acknowledging mistakes

This post contains two letters, the first one dated April 18th, 2021 is a letter to my community and collaborators, the second one dated April 9th, 2021 is a personal letter to my colleagues at the School for Poetic Computation.

To my community

Since the mid-2000s, I have taught in universities, art museums, and non-profit organizations. The Occupy movement of the early 2010s — specifically the organizing and protests against the Student Debt Crisis and the neoliberal privatization of higher education — moved me profoundly, and in 2013 I co-founded the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC), an artist-run school in New York that teaches art and technology.

From the very beginning SFPC sought to operate transparently, publishing the details of our finances and curriculum. We considered ourselves a small, for-profit organization run on a not-for-profit model. We tried to offer an affordable education and compensate our teachers fairly. The school soon became home to a community of artists, engineers and activists.

In spite of increasing visibility and recognition, the school suffered from mismanagement and lack of care. Last year, during the state of emergency ignited by COVID-19 and a resurgence of Black liberation protests, SFPC’s lead administrators — including myself — were called to account by the school’s teachers in a series of internal statements and in our slack channels for “racism and especially anti-Blackness within the school,” as well as “a pattern of exploitation of the care and trust of its workers.” As the only person of color in the original leadership and the initiator of our efforts toward diversity and inclusion, I was particularly disappointed by those failures that had resulted in Black students feeling tokenized.

Receiving these criticisms was painful, but also vital. It was deeply humbling to realize that so many lived experiences had been so at odds with the values we aspired to practice. In August of 2020, a group of teachers and alums became ‘stewards’ of the school. After a six months-long process of working with these stewards toward internal transformation, I stepped down from the leadership, taking accountability for my mistakes and making space for the next generation of leaders. In March 2021, I published an open letter to the community on behalf of the former administrators.

The past year has been rough. Still, this necessary reckoning does not erase the significant positive outcomes that predated and even coexisted with the missteps. Our alums often said that their lives have been changed for the better by their time at SFPC, and many have gone on to create beautiful projects and communities of their own. I’m grateful to have met so many wonderful people during my time there, and I’m excited for the future to come under the leadership of the stewards.

The past decade of my educational practice traces a parabolic arch: protesting against academic institutions, creating an alternative institution, administering that institution, and eventually becoming a subject of protest myself. Having been on both ends of such protests now, I find myself considering the distinction between intentional and unintentional harm within the structures of a capitalist and racist society. Intentional harm is inflicted when I intend to cause damage, whereas unintentional harm is inflicted without the desire to harm, however the impact is felt nonetheless. My experience has changed how I think about right and wrong, making me question the confidence of my past self, so certain that I knew what was right. I find that I no longer think about conflicts in stark binaries; having once dismissed such considerations out of hand, I now wonder about the place of context, even nuance, and whether they might ever have a place in true accountability.

I have been coming to terms with my complicity in capitalism and white supremacy. I felt defensive and misunderstood at first, then hopeless and dejected as the efforts of repair failed. In what felt like the darkest night, a former colleague mentioned a quote by Krista Tippett:

“I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, listening less guardedly. The difference in our opinions will probably remain intact, but it no longer defines what is possible between us.” ― Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise Deluxe: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living

I am interested in the phrase “what is possible between us.” It provokes a sense of hope. I define unlearning as questioning “how we learn and what we learn”, a process that centers internal growth and the creation of our own community of self-taught (un)learners. Unlearning is an exploration of “what is possible between us.” On a practical level, within my classroom and studio, I have also focused on beginning to make what repairs are within my capacity. I’ve realized that it is important to be humble within my own practice, and that I may not achieve everything I set my heart to. I no longer want to set unrealistic expectations for myself and my collaborators. As long as systems of anti-Blackness, racism, sexism, ableism and classism exist, no work will never be ‘enough.’ Nonetheless, we must interrogate this very notion of ‘enoughness.’ We must keep trying.

4/18/2021

To my colleagues

The School for Poetic Computation has been going through an important transition. Zach’s letter about stepping down is an honest and accurate reflection of the process we are going through. I published an open letter to the community, which was co-authored by the administrators with support from the stewards. The past year has been extremely challenging for the school, as our letters detail. We tried to do what we thought was right, but sometimes it was not the right thing to do, and sometimes we should’ve done more.

On a personal note, I left New York in mid-2020 after very difficult experiences– injury, illness, racism, and other personal challenges– to be closer with my family in South Korea. Since relocating, I’ve mishandled my responsibilities as one of the administrators of the school. I caused pain and frustration to people I respect and care for. I’m regretful. I think it’s important to acknowledge my mistakes publicly. I want to apologize to Lauren who has been an integral member of the administration. SFPC’s financial and operational stability over the last few years is indebted to her work and dedication to the community. My negligence had a negative impact on the work she has done to keep the school afloat. I want to apologize to Zach for causing delays in the organizational transformation when he insisted on a more swift change. I want to apologize to SFPC teachers, teaching assistants, steering committee members, and stewards who had to endure the painful process of organizational transformation. I want to apologize to the stewards for a project that did not happen. I’ve been working on an exhibition in Hong Kong about the relationship between textile and code. In January 2021, I invited a group of stewards to propose a project for the exhibition. The stewards considered the opportunity as a beginning of the restorative process and created an impressive proposal that would involve the larger community. Considering the state of the organization within SFPC, the stewards decided they can’t represent the school at this moment and withdrew their proposal. I’m really sorry to Galen, Zai, Celine, and Luke about the disappointing experience.

In February 2021, I decided it would be best for me to step down from the administration. I’m thankful to have been a part of a wonderful community, thankful to CS who’s coached us through the darkest moments, and grateful to have met kind-hearted students and community members through the school. We are in the process of setting up the stewards to take the leadership of the school. I’m excited for them. I believe in them. I plan to support them as long as my service is needed.

4/8/2021

immigrant. art. tech. learning. accessibility. inclusion. Co-founder @sfpc. fellow @datasociety. artist http://taeyoonchoi.com