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Archives for June 8, 2017

Meet Esther Sullivan


Esther Sullivan is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Denver. Her research focuses on poverty, spatial inequality, and housing, with a special interest in both forced and voluntary residential mobility.

A previous speaker at Point of Departure, Esther holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from The University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. in English from The University of Chicago.

Here, we talk about the allure of legal marijuana for new residents, Denver’s expanding skyline, and the mechanics of a TED talk.

What are some thoughts you have as you get around in Denver?

I see a city of cranes. That’s exciting but also unnerving. With this much development occurring in the city, issues of gentrification and displacement are in the front of my mind. Denver is one of the fastest-growing cities in one of the fastest-growing states in the United States. In a city of cranes, where development is everywhere, issues like housing security, fair housing access, eviction, and government-led urban redevelopment are going to come to the fore.

You’ve been researching the correlation between the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and folks moving to Colorado. What have you discovered?

I’m interested in both forced and voluntary residential relocation. The legalization of cannabis in Colorado is a unique opportunity to explore how and why people move to states where cannabis laws have changed. In some cases this is out of need, as is the case with people who refer to themselves as cannabis medical refugees. In some cases it’s out of an entrepreneurial spirit interested in capitalizing on new business opportunities. In some cases it’s more of an aspirational search for a different, maybe better, way of life. I’m exploring all of this for my next book, Greener Pastures: Moving for Marijuana.

What do you think living in Denver will be like in 10 years?

One thing that I have loved about Denver is the city’s commitment to fostering civic life. Denver exemplifies something very fundamental: when you provide people spaces to enjoy their city, they will. I love to see the many ways people make the most of civic life and public space in Denver. But for Denver to sustain that, the city needs to preserve existing communities and not let population growth mean that our current population is priced out of city life. In terms of population growth and livability, Denver is often up there with Austin, TX, a city that also, unfortunately, has this nation’s highest level of income inequality in this country. I hope in 10 years life in Denver will prove that extraordinary population growth does have to mean deep levels of inequality.

Can you tell me about a personal point of departure in your life?

I used to think I wanted to be an architect. I was living in Texas when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and witnessed the flood of refugees coming across state lines. I went to New Orleans the next year to work with humanitarian organizations helping people return and resettle in their homes. At that time much of the city remained without electricity, homes were filled with mud and debris, and people lived in toxic FEMA trailers while they waited to return home. Seeing that, my focus really shifted from wanting to design housing to wanting to understand the connections between housing, community, and broader social inequalities. That was a point of departure. Shortly after, I began work on my Ph.D. and eventually became a professor of sociology.

Do you have a favorite TED talk?

That would have to be Will Stephen’s TEDxNewYork talk “How to sound smart in your TEDx Talk.” He gives a talk about nothing while brilliantly breaking down how every TED talk is arranged, from the voice modulations to the to the dramatic pauses. It’s pretty hilarious and also spot on. It leaves me wondering, will I sound like that?

Meet Meta Sarmiento



A writer of Asian-American, Pacific-Islander descent, Meta Sarmiento won the Spoken Word for the World competition in 2015 and is a three-time TeamBackPack cypher audition semi-finalist.

A previous speaker at Point of Departure, recently earned a spot on Slam NUBA’s National Poetry Team. A graduate of the University of Guam, Meta often writes about cultural identity, love, loss, and healing.

Here we talk about slam poetry in Guam, the art of performing live, and the power of vulnerability.

So you were born and raised in Guam, a U.S. territory, which means you are a U.S. citizen. That must be a totally different experience than from other citizens.

Extremely different experience. There are a lot of cultural nuances being a Filipino born in a U.S. territory but then when you leave Guam and come to mainland America, you’re almost invisible like, “I don’t know what Guam is,” and so you feel like this weird tension between being an American citizen and not really feeling American. So there’s definitely that.

How old were you when you moved here?

I travel a lot, I think my first trip to the U.S. was in 1998. I was 8 years old, I went to Disneyland. That was awesome!  Last summer I moved to Denver, Colorado—I’ve only been here 8 months now!

Did you grow up speaking English as well?

Yes. The primary language of Guam is Chamorro, the indigenous language. But everyone speaks English because we’ve been colonized by Spain, Japan, and lastly America. So now that we’re a U.S. territory, everyone speaks English.

Hold old were you when you first started to realize that you were a poet?

In the sixth grade, my language arts teacher would leave feedback in our journals and one day I opened my journal and she had left a note. It read, “John, you write beautifully. If you continue to write, I believe you’re going to be somebody.” It was the first time somebody really identified any value of that level in me. I think it was in that moment that I was like, “Maybe I could be a good writer someday.” And that’s when I decided that I wanted to do writing as a serious thing. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when I realized I wanted to be an actual poet.

And did you start doing performance poetry in Guam?

Yes, I did. I was introduced in 2007 and I decided, “You know what? Let me try this out”. So I went to a local poetry slam—and at that time, there were no divisions like there are now, where there’s a youth division and an adult division—it was just a free for all. When I slammed for the first time, I ended up placing third and I beat out a whole bunch of adults. I was like, “Damn! I could be good at this,” and the rest is history.

Did you choose Denver because of its stature in the slam community?

I’ve admired poets in Denver for a really long time, for sure. Especially the poets coming out of Slam Nuba. When I decided to leave Guam, that was definitely a factor: what community am I trying to become a part of. One of the things I noticed about Denver’s writing community is that there aren’t a lot of Asian-Pacific Islanders in their communities. So I thought if I go there, I’m definitely going to stick out—in a good way or maybe in a bad way, I don’t know. It definitely played into my decision to move to  Denver.

You teach creative writing. What do you think you can learn about the art of writing from performing slam poetry that you can’t learn in any other way?

The reason why I am an effective creative writing teacher is because I do the things I’m trying to teach. Most textbooks and traditional curriculum that don’t cover what actually happens at a poetry event, how to connect with the audience on a very real and emotional level.

Do you have a certain experience on stage that was especially transcendental?

When I was still really early on in my writing efforts, I did a duet with my homie Carlos Anderson. We wrote a piece for my girlfriend at the time and she was leaving for college. It was the first time I’ve ever cried on stage. Growing up, I always tried not to be vulnerable, I thought vulnerability is weakness. But in that moment, being vulnerable was actually a strength because the connection between me and my girlfriend became stronger. It was an important moment for me as a writer to see that my vulnerability isn’t a weakness.

Do you have a favorite TED performance?

Yeah. It was very recently, too. Lux Narayan did a TED talk called, “What I Learned from 200 Obituaries.” Every day at breakfast, he reads the obituaries in New York Times. He made a compilation of the positive words that people used in obituaries. Two of the words that stuck out to me the most were “John”—because that’s my legal name – and “help”. I‘ve always been obsessed with leaving a positive impact on society. Seeing what people have to say about those who’ve passed away and the impact they had on society really struck me. It’s really dope.

Meet Brittni Darras


The fight against teen suicide begins in the classroom


Brittni Darras is an English teacher at Rampart High School in Colorado Springs. Following the attempted suicide of one of Rampart’s students, Brittni wrote each of her 130 students personalized cards, earning her worldwide attention, the AspenPointe Hero of Mental Health Award, and the Mayor’s Young Leader Award in the category of Innovation in Education.

A previous speaker at Point of Departure, Brittni is a varsity cheerleading coach and helps plan her school’s annual Bald for Bucks Assembly, in which over 200 students, staff, and community members shave their heads to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Here, we talk about hidden sadness, communicating with teenagers, and embracing creativity.

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade, but I always thought I’d be an elementary school teacher. When I was in college, however, I started working as an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) tutor at the high school I attended. By the end of my first semester tutoring, I switched my major from elementary education to secondary education. I loved being surrounded by teenagers and being able to have conversations with them about their jobs, classes, and future plans—I quickly realized that was the right fit for me.

Are there things that young people are dealing with today that adults sometimes struggle to comprehend or empathize with?

Definitely. Many adults think young people have it easy because they don’t have to work or pay bills while they still live under their parents’ roof. What adults don’t realize is that even the young people who don’t have to worry about these things still have other concerns and problems. Trying to be the best in your class is hard. Trying to be the star athlete is hard. It’s hard trying to make people like you when cliques are common and reputations are a big deal. Kids are going through a lot of changes and they have to make big decisions about their future, which puts a great deal of pressure and stress on them.

You managed to make a big impact on your students with a simple, heartfelt burst of communication. What are some ways parents can improve communication with their kids?

Teenagers in particular are at an age when many of them want to establish independence. They don’t always respond well to communication with parents, even when parents have the best intentions. I do think it is important for parents to acknowledge the things their children do well and to let them know they are proud of them. Every child does something well that is worth acknowledging. I would encourage parents to pay attention to and verbally reinforce those positive attributes.

Do school tragedies—particularly Columbine—weigh on today’s students at all?

I was teaching a freshman English class a few years ago and during our hero unit I mentioned all of the first responders who rescued kids and escorted them to safety following the Columbine shooting. I got blank stares from my students. When I asked them if they knew what happened at Columbine, not a single student answered. I realized none of them were even alive when the shooting took place. Perhaps the Columbine tragedy doesn’t have a huge impact on our current students. I do, however, believe that social media and the media in general weighs heavily on them.

Can you tell me about a personal point of departure in your life?

My point of departure was when I found out that one of my students, who appeared to have it all together, attempted suicide and said that she didn’t believe anybody would miss her if she was gone. She was beautiful, intelligent, and kind. She was always surrounded by friends and she always came into class with a smile on her face. At this moment, I asked myself, “If she struggled to the point of wanting to take her own life, how many other students and people do I know who might be facing the same struggles?”

Do you have a favorite TED talk?

Yes! “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by Sir Ken Robinson. In my opinion, he is absolutely correct. We have a responsibility to give children a well-rounded education. Sometimes I feel like the school system treats students like machines that can all be “produced” the same way. It’s important to remember that they are human beings. All of them have unique interests and abilities; it is crucial for schools to embrace that.

Meet Theo E.J. Wilson


Slam poet Theo E.J. Wilson, a.k.a Lucifury, is a founding member of Denver’s SlamNUBA team, which won the National Poetry Slam in 2011.

A previous speaker at Point of Departure, he began his speaking career with the NAACP at the age of 15 and has always been passionate about social justice. Theo is currently the Executive Director of Shop Talk Live, an organization that uses the barbershop as a staging ground for community dialogue and healing.

Here we talk about growing up in Denver, the difference between slam poetry and battle raps, writing love letters, and Tony Robbins’ jawline.


You grew up in Denver’s Park Hill, a neighborhood that’s changed quite a bit over the past decade. What was it like growing up?

At that time, we were haunted by the shadow of gang violence. Being a young boy in what we call “the summer of violence” in 1993, I remember there being constant vigilance because of the threat of gang violence. I remember my mother shopping for neutral color clothing to avoid red or blue. At the same time there was an aliveness that you could only get living in the hood. Eventually, we moved from to the South side of Denver, but all of my best friends were still in Park Hill, so I was there all the time.

Is it true that you began your public speaking career when you were only 15?

I was on the first NAACP Youth Council. I guess my gift for speaking was already showing up at that time and they needed a publicity chair—somebody who would be the spokesperson for the organization. Then there was a shooting that took place. A member of the Aryan nation killed an African immigrant by the name of Oumar Dia. We had a rally and that was the first speech I ever wrote to perform in front of an audience.

It was jarring because I was afraid of the press. I didn’t know what they would make of my words and my image. But, I was more concerned about making an impact. I wanted to see what I could do to help more than anything, so I was hoping it would be a bridge to further resources for the NAACP Youth in Denver.

Can you remember when you realized that you were a poet and an artist?

I would write love letters to girls. I had these extreme crushes and I could get my emotions to reflect back on paper. I had been diagnosed with manic depression by the school psychologist and my father specifically emphasized that I should write my emotions. He was not a believer in the prescription drugs so I picked up a pen and began to use writing as a purge, a therapy, a catharsis. Little did I know I was developing the ability to write impactfully.

That’s really interesting because if you were using writing strictly as therapy in the beginning, there probably wasn’t any pretense.

Dude, at that time I did not consider myself a poet. I saw other people who performed poetry and marveled at them. I didn’t compete competitively in poetry until I was in my twenties. I had been developing that ability during my adolescence to use as an adult.

What brought you to competitive poetry?

Rap. I was fortunate to be roommates with a very competitive battle rapper and he had a whole crew. I wanted to be like that, you know what I mean? They were clever—wickedly, devilishly intelligent. I was a fan of Tupac and he helped bridge poetry and rap for me. I began to write poetic punchline-heavy political raps. I would bring them to poetry venues because it was a great place to express myself where I wasn’t a slave to the beat. I could just slow it down and emphasize.

I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but I’ll listen to a lot of my favorite hip hop songs a hundred times before I pick out a certain lyric.

Yeah, with poetry you can slow down, separate it, and emphasize—like a monologue. When you take a rap, and express it like a monologue, like you are an actor auditioning, then it becomes more like a poem. People can feel the emotion behind it and not necessarily be concerned with your cleverness. You become a bridge to feeling.

How do you stay inspired? What fills your tank?

Being around art. When you go to poetry venues you’re going to hear shit that sparks you off. When you pay attention to life, just experiencing things, and you’re awake to the details and the ironies of the pictures that form before you in each moment, then you really can’t run out of material. Also, if you are working on yourself, the greatest poem you’ll write is your life. That’s why I tell poets all the time, “If you really want to be a good poet, awaken yourself to the goodness in you and try to cultivate it—try to water it, make it grow.” Slowly but surely you are writing on another level.

 Do you have a favorite TED performance or talk?

The first TED talk I ever really saw was Tony Robbins’ TED Talk about a decade ago. I was pulled into his world—I bought Get The Edge after that. I’d seen his TV infomercial, but they looked mad corny to me. It was this dude with huge teeth and a jaw line, looking like Clark Kent, telling me I can do anything. But when I saw his TED Talk, I was like, “Okay, this dude actually understands the workings of the human mind and how to hack them.”

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