaquin Valley on their list of least educated areas. WalletHub, which initiated the poll, “compared the top 150 metropolitan statistical areas based on the percentage of adults with a college education and other factors such as the quality of the area’s public schools and universities. Overall, Fresno ranked 145th, just ahead of Modesto at 146th, Bakersfield at 147th and Visalia/Porterville at 148th.
I am not out to dis a place like Fresno. That’s never been my style. Nor am I here to praise it, to paint an inauthentic picture of the city as an idyllic community untouched by problems plaguing it and similar inland cities of California. It’s true that we have a high number of drug abusers, that we drink a lot, and that lack of access and money has prevented some of our citizens from reaping the benefits of higher education. But I can also tell you about the friends I’ve made here, scholars from some of the most prestigious schools in the country. I can tell you how famed novelist Julia Alvarez once taught at the same university I did. I can tell you about the history and legacy of writers like William Saroyan and Gary Soto, and Mark Arax today. I can tell you about Diana Marcum, The Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the Central Valley and who, in 2015, won a Pulitzer Prize for her unflinching coverage of the devastating effects of the drought on farmers, field hands, communities, and families. I can tell you how I’ve picked apricots in the summer, washed them in my kitchen sink, and eaten to my heart’s content. I can tell you that I lived here for nearly ten years, and I was never robbed. I can tell you that I bought my first house and that it was built in 1941, and there’s a tall oak tree full of squirrels and woodpeckers and blue jays that live and raise families in the green canopy above my roof. I can tell you about the dogs I’ve rescued and the one that I lost here and cried over for days. I can tell you that this place, like any other place, is full of contrast and contradiction.
My husband and two dogs have remained there for the year while I ease my way back into a life in Los Angeles. Because I’m returning to the Eastside and the greater San Gabriel Valley, locations holding so many memories—both good and bad—my emotions have run the gamut, vacillating between moments of extreme fear and trepidation to hope and nostalgia. It’s all wrapped up together, coming at me in waves, simultaneously hot and cold, up and down, dark and light. I laugh when I drive by the 7–11 where a high school friend of mine and I scored our first six-pack of beer when we were fifteen, then I cry when I turn left down another street and find myself at the exact spot on Valley Boulevard where my father took his last breath on a cold January evening in 1989.
The past few years, as I’ve commuted back and forth between Los Angeles and Fresno for work between two state universities and as I’ve served on the board of California Humanities, our statewide humanities council, I’ve learned about geographical variances, that we’re not all the same, that we all have stories to tell, and that my notion of California stretches far beyond the factories and freeways of the San Gabriel Valley, far beyond the stucco houses and empty lots of the Inland Empire, where I spent my twenties and thirties, and even beyond the strawberry fields, the orange groves, and the almond orchards and vineyards of the Central Valley.
It’s appropriate for Californians, I think, this constant moving, just like the earth that occasionally rumbles and shifts and flows right beneath our collective feet.
Alex Espinoza is a novelist known for works such as Still Water Saints. A professor at California State University, Los Angeles, as well as the director of their MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Arts, he was born in Mexico and raised in Los Angeles.
On behalf of the editorial board of Boom California, published by University of California Press, we seek proposals from scholars, students, and writers of California culture who wish to help cultivate critical discourse on California and its values, and to do so in a manner that is public-facing and relevant to our moment in history.
Boom California is a free refereed online media publication dedicated to inspiring lively and significant conversations about the vital social and cultural issues of our time in California and the world beyond. We host academic conversations in the form of peer reviewed articles that both highlight and advance scholarly discourse about California culture, and do so in a manner that is public-facing and oriented toward the social and practical concerns of ordinary Californians.
In light of our fast-changing world, Boom’s emphasis has shifted to concentrate on California social issues, and to cultivate underrepresented writers in the California landscape. More about the transition and Boom’s history can be found in the recent editorial (http://boom.ucpress.edu/content/6/4/1). As a peer review publication, we are looking for contributions in these areas related to California culture:
Latinx Population and Culture
Asian American Population and Culture
African American Population and Culture
In addition to this, we are especially interested in proposals that address two areas of special concern to Boom this year:
the lives and experiences of undocumented Californians
the native Californian genocide consequent to the California Gold Rush, and today’s reckoning with this amidst native revivalism