In mid-March, Julie Quiroz was on the University of Michigan campus at a vigil honoring victims of the New Zealand mosque shootings when an active shooter was reported nearby.
"I've only run like that two times in my life, and the other one was during a coup in Ecuador," she says. "Having the police tell you to run is terrifying."
Reports of a shooter were later proven false, but Quiroz says she still felt "shaken and powerless" afterward. She kept thinking of how courageous the Muslim students who put on the vigil were and how they must be feeling. So, as she does any time she experiences a meaningful moment in her life, she wrote a poem. Honoring the student organizers' courage, the poem contains the repeated refrain, "You sing the Quran to the open sky."
Poetry's power to change hearts and minds is the reason Quiroz gathered four other local women to launch a series of workshops in Ypsilanti that will culminate in the publication of a poetry anthology by Washtenaw County women of color. Ypsi residents Desirae Simmons and Maria Ibarra-Frayre, Ann Arbor residents Quiroz and Tanya Reza, and Detroit resident Catalina Rios form the core team of five on the project, titled Untold Stories of Liberation and Love.
"The thing about poetry is that it helps you look at the essence and underlying meanings of things," Quiroz says. "The way the world is set up isn't working so well right now. We're looking at things like racial justice and climate change in a really linear way. We need fresh ideas and fresh ways of looking at things, and poetry is exactly that. It's a way to decolonize your brain."
Simmons and Ibarra-Frayre both use the word "organic" to talk about how the core group of five women came together. Quiroz was connected to each of them, but several of the others didn't know each other before joining the project.
Simmons and Quiroz have a shared friend and both do social justice-related work in Ann Arbor and Ypsi. When Simmons went to observe Quiroz's work with the Ann Arbor Police Task Force, Quiroz began telling Simmons about her ideas on community and creativity.
"It was amazing, a very organic coming together," Simmons says. "It was interesting how I didn't really know any of the other women (besides Quiroz), but now it feels like we've known each other forever. Our network is tightening."
Ibarra-Frayre says she's known Quiroz for about two years through their connection as writers.
"We've often talked about how great it would be if we could have a community of color," Ibarra-Frayre says. "We talked about how to create a space that is loving and kind, where we support each other, but also offers opportunities to be creative."
The idea persisted and was too good to let go, Ibarra-Frayre says. Just a week after they discussed how they could get funds to broaden the idea to include more women who craved community, Quiroz stumbled across the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation's In Our Neighborhood grant program. She decided to apply, and the group later found out they had been awarded $20,000.
All five core group members are involved in social justice work in the Ypsi/Ann Arbor area. Simmons says she is the only one in the group who wasn't a poet when she joined the project, but that fits with the project's overall mission.
"We're not necessarily looking for people who are published poets, though we'll have some folks like that in this space," Simmons says. "These sessions will bring together women of color, and we'll be doing different activities to unlock our creative potential. The power of poetry can help us deal with some of the things we see every day."
Creating a truly supportive space
The first workshop in the series kicks off April 20 with the theme of "Mothering." Subsequent sessions will focus on "Migration and Home" in May and "Survival and Vision" in August.
Each workshop will be capped at about 15 participants to keep the sessions small and personal, with time for each voice to be heard.
The organizers have been brainstorming how to create a space that is truly supportive in every way, and have recently added a partner to provide quality daycare for mothers who come to the event. Each event is free and will include food, as well.
Ibarra-Frayre says many political organizing spaces only pay lip service to being inclusive, but don't consider child care, transportation, and other barriers to participation. The organizers of Untold Stories want to do better.
"I appreciate the push from my teammates to think about how to make it more inclusive for people of color (and) for women, including parents," she says. "We have a woman who is interested who is primarily a Spanish speaker, and we've been talking about how to accommodate that."
She says if the series continues beyond the first year, she'd like to see a cohort of Spanish-speaking poets or even Arabic speakers.
Quiroz emphasizes that the workshops are as much about organizing and building community as about creating poetry.
She says poetry "has been crucial in every social movement across the globe." She cites Langston Hughes' A Dream Deferred and its resonance through the Harlem Renaissance and into the civil rights era.
Quiroz also references a more recent poem by Somali-born poet Warsan Shire that went viral on social media. It ends with the lines:
"i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
"You could feel in the poem what she's calling us to, to see the pain all over the world," Quiroz says. Shire communicated that sentiment not in a book or an academic article, but in a brief poem.
"It was incredibly powerful," Quiroz says. "In just a few lines, she changed how people felt about their relationship to the globe."
Women of color interested in the Untold Stories project may contact the organizers by email at email@example.com.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.