The Thought Provokers: Alumni who challenge us to consider old ideas afresh

By Jackie O'Ryan, Rebecca Browning '00, and Sandra Sarr

 

Leslie Braxton '83

Leslie Braxton '83

The evolution of a radical message

By Jackie O'Ryan

Standing before 1,000 people who crowd the pews at Seattle's Mount Zion Baptist Church, Leslie Braxton's voice drops to a commanding whisper as he relates the gospel.

He halts, sips from a cup of water, then launches into full song while the congregation breaks into cheers.

"Have I got a witness?" he hollers through the noise.

"Amen!" the people shout back.

He pounds his fist on the pulpit.

"You can't stop the world from continuing to crucify. And you can't stop God from resurrecting us!"

The words are a guiding principle for Braxton, who says the message of the Gospel is for all people whose backs are up against the wall. He is well aware that the historical challenge of the black church in America has always been to motivate and sustain while preserving the perspective of the oppressed. Over the years progress has been made, but the struggle is ongoing.

"I don't have to fight segregation anymore," Braxton says. "I'm fighting crack addiction. AIDS, neo-nazis and Satan worship are the new demons. And when my kids grow up," he says, "they will have a whole new set of problems.

"For me," Braxton states with quiet certainty during an interview, "it's a matter of letting people know in no uncertain terms that there is a gross difference between the American dream and the Kingdom of God. The affirming and embracing love of God continues to run contrary to the selfish, hedonistic, narcissistic inclinations of our fallen nature: greed, hate and inhumanity to humanity." Braxton grew up on Tacoma's Hilltop, attended Tacoma public schools, including Lincoln High, and graduated from the University of Puget Sound, where he was a running back on the football team. After receiving his bachelor's degree, he earned a master of divinity from Colgate Rochester Divinity School in New York in 1987, and later completed a doctor of ministry at Union Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

He has returned to campus several times since then, most recently to deliver an address, "Where Do We Go From Here: Economic Self-Reliance for Africans and African Americans in the 21st Century," at the University's 14th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration last January.

Eighteen months ago he became senior pastor of one of the Northwest's most influential churches, the 3,000-member Mount Zion Baptist, succeeding longtime pastor Samuel B. McKinney. Braxton is behind a powerful pulpit, but this strikingly handsome 38-year-old, in his olive suit and polished leather shoes, says he didn't choose the ministry.

"The pulpit chose me. Just as all the elements in the natural world respond to gravity," he says, "the soul responds to the pull of the Creator. God chose me for this work."

He succumbed reluctantly; as an adolescent, he prayed to go to law school or medical school.

"I wanted anything but to be subjected to fussy church people," he says. "I told God, 'You know me, Lord. I don't have the temperament, and I'll haul off and slap somebody,'" he says breaking into a rolling laugh.

But at Mount Zion, Braxton doesn't have to deal with people who are more concerned with church teas than the issues of the day.

Braxton is equipped to spend a lot of time in this office. A little refrigerator, a long couch and a laptop computer support work through long hours. Photos of family and friends line the bookcases and wall. This church is the Reverend Leslie Braxton's work and his life.

He points to a picture of a football team on the wall of his office, taken in 1969 of the downtown Tacoma Boys club. He wore number 42, the youngest on the team. He points to the other players in the photo as he talks about them. One was a U.S. Olympic boxing choice, another a soccer champion. This club produced several Olympic gold medal winners, including Sugar Ray Seales. But some of the players died on the streets or in the anguish of drug addiction. Some are in prison.

"In this congealed cove of the Northwest," Braxton says, "we have the highest African American arrest and incarceration rate of anywhere in the 50 states. We have an unjust criminal justice system. There's a lot to do."

Braxton and his wife, Sheila, who have two children, Karissa, 7, and Samuel, 6, are also guardians for a nephew, Ramon Demar Bryant, a music student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. They are among a congregation that he describes as "everyone from Ph.D.s to AFDCs," referring to people with doctorates and welfare families with dependent children.

They gather together every Sunday for worship. "No, we don't do little efficiency services that are over in 45 minutes here," says Braxton with a laugh. "We come for the week's highlight! We come for music that stirs the full gamut of emotions and cleanses us from all of the repressed hurt, anger and pain of the week's odyssey of being black in America. We come for a challenging but stirring sermon. We come for fellowship and to enjoy being in a community to affirm and validate one another.

"We all enter this place to worship and we depart to serve," Braxton assures. Here, worship "charges the battery-it convicts us, corrects us, comforts us, consoles us, and then it commissions us."

"The first shall be last and the last shall be first," asserts the Gospel. Braxton claims that message will be radical until the end of time.

Jackie O'Ryan is director of public affairs for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. She wrote about Wenatchee World publishers Wilfred '42 and Rufus '80 Woods in the summer 2000 issue of Arches.

 


Matt Cary '93

Matt Cary '93

What secondary education lacks: relevance

By Rebecca Browning '00

Tables decorated with candles and bright floral arrangements covered the floor of the old barn. The sound of hard rain pounding against the metal roof drowned out conversations of old friends catching up, and new friends meeting. Guests gathered, covered in Gortex, sipping drinks and lingering near barbecues emitting both heat and the delicious smell of grilled salmon.

More than 200 supporters attended the benefit dinner, despite the July thunderstorm, to share in the growth of the Smoke Farm School. The project, spearheaded by Matt Cary '93, is the undertaking of a group of Puget Sound friends, faculty and alumni, many of whom graduated in the early '90s. They share the common vision of creating a learning environment in which students will be challenged to connect local studies to the larger world.

"The question of education and its relevance to contemporary life [is] one of the central social issues of our time," the fledgling school's mission statement proclaims. "Most recently-advocated solutions to our educational difficulties have only further estranged young people from what they truly need and seek: mentors who respect them as human beings and ... relationships that are at the very foundation of responsibility, community and citizenship."

Transforming educational thought to pedagogic function, Cary and the others have been slowly but surely remaking a 365-acre former dairy farm just outside of Arlington, Wash., into a boarding school for up to 75 11th and 12th graders. State forest land and the North Fork of the Stilla-guamish River surround the dairy, which was run by the Smoke family until 1993.

The land is ideal, Cary said, for instilling a growing awareness of the scale of communities that exist-biological and social communities, locally and globally.

School literature explains: "The curriculum might include an economics course that explores the possibilities of sustainable forestry in the North Cascades as a case study, a biology course that studies aspects of a salmon run in Pentland Creek (already, with the help of a grant for repairing salmon habitat and spawning beds, the group has begun restoration projects on the river), or a math course that measures the hydrologic forces of the Stillaguamish River and calculates the impact of spillways and levees on water flow. Studies in the humanities will emphasize discovery of a personal ethic and conscience, and understanding what it means to live passionately and rationally. Courses might include writing about the natural world, the ethics of food production, modern dance, or building sculptures."

Three categories of instructors are proposed:

"Teaching Fellows," recent college graduates who are dynamic and bright and attracted to a two- or three-year stint at Smoke Farm.

"Master Teachers," full-time core faculty, the "great teachers" everyone should have experienced at some point in his or her life.

And "Visiting Artists and Professionals," career artists of all types and professionals in business, politics, medicine, law, public service, environmental science or forestry, for example.

Smoke Farm recently hosted its first educational program, with 22 teen participants gathered for two week-long sessions of blacksmith camp. The program, directed by co-coordinator of Smoke Farm Craig Hollow '94, introduced students to forging techniques through the creation of personal blacksmithing tools.

"The camps went surprisingly smoothly for pilot programs. The biggest surprise was the depth of the participants' responses to being at Smoke Farm," Hollow said. "We only had the types of 'problems' every summer camp hopes to have-participants who don't want to go to bed because it's so much fun looking at the constellations while sitting around the campfire."

Hollow recently added the duties of co-coordinator to his role as director of camps, now working full-time in the development of the school. He is helping to plan two more blacksmithing weekend camps in the spring for youths, and one for adults, to be followed by another summer program that will more broadly focus on general farm operation.

Professor Sarah Sloane, a former Puget Sound faculty member, is responsible for the organization of the Smoke Farm curriculum. During her welcoming address at the benefit barbecue, Sloane noted, "It's wonderful to see so many Puget Sound alumni here, participating in this project. It's so fun to see how you all have developed and evolved in your work."

Among them was Brody LaRoc '94, who has been with the project since his senior year at Puget Sound, assisting with projects like the renovation of the old milking parlor into a community space and blacksmithing shop. Currently in his first year teaching fifth-graders at Lake-ridge Elementary on Mercer Island, LaRoc aspires to one day teach at Smoke Farm.

LaRoc says that the camaraderie felt among people working to build the Smoke Farm School is a part of what keeps him involved. "This endeavor attracts people with big hearts who are looking for a kind of meaning in their lives that isn't found entirely in the mainstream flow of post baccalaureate life," he said. "The past few years have been pretty extraordinary. Hundreds of people have come to our annual benefits; we have established a strong connection with an environmental corps that has helped us with some serious volunteer time."

Monica Legatt '92 feels the same way. "I became involved partially because I am friends with the people envisioning this school, but more importantly because I recognized that this school will provide young people with opportunities and conditions for learning that they are lacking in most educational environments today."

But Legatt also has worries about the future. There is much work to be done before meeting the goal of opening classes by the fall of 2004. "In the short term, I know financial goals must be met before we can begin working on other goals, so I hope we can successfully raise the capital needed to move forward in the next couple of months," said Legatt.

Many Smoke Farm organizers share this concern, but they are also dedicated to making the school work. Stuart Smithers, professor of religion at Puget Sound, serves as head of the Smoke Farm Advisory Board. He is aware of the challenges the group faces in fund raising, but is confident that Cary and the others will make it happen. "Smoke Farm is the kind of project that attracts a certain kind of energy, a certain kind of people and certain kinds of resources," he says. "We're looking forward to the next three years as we put the school together. We're determined to make it happen on time, because otherwise there are students who will miss out on a Smoke Farm education."

 


Alison De La Cruz '96

Alison De La Cruz '96

Voices rarely heard

By Sandra Sarr

Adrill team captain, a date-rape vic-tim, a budding gymnast, a Filipina immigrant, a softball-playing poet-in her one-woman play, "Sungka," Alison De La Cruz '96 slips seamlessly from role to role, a skill she learned while growing up biracial, bicultural and bisexual in a nation that still struggles to embrace all facets of its own identity.

Sungka, a Filipino shell game, is the thread that runs through a show De La Cruz wrote and has been performing in West Coast venues for the past year. Both heartbreaking and hilarious, De La Cruz weaves together tales that tell of the human condition in voices rarely heard in American popular culture.

"The show reflects my own process and the beginning of my own lifelong exploration into understanding who I am and how I fit into the world around me, says De La Cruz. "I wanted the show to portray multiple voices and multiple characters to convey the complexity of the Filipina-American woman's experience.

Standing in front of her audience as the play's narrator, De La Cruz looks down at a table spread with Sungka shells. Taking two shells into her hands, she lays the groundwork for us to enter her world:

"Gathered from the living, the smoothness and the shine give way to the dull chips of the daily grind. ... It takes all of your energy simply to keep playing."

She says when she started writing the show, she worried that it would be depressing, a tear-jerker, deep and heavy, because it dealt with institutional racism, sexismand homophobia. But the characters she created often make people laugh, despite their sometimes harsh messages. Viewers leave the theater thinking about the Sungka women's stories and relate them to their own experiences. And that's what De La Cruz wants.

"I want to redefine what is beautiful, not only in the sense of body size and skin tone and even in language. I want to create spaces at the center of the stage where Filipina women, queer women, immigrants, biracial people are the center of those stories and set a new, more inclusive standard of what is normal. I want to empower people to think differently. I want to be included, I want my communities to be included in the human myths, ideology and culture," she says.

"There are so few images of us in pop culture. But we'll find ourselves.

"I used to hate Memorial Day because of the movies about WWII set in the Pacific. My dad always had to watch them so that he could see Filipinos on TV. He'd translate for us what the Filipino said. Lines in Tagalog [the Philippine language] like, 'The soldiers came and messed up our house and stole our pig!' My dad was so happy to hear the language of his people," she recalls.

De La Cruz hopes that, through art, she will create access and opportunity for those who'd otherwise live at the margins of mainstream society.

"As a student, I felt I needed to help create an inclusive and safe environment for students of color. That was one reason I never did theater at Puget Sound. As leaders and persons of color, anything we did was subject to scrutiny. I was also focused on addressing the need for a multicultural center, a better program to recruit and retain students of color, and attracting more professors of color," she explains.

De La Cruz laughs when she recalls being warned to stay away from certain neighborhoods in Tacoma.

"We'd hear, 'Be careful of Hilltop, it's so scary.' Hilltop was one place students of color like myself found other people of color, and when we were there we felt safe," she says.

During De La Cruz's freshmen year, when she helped bring Asian-American performers Jude Narita and Amy Hill to Puget Sound, a seed was planted.

"Those two women told our stories, and I came to understand that our stories belong on center stage. Seeing Jude's show was the first time I ever saw a Filipino character on stage. Afterward, we went out to dinner with Jude who had a bit of star quality for us, even though probably 90 percent of America has no idea who she is. But for us she was as close to Asian-American fame and celebrity as we were going to get.

"I watched them because at some level I knew that I wanted to be like them. I remember asking Amy when we were in Kilworth Chapel, 'Amy, I'm kind of thinking that I might want to do this.' She said, 'Then you should immerse yourself in the life of theater, learn technical aspects, the craft of writing, performing and being an actor.' It really intimidated me and also I thought, 'I don't have time. I'm trying to save the world. I'm trying to get diversity at UPS and if I do theater, who's gonna watch out for our freshmen?'"

But the seed had been planted. Returning last year as a performance artist to Puget Sound's Kilworth Chapel stage-the place where she first told Amy Hill she wanted to perform-marked a personal triumph for De La Cruz.

"I don't understand why we have to create cultures of hate and distrust, or systems that are based on exclusion. I don't believe that the problems will end in my lifetime. I'm very clear that I'm here to help solve them. That's the mother in me who wants to see everybody happy and loved. At the same time, I feel like it's so far from happening," she says.

"I do have a lot of healing to do from growing up being biracial and bisexual and multicultural in the U.S., but at some level, too, I feel like it's bigger than me and it's about my sister or it's about somebody who's not even born yet. It's about creating a more humane place for them to just be happy and to love themselves and to love other people for who they are. I feel like there's enough drama and conflict in the world," she says.

But these days she is feeling more at peace with herself.
"Just within the last year, when I go to sleep at night, I feel very content and very centered about who I am. When people interact with me I want them to feel they are better people for having interacted with me. I want to be able to feel like I've left a good mark in the world and that it's different because I was here," she says.

De La Cruz has thought about quitting her day job at the University of Southern California. She'll also have to squeeze in time for her duties as festival producer for the Los Angeles Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture, which attracts 25,000 people each year.

"Life has changed a lot. I did five sold-out shows [in the San Francisco Bay Area], and I'm sure I would have enough gigs until at least this time next year," she says. De la Cruz also performed the play twice on campus, once last March, and again this past October.

What's next after Sungka?
"I'm busy trying to plan a more national 'Sungka' tour, hoping to hit the Midwest and East Coast. Maybe even Hawaii and Canada.

"I'm also working on a new show called 'Tales from the Hip,' which explores more about body size-hip size-but also the notion about what's cool and what's in. I'm working on a character who's Filipino and immersed in the hip-hop community. I'm going to dance more. I have a character who dances hula and one who does traditional Filipino dancing. I think I'm going to apply for a residency at a Filipino Community Center next year through the California Arts Council. I'm still in that category called emerging artist."

Sandra Sarr is director of communications at the University of Puget Sound.