The Poet as Activist: A Conversation with Carla Christopher
I met Carla for the first time at a poet’s showcase at King Courtyard Artists’ Collective in York where she was hosting a poetry reading. She is one of those people who make you comfortable in their presence, five minutes with her and you feel like you have known her all your life. The next time we met was at I-ron-ic Art Boutique & Café, a coffee shop, art gallery, and community gathering place located in the heart of downtown York. In the midst of an eclectic display of paintings, crafts, and sculptures, all by local York artists, I sat down with Carla for our conversation.
Carla Christopher can speak eloquently about nearly any topic and she seemed to be in fine form that day. I was prepared for our meeting, but what I wasn’t ready for, was her warmth and breadth of knowledge. We started with a conversation about her favorite coffee (maple French toast coffee), and before long we were talking about the state of the world, Trump’s presidency, racism, xenophobia, sexism, diversity and inclusion, poetry, and her favorite topic: the city of York.
My first question for Carla was why she is so fascinated by, and attracted to the city of York. She explained her love (and occasionally frustrating) relationship with the city by stating that everything in York is about “relationships, about word-of-mouth, and connections.” She expounded by saying that politicians have spent hundreds of years creating new programs and laws. “They have reformed Welfare programs, Affirmative Action rules, and building restrictions, but they haven’t changed anyone’s heart,” she claimed. She pointed out that in a small city like York, it is relatively easier to have conversations, and build relationships that change people’s lives, as opposed to big cities where people’s attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and characters are “already established.” She told me one such story about an older “white, privileged upper-middle class” couple at her church who bonded with a black and Hispanic gay couple because they discovered they shared something in common; a love of singing in the church choir.
York is going through this positive trajectory, Carla is convinced. She attributed that to the effect of migration of diverse people from Maryland, younger people who are starting new business, running organizations, and the efforts of the local government. According to Carla, these people are showcasing new styles and culture that the native York residents enjoy. They are more experienced in other cultures because they returned home from big city universities where cultural mixing is “normalized.” That’s why, she said “we don’t have black gathering places, gay places, or young and old places here because everybody hangs out together.” She goes on to say that even the high schools are desegregated with white students, black and brown students, gay and lesbian students, all together because the city is so small and so there is a need to intermingle, which is a good opportunity to observe and conclude that we are not so different after all.
What is your vision for York? I asked her. She replied that she would like to see York become a more “inclusive, diverse, and thriving community” that keeps the feeling of a small town. York should be careful to keep the “organic” nature of the city and not try for an “intentional” effort to diversify the community. “Where York struggles,” she claims, “ is with an inferior education, and a lack of counter narrative to the crime image that transmits at a higher speed than the positive and exciting things that are going on all over the city: the First Friday gathering, the Third Friday Bloom Art and Craft Market, the fairs and festivals, the community dinners, all the different churches, the different and inclusive bars and pubs that are sprouting all over the city, and the non-profit organizations that are doing incredible work.” York, she says, is a place that can offer opportunities to young people so that they can live the “American dream,” which we all crave. “We are industrialist here, we are makers, we are concrete, salt-of-the-earth people who believe in making things with our hands. We believe in building a community from the ground up, we are very humble, hardworking, and simple people, and that makes the city of York perfect for starting small businesses. We are not greedy, we are not trying to build corporate empires here, we just want to be able to care for ourselves, and build a community where we can raise families in a safe environment.”
As an artist, Carla evolved from a Columbia University graduate with a psychology degree and a minor in creative writing, to a community activist and teacher whose sole motivation was to reach young people before they got off track, or ended up in the prison system. She aimed to change the system by using community-based activism in an attempt to reach the place where these “young kids existed.” Her plan was to challenge these kids with art, because facts and data weren’t working. What better way to reach people’s heart than music, stories and poetry?
“Telling good stories” she said excitedly, “was my goal.” That’s why she says she started hosting her television show, and ventured into publishing. Carla’s press is named Community Arts Ink, and according to her, their tagline is “5 years, 55 books, 5 million memories.” She prides herself in showcasing local “authors with community-positive messages from radically different perspectives and styles.” This year, they will be celebrating their 5 year anniversary at Marketview Arts in downtown York. It will feature more than a dozen authors in a high-paced format sharing a few pieces from their published works. Her goal is to “help individuals tell their stories and help them get their narratives out there.” She does this not only by promoting other artists and authors, but also by, “writing poems with simple direct words, taking poetry into unconventional environments, going into music open mics sessions, to annual readings, community events, into schools, and talking to kids.” All of which, she told me, was combined with motivation to increase understanding and diversity.
The most poignant thing Carla said to me in our conversation is that her artistic expressions are intertwined with her community activism. She said “my poetry, my media and television show are not separated from my personal life. Everything is part of the same thing; I educate, I work in schools, I organized in community, I write and perform and publish and produce, both for myself and for others, and all of it is the same thing. Because I want to change people’s hearts and help them understand and get to know those that are different from themselves.”
For Carla, poetry is synonymous with human activism. She “wants the whole world to go to war for their friends, for everyone to feel that whoever is suffering is someone that is worth fighting for, someone I care about and someone I know, and whatever has to be done in that fight—whether in poetry, a conversation, a class or a training—as long as it makes someone feel personally and emotionally invested in another human being’s struggle.”
Carla’s next evolution is as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ministry, where she is receiving pastoral training through the United Church of Christ. She told me that she specifically chose that church because they are a “social justice oriented church.” She is also a regional organizer of Put People First, a human rights organization, all this because she believes that “we cannot make the changes that we need just in politics, community reform, or academic reform. We need something that brings in the whole family.” She is nostalgic for the church of the previous generation when they were the “community centers, a place of counseling, a place the people’s needs were met, and a place they went to get resources for the entire family.”
Carla’s ultimate goal is to obtain her pastorship and take the helm of a local community church so that she can blend her passion for performance, poetry, art, and community engagement, and spirituality, all of which she wholeheartedly believes is the remedy for change. She ended our conversation by saying, “I recognize that I can’t change the whole world, I can’t necessarily change the whole country, I can’t even change a whole state, but what I can do, is make a difference in one community and if we can do that all across the country, then we can change people’s’ lives.” If you believe that Carla can’t change the world, you probably haven’t met her yet.