San Francisco Poet Laureate and Activist Named USF Diversity Scholar
If you ask celebrated poet and activist Janice Mirikitani, there’s no better classroom than the streets of San Francisco.
Mirikitani tirelessly serves those on the fringes — providing meals, housing, job training, and support to the homeless, the mentally ill, the drug addicted, and those with nowhere else to go. “We talk about service, but I would say that they also serve us,” said Mirikitani. “I’m fed by them, by the unpredictability and the shock I get from their wisdom.”
It’s their hard-won wisdom — the kind you can’t get from textbooks — that she hopes to offer students as USF’s new diversity scholar visiting professor, beginning this fall.
A Living Legend
When Mirikitani arrives on campus, she plans to take her students out of the classroom and into the lives of those she serves, exploring issues of poverty and oppression using poetry, personal narrative, and direct engagement with the Tenderloin’s neediest. Her class, Poetry and Poverty: Transformation From Dust, will be an experiment in experiential learning, one that the former San Francisco poet laureate and founding president of Glide Foundation is uniquely suited to lead.
“Janice is a living legend,” said Mary Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, vice provost of diversity engagement and community outreach. “She draws from her own experiences and those of people in the shadows to write poems that challenge those who read them and to advocate for social change.”
Mirikitani has written with courage and candor about racism, sexism, poverty, and her own struggles, about being sent to an internment camp for Japanese Americans in Arkansas during World War II, and the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. After decades of silence, she found her voice through poetry.
“Those experiences that were unspeakable became speakable and became an instrument by which I could open the door for others,” said Mirkitani, who is the author of four collections of poetry. “I took my secrets and shame and said, ‘This is a source of power. This is a gift to other people who may be feeling the same things I am.’”
A Passion for Building Community
Mirikitani believes in the power of poetry and sharing stories to build community, and it’s her passion for building community that drives her work as head of the Glide Foundation. Through the foundation and its associated church, Mirikitani and her husband, Rev. Cecil Williams, have created more than 80 programs that offer education, health care, food, shelter, and other support services to San Francisco’s marginalized communities. The couple’s efforts have turned a dying church into a Tenderloin neighborhood institution celebrated as a beacon of hope by luminaries like Oprah Winfrey, the investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, and the late Maya Angelou.
Mirikitani is USF’s second diversity scholar visiting professor, a position that brings a nationally recognized diversity leader to campus for a semester to teach and engage the university community. Visiting professors bring firsthand knowledge of a part of America’s multicultural history.
In 2012, USF awarded the inaugural professorship to distinguished civil rights leader Clarence Jones, who served as advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and helped write King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.