Stepping down from SFPC

This summer I stepped down from helping run the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC), a school I helped co-found in 2013 along with Amit Pitaru, Jen Lowe and Taeyoon Choi. In the past several years Lauren Gardner, Taeyoon and I had been helping administer the school, along with assistance from others to help run specific programs.

The last time I remember SFPC being physically together was February 2020 — it was our 7 year anniversary show, organized by Tega Brain and held at the Westbeth Gallery.

Views of the 7 years of SFPC exhibition

I was out of town for most of the install, but when I came back, I stopped by the install pre-opening. It had the frenetic, nervous feeling of all the night before opening SFPC exhibits, couches being dragged from our school space to the gallery, cables were being strung from floor to ceiling, software was getting recompiled. Someone shouted, “Does anyone have a webcam? I just need to test something real quick!” There was a lovely database created to catalog a range of older SFPC projects, and a mixture of old and new projects lined the walls. I saw former students who had flown in from halfway around the around world, and ones who had jumped on their bike or subway and rolled through. It was the night before the show, and you alway have this nagging doubt, will this be ready? But in the end it always is. It was a rag tag affair and full of heart — beautiful, lovely chaos. Seeing it made me so proud of what we’ve done as a school in seven years. It was also a reminder that the magnetic force that has bound us together is the work.

Over the summer, there were increasing calls for accountability and change in terms of the administration of the school, especially regarding our response to the Black Lives Matter protests and questions about what we could do at the school to support Black students and teachers. To be completely honest, as administrators we failed to answer the questions adequately. Many of these calls happened in our public and private slack channels and our initial responses were bureaucratic, plodding and slow — when what was needed was urgency and transparency. It’s important to note that even though these messages were critical, they were coming from a sincere desire to make the school a better place. I took these calls as a vote of no confidence in our leadership and officially stepped down at the end of July as a means for creating space for other people to step up. I believed (and still do) that SFPC needed new leaders and while I could only make that choice at a personal level it felt right. I wrote a letter of apology to the public channel which I include below. Note that this letter was written for the SFPC community, and in response to specific discussions occurring in our slack channels, but I’m sharing it here in case it’s helpful.

When Covid-19 hit New York City, it scrambled the school, which had been running with a certain rhythm of two 10 week programs per year — which meant we would be relatively offline during the weeks not in session. Our spring term was cancelled and it became obvious that without a desperate pivot to online education, we would have to shut the school down. We always had been run in a very threadbare way, and with fixed costs like rent and insurance there was almost no reserve funds to manage a crisis like this. We refunded the tuition of the spring students, held a gofundme, and worked incredibly hard to offer and promote online classes.

The three of us, myself, Taeyoon and Lauren also had issues, as a group of three, which I think were masked by the sort of part time nature of the school — intense for a 10 week period and then a relatively quiet and lull during the off season. Pivoting online not only meant gone were the days of meeting over bagels at our space in Westbeth but also a lot more stress, and in particular it strained relationships between all of us. Faculty meetings devolved, things got tense. While our initial conversations about how to bring SFPC online were positive and inspiring, it became a lot more fraught as we met week to week and I could feel all the various ways we were failing as administrators. This was a terrible situation, and at times it felt paralyzing. The meetings got worse and worse. The whole situation was obviously untenable.

Since my stepping down and these conversations in the summer, and the conclusion of our online classes, SFPC moved into a period of reorganization — essentially stopping all classes — where there was real work that was being done with a group of teachers, administrators, alumni, collectively to reform how the school is run. In some ways this was a testament to all the hard work everyone in the online program did, which brought almost a years worth of budget to SFPC in a short time frame and gave the school some runway to pause to re-organize. A facilitator was hired, a renewed commitment to financial transparency helped bring our budgets out into the open, paid working groups were formed to look at the mission statement, the code of conduct, and a public message on our status. There were moments of profound joy during this period, such as meeting where we all worked on collective slides writing down what we wanted the school to be, but also moments where I could clearly see some of the toxic patterns that had made these meetings and our work impossible.

During the last group meeting it was made clear that there was no great way to move forward with this transition. A group of stewards was formed — I’ll let them introduce themselves, but essentially it’s a collection of teachers and alumni who were active in this transition and in the calls for more accountability— and they’ve stepped up to take over the operation of the school. A public letter that was going to come from the school (and was heavily delayed) was suggested should come from our personal accounts. It was posted by Taeyoon here — in a lot of ways, I feel sad about this, because I do think it adequately speaks to the mistakes we made and the work that has been started / done. We all worked on this letter (I think I personally help edit 3 or 4 drafts), but because members of the transition didn’t sign on to it, I also didn’t feel comfortable to sign it. In an ideal scenario, we would have a chance to all speak with a unified voice, talk about this process, account for our mistakes, talk about the work we are doing and what we hope for the future of the school.

One thing I particularly feel sad about is how Lauren is being dragged in this. She is not a public figure, and has worked for years in the rough world of underfunded NYC arts spaces. Her work at SFPC was often thankless work, whipping budgets into shape, chasing down tuition, contracting, bringing doses of realism to dreamy and optimistic conversations. If you saw a show at SFPC in the past years, Lauren was behind the scenes making it happen. If you participated online this summer, she helped make that happen. She has had a hand in all the invisible things that help make the school function — airtables, mailing lists, agreements. Her work and contribution to SFPC have been crucial — and while we can be open and honest with our shortcomings in helping run the School, I do think it’s important to offer immense gratitude for her work in an often underpaid, under-appreciated role.

Finally, I just want to come back to the work, which I do think is the magnetic force that has bound this school together. I want to thank all the teachers, TAs, students, alumni and supporters who have done the work for the last 7 years. Whether the work was in making art, teaching, studying, or writing critical letters asking the school to be better, it was work and deserves endless thanks and admiration. That goes also for the new stewards of SFPC, who are taking over the administration of the school and deserve boundless thanks and admiration as well.

One nice thing in the SFPC slack is how people add a little herb 🌿 or seedling 🌱 emoji on these posts where we discuss the school. To me it feels increadibly optimistic and future oriented. Including here because I am excited to see what the school becomes going forward.

Here is the letter I wrote to the school slack, in mid July 2020, where I announce my stepping down. This letter was also written in part of a larger conversation around what SFPC could do to support its Black teachers and students. Thanks to Lauren Gardner, Taeyoon Choi and Adina Glickstein for reviwing it. Also in case it’s helpful, this guide was suggested to me after my first apology didn’t hit the mark and I found it quite useful.

I want to apologize to the the SFPC community, staff, and students, especially BIPOC, for my failure to create an anti-racist and inclusive space.

This may be an imperfect apology, but I wanted to acknowledge, in my own words, some of the ways I have failed. Some of these things are things I know, some have been recently revealed to me, and some I’m still struggling to understand. I realize that my first response was not adequate — it didn’t express the severity I felt at the moment and I appreciate the opportunity to try again.

To begin, I would like to acknowledge the power I have in the school as a cofounder, teacher and administrator, and particularly as a white male in a position of authority. I want to note that I have greatly benefited from being associated with the school professionally, in both reputation and financially, in the form of a steady part-time salary. I mention this to recognize better what my responsibilities have been and how I have failed, especially when it comes to creating a space that is welcoming and safe for BIPOC students and staff.

Second I want to express sincere gratitude to Neta Bomani, who wrote a very thoughtful and detailed letter as a response in the general slack; to Ashley Jane Lewis, who provided a detailed context and experience of SFPC; and to other TAs and teachers who have expressed their concerns in the form of letters, 1:1 conversations, and DMs. These criticisms and discussions are a gift and I want to acknowledge the time and care that has gone into this communication.

Now, to move on to specific things I want to apologize about. I realize there may be more, and the harms that have been caused may be irrevocable. Nevertheless, I hope it will be helpful to articulate and acknowledge what I am sorry about and what I would like to do to help repair these harms.

First, I am sorry that I was not more active in supporting our BIPOC students and staff. We started a diversity initiative in 2015 — this involved offering scholarships, changing the language in our open calls, and changing our admissions process. I was supportive of these efforts by my colleagues, but I did not fully invest myself in the work of evaluating the ways in which SFPC could be a harmful space. I was passive — I saw this really as something Taeyoon would be taking the lead on. I apologize for putting the work of diversity on my POC coworker. From year to year, I saw things changing, whether it was new courses on Critical Theory of Technology being offered, BIPOC students joining, and I tended to think, “we’re on the right track.” My passivity was harmful, both because it meant I was univested in the success of these efforts and because I personally failed to consider what I could do to support and help listen to the BIPOC students who were navigating a majority white space. I should have been more active in supporting these initiatives.

Even recently, some students have asked the question: what will SFPC do to support its Black students at this time of Black Lives Matter protests? My response was to lead in-class discussion. While the dialogue in class was helpful, I still feel like I should have been more active and I am disappointed in myself for not having a better response to that question. In general I have a very optimistic personality and I see things in a positive light. I think what was needed at the time was a more critical sensitivity and reflective response to the voices and experiences of Black students and staff.

Second, I apologize for the fact that my curriculum for “Recreating the Past” class consists primarily of white artists. When I designed the class I was thinking consciously of elevating strong female voices, such as Vera Molnar and Muriel Cooper, but I didn’t consider how the nature and material of the course paints the picture of “media art as a white domain.” I take full responsibility for this shortcoming and admit that the content of this class needs to change, that it is a failure as an educator to not have a wider, more diverse and inclusive curriculum.

In addition, I’ve regularly worked with and promoted white male TAs to help me teach. I see this as a racist practice on my part — rooted in my own bias and privilege. At SFPC we’ve always thought of a kind of laddering system, where you could come to an event, study as a student, be a TA, teach a class, run a program, join the steering committee, etc. If, as a teacher, I only work with white male TAs, it means that I am perpetuating a system that excludes other voices. I could have used my network and following to search for new voices to bring to the table. I have also had a role in shaping curriculum at SFPC and in inviting speakers, where I feel I could have done more to invite Black leaders into the space.

Another thing I want to apologize for is that my role as an administrator has been amorphous. Last year, we began trying to articulate clearer roles in the organization, but haven’t properly implemented these changes. As an administrator, I would help with decision making, budgeting, planning, but I also was less invested in terms of time commitment than Taeyoon and Lauren. This has created imbalances that strained our working relationship and have also spilled out into how we work with staff, along with our ability to respond to COVID-19 and the protests against police brutality. I don’t think we were working well and I take responsibility for not helping implement a change in administration earlier.

I also apologize for not stepping down from leadership at an earlier point. I became a professor at MIT several years ago and in retrospect I should have used that moment to back away from helping run SFPC (if not earlier). The limits on my time that this has imposed have been one cause of the administrative stress. This stress has resulted in tension in meetings, both between the three of us and amongst the wider staff. As an educator, I feel really anxious about making sure students feel supported and that the classroom is a space of care. I regret that this hasn’t translated into how the school is run, and I feel responsible for that.

Here, I would like to thank the TAs and students who did the emotional labor of making our space safer and more inclusive. SFPC feels different now than it did 5 years ago, and it’s in large part due to the actions of Neta Bomani, BUFU, American Artist, Melanie Hoff and others — they have offered new courses, programs, and spaces at SFPC, and their work is a testament to the fact that change is possible. One of the strengths of SFPC is that it has attracted empathetic, wonderful people who have been trying to bring our attention to some of these problems — but we have not created a unified system to listen to them and facilitate change.

Many years ago, when we started SFPC, my partner Molmol Kuo, an artist and teacher, who tends to be right about everything, told me to wait and not impetuously do this, and especially to consider who is involved in forming the vision of the school. We argued about this and I did not listen. I want to apologize for this originary mistake. This is more of a personal acknowledgement of failure, but I want to offer it to the community. Because of these initial decisions, the school didn’t start with a fully inclusive voice. The vision we talked about at the start of SFPC was one formed from a majority male perspective that lacked the inclusion of people of color, women and particularly women of color. What we started was not as radical as we thought it was, not all that dissimilar to the system we thought we were rebelling against.

So. now. what?

First, I would like to consider how to repair these harms.

To begin with, I would like to step down from a leadership role. This is both because I feel that I have failed as a leader, and because I truly want there to be space for others to help grow and nurture the SFPC community. This kind of change is hard to make happen immediately (proceeding with it too quickly will add more burden to existing admin) but I want to make sure that whoever takes on leadership roles here going forward has the community support, institutional knowledge, and tools to succeed. I have also offered to forgo my administrative salary in the interim to help offset costs of helping pay for new administration. I want to help transition to a new leadership model wherein it’s possible for people to step up and step down as well as have very clear roles and responsibilities. To be clear, I am not backing away from SFPC, but I want to help support new leaders and stewards of the space from a non-leadership position.

Second, I will not teach Recreating the Past until issues regarding representation are addressed. I need to do the work in considering my curriculum and design it to be relevant, inclusive and reflective of SFPC for it to be taught here. This work should be done in dialogue with BIPOC participants with adequate compensation for the emotional and pedagogical labor entailed. I want to acknowledge that there are currently multiple sections of this class being taught, with a lot of love and care that students are giving to the work; going forward, I resolve to match this level of care in my design of the curriculum.

Third, I will take the question of “what can SFPC do to support its Black students and staff” more seriously. This will necessarily involve more than classroom conversation: it entails the real work of being there, showing up and getting invested in the success of Black students and staff. This means directly reaching out to my current students, former students, and colleagues with offers of support. This also means standing up for Black staff in meetings and other situations where there are power imbalances and working to set a better atmosphere.

In addition, I’ve offered to teach workshops or do any other fundraising activities as a volunteer to help directly fund initiatives that change the school’s administration structure and/or fund scholarships for BIPOC students. This could be within the SFPC context or outside it, but do think I can use my teaching platform to help raise resources that will be redistributed to others.

I have reached out to some students, alumni and staff in order to have 1–1 conversations, and will continue to reach out to more. I am conscious of the fact that for many, especially BIPOC students and staff, it may be a hard time to be a part of the school, and I acknowledge the emotional labor they have already contributed. I do think it’s important for me to do as much listening as possible. My goal is to better learn about people’s lived experiences at SFPC and to help be a force for positive change.

Finally, I appreciate you taking the time to read this and for the previous conversations that have informed me up to this moment. I am always available for feedback via DM, email (zach@sfpc.io) or for office hours.

- Zach