Freeze Frame

VONA/Voices Provides a Safe Space for Writers of Color

Annual conference at UM nurtures voices that open minds and deepen human understanding

By Meredith Camel
UM News

UM's M. Evelina Galang, front left, who helped move the two-week conference to UM last year, attends a reading with other VONA/Voices at Books & Books in Coral Gables.

UM’s M. Evelina Galang, front left, who helped move the two-week conference to UM last year, meets up with VONA/Voices students for a faculty reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables.

MIAMI, Fla.—Through all the joy, fanfare, and soul-stirring power of a VONA (Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation) literary reading, there remains a palpable pain body—one festered through experiences of exclusion as writers of color.

“In the seven layers of your skin are seven centuries of damage that brought you here,” reads author Minal Hajratwala, describing her “wound theory” to a packed theater in Miami’s Little Haiti in June during a VONA/Voices faculty reading. “What’s exhausting is to always cover up the wound.”

Faculty readings were among several free events open to the public during the two weeks that UM hosted VONA/Voices, the only multi-genre conference in the country for writers of color. M. Evelina Galang, director of the UM Creative Writing program and a long-time VONA/Voices faculty and board member, helped move the annual conference to UM from California last year.

“This year, we had a record number of applicants, so Miami, Miami, Miami!” says Diem Jones, who cofounded VONA/Voices in 1999 with fellow authors Elmaz Abinader, Junot Diaz, and Victor Diaz.

Of this year’s 520 applicants from around the world, 150 were selected for workshops in fiction, poetry, memoir, LGBTQ narrative, young adult, and more. All VONA/Voices faculty are “high profile writers committed to social justice, excellent teachers, and who mirror the population we’re trying to reach,” Abinader explains. Among this year’s 14 faculty members was poet John Murillo, a VONA/Voices student in 2003 and visiting assistant professor in the UM Creative Writing program from 2011 to 2012.

In addition to strong writing, VONA/Voices seeks students who think deeply about what it means to be a writer of color as well as those with limited options for craft development. The greatest impact of the conference, Abinader says, is having “a place to feel safe, where no one is judging them based on the stories they access.”

“It’s supportive and nurturing, it builds trust, and it digs deep into their soul,” says Jones, noting that each workshop typically goes through a full box of tissues in a week. “We tell them, ‘Don’t come if your wall is up.’ ”




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Cuban Dissident Blasts Obama During UM Visit

In his first trip outside of Cuba, Oscar Elias Biscet received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President George W. Bush and the keys to Coral Gables from Mayor James Cason, formerly the chief U.S. diplomat in Cuba.

By Barbara Gutierrez
UM News

Noted Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet holds a copy of Cuba's 1940 constitution,  which the Castro regime abolished.

Noted Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet holds a copy of Cuba’s 1940 constitution, which the Castro regime abolished.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 30, 2016)—Holding a black and white photo of President Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, noted Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet condemned the U.S.’s rapprochement with the Cuban government, saying countries that “defend democracy should serve as examples.”

“How can you shake hands with an assassin?” Biscet asked at a June 29 press conference held at the University of Miami, referring to Raul Castro’s bloodied history, which includes ordering hundreds of firing-squad executions at the onset of the Cuban revolution led by his brother.

“When you see the faces of Fidel and Raul Castro you are not only looking at their faces, but at the faces of Stalin and Hitler, and they symbolize terror and death,” said Biscet, a physician who spent years in Cuban prisons for his advocacy.

During the hour-long press conference at UM’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, the founder of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights reiterated his longstanding belief that the Cuban regime was a dictatorship built on “illegitimacy.” As he noted, the Castro government abolished the 1940 Cuban Constitution, which, inspired by the U.S. Bill of Rights, granted basic human rights and freedoms to its citizens.

“The Cuban people want a complete change,” he said. “They do not want an evolution with this dictatorship. They want to be free.”

Biscet was introduced by Coral Gables Mayor James C. Cason, who, in presenting Biscet with the keys to the city of Coral Gables, called him “the true hero, one of the most principled, determined members of the opposition in Cuba.”

As head of the Cuban Interest Section in Havana during the early 2000s, Cason met Biscet and his wife, Elsa Morejon, and often tried to intercede on his behalf with the Cuban government.

Now 54, Biscet made his first trip abroad to speak out against the repression in Cuba, and to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President George W. Bush for his dedication to advancing human rights and democracy in Cuba. Bush awarded Biscet the medal in absentia in 2007, while he was in prison. Biscet accepted the nation’s highest civilian honor at a ceremony at the George W. Bush Center in Dallas on June 23.

Although repression in Cuba persists, Biscet said he felt the dictatorship is nearing its end because internal opposition is well defined and most Cubans are beginning to lose their fear of the government.

As a sign of the changing times, he noted that his Project Emilia, a petition initiative calling for the end of communism on the island, was gaining momentum. In what is a risky act in Cuba, about 3,000 Cuban citizens have signed the petition, giving their names, addresses, and identity card data.


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Frost Wind Ensemble Selected for Prestigious Performance

UM News

frost wind ensembleCORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 3, 2016) — The Frost Wind Ensemble is one of nine ensembles from around the country selected through a blind audio recording adjudication process to perform next March at the College Band Directors National Association Conference in Kansas City’s renowned Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. “This year was particularly competitive in part due to the location,” said Robert Carnochan, the ensemble’s director and conductor. Guest solo artists, including Frost School of Music faculty Margaret Donaghue, on clarinet, and Svetoslav Stoyanov, on percussion, will join about 60 students for their performance.

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Professors and High Schoolers Brainstorm on a More Resilient South Florida

UM News

architecture charrette 3

Students from Miami-Dade magnet programs work on potential responses and designs for climate-related challenges.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 2, 2016) — Under the guidance of students and faculty from the School of Architecture, high school students from five Miami-Dade Magnet Programs participated in a half-day charrette to craft innovative responses related to building a resilient South Florida.

Teams were composed of a School of Architecture upperclassman or graduate student, a high school faculty member, and participating high school students. Each team focused on the charrette themes and the challenges presented for their school’s host neighborhood. Themes included: Investing in People and Communities for Upward Mobility, Securing Housing Options for All, and Responding to Shocks and Building Resilience.

“Through our partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), we were able to empower our leaders of tomorrow,” said Sonia Chao, director of the Center for Urban and Community Design at the School of Architecture. “Students from different areas of Miami-Dade had a unique opportunity to come together and envision potential responses and designs to climate-related challenges, which their communities will be increasingly facing.”

At the culmination of the charrette, students presented the work of their teams and discussed concerns such as sea-level rise, flooding, community wellness, and alternate transportation.

Building a Resilient South Florida is one of five regional convening sessions cohosted by HUD in collaboration with civic, governmental, educational, and philanthropic partners in advance of the U.N. Conference Habitat III, which will take place in Quito, Ecuador, in October. This is the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. Its goal is to provide a New Urban Agenda or roadmap for sustainable urban development for cities across the globe.


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Professor Gets Galápagos Scoop, Imparts Lesson

By Maya Bell
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (May 26, 2016) — Shortly after arriving in the Galápagos Islands to lead his summer study-abroad course, School of Communication Professor Joseph B. Treaster dropped by the office of the Galápagos National Park and Galápagos Marine Reserve, hoping to catch the interim director at his desk.

Instead, the former New York Times reporter and foreign correspondent caught a whiff of a breaking news story and, with old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, nailed it down: Africa Berdonces, an energetic young woman who rides a beat-up bicycle and often wears flip-flops, was about to take charge of managing the Galápagos Islands, one of the world’s environmental treasures.

Photographer Thomas Rodriguez and writer Joseph P. Treaster checked out their story posted online.

Photographer Thomas Rodriguez, standing, and writer Joseph P. Treaster check out their story posted online.

Within 48 hours, Treaster’s story about Berdonces, complete with photographs of her, a blue-footed booby, and other iconic Galápagos animals taken by UM technical specialist Thomas Rodriguez, appeared in The Times, providing a real-life learning experience for the eight UM students who had come to the Galápagos to sharpen their critical thinking and writing skills by communing with nature.

During the three-week, six-credit course, “The Galápagos Islands: Environment and Culture, Writing, Research, Critical Thinking,” the students swim with sea lions and penguins, hike volcanoes, get within inches of giant Galápagos tortoises, and study Charles Darwin and climate change — all as a precursor to writing articles on Galápagos issues that will be published in the Miami Planet, the University’s online environmental magazine.

“We’re using the Times article as a model for the work the students are doing and to show them how reporters conduct interviews, seize opportunities, and turn their reporting into articles,’’ Treaster said.

That’s something Treaster knows inside out. He often draws on his 30-plus years of experience at The New York Times to inform his UM classes on the fundamentals of reporting and writing for mass audiences. And it was two of those fundamentals—keen observations and an inquisitive nature—that tipped Treaster to Berdonces’ appointment, which the Ecuadorean government had not planned to announce for a few days.

Thomas Rodriguez's photo of Africa Berdonces, the new director of Galapagos National Park, ran in The New York Times.

Thomas Rodriguez’s photo of Africa Berdonces, the new director of Galapagos National Park, ran in The New York Times.

Waiting near the director’s office late the Friday afternoon of May 20, Treaster said he “sensed excitement among the secretaries and other staff assistants,” and started asking questions. Pretty soon, someone mentioned Berdonces’ news. Nobody, however, would officially confirm her appointment, so Treaster set out to find out as much as he could about her and what her new role might mean for the Galápagos.

As luck would have it, he bumped into Berdonces at the park headquarters and learned that she grew up in the Galápagos, has a master’s degree in environmental studies from James Cook University in Australia, and felt quite prepared to take on one of the world’s most significant environmental posts. “This is my passion,” she told Treaster. “I studied for this. I’ve been a national park guide. I’m a dive master. I’m from a family in the tourism business. I know the business of the Galápagos from inside.”

Within a couple hours, Treaster interviewed half a dozen other people, including Berdonces’ father, a dive shop owner, and a physician who has known her since she was a teenager.

Working with government officials and others, Treaster put Berdonces’ appointment and the challenges she faces in context. As he noted in the Times article, she is taking charge just as the Ecuadorean government is taking steps to better protect the Galápagos.

“It is,” Treaster wrote, “banning all fishing in the northern third of the island chain and creating a sanctuary for sharks. A new port on the mainland will be the exclusive conduit for cargo bound for the islands, the better to keep nonnative animals and plants from reaching the islands and disturbing the ecological balance. The government has also imposed a 36-room limit on new hotels to limit crowds, and is bringing together the management of land and sea areas, which had been overseen separately.”

As fellow instructor Heidi Carr, a former Miami Herald editor who co-directs UM’s Galápagos program and teaches “The Galapagos Islands: Social Media and Global Strategic Communication,” noted, Treaster is a never-ending fount of such information because he never stops collecting it.

“He is continually talking to strangers and asking questions,” Carr wrote in an email from the Galápagos. “Just last night, all we wanted to do was grab dinner and buy water. He ended up interviewing the hostess of the restaurant, getting a tour of the hotel’s $380 rooms, interviewing the owner, and having a very in-depth discussion about the environment, ecology, the Galápagos government, getting permits, and what people who stay there do when they are there.”

While Treaster has had innumerable bylines in The Times over the decades and will have many more—he’ll be returning to the Galápagos next fall to work on a Times travel program called Times Journeys—it was the first time Rodriguez has had a photo published in any newspaper.

“It’s one thing to post a picture to Facebook and receive  a lot of likes,” Rodriguez said, ‘but to have a photo published in a paper like The New York Times that is read by millions really is something else.”

To read Treaster’s story and view more of Rodriguez’s photos, visit The New York Times.


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