Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In Memoriam - Debra A. Stephens

In Memoriam

For Debra A. Stephens, 1956-2011

Debra Stephens, a rare and special woman, died in May 2011. She was a woman in a Sociology course that I team-taught with the director of the Center for Community Service-Learning, Chris Nayve,and a teacher from Montgomery Middle School, Emalyn Leppard, entitled Community, Consensus, and Commitment. This is a course on community organizing, and Debra was the type of student that all teachers dream about—dedicated, enthusiastic, and possessing a insatiable desire to learn.

While community organizing has historically been a successful method for bringing about social change, courses dealing with community organizing are not normally taught in the typical academic curriculum. Such courses are frequently regarded as “too political” or as “lacking academic rigor.” But this course is unique in that it is team-taught by a community member, a professional staff member from the Center for Community Service-Learning, and me. It has an expressed political purpose—to teach about the importance of civic and social engagement through the use of consensus organizing techniques. Furthermore, the class composition reflects the desire to more closely ally the university with the community. Thus the class includes USD undergraduate students and community members who would be known as “Community Scholars.” The course is free-of-charge for the Scholars, and with successful completion of the course requirements, continuing education credits can be earned. Inviting Community Scholars to the campus on a regular basis is a means of reversing the traditional university/community traffic flow. Moreover, such a traffic reversal helps break down the traditional town-gown divide by valuing the wealth of wisdom derived from the Scholars’ experiences and by recognizing that their active involvement in promoting the common good in their own community is a worthwhile and meaningful endeavor. In addition, these Scholars would be a rich resource for USD undergraduate students who were interested in community involvement to tap.

Debra was one of six Community Scholars this year. Her community project was “One Hundred Strong.” In her own words, Debra wrote about the origins of One Hundred Strong.

As described in both [Michael] Eichler [Consensus Organizing] and Obama’s [Dreams of My Father] book, grass roots organizations are usually the result of individuals and communities being “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Those were the origins of 100 Strong, a community of individuals feeling they had the ability and desire to improve the quality of life for themselves and their neighbors. The community immediately surrounding the offices of 100 Strong included the small businesses owned by most of the founders of the organization. Their neighborhood of Southeastern San Diego is one of the lowest on the socio-economic ladder in San Diego County. It has the highest rate of unemployment and gang violence in the City of San Diego. It is in the Fourth Council District of the City and District 2 of the County. There is a shortage of grocery stores, banks, restaurants and other businesses that would typically serve a neighborhood. Many of the residents are first in line for social services, and at the bottom of the list when it comes to receiving quality services from government entities and corporations. The schools in the area have low test scores, high dropout rates and very low numbers of graduates attending post-secondary institutions. Given the less than stellar description of the community and challenges facing the people who live there, there are still many high performing individuals who have a great deal of pride in calling District 4 home, myself included. The success they have achieved is a great source of pride for the community and the type of imagery needed to shape the minds and actions of the young people watching them.

Her dedication and enthusiasm in the course was an inspiration to us all. The first to arrive, she would arrange the chairs in a circle (our preferred arrangement), and we would sit and chat before class. Debra was initially “intimidated” by the thought of taking a college-level course because she did not finish college herself. I had to laugh at the thought of anything intimidating such a force of nature. But despite her hesitation, she gave her “all” to every discussion.

The course ended with a community celebration on May 11, 2011 where the Community Scholar-led teams gave a presentation about their organizing efforts during the semester. In the audience were invited guests from the community who witnessed the dedication and passion of each group. Debra and her group of two USD students, Divina and Angie, were terrific.

Two days later, on Friday, May 13th, Debra suffered a massive stroke following a keynote speech she gave at her beloved Lincoln High School. A devoted “Lincoln Hornet,” she was a natural to give another inspirational talk. Tragically, her death has left a vibrant African American community bereft of one of its leaders. We will all miss her.

Judith Liu

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What I Learned by Not Attending This Year's Book Expo in New York

By Divina Infusino

This week, I listened to a group of book publicists, agents and authors discuss the major trends, thoughts and gossip that emerged from the 2011 Book Expo America. I did not attend. So I was curious to hear the takeaways of those who did travel to the publishing world’s biggest annual sales event held this year in NYC at the end of May.

At first, the 30 people who gathered in a conference room stuck to the agenda. People discussed three major BEA themes:

* Within the next 12 months, nearly every major publisher will launch an e book-only imprint. At the 2010 BEA, e books were an afterthought. In 2011, with Barnes and Noble and Borders shuttering so many brick and mortar stores in the past few months, e books took center stage. However, it appears that New York publishers are thinking that e books will function rather like a farm team for the  major leagues. That is, if any e book from these specialty imprints actually sells in significant numbers, maybe the parent publisher will release it in a bound form.

The implication from this line of thinking is that, in the near future, printed books may be reserved only for the best selling titles.  Everything else will be available on Kindle, the Nook, iPad, Google books or some other yet-to-be-invented digital format.  The publishing pros in the conference room shed a few tears for the near demise of the printed book. But fewer than they used to.

* Amazon.com is expanding from book distributor to book publisher. It recently hired the former CEO of the Time Warner Book Group, Larry Kirshbaum, to open its new NYC editorial offices. 

* Successful tween authors rank as the current rock stars of the book world. The evidence? Tween publishers threw the most lavish BEA parties.

Soon after these observations on BEA, the conversation in the conference room turned to the two major questions that seem to eventually dominate any discussion on the publishing industry.

1. If books will be distributed mostly in digital form and authors must increasingly bear the responsibility for marketing their books themselves, what will be the role of book publishers?

2. Do Twitter and Facebook really promote and sell books?

On the first question, the jury is still way out. Before, publishers acted as the gatekeepers, the filter for the reading public. However, with publishers taking fewer risks and releasing fewer titles (and paying authors less for them), anything can happen at this point. Well-known authors may well decide to act as their own publishers. New or riskier authors who are comfortable with technology and self-marketing may opt for self-distribution.

On the second question, the comments were far more concrete.  Here are the publishing pro’s tips for successful Facebook and Twitter efforts around a book:

  • Approximately 1/3 of your posts should be personal; About 1/3 of your posts should offer something of value—a link to a thought-provoking or informative article or video; The final 1/3 can focus on the content of your  book. Regularly excerpt a few intriguing lines. Let people know where you are speaking, if you are appearing on a radio show, etc.
  • Try to make your tweets funny or controversial. They get retweeted the most.
  • Tweet the same message more than once a day-- as much as four times in a single day. People usually read only their most recent Twitter feeds. They could easily miss yours if you only give them one chance.
  • When you post on Facebook, start a conversation with your followers.  Ask a question or make a statement that encourages others to comment.
  • Use your authentic voice in your social media postings. Be creative. Serve do not sell.  And above all, be entertaining. However, no one had an answer for how you should be entertaining if you are not a comedian or entertainer by nature, or if being serious or reclusive is your  “authentic” voice.

The meeting on BEA underscored for me that the old rules around publishing are evaporating and new possibilities but also new demands abound.

Only one criteria remains constant: Make sure you write a good book.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The stories around us

My friend Milo Shapiro wrote a book called The Worst Days Make the Best Stories, a title I love for its honesty and inspiration. When we are in the midst of a tough situation, it’s hard to see if for the gift it truly is. Don’t get me wrong. Sucky days suck; there’s no getting around it. But in addition to sucking, tough situations also provide us with the core of a good story: a problem to solve.

As my daughter and I prepare to travel to Spain next week, I remind myself that the worst of times make the best of tales.

Think about the most entertaining stories you write or tell. The ones that really keep your audience engaged are the tales that make the audience wonder what the heck is going to happen next. They wonder how on earth you’re going to get yourself out of that pickle?

We’ve all been to dinner parties where someone tells a story that is…errr, less than gripping. They report that went to Aruba and it was sunny every day, so they went to the pool and drank tasty, blended drinks with pink umbrellas! Oh, and they met the nicest couple from Minneapolis. That Anne was such a doll. Her husband Hank, gosh, what a peach. And golly, there’s some terrific birdlife in Aruba.

Big freaking yawn.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish my friends smooth travels, but if they are going to turn it into a story, they better have faced some challenges.

The notion that the worst days make the best stories has saved my sanity on more than one occasion. Lying awake on a makeshift bed at the Shakespeare and Company in Paris, I realized it was an awful idea it was for Katie and I to sleepover at the bookstore. Staying overnight at the converted seventeenth century monastery is a wonderful adventure for a twentysomething with a pierced face, but not the best fit for us. It was tough to fall asleep with the putrid combination of hot garbage beneath our window, and cigarette smoke from fellow travelers permeating the building. When I woke up to the bells of Notre Dame the following morning, I saw three rodent turds beside me, and thought, This is going to make a hell of a story. It kept a smile on my face as Katie and I made our hasty escape.

In many films, the second act typically ends when all hope is lost for the protagonist. Everything has gone utterly and completely wrong. When Katie and I are in a predicament, she will often turn to me and ask, “Can we start act three now?” That final act is when we get the payoff of a satisfying resolution.

When we travel, Katie and I know we are starring in our own story and trust that act two will come to a conclusion and we will get our happy ending. (We live in a comedy; no dreary art flick endings for us.)

As Katie and I prepare for our big adventure to Spain next week, we will remind each other that perfect trips make boring tales, and the true test of our character is how we deal with the inevitable challenges that are put before us.

As writers we need to welcome crappy days as awesome material. Perfect days are to be enjoyed and appreciated – but never written about.