The Places In Between

My beautiful picture

by Maggie Sava
WRIT 1733: Human Rights/Humans Write | Professor John Tiedemann

She was at home playing with her four-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and her one-year-old son, Paul, when the phone rang. It was the fall of 1974, and her two older children, Randy and Julia, were at school for the day. After settling the kids, she answered the call to find a man on the line.

“Hello, Mrs. Atencio. My name is John, and I am a member of the Parent Teacher Association. I am calling you today to discuss a volunteer opportunity.”

“Oh, I see. May I ask what the opportunity is exactly?”

“Well, as I am sure you are aware, Denver Public Schools have recently begun integration programs that…”

She interrupted. “Oh yeah, I have been hearing a lot about that lately.”

“Good, good. Well, you see, we need parents to observe the schools in a monitor role to make sure that all students are receiving the appropriate treatment at their new schools. We are reaching out to you because we know how involved you have been in the PTA before, and we need representatives for Hispanic students.”

“You don’t understand. Atencio is my married name. I am not Hispanic; my husband is.”

“Mrs. Atencio, we are in desperate need of volunteers. We believe that you are especially qualified for this. It is just once a month. We really need your help.”

She paused. “Okay, okay. I am happy to help. What do you need me to do?”

∗  ∗  ∗

My grandparents, Cheryl and Sam Atencio, met when they were only 18 years old. Cheryl had moved to her parents’ new home in the new upper-middle-class development of Applewood, Colorado, after transferring from Hood College, a women’s college on the East Coast, to the University of Colorado Denver. Her background was about as middle-class as it could get. Initially, her parents bought a new home that was constructed after World War II, but they ended up moving from one suburban town to the next as her dad’s job required. Before Colorado, they lived in New Jersey, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. Meanwhile, Sam’s family settled in southern Colorado and New Mexico during Spanish colonization. Sam was born in Sante Fe shortly before his family moved to Denver to pursue better job opportunities. They settled in one of North Denver’s Hispanic neighborhoods.


Cheryl after a new haircut.

Cheryl and Sam first saw each other at a bar in North Denver. Cheryl’s friend, who was pregnant at the time, begged her to go out dancing. Cheryl agreed, so they went to Denver and wound up at a rough 3.2 bar, since 18-year-olds could buy 3.2 beer at the time. There, Sam approached Cheryl and asked her to dance. Cheryl refused unless he danced with her pregnant friend first. He obliged, and from that night on, Cheryl and Sam were inseparable. When the two brought up the idea of marriage less than two months later, neither of their families supported the idea. At the time, the proposed union of the teenagers was considered a “mixed marriage.” Sam was even kicked out of his house and forced to stay at the YMCA. Despite the resistance, they wed in 1965, six weeks after they met.

Early on, the two had no money. They hopped from house to house in North Denver, one of their first being a dumpy little two-story house built behind someone else’s lot on Perry Street. Cheryl was always pregnant, so they had to keep moving as they outgrew houses. By the time they found themselves at the house at 3934 Tejon Street, they already had seven-year-old Randy, five-year-old Julia, three-year-old Jenn, and a fourth child on the way. St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, the family’s parish, was down the street from their modest house. Nearby was the fire station and the police station. Police helicopters flew over the neighborhood at all hours of the night, shining their spotlights through the windows in tireless searches. A bar or liquor store could be found on practically every block. Cheryl did not fit into the neighborhood. A fair-skinned, red-haired Norwegian girl with a middle-class background stood out, and the neighbors were suspicious of her until they met Sam.

Sava 10

Christine Franck |

Across 38th Avenue, a busy thoroughfare, was the neighborhood elementary school, Bryant Webster, where Julia and Randy went to school when they were not being bussed to Gust Elementary School. Being Hispanic students in the 1970s, Julia and Randy were sent to a white school across town for half of the day as a result of Denver’s attempt to increase diversity and level the playing field for minority students. Although they were considered Hispanic, the kids did not fit into any category. Being half white and half Hispanic, Randy and Julia were stuck between two worlds. Cheryl cringed when her children returned home to tell stories of how they were called “honky” at Bryant Webster because they had a white mother and how, at Gust, they were referred to as “beaners” because their skin was brown. Fuming on the inside, Cheryl comforted Julia and Randy, explaining to them that those were not nice words and that they should not use them to refer to other people.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” she would remind them. “But words will never hurt me.”

My beautiful picture

Paul, Randy, Julia, and Jennifer in their Tejon house, 1975.

∗  ∗  ∗

Cheryl peered anxiously through the window, watching the sidewalk as the sunlight began to recede. Behind her, one of the babies began to cry, pulling her attention from the glass. She crossed the living room of the small house on Tejon Street, leaving her perch to check on her babies.

She took turns watching the front walk and working on dinner. Finally, she heard the shuffling footsteps of two kids on the front porch and opened the door to find Julia there with a neighbor boy. She was tired from chasing her toddlers around all day. Her fatigue was compounded by frustration when she noticed that the sun had mostly set and the city street was getting darker and darker. She thanked the neighbor boy who walked Julia from the bus stop each night and gave him some change just as Sam’s car pulled into the drive. Sam was coming home from his job at the Department of Transportation to have dinner with his family and rest for a bit before leaving to go to his second job as a valet at a country club. Now that everyone had made it home, Cheryl could serve dinner.

The concerns Cheryl had about her daughter’s safety and her difficult school day were not alleviated as she watched Julia struggle to keep her eyes open during dinner. Cheryl questioned why her kids had to be bussed forty-five minutes to a different school every day. Randy and Julia were not even on the same bus schedule. Originally, both kids went to Bryant Webster in the morning and Gust in the afternoon, but when Randy hit third grade, he was forced to change his schedule. While Randy went in the mornings, Julia went in the afternoons, and so he was not there to walk her home at night.

After cleaning up after the meal, Cheryl went to the living room, where Sam was resting. Suddenly, she vented. “How much good can they be doing these kids when they drop first-grade girls off at a bus stop two blocks away from their home at night?”

“Cher… .”

“I mean, think about it. They lose at least an hour every day. Julia is only six! Thank goodness there is that neighbor boy to walk her home.”

“I suppose they think they are doing them a service. I mean, they mix in all the students from the other school, so maybe they are getting a better experience. More diversity.”

“I hardly think they are getting anything out of this. Heck, I wouldn’t want to be going to either school! You wouldn’t believe what it’s like in Bryant Webster, Sam. It’s terrible. I saw it back when I visited Randy’s second-grade class. Some kids don’t even have shoes to wear!”

“What do you want me to say? Schools are falling apart around us, Cher, and the kids are taking the brunt of it. There are no other options, not since the redistricting from desegregation made us leave Smedly.”

“I still can’t believe they made us leave that school. Now the kids have to cross 38th with all that traffic just to get to school. It is so dangerous! That court order completely turned these kids’ life upside down. I just don’t know what to do. How are they supposed to make friends? At which school will they have a chance to play with the other kids? I just don’t think it’s good for them. Especially for Julia. She is so young and so smart. I don’t want her miss out on anything… .”

My beautiful picture

Julia, Paul, and Jennifer, 1974.

∗  ∗  ∗

At the start of desegregation, the schools needed to accommodate the new students, which required much preparation and training to explain new policies and ensure that they were properly applied. The school board used volunteer parent monitors to make sure that students were accepted into their new classrooms and treated equally by the school. The request made by the Parent Teacher Association for a representative for the Hispanic students was not one that Cheryl could comfortably turn down. She had already headed an effort to restart the PTA at Smedly Elementary, where Randy went before the redistricting. That challenging project made her well aware of the inner workings of the schools and all the help they needed.


Cheryl’s PTA portrait

Like her children, Cheryl went downtown to a new school. Monitors were not allowed to volunteer at their neighborhood institutions, so she was assigned to a poor school that was close to the low-income housing projects near Colfax Avenue and Federal Boulevard. As the acting representative of the Hispanic population at the school, she had to drive there once a month. She observed everything intently, including classes and teacher performances, and filled out special rubrics that were filed at North High School. Cheryl was frustrated by the limitations of her position. As an unwanted visitor, Cheryl knew she could not see what the school was really like day to day. She suspected that teachers and students were on their best behavior during the monthly visits, and she did not have the chance to understand the true climate of the school. Try as she might, she could not get beyond the surface of the situation. Hispanic families were wary of her serving as their spokesperson, and with good reason. She was young and white, and she could not relate to the experiences of the students she was supposed to represent. During her days at the school, she was made aware of the glaring differences between her schooling in a middle-class suburban neighborhood in New Jersey and the urban Denver school in which she found herself. In spite of all the training and preparation the monitor organization provided and her Spanish surname, she never felt as though she had the clout to honestly speak for the students she believed needed stronger support and a better learning environment. Nothing was more frustrating to a young activist dedicated to bettering her community than knowing that she could not really help.

She found herself in the same, uncomfortable in-between space her children occupied at school. She was too white to fit in with the Hispanics at the schools, yet she still had a Hispanic family and was a part of the community. Like Randy and Julia, she was often reminded that she did not belong. One day, she was sitting at the back of a classroom observing when she noticed the teacher’s assistant looking her over. When Cheryl looked back at her, the teacher’s assistant said something under her breath in Spanish that made Cheryl blush. She may not have spoken fluent Spanish, but Cheryl had spent enough time in the barrio to know when she was being called a nasty name.

She once said, “It was like being a fish out of water.”

∗  ∗  ∗

My beautiful picture

Julia with her Aunt Margie for her first Communion, 1974.

It only made sense that Cheryl would volunteer as an advocate in the schools. Cheryl converted to Catholicism when she married Sam and became fiercely loyal to her faith. The couple served the church community by being on the parish council, kick-starting and running the food bank, and taking donations to be deposited at the bank after mass on Sundays each week. Being a young, poor couple, they knew what hard work meant. They were constantly striving to create better conditions for their growing family.

Cheryl and Sam’s civic engagement also extended beyond the walls of the church; they became activists for their neighborhood. Idealistic and hardworking, Sam and Cheryl were active in every way possible. As they became leaders in their community, their house became a meeting place. Their political work predated the 26th Amendment that lowered the voting age, which meant that they were laboring for the Democratic Party in their part of the city before they could even vote. As their activism increased, they garnered attention as a motivated couple that was excited about the new forms of cultural and political empowerment emerging in a number of different communities. Their own community was in the midst of the Chicano Movement, which offered people a new opportunity for self-identification. Hispanics were tired of being mislabeled and assigned stereotypes. Community leaders were giving Chicanos and Chicanas a voice. Sam and Cheryl saw these leaders speaking from the pulpit of the neighborhood church asking for support such as food donations for migrant workers. As long as it wasn’t okra. They were sick and tired of okra.

Eventually, Cheryl and Sam were elected precinct captains, and they attended all important meetings in Denver. They became involved with policy writing and platform organizing. Their dedication had them traveling through the projects to pass out materials and brochures, all with their little ones following along. The campaigns they organized and contributed to even helped elect Pat Schroeder, the first Congresswoman from Colorado.

Despite positive political changes and momentum within their community, Cheryl and Sam found their neighborhood becoming less safe and less welcoming. Big changes were occurring in the house on Tejon Street. The family welcomed a fifth child, Noah, into the world in the fall of 1975. The house was proving to be too small. Julia, Randy, and Jennifer had to sleep in a room in the basement, while Paul and Noah slept together in a room upstairs near the master bedroom. They were outgrowing the house, and the state of the neighborhood was a heavy toll on them. Across the street was a halfway house, and the helicopters still kept them awake all night. Two blocks down, a law office that served the poor community had been blown up by a splinter group of anarchists whose graffiti littered the neighborhood declaring, “Free Kiki.” Even the family house was not immune from the dangers of the neighborhood.

On one occasion, Cheryl and Sam woke to Julia and Randy banging on their bedroom door early on a Saturday morning. As they drowsily answered their door, the kids excitedly whispered, “Mom. Dad. There is a strange man sleeping on our couch.” Confused and alarmed, Cheryl herded the kids into the bedroom as Sam grabbed a baseball bat to confront the intruder. A heavily drugged man awoke at the prodding of the wooden bat, unwilling to leave his place on the couch. Sam had to call the police. When the policeman arrived, he assumed that the drugged man was a friend who had stayed over after a wild party.

“That’s ridiculous!” Cheryl exclaimed. “You think we would throw a party here? And then call the police to get rid of the guests?”

After much convincing, the officer finally believed that the intruder was a stranger and that he needed to be removed. Cheryl and Sam found out later that there was no follow-up from the police because the intruder was convicted and imprisoned for murder.

My beautiful picture

Julia and Jennifer, Christmas 1976.

The fear and painful awareness left by that incident led Cheryl and Sam to realize that no matter what good they were doing in their community, they could not let their family pay the price by raising their children in a dangerous place. After spending more than an hour on the bus traveling between schools, and then coming home to an unsafe neighborhood, the children were going to struggle to thrive in school. Without the means to go to the private elementary school on the University of Denver campus, Julia would not be challenged enough academically. As long as she kept bouncing between Bryant Webster and Gust, she would have to make up the study time she missed while riding the bus. Bussing could not address the young students’ needs, and the family could no longer carry the burden placed on them.

Their decision to leave the city was affirmed by a visit from a close family friend and Catholic nun, Sister Jane. She sat them down and advised them that their place was not in the barrio. They had to continue God’s work by raising their children in a healthy environment. Cheryl soon realized that the visit from Sister Jane was a gift from God, and because of a promotion Sam received at work—a second blessing after Sister Jane’s advice—the family was moved to a safer neighborhood in the suburb of Westminster, Colorado.

∗  ∗  ∗

At the time, housing equity was still an equal rights issue, and developers needed to demonstrate diversity in new building projects. The Atencios were seen as the perfect way to show such diversity. The builder of the Countryside development eagerly welcomed them into their community. The company bought their house on Tejon Street, taking the impossible-to-sell property off of their hands and making it possible for them to put a down payment on a newly built house in the Fox Meadows neighborhood. The relief they felt in getting the house of their dreams outweighed any frustration they may have had in once again becoming the token minority. One night, before the official closing, the family took the keys to their new home and camped out on the floor. They all felt as though they were in a mansion. They roamed the four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and huge yard in which the kids could play freely. They prepared beds on the floor and lay down to sleep. They were struck by the calm that fell over the home at night and the stars they spied in the sky through the window—the same stars they had never been able to see in the heart of the city.

“Mom, mom, mom! Look at the sky! It’s so pretty! Is that what space looks like?”

“Yes, Julia. Those are constellations out there. See that one shaped like a spoon? That is the Big Dipper. Isn’t this lovely, Sam? I don’t think the kids even knew what stars were before!”

“It’s beautiful. There aren’t even street lamps out here. I feel like we moved to the country. It is too quiet though. How are we supposed to sleep with all this quiet?”

“I can’t get over how much space there is either. And did you see all the neighborhood kids out playing today? They looked like they were our kids’ ages. It is so nice to see kids out in the neighborhood.”

“I bet they probably know some good babysitters too.”

Cheryl chuckled. “You’re right. I can’t wait to invite all of the parents over for drinks. You know, I bet there are a lot of young families out here. With the kids and all. And they have a neighborhood pool. Oh, Randy, Julia, Jenn, and Paul are going to love that. And Noah, too, once he is bigger.”

“It’ll be great. I can already tell.”

Of course, money was still an issue. They had to scrape it together where they could, not wasting anything. Every drop of gas was precious. Shower time had to be provisioned among the seven of them, with close attention to the use of hot water. Julia still could not attend advanced math classes because there was no way to travel to a different school every afternoon. Nonetheless, they weren’t fretting the challenges ahead of them just yet: their budget, the long commutes to work, and Randy’s appointments at the Colorado Hearing and Speech Center in Southeast Denver. Rather, they all anticipated that spring, when they would be fully moved into their new home in the suburbs, where Randy, Julia, Jennifer, Paul, Noah, and eventually Jill and Haileigh would be able to play and explore in the yard and throughout the neighborhood with the other kids.

Life was bound to change, and a family that was used to growing pains knew that it was part of the deal. Their Hispanic friends and neighbors from Tejon, with whom they would play cards and drink beer on weekends, stopped visiting. Cheryl worried that her friends believed that the family had sold out by moving to the suburbs. Of course, they still came for baptisms, communions, and other important family parties, but it was just not the same. Cheryl and Sam also found a huge difference in community activism. In the city, anyone with an interest and a willingness to work was accepted to the cause and could quickly climb the ladder. Out in the suburbs, there were fewer organizations, and involvement was more competitive because everyone wanted to give their free time to volunteer in the schools, churches, and food banks. Cheryl and Sam’s political life changed as well. Two of the most adamant young Democrats in North Denver left the party in the wake of the Roe v. Wade court ruling, when they were told that they were not true Democrats if they did not believe in abortion. Their faith led them to be shut out, and they were forced to adapt once more.

After adjusting to a hectic urban life, Cheryl found returning to the suburbs truly bizarre. It took a while to get used to the free time; however, she soon learned to embrace her new lifestyle as a stay-at-home mom like all the other moms in the neighborhood. They had a babysitting co-op, and Cheryl and Sam and their kids all found friends their own age. It was dreamlike for Cheryl—an extended vacation from the hardship and need she had witnessed in Denver. The family became outside observers of the transformations happening in the city, experiencing it all from a commuter’s distance.


Countryside neighborhood

∗  ∗  ∗

Today, my grandmother, Cheryl Atencio, is still passionate and spirited. She is a loving matriarch. She leads her large family of seven children and thirteen grandchildren and our combination of fair-skinned redheads and olive-skinned, dark-haired cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In Countryside, our family is still growing and changing: some kids leaving, some moving back, and now some grandchildren growing up in that very same neighborhood. For us grandkids, we have always known that we belong together, and the idea that we all came from a mixed marriage would never have occurred to us. However, my mom, Julia, and my grandma still take occasional trips to Denver, which bring back memories of those tumultuous times and give them an awareness of the many changes their communities have undergone.

∗  ∗  ∗

Cheryl gasped. “Julia, Julia, slow down. Do you remember when we used to live here on Perry Street? Probably not. We lived in that house behind someone’s back yard, behind their plot. It was before the house on Tejon. Goodness, do you see that house? It is huge! I have never seen such a large house on Perry Street before. But, you know, even down at the Sunnyside projects they are tearing down the plots and building an up-and-coming neighborhood.”

“Wow. Look, it’s for sale. Let’s stop and grab a flyer. Maybe they have an open house, too.”

“Oh, do you think Maggie will be upset if we are late to pick her up? It is almost noon.”

“Nah, she won’t care. She has things to do on campus anyway. Let’s take a look. They must have torn down one of the old houses. I think this new one takes up two of the original plots.”

“You know, your dad wrote a grant once to tear down some of the dilapidated houses. He wanted to use the space for the whole community, though. Maybe a community garden or playground or something. He just wanted to open up more space for everyone. It was so cramped here, you wouldn’t believe it.”

“That must have been a long time ago. I don’t think I remember that.”

“It might have been before you were born. Or you could have been a toddler.”

“I wish I remembered that. What I do remember is taking the bus for what seemed like forever. That was terrible. You know, Maggie still jokes about how I can’t spell some words. One time, she asked how to spell “squirrel,” and I just said, ‘squa-errl.’ It’s too bad I missed all those phonics lessons.”

Cheryl paused. “Yeah, that was a crazy time for us. At least we had the chance to move. I mean, the time to do those things is when you are young. Things get complicated as you get older. Do as much as you can when you have the energy and the time. That’s what I say.”

Images provided by author.

When I received the assignment to write a historical narrative for my Honors Writing and Rhetoric course: Human Rights, Humans Write, I dove into the most human histories that I knew: those of my family. Perhaps it was an excuse to explore the stories that were shared around the table at family dinners. Nonetheless, I discovered the importance of the small stories contained in our individual lives and how they open up pathways into our shared history.

I will admit that there were some self-indulgent motivations behind this piece. In the name of research, I was able to interview my grandmother and discover details about her life I had not heard before. I called her on the phone, emailed her, and spent time at her house cooking with her. I was given special access to her collection of family photos and newspaper clippings, and through these I was able to share in the experiences of my family.

Beyond a new appreciation for all the experiences and hard work of my grandparents, my greatest take-away from this process is that there is no such thing as a mundane life. No person’s story is too “ordinary.” The amazing narratives of history are lived out in the everyday lives of normal people. From this, I learned that you can never know someone too well. As you delve further into the details of someone’s history, you start to find important novelties. It took me 19 years to fully uncover this part of my family’s past, and I am well aware that there is so much more to discover in their stories. I hope to carry these lessons with me, and I believe that these messages are at the core of my work as a student, reader, and writer.

Sava bioMaggie Sava is a sophomore studying English and Art History in the class of 2018. She is from Westminster, Colorado. She enjoys reading, fashion, tennis, museums, art, and road trips. Maggie is also a huge fan of Fall Out Boy and tried to go see them at Magness Arena for her first concert. Unfortunately, she got sick just before the show, and although she insisted on going and convinced her mom she felt fine, she only made it long it enough to see the Plain White T’s. Maggie ended up going to the hospital, where she discovered that she had appendicitis and went into emergency surgery at 1am. She lived but has still, regrettably, never seen Fall Out Boy in concert.


The Spinning of Yarns

By Monica McFadden
WRIT 1633: The Creative Inquiry of Research | Professor LP Picard

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

In November of 2006, SMITH Magazine ignited the six-word story craze. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s famous story, the magazine challenged writers to create their own six-word memoir. The legend goes that a few other writers bet Hemingway that he couldn’t tell a story in just six words. He wrote “for sale: baby shoes, never worn” and won the bet. It turns out this legend is not actually true; Hemingway didn’t pen this particular tale, and parts of this story have been discovered in sources that predate his era. That the origin of this craze is, in fact, a story itself only serves to fuel its impact. Many authors have attempted the six-word story, and the results are endless.1 They cover almost every genre, and there are even Twitter accounts for them (@sixwords and @sixwordstories). Some more comedic examples include Margaret Atwood’s “Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved” and David Brin’s “Bang postponed. Not Big enough. Reboot.” This trend demonstrates the draw of a simple challenge: stripping down a story to its core and exploring what it truly means to create.

Stories come in an ever-increasing number of forms but lie at the core of human understanding; stories are how we relate to each other. They allow us to live other lives and help others to live ours. Here, stories of all kinds will come together to take us back to our storytelling roots.

1 There are best-selling books (including Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure), Tumblr pages, YouTube channels, Flickr image galleries, and more, all dedicated to these stories.

In 2003, writer and artist Shelley Jackson penned a 2,095-word story called “Skin.” It was never published traditionally. Instead, the story exists only in the form of tattoos on the skin of over 2,000 volunteers: a single word inked onto various participants to create one strangely connected, living and breathing story. It’s impossible to assemble the story completely; not only are the participants disparate, but one of them has even died. The only people allowed to read the story are the participants themselves. They’re sworn to secrecy, so no one else will ever know the narrative. This story has a tangible existence, though only just; the project itself isn’t even complete. But it does exist, the words moving around through life, unread, living on the skin of thousands of people.

Jackson refers to the participants as “words,” writing in an e-mail to the LA Times:

I usually call them words, or my words, as in, ‘I got an angry e-mail from one of my words,’ or ‘Two of my words just got married!’ […] Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.’ I am a word myself: the title, Skin.

To be part of an ever-changing story that no one will read screams “human!” in a singularly symbolic way. Jackson’s story is constantly evolving, just as our individual lives are, and very few can sit down and read the convoluted story that encompasses its many moving parts. It mirrors the messy way stories play out in our lives and the fact that we won’t ever be able to read the ways in which we are all connected.

McFadden 1

“Shelley Jackson documents another one of her words being tattooed onto a volunteer.” (left) “The author (also an artist) had a diagram on the wall and was keeping track of the placement of every word as they were tattooed on the volunteers’ bodies. Here she is adding ‘patch’ to the diagram.” (right)        Andy Pixel |

Stories don’t have to be tangible to leave a mark on us.2 The mode by which a story is told says a lot about the story itself and its author. Jackson wrote a story that can never truly be read. In this unusual case, the mode is more widely known than the story’s plot. One could even argue that the mode is the story, and that’s the point of this whole experiment to begin with. The form eclipses the content and takes on a life of its own.

One of the “words” in this project, Jess Zimmerman (“away,”), has written about her experience for xoJane. While the project is a fascinating concept as a whole, Zimmerman also recognizes the significance of the words themselves:

When I got my word, I had just decided to leave graduate school, and the man who’d been colonizing my brain for years was moving to another country. I had all the relief and vertigo that accompanies new freedom. That’s part of what ‘away,’ means to me, and thus what it means in the story. Every word we use has a story of its own, one that authors can make use of but that’s totally outside the realm of authorial control.

To think that each word we use has its own history, its own story outside of the one we’re telling, is exhilarating. These stories permeate our rhetoric in ways we rarely consider and give life to speech that usually only exists in fantasy. Suddenly, everyday language is elevated to magical incantations, but with the history and personality of individual people. In “The Magical Power of Words,” S.J. Tambiah explores the nature of words in ritual, sacred, and magical contexts and examines what gives these words their power. He argues that “sacred words are thought to possess a special kind of power not normally associated with ordinary language,” though he wonders how much this is “due to the fact that the sacred language as such may be exclusive and different from the secular or profane.” In the context of Skin, every word, no matter how ordinary, possesses this special kind of power due to the exclusive nature of the project. Each word’s sacred quality is shaped by its many layers of connotations.

Zimmerman goes on to say:

I turned out to know a “the” before I ever learned about the project, but only found out she was a word much later. I ran into “them” and “grows” on the Metro once. I got together with “memorious.” when I was giving a paper on “Skin” at a conference in grad school […] In the original story, our words are nowhere near each other, but in the real story—the story of what words do, alone and together, when they’re set free—we appeared in each other’s texts for a while. […] It isn’t really that [Jackson’s] turning people into her words; it’s that she’s turning her words into people.

Jackson’s tangible story is a unique one, that’s for sure. But in reality, it’s simply bringing to light the infinite interactions between ordinary people. Everyone is part of many overlapping stories, not just the one it seems they’ve been written into. People are messily bumping into one another, exchanging pasts and sharing futures. And when one dies, it does indeed affect many stories.

2 Pun intended once realized.

Serial, a popular podcast hosted and produced by Sarah Koenig, tells the true story of the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999. Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and is now serving a life sentence. However, the conviction of Adnan3 sits on a rocky story, with many elements that don’t add up. Koenig released the episodes in weekly installments, sharing information while she was still investigating and making listeners wait on pins and needles for answers. The mysterious nature of the story shot the podcast to fame.4 The popularity of the podcast5 led to Adnan’s story being pulled apart and examined by amateur sleuths. Adnan’s life story, as well as the other people involved in the case, has been appropriated by the podcast. Koenig portrays him in a mostly positive light, but Adnan has little control over his own personal story. Adnan offers his voice through phone interviews with Koenig from prison, but ultimately, Koenig and the producers have control over his representation.

This begs the questions: Who has the right to tell your story? As soon as you tell your story, does it belong to those who hear it? And do they have any commitment to the way you originally told it?

McFadden 2

Casey Fiesler |

This question of agency has caused some controversy surrounding the podcast. The experiences of Adnan, a teenager from a Muslim family, and Hae, daughter to Korean immigrants, are filtered through Koenig’s flawed ethnographic interpretation. Sociologist John Van Maanen writes in Tales of the Field that ethnography “rests on the peculiar practice of representing the social reality of others through the analysis of one’s own experience in the world of these others.” Koenig tries, but ultimately fails, to get a full grasp on the cultures that Hae and Adnan come from and the nuances of their lives.6 After all, Koenig is a white reporter for This American Life, which isn’t exactly the ideal candidate for analyzing a racially nuanced situation. Jay Caspian Kang discusses this in his article “White Reporter Privilege,” noting that “the listener is asked to simply trust Koenig’s translation of two distinct immigrant cultures.” Koenig reacts to aspects of their lives with naïve surprise due to the internalized stereotypes she has. In the second episode, Koenig remarks, “[Hae’s] diary, by the way—well I’m not exactly sure what I expected her diary to be like but—it’s such a teenage girl’s diary,” as if Hae weren’t actually a typical teenage girl.

Koenig also blatantly skips over one of the most prominent parts of the narrative—that the Baltimore criminal justice system in the late 1990s didn’t favor Muslims or black men. She’s surprised to hear that prejudice and racism might play a role in the arrests and doesn’t fully delve into that impact. As innocent as these intentions might be, attempting to tell a story you don’t fully understand is dangerous; it can severely warp listeners’ understanding of situations and cultures.

While Adnan is certainly the face of a case that is now being picked apart by the masses, this “story” didn’t just happen to him. It affected a whole group of people involved in the case, and their stories are also pulled into the podcast. Guardian journalist Jon Ronson spoke with Adnan’s family about their reactions to Serial. Ronson says that “Yusuf [Adnan’s younger brother] spends a lot of time online, lurking on Reddit, although he knows ‘it’s just toxic.’ [Ronson asks:] ‘Toxic because five million detectives are all studying Adnan’s voice for clues as to whether he’s a psychopath?’” This treatment of Adnan’s life as some kind of crime show plot to be solved by the public is exactly what’s making the strange fame so difficult, both for him and his family. Each member of Adnan’s family grapples with the stress of the coverage from the podcast in different ways; his father even suffers from depression but won’t address it. It’s not just a story for them; it’s their lives.

So are your experiences solely your own? Well, in Adnan’s case, apparently not. His story also belongs to his community, to Koenig, and now to the audience.

The problem with agency in storytelling is that what’s portrayed as truth becomes fact when it’s the only version heard. Koenig’s interpretation of the story isn’t all bad or necessarily incorrect, but it is what shot Adnan’s story to fame and is largely the only version that has been heard. When specific stories become the narrative for entire groups without their consent, the true understanding of people’s experiences can be completely lost. Adnan’s story may only affect a relatively small group of people, but how much of our history—our world’s history—is told through the warped interpretations of others?

3 I recognize that I should be referring to Adnan and Hae by their last names. I naturally call them by their first names in both writing and discussion, mostly because that’s how they are referred to in the podcast, which prompts an interesting question about using their first names. It makes them both more relatable to the audience, but at the same time it perpetuates the idea that they are simply characters in a story. I’m sticking with the first names here because I’ve become familiar with them, and “Lee” and “Syed” feel too distant now. However, the implications do create some food for thought.

4 Trust me, this story is addicting. I listened to the entire podcast, all twelve episodes, within about 24 hours. As a heads up, to spare anyone the disappointment I felt, the podcast doesn’t come to a definitive conclusion as to Adnan’s guilt (although he certainly doesn’t appear so). The podcast’s popularity inspired a group of lawyers, led by Rabia Chaundry (who appears in Serial), to return to the case. To follow this story, listen to the new podcast Undisclosed.

5 In an article about Serial’s success, CNN estimated that the podcast was downloaded 40 million times during its first 13 weeks.

6 Koenig makes a number of assumptions about Hae and Adnan’s upbringing throughout the podcast. She puts words in Adnan’s mouth about the struggles of his cultural upbringing; he uses the term “parameters” when talking about the constraints of his family life, and Koenig interprets this as “immigrant parents,” a term Adnan never uses. As Julia Carrie Wong argues in her article “The Problem with ‘Serial’ and the Model Minority Myth,” “every positive detail is surprising, while the potentially negative details are assumed.”

When I was young and falling asleep in my lilac-painted bedroom, my parents would sit on my bed and tell me stories. My mom always crawled in next to me, regardless of the fact that there was little room in my twin bed with me and my battalion of stuffed animals.7 She would tell me “Amy” stories about a girl who loved to climb, the Empire State Building being one of her many conquered destinations. Sometimes we would do “fill-in-the-blank” stories in which I would excitedly start off, “Once upon a time there was a—” and anxiously await her sleepy reply.

On the other hand, my dad—often the more alert and willing one—would tell Troll Stories. They documented the nighttime escapades of the trolls (those squat, wispy-haired dolls from the 1990s) who lined my windowsill.8 Each episode starred Monica, who woke up in the middle of the night to discover that the trolls were missing. She would go downstairs to the kitchen and help them get food and supplies before bringing them back upstairs to the windowsill. Each morning, she would wake up to find them exactly as they were before, not knowing if it was real or a dream.


David King |

These stories have left lasting impacts on my understanding of the world. Amy was adventurous and fearless, and went after her goals with determination. In the troll stories, Monica blurred the line between dreams and reality, and used creativity to help her friends. These stories stressed values that I still hold dear today, values that are important to my whole family.

Many people have similar memories and will be able to recall a popular bedtime story from their childhood, a favorite book beloved by the whole family, or a classic family event that grows more dramatic each time it’s retold. These stories lie at the core of human connection and help to build our ideas of who we are.

As a matter of fact, this act of oral storytelling is likely one of the oldest and most extensive traditions to date. As educator and author Dr. Michael Lockett discusses in The Basics of Storytelling, this practice has existed since the dawn of humankind. He identifies one of the oldest records of oral storytelling from Egypt (sometime between 2000–1300 BCE), where three sons entertained their father Khufu with spoken-word stories. Telling stories is an intimate way of establishing strong familial bonds with someone and has brought grandparents, parents, and children together for centuries.

Oral storytelling hasn’t been used strictly for entertainment. It has been used to preserve the narratives of entire peoples. The biblical tales of Abraham and Moses were the defining stories of the Hebrew people, helping them understand who they were at their core. For centuries, they’ve told the stories of their people, stories of perseverance and loyalty, history mingled with myth, tying each person together through a common narrative.

A common narrative can define thousands of people for generations on end or tell the simple story of a single family. The common narrative of my family is found through a past in Indonesia. My dad spent part of his childhood as a missionary kid living in Tomohon while my grandpa was a doctor. My siblings, my cousins, and I have all grown up hearing stories about our parents’ time there—climbing up the volcano behind their house, the pet monkey they had in their backyard, the giant beetles they would tie strings to and play with. All of these little windows into the past connect us to this distant place with which none of us have first-hand experience. Our parents’ and grandparents’ past in Indonesia is a way we all construct our self image; it helps us understand what it means to be a McFadden.

7 Fifty percent of the time, she’d just fall asleep. I inherited my atrocious sleep schedule from her, so now I understand where she was coming from.

8 This was a McFadden tradition, coming from my Dad’s side of the family. My grandparents had a whole shelf of trolls in their old house, and my cousins and I would play with them when we were young. Only looking back on it now do I realize how vaguely creepy they were.

Readers have always manipulated and adapted stories, but the modern practice of fan fiction is a new take on this. Entire sites are dedicated to fan stories set in the universes of fans’ favorite books, films, and television shows. Modern technology has made it easier than ever to create and distribute fan fiction. This subculture includes everything from horribly written stories in which the characters are nothing like the originals to brilliant writing that explores aspects of a story previously left unexamined. Fans write in alternate universes (AUs), set classic stories in modern times, or “ship”9 characters.

While digital technology has made it easier to produce and distribute fan fiction, the practice is not exclusive to this millennium. The Brontë children, including Charlotte of Jane Eyre fame, wrote fiction about the real-life 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, and his two sons, Arthur and Charles. Charlotte and Branwell, the only Brontë brother, wrote in a fantasy world called Angria. In 1833, at age 17, Charlotte wrote a tale called “Something About Arthur,” the hand-stitched book measuring just three and a half inches tall and 25 pages long. Rebecca Onion, of Slate’s history blog The Vault, reports that, in typical Brontë fashion, “its plot follows two aristocratic brothers, one of whom narrates the story of the other’s romantic encounter with a poor, but worthy, peasant girl.” There’s no doubt that the Brontë siblings would have fared quite well in the world of Tumblr fan fiction, given that they so enjoyed documenting fictional tales of their aristocratic heroes.10

Classical fan fiction also includes E. Nesbit’s work The Magic World, part of which is heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Furthermore, elements of E. Nesbit’s The Magic World directly inspired works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. One story in The Magic World, “The Aunt and Amabel,” follows a little girl who travels to another world through a wardrobe. It’s clear that the audience’s need to add their own voice to a story and to interact with those worlds isn’t a new desire. So why has this desire been a strong motivation for so long?

This deep interaction with stories can give the reader a sense of ownership over the story once they begin to create within it. This is completely different from simply reading a favorite book; fans change integral parts of characters and settings. As a reader of fan fiction, not a writer myself, my perception of these manipulations is that the writers are interested in changing the atmosphere around a character to see how they react. The interpretation of these characters depends on the author, and each one inserts a little of themselves into their fan fiction. Fans can also help a story continue after the film, books, or episodes end.

Until recently, fan fiction existed independently of the canon.11 Today, a web series called Kissing in the Rain has its own unusual twist on fan fiction. After each episode is released, any fan fiction reblogged by the creators on the official Tumblr of the series becomes canon. This is what makes Kissing in the Rain so innovative: fans become an integral part of the creation process. This turns the creator/audience relationship on its head and gives the fans a great deal of agency. Now, their headcanons12 and wishes for the story aren’t just buried in the depths of a fan fiction site; they’re laced into the actual narrative itself.

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Imagine Communications |  – ‘One Day More’ from the Toronto production of LES MISERABLES. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

After going through a distinct Les Miserables phase in high school, I read a decent amount of Les Mis fan fiction. The interesting thing about the world of Les Miserables fan fiction is that it exists almost entirely in modern AUs. This is mainly due to the fact that roughly 98% of the characters are dead at the end.13 Modern alternate universes allow the fans to fully explore the characters in different situations.14 Enjolras, the fierce revolutionary leader, might be fighting for racial equality and LGBT rights instead of for the freedom of France. Les Amis de l’ABC15 could be high school or university students ablaze with the passion of revolution all the same, regardless of the century-and-a-half time gap.

These characters have been entirely removed from their original setting and situation, and yet the writers still pull integral elements of their personalities from the book to flavor their actions. While it may be a very different story, I often find myself thinking that Victor Hugo might not be too opposed.16 Taking a narrative from the past and connecting it to the present is an important way for us to understand events and people in history. Our history is largely told through stories, and the ones that stick with us help us to see famous artists, revolutionary politicians, and even ordinary people from the past as clearly as we see ourselves.

Often, people’s perception of fan fiction is that it’s juvenile and strange and not real writing. But all writers are heavily influenced by their favorite works; fan fiction is just up front about it. Originality is somewhat of an illusion; many works are amalgamations of influences and previous ideas morphed into different forms and drawing new connections. We have a constant need to take our favorite things and adapt them to make them our own; we can’t just be passive readers but instead want to be co-creators and participate fully in the story-making process.

9 “Ship” or “shipping,” short for “relationship,” is a term used when fans pair certain characters in romantic relationships. While this can be a relationship depicted in the story itself, it’s often with characters who are not canonically together, such as Harry/Draco (the Harry Potter series) or Eponine/Enjolras (Les Miserables). These ships can also occur across fandoms, and, yes, can be as ridiculous as Anne Frank/Goku (Dragonball Z). A real person thought that was a good idea.

10 What I would give to see what the Brontë siblings would post on these days. Do I sense a coffee shop AU?

11 The “canon” of a story is what’s actually part of the narrative written by the author. Fan fiction can be canonically correct (occur alongside the storyline) or go against canon (deviate from what’s published).

12 “Headcanon” refers to a particular belief or idea which is not part of a story’s canon, but makes sense to an individual fan. It is an individual’s “personal canon.”

13 A personal estimation on my part, though quite accurate, I think.

14 Like ones in which they’re not all dead.

15 The Friends of the ABC, or the Barricade Boys. The “ABC” is a pun—the French “abaissés,” meaning “lowly” or “abased,” is pronounced “a-be-se.”

16 This is partly due to the sheer amount of Enjolras/Grantaire fan fiction that exists, a pairing that cheeky Victor Hugo blatantly supported in the book. After all, the two die hand in hand.

The oldest surviving story is The Epic of Gilgamesh. Carved into a clay tablet by the Mesopotamians in about 2100 BCE, it is likely a written version of tales that had been previously told by word of mouth for ages. This ancient story follows Gilgamesh—part man, part god—through his encounters with many gods, monsters, and heroes. One major part of the story recounts a great flood sent by the gods to wipe out humankind. However, the god of wisdom warns one man of the plan and instructs him to build a boat to save his family and all living creatures. After the flood, the gods regret what they’ve done and promise never to do it again.

McFadden 6

Patrick Burgler |

Sound familiar? Many would recognize this as the story of Noah’s Ark, but all major world religions have great flood stories. The oldest surviving story continues to appear in modern culture thousands of years later.  Although under a vague guise, it’s still being adapted into cartoony children’s books and movies with Russell Crowe and Emma Watson.

Storyteller Joe Sabia explains in his TED talk, “The art of storytelling has remained unchanged. And for the most part, the stories are recycled. But the way that humans tell the stories has always evolved with pure, consistent novelty.” While the heart of the story may remain the same, the shifting elements and its form are always changing. This sentiment doesn’t only belong to Sabia. Christopher Booker explores this idea in his masterpiece The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Booker argues that we’ve been telling the same stories throughout history, from our oral storytelling roots to TV shows and movies today. While there are theories for why we gravitate toward these story arcs, nobody is completely sure.17 Joseph Campbell’s famous work on the “Hero’s Journey” illustrates this same idea—the same narrative of the hero archetype has been told throughout all of history, whether in Beowulf or Star Wars.18 It seems as though these stories are rooted in cultures around the world throughout the centuries because they’re rooted in human nature. Stories are a current running through all of humanity that can connect us to our past, present, and future.

Arthur A. Brown muses in his essay “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life,
and The Epic of Gilgamesh”:

We read The Epic of Gilgamesh, four thousand years after it was written […] because we want to know the meaning of life. […] There is an infinite continuity of meaning that can be comprehended only by seeing again, for ourselves. We read stories—and reading is a kind of re-telling—not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.

This can all sound very philosophical and abstract, but what he’s saying is that reading old stories from history, like the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, tells us something about ourselves, something inherent in us as humans.

Sarah Kay is a spoken-word poet who often works with youth to help them find their version of this meaning of life through workshops and lectures. In her TED Talk, “If I Should Have a Daughter…,” she describes her first experience with spoken word poetry at age 14:

My first spoken-word poem, packed with all the wisdom of a 14-year-old, was about the injustice of being seen as unfeminine. […] The first time that I performed, the audience of teenagers hooted and hollered their sympathy, and when I came off the stage, I was shaking. I felt this tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to see this giant girl in a hoodie sweatshirt emerge from the crowd. She was maybe eight feet tall and looked like she could beat me up with one hand, but instead she just nodded at me and said, “Hey, I really felt that. Thanks.”

That’s what this whole storytelling thing is about. It’s the reason we, as humans, rely so much on narratives in every aspect of our lives. Telling stories reveals something innate in us as humans, tugging at our need to relate and understand. It allows us to connect on a basic level with people from all different backgrounds and find a personal truth in the tales that have been told for generations. It’s about putting convoluted human experiences into words, a fuzzy mingling of truth and fiction, and having someone, somewhere, say, “Hey, I really felt that.”

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TED Conference | – Sarah Kay performing at a TED Conference.

17 One theory explored in Booker’s work, shared by many late 19th century writers, is that these stories simply served to explain and act as metaphors for natural phenomena that people didn’t understand. For instance, dragons and monsters in stories would stem from the discovery of dinosaur bones. Now, scholars tend to agree that there’s no one answer for why certain stories keep cropping up throughout history.

18 Campbell fully explores and details the Hero’s Journey in his revolutionary book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Featured Image © David Alonso |

When I was in elementary school, my older siblings taught me how to line the crack of my bedroom door with a sweatshirt to block the light, so my parents wouldn’t know I was up late reading. I suppose it goes without saying that I grew up an avid reader, something that was practically written into my family’s genes, especially given my mom’s career as a publisher. These days, I consume stories in any manner possible—books, movies, TV shows, web series, podcasts, or directly from the lips of a storyteller.

When it came to choosing a topic for a research paper, stories seemed like a natural selection, considering my background. You could say I’ve been researching this topic my entire life. This essay grew out of the variety of stories that had caught my attention and were tumbling around in my head at the time I began this writing project. My interest was piqued by the strange forms, unexpected effects, and incredible timelessness of stories.

Everyone has stories tucked away in the many parts of their lives. Hopefully this essay will bring a magnifying glass to the importance of these tiny narratives. The essay didn’t really fit any of the traditional formats, and so it took on a podcast-like form with distinct sections, each one revealing a different truth about the classic act of telling tales.

McFadden bioMonica McFadden is a second-year student from Elgin, Illinois, who is studying Art History and Journalism at DU. She enjoys musical theater, exploring new cities, and painting. She considers herself a somewhat serious macaroni and cheese connoisseur, a position for which she’s been training since kindergarten.


Anderson, Douglas A., ed. Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Del Ray / Ballantine, 2008. Print.

Anderson, Douglas A., ed. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy. New York: Del Ray / Ballantine, 2003. Print.

Berg, Pete. Six Word Stories. Pete Berg, 2009. Web. 2 June 2015.

Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006. Print.

Brown, Arthur A. “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life, and The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Exploring Ancient World Cultures. University of Evansville, 1996. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Bricken, Rob. “Fan Fiction Friday: Goku and Anne Frank in ‘Until the End of Time.’” The Robot’s Voice. Voice Media Group Inc., 19 Dec. 2008. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato: New World Library, 2008. Print.

Fershleiser, Rachel and Larry Smith, eds. Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. Print.

“Headcanon.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, 12 July 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Jackson, Shelley. “Skin Guidelines.” Shelley Jackson’s Ineradicable Stain. Shelley Jackson. n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Kang, Jay Caspian. “White Reporter Privilege.” The Awl. The AWL, 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

Kay, Sarah. “If I Should Have a Daughter…” TED2011. TED Conferences LLC. Long Beach, CA, 3 Mar. 2011. Lecture.

Kellogg, Carolyn. “Shelley Jackson’s Skin Project 2.0.” LA Times Blog. Los Angeles Times, 1 Mar. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Koenig, Sarah. “Episode 2: The Breakup.” Audio blog post. Serial Podcast. This American Life, Oct. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

Lockett, Michael. “History of Storytelling,” The Basics of Storytelling. Taipei: Caves Educational Technology Company, 2008. Digital. 2 June 2015.

Onion, Rebecca. “A Teenaged Charlotte Brontë’s Tiny Little Romance.” Web blog post. The Vault. The Slate Group LLC, 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 2 June 2015.

Roberts, Amy. “The ‘Serial’ Podcast: By the numbers.” Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Ronson, Jon. “Serial: The Syed Family on Their Pain and the ‘Five Million Detectives Trying to Work Out if Adnan is a Psychopath.’” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 7 Dec. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

Sabia, Joe. “The Technology of Storytelling.” Full Spectrum Auditions. TED Conferences LLC. New York, 24 May 2011. Lecture.

Six Words, LLC. “Six Words.” SMITH Magazine, 2005. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Tambiah, S.J. “The Magical Power of Words.” Man 3.2 (1968): 175–208. Web. 2 June 2015.

Van Maanen, John. Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. 2nd ed. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2011. Print.

Wong, Julia Carrie. “The Problem with ‘Serial’ and the Model Minority Myth.” Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed, Inc., 16 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

Zimmerman, Jess. “My Life as a Word: How I Became Part of the ‘Skin’ Short Story Project.” xoJane. Time Inc. Style Network, 10 Nov. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.


Recipe for Mom’s Chocolate Cake


by Olivia Hayes
WRIT 1622: Re-Reading and Re-Writing Culture | Professor LP Picard

Mom’s Chocolate Cake
2 cups sugar
1 cup self-deprecation


Hayes 7

Inara Prusakova |

I had my first boyfriend during my junior year of high school. I had been going to school with him since kindergarten, as was the case with most of the kids in my class of 100 students. He had never shown any interest in me until Homecoming of junior year. I had just gotten a tiny new navy blue dress to go with my tiny new body. I had been running cross-country that year, and after being the last to finish after two races, I started “kicking it into gear,” as my coach would say. I changed my diet and ran a little extra after practice; inevitably, I lost forty pounds in three months. As a result, that navy blue dress bumped me up an entire rung on the social ladder. I was no longer an “in-betweener.” Instead of being the girl that the boyfriends of my really pretty friends simply got along with, I was considered one of the pretty friends. All of a sudden, I sat next to Garrett Lowe (the second cutest guy in school) at lunch, and I stood in the second row during football games, right behind the senior it-girls.

No, this wasn’t like in a romantic comedy when the invisible girl takes off her glasses and swings her hair around in slow motion with a soft light around her, everyone stopping to watch her. No. Because I was there all along, they saw me. I had established a role as a funny-almost-cute girl that everyone knew but never asked to dance. I was always there, as a stock character in a high school drama, but now I was in a leading role.

The fantasy didn’t last forever, like it usually does in the high-school type romantic comedies that I wished I were in. The end of senior year brought freedom and heartbreak, as well as a busy schedule. The unconditional love I thought I was in showed its true colors, and my fragile, naïve teenage mind was not equipped for such a blow. Cross-country ended, and I replaced the exercise with locking myself in my room, writing paper after paper for college applications, going through bag after bag of chips—thus commencing another round of self-hatred and embarrassment. How had I allowed myself to fall back into old habits? I was horrified that my transformation wasn’t permanent, and even more afraid of the thought of returning to a role that is now called, thanks to Hollywood, the Designated Ugly Fat Friend (DUFF). My self-worth had become completely and exclusively defined by my appearance.

¾ cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
½ cup guilt

The dilemma we face is that a cycle of negativity and body shaming is never-ending. The evidence is everywhere—from social media to classrooms to advertisements. In a recent social experiment on Tinder, an eighteen-year-old girl replied to compliments by agreeing with them (Warren). For example, if a man said that she was gorgeous, she responded by saying, “I know,” or “Yes I am, thank you.” Almost every time she replied by agreeing, the man immediately modified his compliment or replied with a rude comment. They called her “vain,” “full of herself,” even a “bitch.” It seems that a man can compliment a woman or call her beautiful, but the second she agrees with him and sees herself positively, she is scorned and rejected. This is also seen when women compliment each other. I actually can’t remember the last time I accepted a compliment without reservations or qualifications. Someone might say that they loved my legs, and I would respond by saying, “Oh thanks, they are too muscular, and my thighs never look good in jeans.” Or they might tell me that they love my hair, and I would retort with a comment on how difficult it was to tame, or how I wished it were lighter.

A study done at the University of Pennsylvania showed that 45% of women who were given compliments rejected those compliments (Han). Only 20% accepted the compliment, and the other 35% evaded the compliment altogether. As reported by Diane Mapes at Today, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, Renee Engeln, says that women are taught to love themselves, but not too much. According to Engeln, we are expected to exude confidence yet, in our actual verbal interactions, act humble. She says that we live in a culture in which women are discouraged from being confident, as confidence comes off as arrogant and even unfeminine. As young girls mature, they are exposed to more and more women who exemplify and manifest their hatred of their own bodies. Girls learn very early that it is socially acceptable and actually standard to ridicule themselves. They are told by women around them and by societal norms that they shouldn’t acknowledge their worth.

1 cup milk
¾ cup rejection

Here are some things I’ve heard from important people in my life:

  • “You have a really pretty face.”
  • “Cuddling with you is so great. I hate cuddling with skinny girls.”
  • “I don’t understand what’s so hard, like, just work out more.”
  • “You look so skinny, so pretty.”
  • “It’s so weird that Soph is so small. Are you sure she’s your sister?”
  • “When was the last time you worked out?”
  • “You know what they say, ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’ I’m sure you’ll understand that in the future.”
  • “I don’t think you should be looking for a boyfriend right now. I wouldn’t want you to get your heart broken because he doesn’t like you.”

2 eggs
1 teaspoon self-disgust

Young girls are particularly influenced by what people around them say and do in relation to their appearance. A study by Gleason, Alexander, and Somers shows just how important the things women hear are to their future self-image. These scholars analyzed how three different types of teasing correlate to a child’s body image during adolescence. They found that girls who were teased are much more likely to have a negative body image later on in life than their male counterparts. They also found that girls’ body image was significantly more negative if they were teased in any of the three manners studied. These three types of teasing were defined as teasing about appearance, teasing about weight, and teasing about competence. The results showed that women equate competence, appearance, and self-esteem with body image and that teasing leads to horrifying results: 81% of girls had dieted by the age of 10. Young girls are taught that their body is a measure of their worth and that in order to be competent young women, they need to change their bodies.

Hayes 6

Orla |

Unfortunately, this never goes away. In a study performed by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91% of women were unsatisfied with their bodies and had taken action to change. Of these women, 75% had some type of eating disorder. When we think of an eating disorder, we usually envision the much recognized anorexia and bulimia. However, only 10% of women with an eating disorder suffer from either of these. An eating disorder is any of a range of psychological disorders that is characterized by abnormal or disruptive eating habits. What most women experience is an unhealthy relationship with food. They might count calories incessantly, have feelings of massive guilt, or have an unnecessary abundance of food-related conversations. All of these are signs of an eating disorder. This also means that

  • 91% of women feel insignificant and incompetent because of their body;
  • 91% of women have destructive thought patterns; and
  • 91% of women walk around the mall wondering if people notice how large their thighs are or if people are looking at their minor double chin, just like I do.

1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon insecurity

The media consistently infiltrates the minds of young girls with images and ideas of what a woman should look like. Women are expected to be thin and tall and have large breasts, smooth skin, big lips, full eyelashes, and long legs. When a woman doesn’t match these specific guidelines, they are treated as inferior to the women who do have these attributes. Magazine advertisements are a great example of this. Advertisements in men’s magazines generally show sexually attractive women who are skinny, busty, long, and glowing. Sex is selling the product. However, in women’s magazines, we do not see pages upon pages of images of chiseled men in articles, advertisements, or essays. Instead, we see the same images of stick-thin models with large breasts and big butts. Sex isn’t selling the product to women. Women’s desires are selling the product. We have created a culture in which women are so obsessed with appearance that the beauty of other women acts as a motivating device. We aspire to be like the women in magazines, and we want men to desire us as much as they do these golden girls.

Hayes 2

Oleg Gekman |

One of the most disturbing things about the media’s definition of beauty is how it gives a one-dimensional representation of women. Advertisements like the GoDaddy commercials allow women to become commodities to be obtained. These commercials depict women who are, by American standards, exceptionally beautiful. In one particular GoDaddy ad, the woman in the commercial is referred to only as a “GoDaddy girl.” She is never named, and she has no speaking lines. However, she does have plump lips covered in red lipstick and a practically see-through white shirt that covers a fraction of her torso. Across the chest, the shirt reads: “” Without knowing the context of the commercial, one might think that it is an advertisement for a pornography website or some sort of company that sells sex. However, GoDaddy sells Internet domain names: although these have absolutely nothing to do with sex or the female body,  the GoDaddy advertisement suggests that a woman’s value is measured by her body.

1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon scrutiny

My mom is five feet tall. She has a tiny build, and she’s one of the only people I know who can fit into petite sizing almost perfectly. She’s a runner. She runs marathons, half-marathons, 5Ks, 10Ks, and she has participated in four triathlons. She goes to Crossfit every day for an hour in the morning, and for the rest of the day, she enlightens my family with a detailed description of her workout. As much as my mom emphasizes her health and fitness, her obsession and unhealthy relationship with food has set a precedent for the relationship I have with my body. At most meals I eat with my mom, there is a discussion of the amount of nutritional benefit in the meal and maybe a comment about serving size or calorie amount. There is usually some questioning of whether or not I should eat bread or if I should substitute the broccoli for the mashed potatoes. Every meal, every conversation revolves around weight, food, and exercise. The last time I was home, the four members of my family sat down for a spaghetti dinner. Only three of us ate spaghetti. My dear mother had a giant mound of kale drenched in spaghetti sauce. I absolutely admire my mother’s ability to take her health and wellbeing into her own hands; however, it becomes a problem when I am constantly infiltrated by ideas about what a perfect body, meal, or workout is. I understand that her issues are just as significant as mine, but the wall of insecurity is the only obstacle in our otherwise strong relationship.

1 cup flour
1 cup conformity

Hayes 9.jpg

Pixelbliss |

This obsession with physical appearance goes far beyond a relationship with food, exercise, and being thin. Women change their bodies to conform to society’s “rules,” and this is not a new phenomenon. For thousands of years in China, women bound their feet to adhere to the standards of beauty defined by their culture. This consisted of breaking bones in the feet of young girls and then wrapping their feet in tightly bound shoes or bandages. Girls were expected to bind their feet between the ages of four and six, when their bones were still considered soft. The “ideal” length of a woman’s foot, after breaking and bending, was three inches. This intense ritual and procedure often caused painful and dangerous infections. In many cases, and without modern technology, these infections led to death. Foot binding was a means for a woman to get a husband in a higher class. Men were said to enjoy smaller feet, as they made a woman look as if she could dance lightly on lotuses. It was a sign of vulnerability, softness, and femininity.

In the African country of Mauritania, women are considered to be more desirable as they gain weight. Before marriage, beginning with pre-adolescence, women and girls are force-fed. “Leblouh,” the word used to describe this forced-feeding, is a necessary tradition for a woman to find a husband. Women are considered to be from wealthier families if they weigh more. In Mauritanian women, force-feeding and the side effects of obesity can cause death. While this practice seems foreign to us in our world, one enveloped by thinness, the excessive eating in Mauritania is comparable to our excessive starving in the US. This unhealthy and even dangerous practice is yet another manifestation of the female body as a commodity. Regardless of whether a woman lives in China, Mauritania, or the US, her worth is constantly being equated with her body, which creates self-destructive habits.

1 cup butter
1 cup self-loathing

Unfortunately, like many other girls, I learned very early on that I shouldn’t accept my body. I was surrounded by women who didn’t love themselves the way they should. I was taught that the extra rolls or jiggles that I carried with me were not what a proper woman should have. I understood that I should be concentrating on my appearance at all times.

As I walk through campus, I can’t help but imagine the thoughts of the people around me. If I get even a glance from someone, I assume they are directing their eyes at my chubby cheeks or the less than flawless stomach hidden under my t-shirt. In the dining hall, I am constantly analyzing and comparing my choices to those of my friends or the thin girls in the corner. In relationships, including the one serious relationship that I have had, my own self-doubt and loathing has caused me to hesitate. I am always on edge. I know that the dissatisfaction I have with my body is the result of a society obsessed with appearance, but that doesn’t make it feel any less real or any less hurtful. The deep-seated notion that thinness equals love, acceptance, intelligence, and aptitude follows me everywhere, a looming shadow.

Hayes 1

kyrzhov |

Featured Image © De Visu |

Throughout my life, I have struggled with body image. In my first year at DU, college proved to be an even more difficult environment to feel comfortable in my own skin. Joining a sorority, being introduced to a slew of new people who were judging me for the first time, and trying to reinvent myself made for a pretty harsh result. When my WRIT professor offered an assignment that gave us free-reign to write about something that touched us personally (and would also have some meaning to the public), I couldn’t think of a more fitting topic than my struggle with body image.

For the entirety of my childhood and adolescence, my mom has been both my adversary and my coach in my battle for self-confidence. I wrote this piece at a time when I was having to deal with all of this on my own for the first time. Being without her added a whole new set of challenges and an opportunity to gain independence. It was difficult, but I learned a lot by writing this piece.

One of the biggest challenges I had in writing this was becoming comfortable with publicizing my biggest insecurity and vulnerability. I think it has helped people from different areas of my life to be able to read this and learn more about me; and it has helped me to regard the subject as less of a taboo. What I really hope to pass on to readers from this paper is the little bit of comfort I obtained from writing it. I hope some can relate and others can build an understanding and appreciation for the constant struggle that some of us face.

Hayes bioOlivia Hayes is a sophomore from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, majoring in public policy and sociology. She is a PR Director for the Roosevelt Institute, a public policy club, and enjoys skiing and playing soccer. She also loves Kid President and Kanye West, although she knows they are two very different people with two very different views of the world. Her favorite quotes are these words of wisdom from Kid President and Kanye: “It is everybody’s duty to give the world a reason to dance” (Kid President); and “Believe in your flyness” (Kanye).


“11 Facts About Body Image.” Do, 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Gleason, Jamie H., Amy M. Alexander, and Cheryl L. Somers. “Later Adolescents’ Reactions to Three Types of Childhood Teasing: Relations with Self-Esteem and Body Image.” Social Behavior and Personality 28.5 (2000): 471–79. Print.

Han, Chung-hye. “A Comparative Study of Compliment Responses: Korean Females in Korean Interactions and in English Interactions.” Working Papers in Educational Linguistics 8.2 (1992): 17–31. Print.

Mapes, Diane. “Why Women are Terrible at Accepting Compliments.” TODAY Health & Wellness. NBC, 1 Jul. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Strochlic, Nina. “China’s Last Foot-Binding Survivors.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast, 2 July 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Warren, Rossalyn. “This is What Happens When Women Actually Accept a Compliment from a Man Online.” BuzzFeed. Buzzfeed, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Wedoud, Mohamed Yahya Abdel. “Women Fight Mauritania’s Fattening Tradition.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System,  12 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.



Black Blood: Reckoning with Alaska’s Oil Dependency


Kengo 8

bikeriderlondon |

by Kengo Nagaoka
WRIT 1733: Honors Writing | Professor Doug Hesse

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is the aorta of the state of Alaska. Eight hundred miles long and 48 inches wide, the steel artery stretches from the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay on the northernmost edge of the state down to the Valdez Marine Terminal on the southern coast of Alaska’s mainland. Inside, the pipeline’s thick black blood courses steadily southward, taking two weeks to travel from the Beaufort Sea to Prince William Sound, where it is piped into huge tankers and shipped to refineries on America’s west coast. Twelve pump stations, the “hearts,” push the blood as it crosses 34 major rivers and three mountain ranges on the journey through icy tundra, boreal forest, and temperate rainforest.1

The oil keeps Alaska alive, and Alaska loves it.

Nagaoka 4

Ann Glenn |

When I was a child, my parents would drive visitors 15 minutes from our home in Fairbanks to the pipeline. At this popular tourist spot, visitors would get out of the car and smile at the steel tube, read the placard about it, touch it, and take photos with it. It’s a monument, a place of pilgrimage, a living piece of Alaskan history. The pipeline gets its own section in all tourist pamphlets for Fairbanks.

There is little debate as to why it has so many fans. Completed in 1977 after three years of construction, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) was, at the time, the largest privately funded construction project in the world. Vigorous development was triggered after drillers found one of the most promising oil reserves in North America below Alaska’s North Slope in 1967.2 Workers swarmed to Fairbanks, a strategic place at the middle of the pipeline’s route. The construction of the pipeline itself involved over 70,000 people in a state that only had 348,000 people at the start of 1974, transforming a struggling gold rush state into a modern economic and scientific powerhouse.3 For fiscal year (FY) 2015, the Alaska Department of Revenue Commissioner estimated that about 75% of state general fund revenue would be from oil “production taxes, petroleum property taxes, corporate income taxes, and royalties.”4,5 On average, from FY 2005 to 2014, that figure has been 90%.6 This money fuels Alaska’s infrastructure, schools, transportation, health services, and universities.7 Thanks to oil revenue, my state is the only state in the Union that doesn’t have a state personal income tax or sales tax.8 Ever since oil started flowing through the pipeline, the economic activity and revenue generated by the oil industry has provided sustenance to Alaska, allowing us to enjoy modern middle-class living like the rest of the country. Alaska owes big time to its black gold.

Nagaoka 2

JLS Photography |

∗  ∗  ∗

It was 2010, and I was just about to cross the finish line of one of my cross-country ski races. I was a freshman in high school and was probably close to last place. As I panted and tried to squeeze the last drops of energy from my muscles, I looked up. Above the finish line was a broad white banner serenading my efforts. It read “Flint Hills Resources” in a tidy serif font.

Only years later would I learn that Flint Hills Resources owns a huge oil refinery east of Fairbanks and is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the largest petrochemicals corporation in the United States and the second largest private company in the country.9 But this kind of banner is not uncommon in Fairbanks. ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company (the company that maintains Alaska’s pipeline), along with Flint Hills, are common names because we see them everywhere: on TV commercials, in the newspaper, on flyers for community events, on awards and scholarships, in the mail, and at sports games. In August 2010, I saw hundreds of people at our annual Tanana Valley State Fair sporting BP knapsacks passed out at the entrance gates, a mere month after the company’s Deepwater Horizon spill had finally been capped. BP’s yellow and green sunflower logo has become for me as recognizable as McDonald’s golden arches.

These logos meant nothing to me as a little kid growing up in Fairbanks. I was born there in 1996, in a town of about 32,000, to first-generation Japanese immigrant parents.10

Fairbanks does have a McDonald’s. It’s got several, actually. But the closest Target or Olive Garden is a 360-mile drive south to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. At first glance, you’d never guess that Fairbanks is an oil town. It’s a place that prides itself on family-owned roadside bagel stands and backyard gardens. Fairbanksans love their personal property, their snow machines, and their own opinions. We like to think of ourselves as independent. “I’ve always thought of Fairbanks as an island,” says my friend Dylan.11

I was naturally a pretty quiet kid. During my first year of preschool, I actually did not speak a word in class. My teacher was visibly excited when she recognized me, 13 years later, when I yelled out her order number at an ice cream place I was working at in town. I had become a much more vocal person in those years. By senior year, I was leading a small jazz ensemble that played professionally around town. Music turned into my greatest passion. Considering the size of the place, Fairbanks was a great town to develop my musicianship. The University of Alaska Fairbanks music program, Fairbanks Youth Orchestras, and organizations like the Fairbanks Concert Association fueled my desire to hear and play music. My teachers were phenomenal, encouraging me to get more involved and pursue music making opportunities around town and in the state, most of which were funded by sponsorships from oil companies. The local music scene itself was diverse and welcoming, and my parents told me to pursue what I enjoyed most. The skills I learned on the drum set in my high school jazz band eventually led me to earn a spot at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver (DU) as a Jazz Studies major in 2014.

∗  ∗  ∗

I was sitting with a friend at a restaurant near DU on May 1, 2015 when my phone buzzed with a text message.

“What is it?” my friend asked.

I stared at the phone.

“My high school jazz band just got cut.”

I had known that Alaska was facing budget problems. During my junior year of high school, I had testified in front of my school board, urging them to preserve the district’s music programs in the face of a shrinking budget. Every year, rumors went around about which teachers were going to get laid off and what government programs were going to be cut. It was always about reduction, never expansion. In April 2015, all public school music teachers, art teachers, and counselors in Fairbanks got a “doubtful status” notice in their mailbox. But it didn’t really hit home for me until my own high school jazz band was gone, just like that, because of budget constraints. I had been reassuring myself, until that point, that my hometown would be okay in the face of economic pressure. When something that had meant so much to me throughout my four years in high school was cut, I had to reexamine what was happening.

Government revenue and spending is complicated, but in this case, there was an overarching cause. I learned that the TAPS is suffering from severe low blood pressure. And the symptoms are showing up everywhere. Oil flow through the pipeline peaked on January 14, 1988 at 2.1 million barrels per day. Today, only about 560,000 barrels per day reach Valdez.12 Oil flow has slowed down so much that the time it takes for the liquid to travel from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to Valdez has almost tripled from 4.5 to 14 days.13 Pipeline engineers are trying to figure out how to deal with low oil flow, which has the risk, among other problems, of creating wax and ice buildup inside the pipeline. “We can’t tell you what the end date of the pipeline is. We believe we can operate down to 300,000 barrels a day, maybe less than that. But it’s going to take some significant investment,” explains Mike Joyner, Senior Vice President of Alyeska’s operation division.14

It’s not just because oil reserves at Prudhoe Bay are running out. Oil production has been declining for decades. State officials estimate there are about 5.16 billion barrels left for recovery under the North Slope, compared to 15 billion barrels already sent down the pipeline by 2006.15,16 Despite this fact, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on the east and the National Petroleum Reserve on the west remain closed to development.17 With safety and environmental concerns driving more regulation of the oil industry, companies are finding it harder to obtain permits to develop existing infrastructure or to drill exploratory wells and more expensive to carry out business as usual. Demand for oil is also decreasing steadily because of greater energy efficiency and investment in renewables. In 2013, more megawatts of renewable energy capacity were added per year than oil, coal, and natural gas combined.18 But these factors only aggravate the most recent issue: oil prices that were at $110 per barrel in June 2014 have plummeted to around $60 per barrel in May 2015.19 The oil industry is in a bad place.

The trouble this is causing Alaska is immense. It doesn’t end with jazz band being cut. With 75% of state general fund revenue dependent on oil royalties in FY 2015, the Alaska State Legislative Finance Division estimates a deficit of $3.4 billion for this year.20 With current oil production, the Division’s budget director claims oil prices would have to be $130 a barrel to balance the current budget.21 Unable to pass a balanced budget for FY 2015, state legislators called two special sessions to confront the issue. Talks of tapping into the Constitutional Budget Reserve and the Permanent Fund, the state’s savings accounts, have been circulating.22 Layoff notices were mailed to 10,000 government employees on June 1, as political gridlock resulting from budget debates brought the possibility of a government shutdown in July closer.23 “I’ve heard some grizzled Alaska political observers lament they haven’t seen it so bad since 1981. I’ve heard some say it’s never been this bad, ever,” State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins from southeast Alaska observes.24

On February 4, 2014, Flint Hills Resources, the same name I saw on the ski race banner years ago, announced it was going to close its refinery next to Fairbanks because of difficult economic conditions.25 For years, the refinery had been siphoning oil from the pipeline and producing gasoline, jet fuel, and heating fuel, as well as products such as asphalt, for local areas. The closure meant the loss of 80 high-paying jobs and the loss of the fourth largest taxpayer in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.26 It created an uncertain future for Fort Wainright and Eielson Air Force Base, both of which bring people and substantial business to Fairbanks but rely on cheap jet fuel produced at Flint Hills. The company isn’t the only one that’s downsizing in Alaska. In 2014, BP announced it would be laying off about 475 employees statewide, selling assets, and reducing its footprint in the state, as well as withdrawing its $20,000 sponsorship of Fairbanks’s Midnight Sun Festival, one of the town’s largest annual events.27 The downsizing also meant my good friend Dylan had to move out of state our senior year of high school. He had moved up to Alaska in 8th grade with his mother, who had a job with Koch Industries. “We tried to get our mom to jump ship with [Flint Hills] and go work at the refinery in Kenai for Tesoro so that we could stay in Alaska,” he told me. “But she said there wasn’t much of a prospect there…it was killer.”28

I was watching my town and my state face insurmountable economic pressures, and the effects were hitting closer and closer to home. Former Alaska Governor Sean Parnell stated simply, “We need more oil for that pipeline.”29

∗  ∗  ∗

Nagaoka 3

photo by Yong Jung Cho

On May 16, I stood in front of a Shell gas station a mile from DU holding up a big cardboard sign that said, “MORE OIL IS NOT THE ANSWER.” I was wearing my green “Alaska Grown” hoodie. About 15 others were with me: friends, environmentalists, social activists, hippies, and all of the above from my school. We fought to hold our signs against the wind and rain, signs that shouted: “HANDS OFF THE ARCTIC!”, “KILL THE DRILL!”, “SHELL NO!”, and “CLIMATE JUSTICE!” There was one that said bluntly, “POLAR BEARS.” It was rush hour. Some people stared silently or pretended not to see us. A middle finger was thrown our way. People filling their cars with gas behind us stared with open mouths and squinted eyes. But there also was the occasional loud honk, smiling old woman, or car full of screaming, supportive college kids our age.

One woman rolled down her window with a puzzled look.

My friend Nick Stubler yelled, “Shell is planning to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean!” She immediately punched her car horn.

“Are you really ‘Alaska Grown’?” The girl next to me pointed at my hoodie.

“Yeah,” I said. “This one hits pretty close to home for me.”

“Absolutely,” nodded a grizzled-looking man as he passed me on the sidewalk, pointing at my sign.

Sometimes I’m not always so sure. Along with Nick, I’m a part of the student group Divest DU. We’re working to get the university to stop investing its endowment in fossil fuel companies and re-invest in more sustainable energy initiatives. We’re part of the huge international divestment movement, made up of colleges, institutions, funds, and companies that have divested from fossil fuels or are trying to. That’s usually the three-sentence summary I give while tabling and talking to people about what we do. There’s a whole list of reasons we’re fighting for divestment: climate change, rising sea levels, environmental destruction, social justice, financial stability, the moral responsibility of universities, and more. The movement is built on the idea that through divestment, we can take away the social license of fossil fuel companies and stigmatize them as they continue to be the primary perpetrators of global climate change. As of September 2015, educational institutions, businesses, governments, and individuals have pledged to divest over $2.6 trillion from fossil fuels.30 Divest DU believes that the university should not be profiting from climate destruction. And since student scholarships come from income generated by investing the endowment, nor should we. It’s a cause I can say I truly believe in.

But always in the back of my mind is my hometown in Alaska, a state built on the world’s demand for oil and the presence of huge multinational corporations like BP, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil. It pains me to think that proposing fossil fuel divestment for the University of Alaska system would be preposterous. Always in the back of my mind is that broad white banner with “Flint Hills Resources” on it at the finish line. Always in the back of my mind are my jazz band and my high school, fueled by the state government’s oil revenue. When I visit the homepage of the Fairbanks Concert Association, which has brought hundreds of musicians and performers up to Fairbanks and has inspired me so much, I see ConocoPhillips, BP, Flint Hills, and Alyeska at the top of the sponsor list.31 I’ve personally received $20,480 from the Alaska Permanent Fund, which invests oil revenue for a profit that is distributed to all Alaska residents each year as a dividend. That’s $81,920 for my entire family of four since 2000, when we started getting the yearly check.32 I can never escape the fact that my life in Alaska was defined, directed, and funded by oil. I can’t say Alaska owes big time to oil without admitting I do too.

∗  ∗  ∗

The last time oil prices tanked, Fairbanks lost its downtown. The Polaris Building, the tallest building in Fairbanks, now stands still and empty in what was once the heart of the economic boom caused by the construction of the TAPS. Built in 1952, the Polaris Building used to house a thriving hotel and restaurant. It’s now home to black mold that creeps up its crumbling walls and moss an inch thick on its floors.33 The rest of downtown Fairbanks looks a bit better, but not by much. Old buildings not renovated since the 50s crowd the streets, and failed or failing businesses are a common sight. Tourists are everywhere, but not many Fairbanksans would say, “Let’s go have some fun downtown!” At night, the bright glow of yellowish-blue halogens light the streets, presumably to deter crime and help police spot drunks.

In early 1986, oil prices crashed. Even though world oil consumption was declining, in late 1985, Saudi Arabia aggressively started increasing production, and in response the rest of the OPEC countries did the same.34 Crude oil prices fell from $23 per barrel in December 1985 to less than $10 per barrel in July the next year (non-inflation adjusted).35 In Alaska, state general fund revenues were cut in half over two years, from $4.1 billion in 1984 to $2.1 billion in 1988.36 Nine out of 12 Alaskan banks failed, business and property values fell, and thousands of jobs were lost.37 Unemployment hit a high of 11.5%, and between 1986 and 1988, about 35,000 people left Alaska to find jobs elsewhere.38 That’s more people than the current population of the city of Fairbanks. In the decades following the crash, oil prices eventually recovered, and so did Alaska, but downtown Fairbanks was left a dead spot. These days, Alaska Governor Bill Walker cautions we need to be careful with the budget so that “we don’t create the tailspin we saw in the 80s.”39

I don’t want my high school, my house, or any building in Fairbanks to end up like the Polaris Building. Alaska is no stranger to boom-and-bust economic cycles. After all, modern Alaskan history starts with the discovery of gold in the territory and the huge influx of people and capital that followed. However, the State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy argues the recent budget crisis is not just another bout of the boom-and-bust cycle, but part of a larger trend of a widening fiscal gap that the state will have to face for decades to come.40 We desperately need some way to sustain Alaska.

Reduced to the simplest terms, there are two options: more oil or something else. The Arctic Ocean holds an estimated 34 billion barrels of crude oil that could be accessed by offshore drilling initiatives like Royal Dutch Shell’s, which I protested in May.41 In April 2015, both chambers of the Alaska State Legislature overwhelmingly approved a joint resolution urging Washington state officials to stop interfering with Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic. Simply building a port for Shell in Alaska would generate 500 to 700 jobs, they claimed.42 Additionally, ANWR and the National Petroleum Reserve, which sandwich Prudhoe Bay, could be opened for oil and natural gas development. These projects could fix the TAPS’s blood pressure problem.

But Alaska’s problem is not the issue of too little oil in the pipeline. It’s way bigger. It’s our complete dependency on the black blood that currently supports our entire economy. Encouraging more oil development will entrench us deeper in our oil dependence. It means giving oil prices a license to throw our state around. If Alaska keeps holding on to oil as its savior, it will follow oil on its path downward.

Fossil fuels are not our future. Alaska lives in a world where renewable energy development has already eclipsed fossil fuel energy, and activists and governments alike are halting the progress of oil, natural gas, and coal projects that aren’t already hindered by economic pressures. In 2012, scientists estimated we could release about 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and stay within a “safe” level of global warming. And the world’s oil, natural gas, and coal companies own enough fossil fuels in reserves to release 2,795 gigatons of CO2 if they are allowed to continue their usual business.43 As we realize the effects of burning fossil fuel on our climate, we also need to realize that betting our livelihood on new oil exploration outside of Prudhoe Bay is like chaining ourselves to an already sinking ship. Shell’s license to drill in the Arctic may seem like a good chance to make the pipeline healthy again, but ultimately it will make it even more challenging to end our relationship with oil when we really need to.

“Unfortunately, there is no simple solution,” explains the State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. “There is no single resource that can fill the huge role [oil] has played in funding state government.”44 Therefore, Alaska has to aggressively diversify its economy and revise its public and private tax structures to cope with this transition as soon as possible. Alaska has to heavily push economic development in its fisheries, mining operations, and tourism industry. We have to pursue projects that add value to already existing industries, like “fish processing plants, […] aluminum reduction, server farms, and dairy farming.”45 We need to create a profitable business environment that will appeal to non-fossil fuel companies. This means investing in infrastructure and transportation and “low-cost energy […] for the Interior and rural communities where economic activity is hamstrung by the cost of fuel.”46 The state will likely have to impose a personal income tax and sales tax for the first time in decades. According to rough estimates, we could add about $1.8 billion to general fund revenue with the steep rates of 5.6% for an income tax and 7% for a sales tax.47 We need to restructure tax law on oil, gas, coal, and mining so that more money stays in-state. Money from yearly revenues and Alaska’s reserves alike need to be used to transition the state to more sustainable industries.

But more than anything, we need ideas. Alaskans—from the women and men sitting in the state’s legislative chambers to high school freshmen in their Alaska Studies classes—need to initiate serious conversations about how our state will look in a post-fossil fuel world. “We can’t be complacent like the frog in the pot of boiling water,” says Scott Goldsmith, Professor of Economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “We need to jump out before it’s too late and become proactive in the creation of our own future.”48 This dialogue has already started, but it needs more momentum and participation. On June 5, Governor Walker and his cabinet hosted a weekend-long convention at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, called “Building a Sustainable Future: Conversations With Alaskans,” to address the state’s economic future. “Self-determination was at the heart of our quest for Statehood. Alaskans wanted to control the future of this state,” explained Walker in a Facebook post. “Once again, Alaska is at a decision point. With oil revenue alone unable to sustain us, how do we chart a new course?”49 The convention gathered more than 200 leaders from around the state to “empower participants” through education and conversation so they could “return home and host their own community discussions.50, 51

Governor Walker’s convention was a step forward in advancing calls to implement a state income tax and carefully use the Permanent Fund’s earning reserves to close the state’s fiscal gap. And there was a lot of hope contained in those three days. “The challenges are obvious. The opportunities might be less clear,” Walker stated. “The first opportunity I see is an opportunity to tap Alaskans’ collective wisdom and ingenuity.”52 He added, “Through teamwork and respect for the voices of all Alaskans, we can develop the best solutions.”53 This sentiment was echoed by others as well. “Alaskans are a resilient and resourceful people, and can rise to meet the challenge facing them in the twilight of oil’s dominance,” said the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.54 There was also a call for cooperation across political boundaries. “If there’s a lasting image to come out of this two days, it’s of Mr. Republican Jack Coghill and a liberal Democrat, Vic Fischer, coming arm in arm together,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Brian Rogers, addressing two original Alaska Constitution authors who were in the audience.55

But behind this optimism is the reality that we have a lot of work to do to see the future we want for Alaska.

Nagaoka 7

Rose Ellet |

A few weeks ago, my friend Tristan Glowa, who works for the divestment campaign at Yale University, went to a Q&A session with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. He submitted a question about how Alaska should move forward in diversifying its economy in the face of the inevitable decline of fossil fuels. As Murkowski started reading Tristan’s question off the slip of paper, she paused and picked out another one from the pile. Meanwhile, bipartisan efforts in our state legislature push for more oil and gas development, with the topic of economic restructuring away from fossil fuels completely off the table. Our leaders are scared to confront this issue. Shifting this dialogue is the first step in many to achieving a sustainable Alaska.

Any transition away from oil will result in great personal sacrifices for all Alaskans. Goldsmith proposes that “the transition to a post-Prudhoe economy is the biggest challenge Alaska will face in the next 10 years.”56 Nothing will likely be able to provide the state government with as much revenue as oil. Therefore, the transition may mean more budget cuts, more loss of jobs, and more expensive living for the sake of a smaller, more sustainable Alaska. But I want the best possible long-term future for my state, and I don’t see more oil being part of the equation.

I am an environmentalist who was raised on oil money. But I’ve begun to realize that it’s useless to feel inhibited by the contradictions between my passion for climate justice and the benefits I’ve received from oil in Alaska. I feel frustration more than anything, and the need to take action immediately. My state was born out of oil development, but now it’s at the mercy of the oil industry. As my friend Tristan argues, “Just because the system I live in unavoidably relies on fossil fuels doesn’t mean that’s the future I am working to create.”57 We’re at a turning point in Alaska’s history where we need to make the extremely difficult decision to end our long relationship with the oil industry. I stand by what I wrote on the cardboard sign I held in front of the Shell gas station: “MORE OIL IS NOT THE ANSWER.”

Slowly, the tide is turning. A few months after our protest at the Shell station, the oil giant announced it would abandon Arctic drilling for “the foreseeable future.”58 And the amount of money that institutions around the world have committed to divest from fossil fuels in the fall of 2015—$2.6 trillion—is 50 times the amount pledged at the same time in 2014.59 Even my high school jazz band seems to have been resurrected for the time being because of the letters of support school administrators received from parents. These are victories, but there are many more battles to be won.

I’m envisioning a different future. I want a future where Fairbanks can be as independent as it wants to be, and where fairgoers don’t have the BP sunflower emblazoned on their backs. I want a future where the entire state isn’t thrown into crisis whenever the price of oil wavers. I want a future that’s not tied to a single commodity. I want our kids to be able to take classes without the fear that their teachers won’t be around anymore. I want future generations of Alaskans to applaud us for taking the first steps away from a failing industry and toward a sustainable state. I want Alaskans to be able to look at the black blood in our pipeline as history, not a lifeline.

Nagaoka 6

Sam Chadwick |

∗  ∗  ∗

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline used to be the aorta of the state of Alaska. Eight hundred miles long and 48 inches wide, the steel artery stretches from the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay on the northernmost edge of the state down to the Valdez Marine Terminal on the southern coast of Alaska’s mainland. Inside, there is nothing. My grandchildren run around the now-overgrown parking lot where my parents once took visitors to see the pipeline, knocking on the tube and smiling at the ringing, hollow sound that it makes.

Featured Image © Anita Ritenour |

It wasn’t until my first year at DU that I became very engaged in the issue of global climate change. Since I was little, I have always had an appreciation for nature and preserving the environments I was in. Throughout high school, I worked on recycling and air quality issues in my hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska. During my first year in college, I joined Divest DU, a student organization committed to combatting climate change by urging the university to divest, or withdraw investments, from fossil fuel stocks. The people I met through this organization educated me on the urgency and scale of climate change, its ties to social justice issues, and the inspiring ways in which people were coming together to fight what I believe is the most massive and overarching injustice of our generation.

But my mind always wandered back to Alaska, a place completely dependent on oil revenue…the home that I was born and raised in.

The basis for the structure of this essay came from a book we read in my Honors Writing course. In her book Full Body Burden, Kristen Iversen tells the story of the Rocky Flats Nuclear facility in Colorado while narrating her own childhood growing up beside the plant. Eventually, these threads coalesce into a single story. We read this book around the same time I started to hear about a serious budget shortfall that Alaska was facing the coming year due to low oil prices. Memories about my interactions with oil money growing up in Alaska flooded me. I decided to use a similar structure as Full Body Burden to bring together the two stories I wanted to tell.

Nagaoka bio
Kengo Nagaoka is a second-year Jazz Studies major at the Lamont School of Music and a Leadership Studies minor with the Pioneer Leadership Program. Kengo was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, and spends most of his free time playing drums, writing music, and exploring outside. One of his favorite things to do is to get dusty with his suite-mates.


1 Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. “Trans Alaska Pipeline System: The Facts.” Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, 2013. PDF file.

2 Alaska History and Cultural Studies. Modern Alaska: Oil Discovery and Development in Alaska. Alaska Humanities Forum, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

3 The State of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Research and Analysis Section. “Annual Components of Population Change for Alaska, 1945 to 2014.” The State of Alaska, 2014. Microsoft Excel file.

4 The State of Alaska Department of Revenue Commissioner’s Office. “Spring 2015 Forecast Adjusts Revenue to Reflect Lower Oil Prices.” The State of Alaska Department of Revenue, 3 April 2015. PDF file.

5 The State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. Understanding Alaska’s Revenue. Understanding Alaska’s Budget, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

6 Knapp, Gunnar. “The Most Important Things to Understand About Alaska’s Fiscal Situation.” University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research, Jan. 2015. PDF file.

7 The State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. Understanding Alaska’s Spending. Understanding Alaska’s Budget, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

8 State of Alaska, House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. Understanding Alaska’s Revenue.

9 Murphy, Andrea. “America’s Largest Private Companies 2014.” Forbes, 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 May 2015.

10 The State of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Research & Analysis Section. Alaska Local and Regional Information. Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Research, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

11 Smock, Dylan. Personal interview. 17 May 2015.

12 ConocoPhillips Alaska. Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). ConocoPhillips Company, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

13 Murphy, Kim. “ALASKA OIL: Flow Has Slowed Through Pipeline.” Sunday Gazette [Charleston, WV], 15 Aug. 2010. ProQuest. Web. 26 May 2015.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. “Trans Alaska Pipeline System.”

17 Murphy, K. “ALASKA OIL.”

18 Randall, Tom. “Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables: This is the Beginning of the End.” Bloomberg Business, 14 April 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

19 Nasdaq. Crude Oil: WTI (NYMEX) Price. Barchart Market Data Solutions, 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

20 Knapp. “The Most Important Things.”

21 Associated Press. “By the Numbers: Alaska Budget Debate, Attempts to Fix It.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 07 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

22 Forgey, Pat. “Is the Permanent Fund the Solution to Alaska’s Budget Gridlock?” Alaska Dispatch News, 20 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

23 Herz, Nathaniel. “House Bipartisan Budget Deal Appears to be Dead on Arrival in the Senate.” Alaska Dispatch News. 30 May 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

24 Kreiss-Tomkins, Jonathan. “Ugh.” [Email], 6 March 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

25 Cole, Dermot. “In a Blow to Fairbanks, Flint Hills Says It Will Close Down North Pole Refinery.” Alaska Dispatch News, 04 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 May 2015.

26 Ibid.

27 Buxton, Matt. “BP No Longer Sponsoring Fairbanks Midnight Sun Festival.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 28 May 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

28 Smock. Personal interview.

29 Murphy. “ALASKA OIL.”

30 Visser, Nick. “The World Has Pledged To Divest $2.6 Trillion From Fossil Fuels.” Huffington Post, 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

31 Fairbanks Concert Association. Sponsor List. Fairbanks Concert Association, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

32 The State of Alaska Department of Revenue Permanent Fund Dividend Division. Historical Summary of Dividend Applications and Payments. The State of Alaska, 31 December 2012. Web. 26 May 2015.

33 Caldwell, Suzanna. “Fairbanks’ Empty, Decaying Polaris Building Looking for Love.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 24 April 2011. Web. 26 May 2015.

34 US Energy Information Administration. Petroleum Chronology of Events 1970–2000. US Department of Energy, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

35 Ibid.

36 Alaska History and Cultural Studies, Modern Alaska.

37 Ibid.

38 Associated Press. “Alaska Faces Tough Decisions, Drastic Budget Cuts, Dipping into Savings as Oil Prices Plunge.” Fox Business, 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

39 Gutierrez, Alexandra. “Governor’s New Budget Cuts 300 State Employees.” Alaska Public Media, 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

40 The State of Alaska House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy. What is a Fiscal Gap? Understanding Alaska’s Budget, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015.

41 Fessler, David. “The Pros and Cons of Arctic Oil Drilling (And Why We Should Start Now).” Investment U [The Oxford Club], 15 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

42 The Office of Senator Giessel. “Legislature Urges Seattle to Stop Blocking Alaska’s Economic Development.” Alaska Senate Majority, 19 April 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

43 McKibben, Bill. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Rolling Stone, 19 July 2012. Web. 26 May 2015.

44 House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy, What is a Fiscal Gap?

45 Goldsmith, Scott. “Alaska’s Petroleum Industry: Transformative, But is it Sustainable?” University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research, April 2011. PDF file.

46 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Editorial. “Population Wobble Worrisome: Decline Not Portent of Disaster, But State Needs to Pay Attention and Act.” Fairbanks Daily News Miner. 13 May 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

47 House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy, What is a Fiscal Gap?

48 Goldsmith. “Alaska’s Petroleum Industry.”

49 Walker, Bill. “Self-determination was at the heart of our quest for Statehood. Alaskans wanted to control the future of this state. Once again, Alaska is at a decision point. With oil revenue alone unable to sustain us, how do we chart a new course?” [Facebook post], 6 June 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

50 Cole, Dermot, and Nathaniel Herz. “Fairbanks Fiscal Cram Session Leads to New Focus on Revenue, Spending, Services.” Alaska Dispatch News. 7 June 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

51 The State of Alaska Governor Bill Walker, Building a Sustainable Future: Conversations with Alaskans. The State of Alaska, n.d. Web. 8 June 2015.

52 Walker, Bill. “Building a Sustainable Future.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 31 May 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

53 The State of Alaska Governor Bill Walker, Walker Kicks Off Dialogue On Fiscal Future. The State of Alaska, 4 June 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.

54 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Editorial. “Population Wobble Worrisome.”

55 Cole & Herz. “Fairbanks Fiscal Cram Session.”

56 Goldsmith, Scott. “High Oil Prices Give Alaskans a Second Chance: How Will We Use this Opportunity?” University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research, Sept. 2011. PDF file.

57 Glowa, Tristan. “So it’s pretty inarguable that we need to transition to a clean energy economy rapidly if we don’t want to be screwed by climate change. Obviously, as an Alaskan, I depend on oil given that it’s funded my life here. Just because the system I live in unavoidably relies on fossil fuels doesn’t mean that’s the future I am working to create (which is a question of political economy, not individual purchases). Does that make sense?” [Facebook comment], 20 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.

58 Macalister, Terry. “Shell Abandons Alaska Arctic Drilling.” The Guardian, 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

59 Visser. “The World Has Pledged To Divest.”