January 2019

Annual Janzen writer series brings Mennonite poet to FPU

Todd Davis to speak on the gift of nature

Beginning in 2007 local poet Jean Janzen and her late husband, Dr. Louis Janzen, began the Jean and Louis Janzen Endowed Writer Series by donating a sum of money that they had received from selling inherited farm land to Fresno Pacific University, as a way to bring poetry to students and hopefully expose them to the art for the first time; this was all done in the hopes of instilling a respect for it in their young minds. Prior to their efforts, there has been no outlet of public speaking, much less poetry reading, available for students. The money was used as an endowment for the new poetry series and has since collected interest over the years, allowing for it to become a thriving cultural event on campus.

Originally it was focused entirely on Christian writers; however, Janzen decided to redefine it as being about “excellent” writers, so that the scope of those who could be invited to speak was not limited to those with Christian roots. Coincidentally, each writer has been Christian (and most of them, to be specific, Mennonite) anyway.

English program director and Humanities Division chair Eleanor Nickel, Ph.D., joined the leadership of the program in 2012. She approved that most of the writers and poets coming to speak at the event were Mennonite, for good reason.

“I feel like most students here have no idea who the Mennonites are,” said Nickel, “I really continued with the Mennonite writer idea because it’s something that students aren’t really exposed to around here.”

Todd Davis, speaker at the upcoming Janzen writer series

Nickel explained that something fascinating about the event is the audience: half of it consists of the students and faculty, while the other is made up of the local Mennonite community, who know the Janzens and return year after year to show support. The event is advertised all over town, especially in the bulletins at Mennonite churches.

In the organization and preparation of each event, Nickel meets with Janzen to choose which writer will speak. Janzen, having known many Mennonite writers and poets throughout the community during her involvement, has many connections to potential spokespersons for the event; however, Nickel tries her best to find a specific type of poet.

“I try to pick people that are accessible to freshmen,” said Nickel, “I don’t want people to come to this poetry event and not understand it, and have a reinforced stance of ‘I don’t get poetry’ or ‘I hate poetry’.”

She went on to explain that the negotiation comes down to finding someone who can be understood by a wide variety of audiences. She is in charge of getting in touch with the speaker, making travel arrangements and hosting a dinner for  both the Humanities faculty and the writer at Janzen’s home.

“She has this incredible, huge and beautiful house,” said Nickel, “however, this year will be the last dinner at her house, because she is selling it and moving to a retirement village.”

This being the last year of the dinner being hosted at Janzen’s home already makes it a monumental year for the Humanities staff and the writer series; this holds true especially for Todd Davis, the Penn State Altoona professor they have chosen as special guest this year. Deciding on a more eccentric topic, Nickel has big hopes for what he has to share with those who attend.

“Todd is actually a convert to Mennonitism,” said Nickel, “He didn’t grow up Mennonite, so he is going to speak about why he became a Mennonite.”

Surely this will be a treat to the attendees of the event, as Nickel has previously expressed her desire to educate the FPU community on Mennonitism – the topic Davis chose satisfies both this desire, and her wish to introduce students to the art of poetry. He will also speak on his deep appreciation and love of nature and the wilderness. He lives in Pennsylvania, and oftentimes spends most days in the “wood” and on the “steams,” even if only for an hour or two.

“My poems grow out of my love for the Earth, my reverence for all the species with whom we share the planet,” said Davis, “I know how fragile this place is- I write as a way to say we must be careful not to lose this gift.”

Davis further explained that he loves to visit other colleges and universities, as a way of meeting new people and talking with students and faculty about “the literary arts, about environmental issues, about how spiritual matters are often behind the arts and our relationship to the earth”.

Davis leaves us with this parting note: “Too many people are scared of poetry; they think it’s a puzzle that’s difficult to figure out. I don’t want anyone to be scared away by the fact this will be a poetry reading. My poems tell stories. My poems are accessible and fairly plain spoken.”

Davis’ time in  the Jean & Louis Janzen Visiting Writer Series will take place on January 31, and will be held in North Hall 123 (the Seminary Chapel).

The myth of reverse racism

People of color face racism, white people do not

Last semester, The Syrinx published an opinion piece focusing on reverse racism and sexism (“Too Much Diversity,” Volume 34; Issue 4, pg. 8). When I first read it, the hurt and pain the writer wrote about experiencing reminded me of the hurt and pain I feel exists on campus for minority students. For this reason, I would like to respond and say that reverse racism and sexism are not real, and we should stop trying to make them real.

In truth, I feel that there is a lack of understanding about what racism is. The closest, and most historically accurate, definition of racism is a system of dominance, power, and privilege, rooted in the historical oppression of subordinated groups that are viewed by the dominant group as inferior, deviant or undesirable on account of their race. Legitimizing reverse racism takes power away from the oppressed and gives it back to the oppressor. As an idea, it distracts from the systemic inequities built up over time that white people are simply not subject to. Dealing with racism is a matter of dealing with the momentum of injustice that has been set in motion and has continued into the present.

I would like to make clear that this does not mean that white people don’t face prejudice. Any race group can show bias against another, and there is never justification for making someone feel threatened because of their skin color. Nevertheless, the prejudice that white people experience is not the same as racism.

Furthermore, the misconception that affirmative action only assists individuals

on account of their skin color is false. Affirmative action allows individuals who are already well-qualified to access equal opportunities. I personally work three jobs, and have to work twice as hard in order to prove that I am more than just my skin color. However, this is my story, I do not speak for every minority student.

Scholarships are not handed out just because your birth certificate identifies you as African American, Hispanic, Asian or any other minority race. A person has to apply for scholarships to receive this financial support. Yes, there are scholarships designated for specific groups of people; that is because the groups tied to these awards come from historically disenfranchised communities which have been prevented from attending post-secondary institutions in the past. A white person not getting an extra scholarship to come to school does not mean they are facing reverse racism. Most minority students on campus feel like outsiders because, historically, universities were not built for them.

The author of the original piece stated that “Diversity of thought is just as important, if not more, than diversity of population.” It is crucial, however, to understand that a portion of our thoughts and ideas are influenced by our racial and ethnic backgrounds. This means that we cannot acknowledge  diversity of thoughts without recognizing the factors that shape them.

Dealing with racism is a matter of dealing with the momentum of injustice that has been set in motion and has continued into the present.

Concerning the WASC campus visit; it is the organization’s job to make sure that colleges are providing quality education and moving forward as an inclusive institution in order to maintain their accreditation. They did not come to campus just to talk with students of color. They invited all students for one session, and all leaders on campus to another, separate session. And yes, they did have a separate meeting for students of color. WASC extending their invite to minority students is not wrong, because these students are underrepresented. To know that Fresno Pacific is giving them the same opportunity as their white peers, they have to hear it from them. As a black woman, I don’t just feel the stress from school work, but the stress that comes from trying to fit in a system that wasn’t open to black people 55 years ago. Considering the fact that, historically, this university has been a predominantly white culture, WASC’s invitation towards minority groups was an attempt to understand how such students are adapting.

Topics of discrimination and race are not presented to make white people feel guilty, unsafe or attacked; they are introduced in the hopes of starting a real conversation with those who still believe that reverse racism is real. I am all for creating a safe space in which everyone can  share their opinion, and I would never want anyone to feel unsafe in an environment where they should feel secure. My hope is that we learn to listen well so that we can have productive conversations around sensitive topics.

Samra Gebretsadkan is a senior political science major and SGA president