Yesenia Perez: "This year I had the pleasure of learning remotely from my home city, Pomona, California. The symbolism of the city’s namesake has always influenced my personal, professional, and creative trajectories."
Photo courtesy of Yesenia Perez
The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes 12 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Yesenia Perez will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Arts in Education (AIE) at HGSE's Virtual Commencement on May 27.
Senior Lecturer Steve Seidel, faculty director of AIE, comments on Perez's selection: “It is rare that one person seems capable of holding clear focus on past and present realities while also envisioning possible futures. Yesenia does that. And, at the same time, can look at any situation from multiple human and various disciplinary perspectives. Yesenia also does that. But what feels most exceptional is her ability to help others do the same. All of which she does with deep humanity, commitment, conviction, and generosity. One of her classmates wrote, 'Yesenia is a rare, forward-thinking spirit who warms any space she enters with her earnest intellect and humor. She is a wonderful listener, thought partner, and abolitionist co-conspirator who, despite the pivot to remote learning, has brought her full self to each and every lecture to push, pull, and stretch the intellect of her classmates.' And then added, 'She has inspired myself and countless other classmates to push past the boundaries of the material in order to dream of alternate possibilities for liberation; she generates a rich, full, thoughtful silence in us as we slow down to think past what is directly in front of us to fully sink into the work we conduct as cultural workers and artists.' Another student agreed saying that Yesenia is a “capacious and complex thinker with a beautiful command of words, and an ability to weave together disparate ideas in incisive and inspiring ways. Her honesty and bravery set a standard.”
We spoke to Perez about her time at HGSE, her future plans, and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:
What does this photo mean to you?
Pomona was the goddess of abundance in Roman mythology. She watches over and protects fruit trees, gardens, and orchards and cares for their cultivation. Pomona’s themes are rest, pleasure, and nature. This year I had the pleasure of learning remotely from my home city, Pomona, California. The symbolism of the city’s namesake has always influenced my personal, professional, and creative trajectories. As a scholar, artist, and educator my work is about nurturing humanizing conditions for collective meaning-making and cultural formations while supporting equitable civic engagement in society. At the core is a commitment to cultivating transformative paradigms that advance liberation for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color most subjugated by intertwined systems of supremacy. My year at HGSE is marked by place and home, phytoremediation, a serious and profound practice of play and experimentation, and rest as a radical tool for healing.
In this year of remote learning, what were some of the ways you were able to connect with your peers?
While learning online initially posed significant challenges to engaging in embodied and relational work, two silver strands threaded deep connections between myself, my peers, and broader community: The Arts in Education: Foundational Exercises and Cultural Work and Education: Exploring Arts-Based Paradigms, Practices, and Possibilities. Guided by core questions about the purpose and values of art, education, culture, responsibility and identity, these courses created a space, in Raquel Jimenez’s words, “to really make ideas intersect with something concrete.” The intimate learning environments of these fall modules surprisingly managed to stretch across the Zoom screen and geospatial divides bringing me closer to my AIE cohort at a time when isolation felt like an unavoidable consequence of remote learning. Highly collaborative place-based projects were some of the most special ways I connected with my city and peers that simply would not have been possible without the generative incubators of S300 and S310.
"I will continue with an unwavering sense of optimism to dream of new worlds with young people, elders, artists, researchers, educators, activists, and community development practitioners who are also energized about approaching seemingly impossible questions with earnest curiosity, a culture of care, and thick presence for communal learning."
Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?
While at HGSE I have undertaken, what Arts in Education Faculty Director Steven Seidel coined, “micro-research,” and other reflective projects that leveraged coursework across the Graduate School of Education, Harvard Divinity School, and Graduate School of Design. My research evolved and coalesced around the reality of our interdependence and the multilayered ecologies that bind humans to one another, nonhuman kin, and the Earth during a time of simultaneous climate collapse and the upheaval of economic, cultural, and social life during COVID-19. The contours of this exploration were shaped by working with Steven Seidel, Raquel Jimenez, and Dr. Lynette Tannis. My artistic practice was profoundly transformed under the generous mentorship of Harvard Divinity School writer-in-residence Terry Tempest Williams. My studies were enriched through investigating community development with Dr. Lily Song, lecturer in urban planning and design, and Toni Griffin, professor in practice of urban planning. And, I would be remiss not to thank Dr. Laura Frahm, associate professor of the humanities in the Harvard Audio, Visual, and Film Studies Department, who graciously welcomed me as an auditor for her New Media Theory course, a brilliant seminar that crystalized a theoretical framework around eco-feminism, post humanism, new materialism, indigenous studies, environmental art, plant philosophy, and critical animal studies!
What are your post-HGSE plans?
I plan to continue thinking and creating across time and histories with plants, nonhuman animals, and (in)organic matter; to untangle enduring questions about conditions for freedom that necessitate mediating dialogue in the liminal space where creation and destruction are indistinguishable. I will continue with an unwavering sense of optimism to dream of new worlds with young people, elders, artists, researchers, educators, activists, and community development practitioners who are also energized about approaching seemingly impossible questions with earnest curiosity, a culture of care, and thick presence for communal learning.
What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education?
I have learned that this is lifelong work.
How has the pandemic shifted your views of education?
I think of Angela Davis in conversation with Erika Higgins, hosted by Artspace New Haven in September 2020. Davis addressed the ways in which systemic racism as it expresses itself through state violence brought about through police and prisons cannot be discussed discretely from schools, “Education is so problematic in this country. We can’t refer to education as it exists today as an alternative, education itself has to be transformed.” This pandemic has reaffirmed my belief that the arts have the power to transform education and, ultimately, catalyze social change.