By Linda Mahal
Every time Robin Talbot sits down to work in her home office, she’s reminded of her roots. A framed photograph on her desk, published in Maine’s Portland Press-Herald, captures Talbot at age four or five, bundled in a white parka, marching with a crowd past the old Woolworth’s on Congress Street. In the photo, she and her family carry a sign with the message “End the War on Black America.”
Descended from eight generations of Black Mainers, Talbot grew up fighting for civil rights. “It was just part of our lives,” she says. “My parents lived it on a grassroots level, doing everything from stuffing envelopes to strategizing at our kitchen table.”
The Talbot family home was a busy site for committee meetings and community organizing. Talbot’s father, a historian active in the local NAACP chapter, became Maine’s first Black legislator, and the first to introduce gay rights legislation in the state of Maine.
Along with the obligation to fight for freedom and fairness, Talbot learned early about the importance of voting. “My mother always worked at the polls,” Talbot recalls, “and on Election Day, Dad would take us down to the Democratic headquarters. To this day, this is what we do. Our kids know we’re going to vote, to experience it, learn from it, participate in it.”
Talbot’s activist childhood planted the seed, one could argue, for her current work as the associate director of Stonecoast MFA and leader of its Writing for Inclusivity and Social Equity (WISE) initiative. Born of Talbot’s lifelong mission to marry her passion for social justice with her love of the arts, WISE is both a program and an ethos. Under Talbot’s keen eye and talent for making intellectual and personal connections, WISE now boasts a distinguished speaker series, a digital storytelling platform, WISE curriculum development, and scholarships for summer writing fellows. This WISE spirit has become inseparable from the University of Southern Maine’s celebrated low-residency graduate program in creative writing.
The inception of WISE as a defining feature of Stonecoast MFA began some fourteen years ago, during Talbot’s early days at USM. Stonecoast hosted a faculty panel entitled “Writing the Other,” which explored questions of race and representation, such as whether a white author could credibly write a slave story.
“Tensions were high,” Talbot remembers, now with a smile, regarding what was (and often still is) an uncomfortable conversation. “But there were some very important moments for our faculty and students during that panel. From there, we decided that we needed a student workshop on writing and race. Despite the uncertainty, the risks, we said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ And what’s impressive about our students is that they really took up the challenge in those workshops, of trying to tell another writer, or hear from a peer, that they’re not really getting this character right, based on that character’s race.”
“I always felt that we had to go deeper, beyond just a book list,” Talbot continues, and the writing about race workshop was another step forward. But Talbot soon noticed that it attracted mostly Black and brown students. “At that point, I knew that WISE needed to be included in every single thing that we do.”
As she realized what was at stake, Talbot’s goal expanded to “changing the field of creative writing,” and to that end, she earned a master’s degree in arts administration. “I knew that if I wanted to be taken seriously by this institution, I needed the credentials and the confidence to say, ‘We need more Black people, more people of color, in the arts. We cannot just be putting on shows and running events. We need people of color at the policy-making table. We need to move this idea of social justice forward, beyond statements and into action.”
Today, those actions include The Task Before Us, WISE’s visiting scholar series, which annually hosts a reading and a graduate seminar with a guest writer. Readings are open to the public, followed by discussion, and seminars are open to MFA students.
Most recently, David Mura, a Japanese American writer and author of A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing, spent several days with students and faculty at the January 2020 residency. Such outside scholars, Talbot says, help the Stonecoast community to “critically look at ourselves, to look inward, to bring more depth to our writing and teaching.” Conversations with Mura also confirmed Talbot’s sense that a fuller, deeper education must place race at the center. Whether the focus is environmental justice, gay, lesbian, and transgender rights, gender violence, healthcare disparities, gun control, poverty, or food insecurity, Talbot observes, “all of these themes are interconnected, and at the core is race.”
In 2019, WISE jumpstarted its digital storytelling platform, The Stories We Carry, in the wake of family separations and child detentions at the Southern border. Originally a project for a Maine College of the Arts exhibition, The Stories We Carry recorded the oral migration histories of Mainers from a variety of backgrounds. The platform currently supports a historian who is helping three Black families in Portland tell their migration stories in three short films.
The WISE Summer Fellows Program, also begun in 2019, supports visiting undergraduate writers from historically Black colleges and universities. The inaugural program provided tuition, fees, and travel grants to attend the Stonecoast Summer Writers’ Conference, plus three transferable USM credits, to three students from Howard University. Summer fellows who apply and are accepted to Stonecoast MFA are also guaranteed a three-credit tuition waiver as part of their financial aid package.
Students and alumni credit WISE with stretching their viewpoints, their writing, and their lives. Nina Boug Lichtenstein, (Creative Nonfiction 2020), a Norwegian immigrant who describes herself as a white middle-aged woman, encountered new lessons about representing racialized characters while at Stonecoast. The critiques of peers and faculty led her to further research, reflection, and writing about white privilege. Stonecoast faculty member Faith Adiele, a Nordic-Nigerian American writer, was a major influence for Lichtenstein, as was David Mura.
“It was like learning a new language,” Lichtenstein said of her early encounters with the WISE ethos, citing the novel experience of being asked at Stonecoast to identify her preferred pronouns and being expected to remember and employ the preferred pronouns of others. She added, “I probably would not have joined a peaceful vigil [in support of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations] had it not been for Stonecoast and slowly but surely making myself more conscious.” Spurred on both by Norway’s recent ruling allowing dual citizenship and a sense of urgency to become more politically engaged, Lichtenstein has also recently applied for U.S. citizenship so that she can vote in the 2020 presidential election.
Fiction 2020 grad Derek Castle, a multiracial American writer interested in immigration themes, noted that, before discovering Stonecoast, “I had never realized that social justice writing was an entire writing movement. It was something that seemed to be very obviously missing from other programs I looked at.”
Still, Castle was skeptical at first. “As an undergraduate, I noticed there had been a lot of paperwork passed around about inclusivity and equity, but it stayed on the paper. I wondered, was it going to actually happen [at Stonecoast], or would it be something that was just given lip service?”
Stonecoast, Castle says, delivered. He was impressed by “the variety of seminars and perspectives that were consciously woven into the first residency.” He notes that Stonecoast faculty member and African American writer Breena Clarke’s seminars on default race and whiteness in writing were “full, every single residency. That says something about the people in the program as well as the program itself.”
Talbot’s and Stonecoast’s hard work, advocacy, and educational successes led to the raising of over $30,000 in 2018 for WISE and to USM’s awarding of a Pillar Grant to WISE during the 2019-2020 academic year. While the $9,000 grant is helpful, Talbot is still seeking more substantial support from the university, both in terms of staffing and funding. Stonecoast would especially like to connect with the USM Foundation to identify potential donors to establish a permanent, two-year, fully funded scholarship for a WISE MFA student. A writer-benefactor willing to champion the WISE program, similar to James Michener’s role in establishing the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas, would be a game changer.
When asked what the Stonecoast, USM, and broader community could do to support WISE, Talbot said, “We welcome donations of any amount, of course, and we need volunteers to work with us, on both fundraising and advocacy.” She added, “We need to be bold. We really need our alumni, students, and faculty to talk about WISE with each other, and with friends and colleagues. We need them to use their words to tell President Glenn Cummings and Provost Jeannine Diddle Uzzi how important our mission is, either through organizing petitions or by writing personal letters and sending them to us. Now that the Black Lives Matter movement has taken hold, we need to expand upon this moment, we need to act. We can come up with statements all day long, but the question is, what are we going to do, as individuals, and as a community, to make a difference?”
Talbot notes that Stonecoast’s WISE program is not merely reactive but has been a force for social change that has been gathering momentum for a number of years. “We are already here,” she says. “We have been doing this work, and we have the plans. What we need now is the institutional, financial, and community support to make this change happen on an even wider and deeper scale.”