Shayna SheNess Israel

With only 23 years on this earth, Shayna SheNess Israel has already racked up quite a list of accomplishments: poet, teacher, rap artist, social worker, tutor, activist and feminist.

Though she deals with heavy matters of the world, the eternal optimist has such a glow about her that I found it impossible to take a serious picture of her. Despite my urging to give me a semi-serious face, Israel beamed in each shot. To quote an old Jayne Mansfield film, “The girl can’t help it.” Not a bad trait to have.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. SI: I am a recent Bryn Mawr grad. I got my degree in sociology. So right now, I’m experiencing life outside of campus. I work as a site coordinator for the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, which is an after-school program for students that helps them with college prep and with finding jobs. That’s part-time. I also work as a resident tutor for the A Better Chance [ABC] program. It’s a boarding-school program in Swarthmore that allows students of color from areas where the school districts are substandard to have access to higher-quality educational options.

PGN: That sounds like a lot! SI: [Laughs.] I also teach a class that I co-founded called Saturday Cipher. It’s a poetry, rap and performance class.

PGN: I’m actually pretty familiar with the ABC program. One of my last boyfriends was an ABC student; it was a long time ago! SI: I was an ABC kid myself. I enrolled in the ABC program in Swarthmore and attended Strath Haven High School.

PGN: Was it a good experience? SI: Now, yes, but it was not without its challenges. I was 14 and 90 miles from home and family in a predominantly white neighborhood. I’d grown up around West Indian people all my life and the only white people I saw were in TV. I mean, I had some white teachers and of course you’d see white people in Manhattan, but we rarely went to Manhattan, so it was a bit alien to me. What was funny too was that ABC house was in an area with a lot of Hassidic Jews. I didn’t think that they were white, I just thought that they were Jewish and in a separate category. The same for Italians and other ethnicities — I didn’t realize that they were all considered white people. PGN: Where are you originally from? SI: I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. My mother is from Belize and my father is from South Carolina. I’m the middle child; I have a younger sister and two older brothers. One is a Marine who was stationed in Iraq for a while, and the oldest brother is a rapper. My sister just graduated from Hunter College and I’m really proud of her. She had a baby and still managed to graduate a year early with a double major.

PGN: Hey, how do you get to be a middle child with four kids? SI: [Laughs.] Well, I was raised as a middle child. My oldest brother is a half-sibling who just recently became a regular part of the family unit.

PGN: What was it like growing up in Brooklyn? SI: My mother’s family is West Indian, from Belize. And I grew up with lots of family around. I would play with my cousins and go to parties at my grandmother’s house. We’d hang out and roam the streets like we were bad or something — climbing fences and trees and begging the ice-cream man for free ice cream in the summertime. We had fun together. I’d also sit in my room and write quite a bit.

PGN: As a poet, do you remember the first poem that influenced you? SI: Of course! It’s the quintessential poem by Maya Angelou that inspired so many people, “Still I Rise.” In fourth grade, my teacher, Miss Walker, made the class memorize the poem for Black History Month. One of the lines is “Does my haughtiness offend you?” and I remember savoring the word “haughty.” The elegance and the air that she exuded in the poem really connected with me.

PGN: Interests? SI: I’m really into women’s issues. I spent a summer as a domestic-violence counselor at the Montgomery County Women’s Center. I also helped to revitalize Bryn Mawr’s Women’s Center and worked to create the Student Center of Feminism.

PGN: How did you get involved with rap? SI: I’ve been doing poetry for forever and I started rapping when I was 16. I wanted to take educational messages about history and transform them into a format that was accessible to many people. When I got to Bryn Mawr, I met some friends who also did poetry and rap. I spoke to them about forming a collective where we could do our own things but would be a group to support one another. We formed a women’s crew called 3xalady, like the Lionel Richie song, “Three Times a Lady.” Two of us are queer and we wanted to bring the narrative of women to the forefront and felt that hip-hop was a place where it was especially needed. There’s a lot of erasure of the influence of women and even minorities in the hip-hop culture as it goes mainstream. It’s getting washed away by the hyper-masculine culture that’s taken it over.

PGN: It’s sad to see how it went from being something upbeat and playful or meaningful to downright misogynist and ugly. SI: Yes, it’s weird how we have elevated men in the community to something that’s above the law, above custom, above appropriateness. I think it stems from not holding our men responsible at the earliest age for who they are and how they relate to other genders. Growing up, I remember that the boys got away with everything while the girls were told not to leave the yard. They got to run around and go wild while the girls were supposed to attend religious services. A boy could cuss his mother out and nothing would be done, but if a girl got sassy, she’d get popped. I just didn’t understand the disparity and why you would let these little boys grow up without any reverence for where or who they came from. The young boys I work with are not that way until they get inundated with images of women being treated poorly, as commodities.

PGN: The Chris Brown incident doesn’t help. As someone who’s worked in the domestic-violence field, how did it affect you? SI: It’s terribly disheartening. I’m gathering thoughts to do a piece on it. Recently I spoke to a number of students about it in West Philadelphia. It was right after two other DV incidents had happened, both where the mother was attacked and stabbed right in front of her children. I was so angry and sick about it, I brought the articles to my school and had the kids talk about it. They were saying how sad it was and many of them told me about incidents they had witnessed — from girls being spit on by their boyfriends just for being there to being slapped or beat up. I read them a portion from an expert who’d stated that if you see an incident happen in public, it was definitely not the first time it had occurred. Most were upset about it. Then we got to the Chris and Rihanna thing and it got weird. The boys were upset that Brown had assaulted her and were saying there was no excuse for that kind of violence, and the girls shocked me by coming to Brown’s defense, saying she either provoked it or deserved it because she was stupid enough to go back to him when it had happened before. They didn’t know why he was being vilified for something that happened all the time.

PGN: I just saw a study that found 50 percent of the young women surveyed thought she was to blame. SI: It’s so destructive. I was just watching an old hip-hop movie, “Wild Style,” with a friend and I noticed that all the women in the movie were either there to cheer the men on or were depicted as gold-digging harlots or as sex objects for the men. The lead female was especially repulsive, and what happens is that you dislike like the characters, and then you start thinking of all women in that regard and start not liking women. That’s where it starts; even as a woman, you begin to not respect women and men become self-righteous in their opinion of women. Yet it’s the image of women that they’ve created and foisted on the community. PGN: Let’s change gears. What’s your coming-out story? SI: I guess it was different in that it involved only me. I just remember looking at this girl one day and thinking, “I really want to kiss her.” I’d never had any conscious gay thoughts before that — it was just kind of out of the blue. In that instant, I said to myself, “You do realize that this means you’re gay.” And that was it, I was out. I was about 18 — though, looking back, when I was young, there were probably other indications. I remember in seventh grade I was on the bus and I saw this girl who was in eighth grade. I said to her, “You have really beautiful breasts” and everybody on the bus went crazy. My friends were shouting, “Ewwww, Shayna, you’re gay! Women don’t talk about other women’s breasts.” I was like, “Yes, they do. Women compliment each other all the time.” She told the other kids to shut up and got off the bus with me. Nothing ever happened, but looking back, I guess that was pretty gay!

PGN: What’s up next? SI: There’s a really exciting 2009 LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference happening this weekend called “Breathing Fire: Channeling the Power Within.” It’s going to be two days of programs starting with a performance by my group, 3xaladycrew, and the Nzinga Arts Collective and featuring vocalist Fatimah Loren. Renowned poet, activist and author Staceyann Chin will be featured as well. On Saturday, there will be workshops addressing the body and health, spirituality and a whole lot more. Get more information at www.firetickets.eventbrite.com.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].