Two years ago, poet and singer Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson had a vision she called The Echo Project, an effort to connect young people with community elders to record oral histories of influential San Antonians.

The idea helped Sanderson win the position of San Antonio poet laureate in 2020, with the hope of staging the project at the Carver Community Cultural Center. Though the coronavirus pandemic intervened and caused a delay from fall 2021 to this year, The Echo Project finally became a reality over five days in early January, pairing 10 writing students with poets, artists, teachers, venue creators and community-focused leaders who have influenced San Antonio culture.

Sanderson perceived an “intergenerational gap” and reasoned that “young adults need to be in contact and talk to their elders more, and find out the ‘why’ and get history, because San Antonio is steeped so much in history and tradition.”

Andrea Vocab Sanderson introduces the Echo Project during filming for the event on Sunday.
Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson introduces The Echo Project during filming for the event. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Pain, peace and wisdom

Before participating in The Echo Project, 16-year-old North East School of the Arts writing student Ollie McCrary hadn’t heard of Gloria-Beatriz “Triz” Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who left her hometown in the 1990s to practice law, returning in 2014 with a doctorate and a focus on educational innovation.

The teen was paired with the 47-year-old Rodriguez to conduct an interview via videoconference, then workshopped a poem with a group of experienced poets and performers assembled by Sanderson, eventually performing the poem on videotape.

“Meeting her was sincerely one of the best moments of my life,” Ollie said. “I did not know how to act, or convey this deep emotion that I had in the moment, to be around somebody who was so sincere and so wise and such a wonderful human being. … She’s the coolest person I’ve ever met.”

During the interview, Ollie learned about Rodriguez’s doctoral studies and teaching experiences, which led her to establish the Universal Style School, a San Antonio educational venture teaching hip-hop pedagogy. He also learned Rodriguez’s terminology, which calls graffiti “style writing” and considers “style” a reflection of lifelong learning and grassroots expression on an individual and cultural level.

The teenager also learned some age-old wisdom — conveyed by Rodriguez via poet, feminist and Latin American activist Gloria Anzaldúa — about “the psychic pain of consciousness” that learning about injustice can hurt but that knowledge ultimately produces a peaceful state of being.

“That ruined my life,” Ollie joked, meaning that the idea caused him to set aside assumptions and preconceptions about being a student.

An intensive writing workshop the following day helped him overcome his usual “chronic procrastination.” Working with Sanderson and poet C.L. “Rooster” Martinez, Ollie appreciated being taken seriously as a writer and being asked to hone his poem. Performance coaches Clint Taylor, Sanseria Murray and M.R. “Chibbi” Orduña then helped him work on his performance of the poem on the Carver Center stage for a professionally produced video.

Ollie’s poem Triz is a Learning Scientist riffs on Rodriguez’s nickname and her notion that a signature — the basis of much “style-writing” — is a unique impression that transforms public space and consciousness:

She smiles when she says her first mentor helped give her her name
And her wisdom and humor brush against each other like it is their first time loving
She says no one else has your signature, and it sounds almost like a warning
She says ‘Be fierce in your nature.’

Ollie McCray performs during filming for the Echo Project on Sunday.
Ollie McCray performs during filming for The Echo Project. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

A ‘phenomenal’ result

The poem is one of several produced for The Echo Project, which will eventually be broadcast by local public television station KLRN and made available for viewing on the station’s website.

Though Sanderson’s initial vision was to pair high schoolers with community leaders, the pandemic interfered with outreach, and the application for writing students was eventually opened to all ages, producing a range from ages 16 to 70 among the 10 participants.

The group of community leaders they interviewed and produced poems about included poets Carmen Tafolla and Anel Flores; artist and designer Lionel Sosa; Paula Sullivan, owner and operator of entertainment venue Carmens de la Calle; Carver Library Manager DL Grant; Resurrection Church Executive Pastor Anthony Cobbs; health professional Tiffany Fields; and Cassandra Parker-Nowicki, Carver Community Cultural Center director.

As showcase manager, Orduña worked with student participants to develop what he termed the “performance dynamics” of their final presentations.

What stood out for him “was just how genuinely heartfelt these writers approached their pieces,” written to honor people they were meeting for the first time.

Orduña proclaimed the project a success and said he appreciates Sanderson’s vision to create living oral history.

“I’ve never seen something that was this expansive, this diverse,” he said, emphasizing that while oral histories are commonly produced among niche communities, The Echo Project reached across various communities within the city of San Antonio.

Orduña said he also appreciates how well the project was designed. “For it all to come together in the span of five days from initial interview to finished product was nothing short of phenomenal. … The quality of writing that came out of it was really, really impressive.”

To learn when The Echo Project videos will be available for public viewing, tune in to the KLRN Facebook page.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...