Open letter to SFPC community

This letter was written collectively by SFPC administrators between October 2020 and February 2021. We initially planned to publish the letter from SFPC’s official communication channel. Considering changes in the organization, I am publishing the latest version from my personal account.

Open letter to SFPC community

In the fall of 2020, the School for Poetic Computation made a decision to pause its public programming. During the resurgence of ongoing protests influenced by the police murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and many others, Black SFPC students and teachers, and their allies spoke up about a lack of support for Black people from the administration and in SFPC’s classrooms. Many of these conversations happened on our Slack, in both public and private channels. In this open letter to our community, we want to apologize for our mistakes, share what we’ve discussed, and describe some of the changes we are making in the organization to create a more equitable and cooperatively-led organization.

Context

SFPC is an independent, artist-run organization started in 2013. For the last several years, the administrative leadership has consisted of the cofounders, Taeyoon Choi, Zach Lieberman, and a partner Lauren Gardner who shared responsibilities in curriculum and finance. We received additional support from our teachers, organizers involved on a project-by-project basis, and the Steering Committee, a volunteer-based group of advisors engaged with our long-term planning and major decisions.

In 2015, SFPC initiated diversity and inclusion efforts, including offering work-study scholarships and partnering with various communities and organizations to provide free and low-cost programs in NYC and in other cities like Detroit.

In 2020, we were forced to cancel our Spring in-person program in NYC due to the COVID-19 pandemic and transitioned to online classes. This change was sudden and tremendously challenging. Despite the visible success of the online classes, our internal working environment faced difficulties regarding the stress of operating virtually, financial transparency, and racial justice. We paused all of our public programs to give us time to internally reflect on and work to reform our organization. This work is ongoing and it will take time.

We recognize the place SFPC has in the art and technology community, particularly as an alternative to traditional academia. In sharing our mistakes and being open about the changes we are making, we hope that other organizations and communities can learn alongside us and seek to dismantle systematic patterns of harm and violence embedded in art, technology, and academia. This letter signals a commitment to change within our organization.

Our failings

We acknowledge incidents that created an uncomfortable environment for Black members of our community.

  • During the George Floyd protests, we failed to respond adequately both publicly and privately as evidenced by our choice to post a black square on Instagram and to tweet “SFPC stands in solidarity with everyone demanding justice for the systemic racism and violence against black life.” The SFPC admins were met with criticism from our community members who felt the messages were inappropriate. Instead, we need direct and systemic support for Black people in our community.
  • Black staff members were not always treated with equal respect, as evidenced by instances when non-Black staff spoke over Black staff during meetings and requested help from Black staff in ways that caused unnecessary emotional distress and labor.
  • We used photographs of Black students, teachers, and their work in promotional material, our social media, and fundraising campaign which gave an inflated sense of diversity and inclusion within the school community. Consequently, Black students and staff felt misrepresented and tokenized.
  • Our Diversity and Inclusion efforts were not sustainable because BIPOC(Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students were not often elevated to leadership positions, their labor as work-study students was compensated only in the form of reduced tuition, and the curriculum and programs continued to promote predominantly white artists.
  • Our internal working environment and mission statement did not center on racial justice and there were limited tools for protecting and supporting BIPOC staff.
  • In addition, we had issues regarding the administration and staff communication, as well as a lack of transparency about decision-making and finances. For example, our teachers were asked to transition to teaching online on short notice, compounding their stress, labor, and financial precarity.

Apologies

As administrators, we have apologized internally, to the community of teachers and alums, in July of 2020. These were posted in our general slack channels, and you can find them here and here. We want to take this moment to apologize to the broader SFPC community, and especially to Black staff and students who were hurt in our classrooms and meetings. We acknowledge that specific moments of failures were not isolated instances, but were rather a part of larger systemic failures based on ongoing issues of anti-Blackness, a lack of transparency, and unfair treatment in our working environment. It is clear that we need to fundamentally shift how the school is run.

Staff Demands

A group of teachers and alumni drafted a Demands letter on August 28, 2020. This letter includes the following demands:

  • Actively work towards dismantling white supremacy and all linked forms of oppression.
  • Incorporate critical theory and history into all classes.
  • Have guaranteed need-based tuition or no tuition at all.
  • Practice radical financial transparency.
  • Protect its workers against economic precarity.
  • Have a cooperative leadership structure.
  • Treat students as collaborators and formally acknowledge the power of students to determine their experience & education.
  • Extend into wider communities and welcome new communities into the school.
  • Actively support vulnerable, most impacted, and under-represented communities by being a genuine platform for grassroots organizing around collective actions.
  • Acknowledge that its members are capable of making mistakes.

We call the group of SFPC alums, teachers, and staff who’ve been active in shaping the change “SFPC Stewards.” We are thankful for the labor that SFPC Stewards have put in to illuminate our wrongdoings, including tolerance of white supremacy in our curriculum and organization. We value their thoughtful criticisms and suggestions for improvements together. We are committed to enacting the changes they’ve envisioned.

Transitions

In September 2020, we hired a professional facilitator and have formed a series of paid working groups to help plant the seeds for change. Working with SFPC Stewards, we have made the following commitments to align our educational practices with racial justice. We recognize these are only the first of many steps we need to take to become an organization that centers on racial-justice.

Improve financial transparency

One of the stated goals of SFPC has been to be financially transparent but we have not recently lived up to this aspiration. We fell behind on our open-source financial reports, but have recently caught up. We will continue to publish end-of-year reports that show our sources of revenue and our expenses. In order to make our classrooms more inclusive for Black students and teachers immediately and effectively, we have allocated $10,000, an unsolicited grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, to begin our work on racial justice and to support Black students and staff.

Establish a new form of decision making and delegation within the organization

In the summer of 2020, as it was made clear that organizational change was needed including space for new forms of leadership, Zach stepped down from his role as an administrator of the school. From September to December, we worked with CS, an organizational design consultant, and facilitator, along with our SFPC Stewards to create new operational models within the organization to open up decision-making and leadership opportunities. Taeyoon stepped down from his role as an administrator in February 2021 to make space for change. In the past, we’ve worked with our steering committee and collaborators to support new voices and changes in our organization, yet we did not move to change our structure in any meaningful way. Upon reflection, we realize this transition to new leadership is important to have true allyship with the community and staff.

Create a Community Agreement

In order to protect our staff and students, we established a working group to update the SFPC Code of Conduct. They’ve drafted the SFPC Community Agreement in the fall of 2020. We expect the new document will serve as a guide for our classrooms and staff meetings onsite and online to make SFPC a welcoming space for future students and teachers.

Revise our mission statement

We’ve established a working group that’s writing a new mission statement for SFPC, which will incorporate the perspectives from a larger group of the SFPC community including previous teachers and staff. The aim is to be inclusive and reflective of the voices and thoughts of the organization.

Change the business entity

SFPC’s current business structure is as an LLC. As part of the process to distribute decision-making and leadership through new organizational models, we will change the business structure to a form that makes the most sense for our mission and programs such as a nonprofit organization.

Recognition

We are thankful for the ongoing labor that the SFPC community has expanded into demanding a more equitable, anti-racist curriculum and organization. We value their thoughtful criticisms that come from a place of love and a belief that SFPC can and should become better. As a point of acknowledgment, we want to credit SFPC stewards who’ve actively contributed to bringing racial justice and transparency to SFPC through our slack channels and personal meetings: Zainab Aliyu, American Artist, Max Bittker, Luke Demarest, Nabil Hassein, Melanie Hoff, Tiri Kananuruk, Celine Wong Katzman, Taylor Levy, Galen Macdonald, Seb Morales, Emma Rae Bruml Norton, Amber Officer-Narvasa, Che-Wei Wang and more.

We are proud of the work that the school has done over the last seven years, and thankful to the wonderful people who came to learn, teach or attend events. We recognize that we have not yet created a space that is fully supportive of BIPOC, queer, Deaf, disabled staff, students, and community members. It’s important that we support our Black students and staff and other oppressed groups through systemic changes in our operations and pedagogy. We hope to build more equitable educational and technological infrastructures.

We have much work to do. This work can not be done alone. We hope you welcome and support the SFPC stewards to lead the school in the future. Thank you for reading.

Signed by Taeyoon Choi

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