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July 2008
Volume 3, Number 7

From CityWorks to International Book Fair

Jim Miller

Editor’s Note: This month’s issue of Innovation Showcase is an excerpt from the new League publication, Student Services Dialogues: Community College Case Studies to Consider, edited by R. Thomas Flynn and Gerardo E. de los Santos. The book will be available from the League later this summer.

Context

San Diego City College is an urban, largely working-class community college of 15,134 students in downtown San Diego not far from the international border. The student population of City College is diverse: 31.9 percent are white, 30.3 percent are Latino, 12.7 percent are African American, 5.8 are percent Asian American, 4.6 percent are Filipino, and 1 percent are Native American. A variety of other ethnicities are represented in the remainder. Immigrants comprise 10 percent of the student body. Just over 54 percent of our students are women and 45.6 percent are men. Over 40 percent of our students are at or below the federal poverty level of $19,307 (as of 2004) for a family of four, with 14 percent between $20,000 and $30,000. Most of our students work, and 56 percent intend to transfer with or without an associate’s degree. There is no single majority population at City College, making it a cross section of the city and perhaps the most diverse institution in San Diego.

The location of San Diego City College in the middle of the city, sandwiched between the more affluent suburbs to the north and the west and the more working-class communities to the south and east, makes our campus an intersection that brings together many of the city’s communities and has the potential to do much more. The fact that we have a large immigrant population on campus and that we are close to the Mexican border also positions us well to serve as a center for cultural exchange with our neighbors to the south. We see City College as a cultural nexus with the potential to bring together a diverse set of communities in the San Diego-Tijuana region.

Summary of the Case

For the past 14 years, the creative writing faculty at San Diego City College has produced CityWorks, which started as a campus literary journal and has grown into a journal that publishes the work of student writers, local authors, and national and international scribes. The journal is edited by faculty and the students in an honors English course, “Introduction to Creative Writing,” which gives the students writing, editing, and publishing experience. CityWorks receives $3,000 per year from the college and makes money from sales to help with student awards such as Best Fiction and Best Poem.

With the expansion of the journal to include featured local writers and the addition of a national award, we have been able to promote a dialogue between the campus and the larger community it serves. The annual CityWorks reading each spring has become a large event attended by well over 100 writers and fans of literature. We have published works by writers from Tijuana and have brought the authors to campus for bilingual presentations of their work. We have also celebrated the work of well-published professional writers alongside the work of aspiring community college student authors. All of this has created the perfect environment in which to celebrate literacy and the literary arts and break down walls that frequently hinder first-generation college students from identifying themselves as potential writers and readers of literature. In an era where one out of every four adult Americans reports that they never read books, this is a valuable opportunity.

Building on the experience we gained publishing CityWorks, the creative writing faculty at City College decided to start our own small press focusing on the publication of San Diego City College student chapbooks, books by local writers, and, occasionally, books by national writers. As part of the contract, every writer we publish is obliged to read at City College, speak with classes, and meet with students. With no funding from the college, a number of City College faculty founded the San Diego Writers Collective, a group of about 30 writers and artists from the San Diego area. After that group was formed, those of us who work at City College opened an account in the San Diego City College Foundation, making our press a nonprofit entity. Over a period of four years, the members of the San Diego Writers Collective contributed money individually to our account. When we had raised $10,000, we asked the American Federation of Teachers Local 1931 to match the funds and they did so. With an initial budget of $20,000, we began operating San Diego City Works Press, which has published three student chapbooks, an anthology, a collection of short stories, a novel, and two poetry collections. Our first endeavor, Sunshine/Noir: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana, sold out the run of 1,500 and more than paid for itself.

Writers we publish are not paid for their work, but they maintain their copyright so we serve as a stepping-stone press for emerging writers or a place where established writers who appreciate our collective model can have more control over their work. All of the money we make through sales goes back into our City College Foundation account. That, combined with roughly $5,000 per year in donations, has allowed us to run the press and keep our $20,000 base intact over the past three years. During that period, we have been able to bring writers such as Jimmy Santiago Baca, Steve Kowit, and Sandra Alcosser to City Works events attended by large crowds. For example, Baca read to a standing-room-only crowd in the 350-seat Saville Theatre on campus. We have also had full audiences for City Works readings at the downtown library, local bookstores, and on other campuses throughout the county. The popularity of the readings has resulted in favorable press coverage and helped create a lively cultural environment on campus. It has also brought City College into the community.

San Diego College President Terrence Burgess has been a great supporter of the journal and the press since he came to campus a few years ago. After attending several years of packed City Works readings and seeing what we were able to do with City Works Press, President Burgess more thoroughly institutionalized our literary efforts by establishing the San Diego City College International Book Fair. The book fair was intended to showcase City Works Press writers, bring more prominent, nationally recognized writers to campus, stimulate student interest in literature, and build bridges to the larger community in the San Diego-Tijuana region.

Questions to Consider

  1. How can the organizers continue funding the book fair without relying too heavily on corporate sponsorships?
  2. How does the college keep the book fair from losing its primary focus on improving student and community life?
  3. How should the book fair be staffed as it grows in popularity and size? What are the roles of the various positions, both paid and volunteer?
  4. How might the organizers increase outreach efforts and seek collaborations with other arts groups and community groups?

Thoughts and Analysis

Now in our third year, we need to assess how big we want to get, how dependent we want to be on sponsors, what means of outreach will be most effective, and how the labor is done. After visiting the International Book Fair in Miami last November, we found many things that were impressive as well as a few cautionary tales. While we were certainly impressed at the size and unquestionable quality of the event, we wondered if it hadn’t outgrown an emphasis on student life and perhaps become too dependent on corporate sponsorships. Hence, as we move forward, we will be cautious of not getting so big we strain our resources or lose touch with the primary focus of the event, which is to improve student and community life. We will also face the question of how to bring in more hands to do the work as the event grows. What are the roles of the director, assistant directors, and office staff? How do we maintain our literary center during a time when construction limits space on campus? As these questions involve more resources, it may not always be easy to do everything we can on a limited budget. We will also need to increase our outreach efforts and seek valuable collaborations with other arts groups and community groups. One of the central lessons of our first two years is that this is a game that moves as we play. Funding comes and goes, so flexibility, imagination, and ingenuity will always be necessary to keep the program moving forward.

Outcomes

During a six-month period, by combining campus funding sources with an aggressive fundraising drive, we were able to raise close to $40,000 to fund the first annual San Diego City College International Book Fair. The initial fair, held the second week of October, featured Jimmy Santiago Baca, Mike Davis, Luis Rodriguez, Acanto y Laurel, Judy Botello, Steve Kowit, and many more authors, musicians, and artists. The fair culminated on a Saturday with a book vendor fair, a jazz concert, and readings by prominent authors. Also part of the fair, which is free and open to the public, are private sessions for Puente, Chicano Studies, Black Studies, and other City College students with writers such as Jimmy Santiago Baca, Amiri Baraka, and Denise Chavez. Despite rain, our first fair drew over 2,500 people.

Our goals for the book fair were to fill a void in the city, create a cultural event to bring diverse communities together, and encourage literacy. Thus far, we have succeeded on all fronts. In our second year, we were able to almost double our budget, increase our outreach, obtain grant funding, and more thoroughly involve the campus community in the program.


Jim Miller is Director of the San Diego City College International Book Fair and California Center for the Literary Arts at San Diego City College and Coeditor of San Diego City Works Press in San Diego, California.


Cynthia Wilson, Editor