Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ana Sisnett: 1952-2009

Ana Sisnett (Ana Sisnett, photo from Austin American-Statesman 14 January 2009 obituary, photographer not named)

Ana Sisnett: 1952-2009

Oh my gentle friends, we've lost Ana Sisnett.

Way too early. And cruelly before she could see Barack Obama assume the office of the Presidency.

She's been fighting ovarian cancer for three years. She died at home, in loving care, on Tuesday afternoon, at 56 years of age. She is survived by her partner, Priscilla Hale; her daughter Meredith Sisnett, age 36; her son Ghamal Webb, age 31; and two adored grandchildren. She is also survived by a vast community who knew her as an artist, writer, poet, community activist, builder of bridges, and friend.

(Ana Sisnett featured at Hello, Austin)

I first met Ana in 1995 when I began volunteering at WATER House (Women's Access To Electronic Resources). Ana was part of the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, which funded WATER, and she had set up WATER's training program in computer technology for underserved women and girls. At around that same time, she began working with Sue Beckwith at Austin Free-Net, a non-profit organization that offers free Internet access and classes in over forty sites in Austin, many in neighborhoods with large African American and Latino populations. It is because of my training at WATER, mostly done by the very patient Amanda Johnston, that I came to the online world and eventually to blogging.

Ana eventually became Executive Director of Austin Free-Net. Her obituary at that organization's website states:

'Ana and Austin Free-Net were featured on the cover of the Austin Chronicle’s 2003 Best of Austin issue, when AFN was voted "Best Internet Safety Net and Digital Divide Bridge." She was also among community technology leaders in the U.S. given the Education Technology Think Tank (ET3) 2003 Technology to Empower Communities (TEC) Champion Award. In 2000, Texas Monthly Biz cited her as one “The 25 Most Powerful Texans in High Tech,” and she was the recipient of the City of Austin’s 2001 Susan G. Hadden Telecommunity Award.

Ana Sisnett on cover of Austin American-Statesman (Ana Sisnett from 2003 Austin Chronicle's Best of Austin edition)

'Ana was often called upon by media, researchers, and policymakers to provide expert testimony for Austin and Texas e-government initiatives, and to participate in conferences, town halls, and other gatherings focused on equitable access to the technology and training. She was an invited panelist at the Barbara Jordan National Forum on Public Policy, Goodwill International Industries annual conference, keynote speaker at the St. Louis Brown Bag Technology Collaborative, and mentor during the 2002 Community Technology Centers Network Leadership Institute. She served on the KLRU Public Square and Digital Divide brain trusts, and was a member of the River City Youth Foundation's Community Advisory Board.

"Her local, national and international volunteer and paid activism included community media and cultural productions, anti-oppression workshops, AIDS/HIV awareness initiatives, and community technology training, access, policies and issues. As a co-"Technomama" during the '90s, Ana provided Internet trainings in English, Spanish and Portuguese in Europe, Latin America, and throughout the US for non-governmental organizations working on the UN Human Rights and Women's conferences in the mid-90s."

[An interview with Ana concerning her work with Austin Free-Net can be found here.]

Despite this geeky resume, Ana in person was passionate, funny, and projected more of an artistic persona. I saw her most often at poetry readings, where her work was enormously popular, both because of its accessible, eloquent content and her sizzling delivery. Her voice was deep, full of humor, and carried delicious flavor from her birthplace of Panama plus childhood years in Barbados and Jamaica. The poem that everyone always wanted to hear, no matter what else was on the bill, was the one she'd written about mangoes. A paean to her upbringing, to sensuality, and to the unique beauty of mangoes themselves, her reading of it filled us with ache and joy simultaneously. I particularly remember a reading at the Tillery Street Theater where Carole Metellus, another island woman poet and good friend of Ana's, stood up and devoured a mango while Ana read the poem, ripping open the rind with her teeth and reducing us all to goo by the time she was done.

In 2005, when several thousand New Orleaneans stranded first by Hurricane Katrina and then by our government arrived at the Austin Convention Center, Ana was instrumental in getting computer access set up for these folks, and later helped with the oral history project collecting their stories.

I have a strong memory of the reading at BookWoman in early 2002 launching the publication of Affirming Flame: Writings by Progressive Texas Poets in the Aftermath of September 11th by Evelyn Street Press. I had two pieces in that anthology, and performed them both. But Ana's poem is what I remember as the room-shifter, giving us all permission to feel more than a single emotion, insisting we make connections between ourselves and other parts of the world. That poem is here (I have tears in my eyes that we/you will never get to hear how it lived in her voice):

Illegal Haikus: Not for Purists

Homeland security
Insecurity lands home
Leaves me to wonder
Where is home?

Multinational mass control
Consolidated ownership:

Cantor Fitzgerald
700 dead under the
rubble of "trillions of dollars
handled each day"

back to work with teary eyes--
Such is the arithmetic of grief
Rising sums of human capital,
Fodder for the New World Order.

Declare a state of high alert
Each time a black man's body
Sweeps a country road
or stops bullets on city streets.

"Suck me
Lick me
illegal haikus
Spoken in
Urgent whispers
During times of endless wars.

© Ana Sisnett, 2001

(Granny Jus' Come by Ana Sisnett)

In contrast to her razor-keen political poetry and her heart-skipping erotic verse, Ana was also nationally known as a children's book author for Granny Jus' Come and Two Mrs. Gibsons. I gave away copies of Granny Jus' Come to every family I knew with small children. Written in the dialect of Ana's childhood, it's the joyful story of a little girl's love for her grandmother who is coming for a visit. When I got to hear her read this aloud, I thought about her being a grandmother, how she stood with those strong legs and powerful posture at the center of five generations, immortalizing the love she had for her granny and certain of a matching love from her lucky grandchildren.

I also have a strong memory of how angry I was when I heard that during routine oral surgery, a mishap had cut a nerve and damaged both facial control and speech. This, in such a stunningly beautiful woman whose voice was essential to so many -- I found it an injustice hard to bear. But Ana faced it head-on, calm, smart, and fearless. She worked through the damage and returned to her public readings in due time.

Visual art by Ana Sisnett (Visual art by Ana Sisnett, title not known)

Ana had moved into visual arts, where of course she quickly displayed expertise and profound connection. It really seemed there wasn't anything she could not do. Her Austin American-Statesman obituary reminds me that she was a volunteer and organizer for ALLGO (Austin Latino/a Lesbian Gay Organization) and for Alma de Mujer, an indigenous women's retreat and arts center. It also stated she moved to Los Angeles at age 13, and obtained her degree in Spanish and Communications from the University of California at San Diego.

But what come into my mind, when I think of her, is how gold flashed in her mouth when she laughed -- I remember her as laughing and grinning, not serious as she is in online photos. I remember her stunning hair, with veins of pure white among the black. I remember her dancing. I remember how, when she was about to speak, everybody around her shut up with anticipation. I remember her unshakable kindness, her self-confidence, how you could absolutely rely on her to not dampen her own intelligence or skirt the holy need for making connections where none were immediately evident. Mostly, in a tight community where small-town values (and gossip) do exist, I remember that I never once heard anyone speak of her except with gladness and respect. She was a passionate artist and activist who did intensely important work but made no enemies along the way, whose name when uttered instantly lit up the face of anybody who'd ever met her. She was a Big Woman. Her passage leaves a gaping hole in our fabric.

(Texas Lesbian Conference 2000, Houston Texas; L-R: Standing -- Priscilla Hale, Carole Metellus, unknown; Sitting -- Dawn Surratt, Ana Sisnett, Maggie Jochild, Harper)

Ana's friend Carole Metellus had organized a daily meditative reflection for Ana during her recent life transformation. Her request states: "I am asking, that wherever we may be at 3 p.m. CST daily, that we cease our activities for 5-10 minutes to hold Ana on her journey and support Priscilla in hers. If you are able, it would be valuable to light a WHITE candle to initiate the moment as we collectively offer them our good energies." Carole has asked that we continue this practice until we can partake in a more formal farewell.

ALLGO now has this notice up:

"Celebrating Ana
Join us Saturday, January 24, at 1:00 PM
as we honor Ana Sisnett’s life and spirit
Trinity United Methodist Church
600 E 50th St, Austin, TX"

[Excerpts of a KUT Radio (90.5 FM) interview with Ana's friend Kate X Messer on her passing can be listened to here.]