Interview with Tara Betts (Co-Founder of GirlSpeak)

by Diamond Sharp

Tara Betts

Tara Betts was a co-founder of GirlSpeak in 2003. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She has been featured on Def Poetry Jam, and has been published in multiple anthologies including her own entitled Can I Hang and Switch.

What is your name?

Tara Betts

What do you do?

Teach. Read. Write. Knit. Right now, I’m organizing Urban Word NYC's first book club open to teen writers and teaching artists for this nonprofit organization. Another event that I'm organizing is a screening of the documentary of "Committing Poetry in Times of War" which deals with the censorship of young poets speaking out against military action. So, I guess I organize events too. I have rediscovered how much I like digging in the earth since I left Chicago, so I've been cultivating green space and missing doing yoga. I practiced yoga often when I still lived in the Chi, and I loved it so much.

Where are you from?

Originally, I was born and raised in a small town called Kankakee, Illinois. Chicago has probably felt the most like home though.

Where do you live?

Now, I live in New Jersey, close to Newark and Jersey City.

Are you where you want to be in life personally and professionally?

The only thing that's remained the same, and probably will never change, is that I have to write. I've reached some of my goals as a writer, but reaching the goals seem illusory in a world that values material success and makes it increasingly difficult to get there, especially for artists who’d rather speak truth to power and make sense of the world than sell something. Professionally, I think I can always do more. Personally, I just want to have a quiet, stable home life with my partner.

If not, where would you like to be?

I would like to be a writer who publishes work in various genres (poetry, fiction, nonfiction & essays, children's literature). I've been thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. in Africana Studies and trying to develop an academic career, but I always find myself truly in awe of writers like Kwame Dawes, Joyce Carol Oates, bell hooks and Marilyn Nelson. All of them are writers who are stretching beyond poetry and creating a body of much-needed literature. I'd like to aspire toward that.

Where do you think you will be tomorrow?

If you ask me about tomorrow, I'll tell you that I'm just trying to get stronger and be a better person. I think so much keeps us from being our whole selves-emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically. As I get older, I'm seeing how valuable it is to work on these things, stop, look around and re-evaluate what I’m doing, instead of running headlong into doing as much as I can.

In five years?

I hope that I'm setting up my own house, working on or finished with a doctoral degree and building a family. I'm hoping to have published 2-3 books in that time too.

Does the world need to change?

Yes, yes, yes. The nature of existence means everything has to change at some point. I think that if we want to have a world, we have to pay more attention to environmental issues. Health care is impacting everyone and the government is still at war while standardized tests are limiting creative and critical thinking skills by cutting the arts and hands-on projects out of classrooms everywhere. If people do not start thinking differently, things will get worse than they are now. Basically, we're fraught with the type of industrial complexes that scholars like Angela Y. Davis and Andrea Smith have been talking about for years.

What women have influenced you?

So many women have influenced me in different ways. There have been the young women that I've taught and those who've taught me. My mom, professors like Dr. Ayana Karanja and Dr. Susannah Cavallo when I was a student at Loyola, writers like Anne Waldman, Patricia Smith, Marilyn Nelson, Maxine Kumin, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Friends like Tayari Jones and Kalisha Buckhanon. I could probably name almost every woman I know, and I think that list will keep growing.

What does it mean to be an activist?

Being an activist can mean so many things. There's direct service where you help people get food, clothing, shelter, health care and education. You're directly securing their rights as human beings, but then there's also something to be said for getting people to practice empathy and think differently about their surroundings and making connections to other people. I think teachers and artists do that, so activism is a balance of theory and practice. You need both to stay focused on goals yet remain flexible to people’s needs and the impact of decisions change the environment.

What do you hope for your work to achieve? Do you think your work will change the world? Do you want it to change the world?

I think every person hopes to have work that will change the world, bring them fame, wealth and all that stuff. I just hope that my work is memorable, brings people sustenance somehow and helps me make sense of the world. I find the work I do in any area is very slow, incremental and I may not see the impact until much later. Teaching is like that. You don't know what's up with your students, but then one day you get an email or bump into a familiar young adult and say "Hey, I know you. What you been up to?" It's very small sometimes.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming election?

With Hillary finally stepping down, the upcoming election has made the divide between white women and women of color more evident than ever before, particularly across economic lines, and it will also open up another discussion about how the first lady and her daughters might be depicted. McCain's wife is portrayed like a sharp, angular witch and Michelle Obama's likeness on the recent New Yorker cover as an Angela Davis/Black Panther/Foxy Brown-type bumping hands with her Muslimized counterpart is very telling about how intrigued mainstream America is with race when there are more pertinent problems to address not only concerning race, but class too. I think that's part of Obama's appeal. He talks about race, but wants to actively work on issues that impact everyone. Although I am wishing Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente had Maxine Waters on their ticket for the green party, I have been endlessly fascinated by the fact that Obama and Jesse Jackson do not look back at the hard-fought campaign of Shirley Chisholm. I really believe she made the black presidential candidate a reality. You should check out the documentary "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed".

What is the state of women in hip-hop? Is hip-hop dead?

I think women involved with the underground hip-hop community are making more strides to represent a variety of voices and experiences. On the other hand, I think the commercial interpretation of hip-hop has hyper-sexualized and silenced women. I have always been a hip-hop fan, but I find that I have to dig to find things that I do like if I listen to the lyrics. You know people are always talking about they just listen to the beat. I find myself impressed with the number of showcases that keep popping up and the artists who are making their way, but until we say that these voices are valuable by supporting women's creativity, it's a lot of talk. Women still get paid less on the average and hit snags in getting commercial success. Now, if hip-hop is dead, Nas still wouldn't be making music. Ha! Seriously, I don't think hip-hop is dead, but I think it's a reflection of what the society values, which is really warped in the first place.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner (dead or alive) and why?

My dream dinner...hmmmmm...I've probably named most of those people earlier but I think I'd invite them to hear what they'd have to say about what’s going on in the world now and how a lot of us can start to address those problems.

What advice do you have for young women?

Get as much education as you can, not just in school, but a financial education, a reading-more-than-the-book-report-requirements-education, an education in physical fitness and spiritual education. It will make you stronger for all the challenges that you may not anticipate as you get older. Travel. Find a sense of discipline that helps you reach your goal whatever it is. If you have a partner who is making you feel worse rather than better, it's time to lose that person, if they aren't willing to work on themselves. I hate to sound like a Mary J. Blige song, but there's so much fun you can have on your own and with friends. You shouldn't have to compromise yourself.

When was GirlSpeak started?


Why was it started?

I sat down with Anna West, Erin Lyons and Krista Franklin and we just had a series of chats where we discussing the abundance of girls who are in creative writing classes, but how they are not always the ones to speak up, be onstage or be out in front. So, we started looking at how girls shut down, how their self-confidence shifts in their teens around body image, street harassment and other issues too. When we thought about how we could address it, we started brainstorming how we could use writing workshops, selected readings and creative activities to address issues that were pertinent to young women. Thankfully, Young Chicago Authors and Girl's Best Friend Foundation helped us get it off the ground, and it grew into the zine.

Did you imagine that the program would become this big?

I've never imagined the scope of GirlSpeak, but I've hoped that it left a positive mark on girls in the Chicago writing community. I know that there were girls who weren't even in the program who thought it was a good idea and started to speak up and be more pro-active about their work and reacting creatively and constructively to harmful representations and treatment of women and girls. If only one girl is impacted in that manner, that's huge to me. There's no telling what that one girl could do. Fortunately, there's more than one.

What are your hopes for the program?

My hope is that the program will continue to grow and provide an outlet for young women to use their creativity in ways that empower them. There's so many directions that it can take: activist projects like those run by Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) or Sista II Sista in Brooklyn or the Young Women's Empowerment Project in Chicago, GS participants developing one-woman shows on relevant topics for girls, publishing projects, participants mentoring other young women or girls, using art to critique sexism like Guerrilla Girls or even Alanis Morissette's spoof of "My Humps". Have you seen that? It's hilarious. Art doesn't always have to be serious, but it can make us think differently, which is what I had hoped GirlSpeak would do all along.

What is your latest project?

I'm securing a publisher for my first full-length poetry manuscript A Gust of Hands. I've been writing a few new poems and short prose pieces for publication, but I'm working on a young adult novel tentatively entitled Eve's Apple. It's about Eve and Janae, two girls attending an arts high school in Chicago.

You can learn more about Tara Betts at her website