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Chronicles of real-world scholarship

Carina Lomelia, Maria Molina and another student listen to Tiny Garcia, POOR's founde, instruct a PeopleSkool journalism class.

Maria Molina, who moved to San Francisco five years ago from El Salvador, is now a published author and teacher. With a smile on her face, she points to her story in POOR Press’ anthology of immigrant struggles, “Los Viajes.”

“We are from different places, but we have the same sicknesses … we have the same problems. We all have the need to share, and to listen,” she said, describing her desire to write.

POOR Magazine, a non-profit arts and media organization, helps poverty scholars like Molina share their voices.

“At POOR we have a different notion of who ‘scholars’ are. They are folks who have lived scholarship, from their struggles and experience,” said Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia, POOR’s founder.

Speaking little English, Molina does whatever she can to earn a living.

“We immigrants do a bit of everything—I’m a babysitter, I care for elderly women, clean houses,” she said

Molina, who came to POOR a year ago, now constantly writes songs, news articles, and poems in her native language. She is currently completing an autobiography.

She’s also is a co-teacher in POOR’s PeopleSkool, a series of writing and journalism workshops teaching students “revolutionary forms of media.”

Drawing from their firsthand experiences, poverty scholars teach creative writing, radio, TV and ethnic and poverty studies in PeopleSkool’s biweekly workshops. Traditionally educated scholars, like SFSU professor Jose Cuellar, are also teachers and contribute a more academic perspective.

The two-hour classes, which meet Tuesdays and Thursdays for up to 10 weeks, are conducted in both Spanish and English.

In the Poor Magazine office, Tiny Garcia and Tony Robles have a shrine to their deceased ancestors Dee Carcia and Al Robles, whom they say inspire their work.

“Working for POOR, I feel blessed and like I have a reason to be in San Francisco,” said Carina Lomeli, 25, who translates classes between Spanish and English.

Lomeli, whose parents are from Mexico, recently graduated from the Academy of Art University, and she now sells her paintings in her own fine arts business.

“I was attracted to the Academy of Art but then I realized its focus isn’t art—it’s real estate. I felt like it was full of hypocrisy. But I also feel stronger from working so much,” she said. Lomeli worked 32-hour-a-week job while in school.

Connecting with POOR’s philosophy, she began volunteering as a Spanish-English translator last year. A few months ago Garcia offered her a job that includes everything from painting murals to acting as Garcia’s personal assistant. During the reporting class, Lomeli rushed to pick up Garcia’s daughter from school while Garcia gave students journalism tips.

“In order to be a good reporter, you must be a good listener, and a good consumer. It’s not just taking in corporate media but other forms of media,” Garcia told a group of 15 students dutifully taking notes, their desks arranged in a circle around her.

Garcia, whose formal education ended after the 6th grade, began POOR Magazine with her mother Dee in 1996 with informal workshops in shelters and on the streets. Two years later she opened POOR’s campus at 16th and Mission.

Prior to that, she and her mother had battled incarceration for living on the streets, and their lawyer asked Garcia to consider what she could do.

“I can write,” she had said.

Garcia began perceiving her relationship with all poor and landless peoples in the world. She taught herself to write grants, and got funding to establish the first Welfare to Work journalism program in the US. She opened POOR’s community newsroom, where people help report their own news in “indigenous newsmaking.”

“It’s the voice of the community of people in struggle, who are dealing with struggle on a day-to-day basis. We’re bringing the media out of corporate control and into a forum where people empathize with each other,” said Tony Robles, a co-editor of POOR press, a publishing house youth and adult poverty scholars, and another co-teacher of the PeopleSkool.

Robles, a published children’s books author, spoke in similes about the newsroom.

“It like a poem that is written, it breathes and contracts; it’s never written in stone,” he said.

Often new people come to POOR to share stories of misrepresentation, and then they stay in the POOR community.

“Whenever somebody’s impacted by the system in a negative way we invite them to come to the community newsroom,” said Marlan Crump, a Revolutionary Legal Scholar at POOR who also co-teaches in PeopleSkool.

Marlan Crump, a Revolutionary Legal Scholar and PeopleSkool co-teacher, stands in front of the POOR headquarters on 16th and Mission.

When Crump was homeless and staying at Sanctuary men’s shelter, he read one of his poems before a rally at City Hall in what he describes as an “intense but fulfilling” first exposure to public speaking. Garcia was in the crowd and shortly afterwards introduced him to POOR.

A few years later, in 2007, Garcia came to give him moral support in a court case.

Defending himself without a lawyer, Crump, who never graduated high school, sued a group of policemen whom he claims racially profiled him.

“Twelve cops stormed my hotel room … I learned to take them head-on. I was showing the system I could represent myself. I was self-empowered,” he said.

Ready to tell his story, he came to POOR magazine, and he has been writing with them ever since.

“I always loved reading—I was a comic book fanatic—I don’t think I’d ever be a writer if it wasn’t for POOR, at least not with so many readers. Here I’ve written a lot, I’d say I’m on my 50th article,” he said with a smile.

A former factory worker, Crump is now one of the few paid staff members at POOR.

“I’m pretty much in stable housing and income, but what I do here at POOR is a family more than an occupation,” he says.

Crump hopes other struggling people can use POOR to share their stories.

“In the end everybody wants to be seen and heard. The problem is (that) the poor because of their status never get that (chance) unless it’s in a negative light,” he said.

Queenandi Shabazz, another PeopleSkool co-teacher, said POOR has changed her life.

“Tiny wants to make sure we’re okay inside and out. There are very few places I feel comfortable. It’s like a home here,” said Shabazz, during a break from writing a poem entitled “What love is.”

Shabazz first met Garcia in 2001.

“I was struggling on welfare. I was involved in underground strategies—whatever it took to take care of my family,” Shabazz said.

She said her social worker discouraged her from being a journalist, and encouraged her to be a secretary instead.

Then her mother died, and her brother soon after. The police called his death a suicide, but she suspected it was a murder. The cops did not bother to investigate the case, she said, because her brother’s death occurred in a poor neighborhood full of crime.

She returned to POOR a second time to tell her brother’s story, and she has been coming to the center ever since. She now writes articles, does motivational speaking, and has written two poetry books.

“I’m now meeting this world on my terms,” she said.

Working as a monitor in the Episcopal Services homeless shelter, Shabazz brings POOR’s message to her clients.

“I feel satisfaction that I can pass what Tiny gives me onto women struggling there … I can teach them to overcome. They may still be upset or angry, but this empowers women.”

She brought a group of her clients from the shelter to POOR, including a transgendered woman who had faced discrimination in the shelter. The people at POOR welcomed them all.

“It makes me feel good that I can my clients some real scholarship. No, I didn’t read a book—I lived this,” she said.

Story by: Meredith Hoffman