Derek Fenner on Being More than One Thing at a Time

An interview with Derek Fenner, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Derek Fenner is an artist, educator, and researcher living in Oakland, California. After over a decade of experience as an art educator and administrator in the Massachusetts juvenile justice system, he is completing his doctorate at Mills College. His research interests include, youth participatory action research, juvenile justice education, decolonizing methodologies, and arts based research. He is the co-founder ofBootstrap Press, a literary publishing venture that has published over 30 books since 2000. He is the author of the novel, I No Longer Believe in the Sun: Love Letters to Katie Couric, and a handful of books of poetry.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

It really depends on who is asking me. With all the hats I wear it can be confusing; I’m an artist, educator, researcher, writer, and publisher. I think the place where they overlap the most is through the work I am doing in education. Young people tend to be the most accepting of me being more than one thing at a time. I find so much grace in abundance when I am with them.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

I over extend/commit myself to projects, which takes away from the time I have for my personal artistic endeavors. And it takes time away from the ones I love. I need to get better at taking on fewer things.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Let’s go! I doubt anyone wants to do exactly what I do.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Depends on the day. Most of the time I feel pretty damn lucky that I can do all of the things I do. But with my work in education — No! I can never be successful until every youth I serve is successful.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

There are two videos and it is raining in both.

The first is Lowell, MA skateboarder, Dave Bachinsky, skating in the rain in his hometown, where I lived for six years.

The other is a Turf Feinz video of the most amazing dancing in the streets of Oakland, California, where I’ve been for the last two years.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

Backpacking with my girlfriend. Anywhere.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

Well I did method-write sections of, I No Longer Believe in the Sun: Love Letters to Katie Couric. There was a moment in a highway motel room. Stevie Wonder’s, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”, was on. The images are in the book and I can’t erase them.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

Today is a good day. There’s like two grand. Most of that is already spoken for. I’ve got a couple of Bootstrap projects this fall and I still need to get a ton of stuff for my students.

What’s wrong with society today?

Don’t get me started. Every day, there are youth in the United States serving dead time. Simply defined, dead time, often linked to pretrial detention, is any time you spend locked up that does not count toward a sentence you must serve. For young people involved with the juvenile justice system, the matter is further complicated by the fact that many of them have not committed crimes to end up institutionalized.

There are a variety of factors that can land them within the walls of the juvenile justice system, mostly white supremacy and institutionalized racism. Believing that only “bad” kids go to “juvie” is the very convention that has allowed this injustice to continue since the system was implemented in the early 19th Century United States. In the twelve years I’ve been in these settings, I’ve yet to meet a “bad” kid.

For every young person serving dead time in the juvenile justice system there are countless others being continually targeted for entry into the system. The juvenile justice system and the school-to-prison-pipeline have become a feeder system for the adult prison industry, which currently houses just over 2 million people costing taxpayers nearly $60 billion dollars a year. We have allowed a neoliberal agenda to create a trajectory for many of our nation’s youth — disproportionally youth of color from underserved communities — to become commodities to be traded in a system that amounts to institutional slavery. That it happens in the open, its effects have been quantified and measured, and that we do nothing, is a statement on the blinding state of capital in the 21st Century. We are living in a time where the top 1% of the population controls the techniques of power in the name of free market expansion.

What are you working on right now?

I’m deeply involved with my doctoral research right now. After ten years in the juvenile justice system, as an art teacher and administrator, I have moved into the place where I feel like I am most useful — the community. I’m currently teaching identity art at a high school bridge program in Richmond, CA. It is also my research site. Outside of my art classes, I have 25 amazing young men and women in a class called, Arts Based Research. We are working on participatory action research projects and uncovering our power as artists, researchers and teachers. We are investigating how capitalism (and biopolitics) affects the bodies of young people. We are hoping to end the school year with a conference for teachers, completely put together and conducted by my class, teaching educators about the issues we found vital in our work.

I’m trying to wrap up a series of black and white drawings for a group show with Ava Koohbor and Brian Lucas in 2015. I’m blessed to be able to share wall space with both of them. My drawings are my own meditation on sigils.

I just finished a manuscript of poems. I’m also trying to finish a project called Hermeticities, which is prose poems about cities that either fucked me up or made me love, or quite possibly, both. I’m also finalizing a chapter for a book on systemic collapse and renewal in education. And there’s the dissertation I’m writing.

This Fall I’d like to publish a small book by Ava Koohbor on Bootstrap as well as Julien Poirier’s, Way Too West.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I’d like to see myself doing more work around white antiracist pedagogies for teachers. It would be cool to write another novel.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Reciprocity. Why do we have schools without adequate technology in the area? Why do we have community-based artists/educators struggling to work in their own neighborhoods?

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?


What are some of your favorite smells?

Bourbon smells pretty good. So do sage and the desert.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I don’t want that. If you’ve got the cash, though, I can send you a list of young people who would be more than elated to take a trip outside the Bay Area. I can pay my own way and chaperone. Or perhaps we can fund their college education? We could also just use some Chromebooks; do you have Google’s number?

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