Five SF State authors to read during National Hispanic Heritage Month

Authors Julián Delgado Lopera, Assistant Professor Leticia Hernández-Linares, Norman Velaya, Professor Carolina (Caro) De Robertis and Joseph Cassara.

Graduates, faculty of SF State’s Creative Writing program share powerful stories and poetry that reflect the diversity of the Latinx experience

If you’re looking for a book to read during National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 ­­– Oct. 15) that will transport you to different worlds within the Latinx community, then look no further than San Francisco State University’s faculty and alumni. The University’s Department of Creative Writing is home to award-winning professors and graduates who have written acclaimed works of prose and poetry.

Poet Leticia Hernández-Linares (MFA, ’20) is both: A graduate of San Francisco State’s MFA program in Creative Writing, she’s now an assistant professor of Latina/Latino Studies at the University. Coming to SF State was a homecoming of sorts, she says, because of the University’s legacy of social justice activism and its talented community of artists. “I’m excited to be a part of a long list of incredible writers in the Bay Area, poet laureates and other writers who have also gone through the program here,” she said.

Hernández-Linares celebrates her Latinx identity daily through her teaching, writing and through San Francisco’s Mission District neighborhood where she lives. National Hispanic Heritage Month just means her schedule gets a bit busier. “It’s kind of like I’m going to the party all year and then everybody else joins me for the month,” she added.

To learn more about her poetry and four other books by faculty or alumni, read more of the story.

The President and The Frog Cover
mucha muchacha - too much girl covers
The House of Impossible Beauties Cover
Gente, Folks Cover
Fiebre Tropical Cover

Alum designs FDA-authorized app to treat fibromyalgia symptoms

Learning to design furniture at San Francisco State University can lead to more careers than one may expect. For Nelson Mitchell, his master’s degree was the pathway to creating an innovative mobile app to treat fibromyalgia. 

Mitchell, a user-experience designer, is head of design and co-founder of Swing Therapeutics. Earlier this year the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized its app, Stanza, to be marketed to treat symptoms of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that affects 10 million Americans. It is the first fibromyalgia digital therapeutic approved by the FDA. Available only by prescription, Stanza employs a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy. It has proven effective in extensive randomized controlled trials and real-world studies, with 73% of patients demonstrating improvement in symptoms.

Read the full story.

University Dance Theatre: a student showcase and career stepping stone

Annual concert, March 30 – April 2, pairs student dancers with renowned choreographers to perform rigorous, expressive works 

San Francisco State University not only provides stages for performers to discover their artistic identity and develop their skills, but also public showcases that lead to opportunities in the Bay Area’s dance scene. The long-running University Dance Theatre concert, taking place this year from March 30 to April 2 in the Little Theatre, is a case study. Taught by Associate Professor Ray Tadio and Lecturer ArVejon Jones, the course pairs 19 student dancers with renowned choreographers to perform new, rigorous and expressive works.  

Read the full article.

Alum’s Oscar-nominated film shows transformative power of kindness

‘Stranger at the Gate’ is screening in San Rafael Feb. 28

San Francisco State University alumnus Conall Jones (B.A., ’05) was floored when he learned the short documentary film he produced with the production company Smartypants was nominated for an Oscar. “Stranger at the Gate” is his proudest accomplishment to date, but the film wasn’t getting critical recognition at first. It wasn’t accepted into the Sundance, Telluride or SXSW film festivals, he says. But Jones wasn’t looking for recognition — what he wanted was people to see the film because of its powerful message.

Read the full article.

SF State alum executive produces documentary on hoops legend Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

Sarah Allen (B.A., ’99) focuses her journalism work on social justice in sports

Two decades before Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem to protest police violence, another professional athlete faced severe consequences for refusing to salute the flag. Now, a San Francisco State University alumna has brought former National Basketball Association (NBA) player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s unique story — and the tantalizing style he played the game — to an international audience. 

Longtime journalist Sarah Allen (B.A., ’99) is an executive producer for “STAND,” the biographical documentary about Abdul-Rauf featuring extensive interviews with him and other basketball luminaries. It premiered on Showtime on Feb. 3.  

“I fell into it because I really was intrigued by that whole conversation around athletes and activism,” Allen said. “I’m not as interested in giving somebody’s stats on the field. That’s boring to me. Athletes have stories that go beyond that.” 

Born as Chris Jackson in 1969 in Mississippi, Abdul-Rauf exhibited a dazzling display of skills and athleticism at only 6 feet and 1 inch tall. He used his battle with Tourette syndrome as motivation. “It looked like I was watching God play basketball,” Shaquille O’Neal, a teammate of Abdul-Rauf at Louisiana State University, said in the documentary. Allen said: “Clearly, he was Steph Curry before Steph Curry.” 

Abdul-Rauf’s career was cut short, however, after he decided to sit on the bench during pregame performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” due to the continued oppression of Black people in America. He was suspended and then exiled from the league, and later his home was burned down in an act of white supremacy. Now age 54, he has enjoyed a career resurgence, dominating players much younger than him in the half-court BIG3 basketball league with the same skills he has always had. 

“Mahmoud is just very layered,” Allen said. “When you see his story, he’s had a lot of trauma in his life. When you look at him, he doesn’t seem like he’s been through everything he’s been through. And that is what intrigued me. And again, he’s a conduit for all these messages that are in the film and that I feel we should continue talking about.”  

Allen met Abdul-Rauf at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) conference, where he won an award. At the time, he was long out of the national spotlight and his story had been largely forgotten. Allen approached him and convinced him to do an interview, his first one-on-one with anyone in years. Their rapport has since evolved into Allen writing numerous stories on Abdul-Rauf and then negotiating his licensing agreement with Showtime and the contract for his 2022 memoir through Kaepernick Publishing.  

Sarah Allen headshot

Allen’s SF State story 

Allen grew up in the Fillmore District in San Francisco. After high school at Sacred Heart Cathedral, she attended Clark Atlanta University for one year before returning to the Bay Area. 

“San Francisco State has one of the best broadcasting programs in the country, so it was a no-brainer for me,” she said.  

By Allen’s third semester, though, she found herself on academic probation. She credits fellow Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts student Tiffany Griffith (B.A., ’99) with helping turn her academic career around. 

“She and I became fast friends and we started taking classes together. I started getting motivated to go to class, be awake during class, make sure I do my homework,” Allen said. “I think it took me about a year and a half to get off academic probation. And in a year and a half, I ended up back on the Dean’s List.   

“Once I really took it seriously, the mentors that I had there, they really made sure I succeeded,” Allen added. “And I’m just so grateful I had that experience because it really prepared me for real life.” 

Learn more about the SF State Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts Department. 

SF State alum, author Ernest J. Gaines honored with USA stamp

Gaines (B.A., ’57) is most known for his novels ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’ and ‘A Lesson Before Dying’

A San Francisco State University alumnus is the latest American to be honored with a first-class stamp from the U.S. Postal Service. The late novelist Ernest J. Gaines is the face of the 46th stamp in the Black Heritage Series

Gaines (B.A., ’57) is known for writing about the people in small-town Louisiana where he was raised, often exploring enslaved people, their descendants and their enslavers. He rose to fame in 1971 with “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a historical novel chronicling the recollections of its 110-year-old Black protagonist, whose life spans from slavery to the civil rights era. After garnering a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, it was adapted into an Emmy Award-winning television movie starring Cicely Tyson. His novel “A Lesson Before Dying,” about a Black man on death row for a murder he did not commit, not only won the 1993 National Books Critics Circle Award, but was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection. President Barack Obama awarded Gaines the National Medal of the Arts in 2013. Gaines died in 2019 at age 86. 

“Ernest J. Gaines remains an important role model for Creative Writing students at San Francisco State,” said May-lee Chai, associate professor and acting chair of the Creative Writing Department. “We remind our students that his first short story was published in our undergraduate journal, Transfer Magazine, which he later said led to multiple opportunities for him as a writer. His legacy as a literary giant and advocate for social justice is deeply inspiring.” 

Gaines was born in 1933 on a plantation in Oscar, Louisiana. He lived in the same former slave quarters where his family had been residing for five generations. At age 15, he moved to the Bay Area — the Navy town of Vallejo — due to a lack of educational opportunities in the South. His region of rural Louisiana lacked both a high school and a library where Black people were welcome. After Vallejo Junior College and the Army, Gaines enrolled at SF State. 

“It was there that I really got seriously into the writing,” Gaines said in a 2016 interview with the Academy of Achievement of his time at SF State. “I had some wonderful teachers on the campus at that time who were writers as well. And they encouraged me to write.” 

Learn more about the SF State Creative Writing Department

Alumna lands Emmy as part of Disney writing team

Hanah Lee Cook (B.A., ’15) is a writer for ‘Muppet Babies’ and other Disney shows

Hanah Lee Cook (B.A., ’15) is a little young for an Emmy winner. In December, the 29-year-old Gator was part of the creative team that landed an award for Outstanding Writing for a Preschool Animated Program for the Disney Junior reboot “Muppet Babies.” But then again Cook had a big head start on success: She’s known she wanted to be a comedy writer since she was in the sixth grade.

“My plan was to Tina Fey my way into the business because it’s tough to break in as an actor,” said Cook (referencing the “30 Rock” actress’ show biz beginnings as a “Saturday Night Live” staff writer).

Cook grew up in sunny Santa Clarita, California, where academics and athletics were heavily emphasized in her home. Yet she stayed fixated on winning laughs rather than trophies.

“I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I were doing something creative with my day-to-day,” said Cook. “When I applied to SF State, I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t go to this school and not do some form of performing art. … I’m here to make things and have a good time.”

When Cook arrived at San Francisco State in 2011, she already had an impressive resume underway: She had over a dozen theatre roles under her belt as an actor and had co-founded a sketch comedy troupe, all while in high school. During her sophomore year of college, Cook joined the SF State chapter of Delta Kappa Alpha, an arts-oriented, gender-inclusive fraternity. That led to more acting experience in Delta Kappa Alpha short films as well as her first full screenplay.

“It was about a girl with Asperger’s and her sister trying to have a conversation with her,” said Cook. “The whole time, the sister is trying to relate to her, and her sister is just staring at her cat and imagining if the cat has wings.”

Cook says that the script, like much of her writing, is influenced by her life experiences.

“It stemmed from growing up with a family member with Asperger’s,” said Cook. “It was difficult to engage with him. It meant a lot when he engaged and made eye contact with us.”

According to Cook, studying theatre and acting at SF State helped with her writing, specifically when she took multiple classes with Laura Wayth, assistant professor of Theatre & Dance.

“Laura Wayth, who teaches acting, was amazing,” said Cook. “I didn’t take a single screenwriting class. I learned how to write by doing the actor paperwork in the acting classes, where we identify what your character wants, what’s in their way and what they’re going to do to try to get it. That taught me how to write a story that’s not just a conversation about a difficult topic between two people.”

Wayth, who started teaching at SF State in 2013, recalls being immediately struck by Cook's creativity, wit and potential.

“She has a very analytical brain and an incredibly wry sense of humor, and those two things combined are stage dynamite that she’s channeled into her writing,” Wayth said.

Before graduating in 2015, Cook held multiple internships at small and large production companies as a production intern. She credits that experience with helping kickstart her career.

“I sometimes wish I had a fun summer break, but I would not be where I am if I hadn’t done that,” she said. “You really have to set your goals and be realistic about what you need to do.”

Upon graduation, she started as a production assistant for Warner Bros. Animation. She then held positions at multiple animation companies, including Cartoon Network, as a freelance writer. In 2020, she landed what was supposed to be a six-month job as a staff writer for Disney Television Animation. The supposedly temporary assignment never ended, however, and two and a half years later came the Emmy nomination and win.

“Just the nomination announcement and that my name was going to be on it was insane,” said Cook. “I totally felt like a fraud because I wasn’t a full-time staff member at the time. But we broke every story together. All of us are in all those episodes, and hearing that ‘Muppet Babies’ won, I think we all blacked out for a second.”

Turning her passion for writing into a career in animation isn’t just a childhood dream come true for Cook. She’s also following in the footsteps of her father, who works for Titmouse Animation Studios, the company behind “Big Mouth,” “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” the recent “Beavis and Butt-Head” reboot and other animated shows.

“I grew up in a big animation-oriented household, so it was always around,” said Cook.  

Now, as a writer working on a variety of Disney shows, Cook continues to use her own childhood experiences as inspiration for her work. Her inability to whistle inspired an episode she wrote for “Mickey Mouse Funhouse,” for instance.

“I did an episode where Daisy Duck can’t whistle,” said Cook. “She doesn’t know how, so they get Hercules’ muses to teach her. In the end, she can’t do it, but she learns she can do other things, and that’s OK.”

Including those kinds of inspiring messages in her scripts is important to Cook. She might be writing for children, but that doesn’t mean she avoids difficult topics.

“I’ll write about more personal things like little microaggressions I experienced as a kid,” said Cook. “Some people say it’s not relatable because not everyone experiences those things. I’ll say, ‘You’re right — this is for all the other kids who may be doing those things and not realizing their negative impact.’”

So though her day job allows her to fulfill the very goals she brought with her to SF State — making things and having a good time — she’s also found a way to bring extra meaning to the comedy she creates.

“What little effect I can have, what little thing I can do, I’m going to try to do it,” said Cook. “Luckily, Disney has been letting me.”

Alum directs ‘The Murder Inc. Story’ docuseries on BET, and it’s a hit

SF State helped Michael J. Payton develop his love for hip-hop into a career

When San Francisco State University graduate Michael J. Payton posted a YouTube video about hip-hop record label Murder Inc. four years ago, he didn’t expect it would get him hired as director of the official docuseries for national television. But it did.

“The Murder Inc. Story” premiered on Black Entertainment Television (BET) on Aug. 9 and hit No. 3 trending on Twitter. Payton (B.A., ’15) directed all five of the one-hour episodes and interviewed icons such as Ja Rule, Jay-Z, Nas and Daymond John.

In early 2019, label founder Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo posted an all-points bulletin to his 1 million Instagram followers: “Whoever knows Michael Payton. Let him know to reach out to me. ‘Cause I am gonna let him be [a part] of the Big Official Documentary.”

That same night, they connected over the phone and Gotti tapped Payton to direct the series.

Murder Inc. recording artists like Ja Rule, Ashanti and Lloyd dominated the charts in the early 2000s, shattering Guinness World Records. Federal money laundering charges against Gotti and his brother would contribute to a fast downfall, though they were acquitted. The music retains legacy and influence, as it has for Payton since age 12.

“I remember being enamored with their mystique and the whole brand,” said Payton, who grew up in Oakland. “It’s really a story of hope [and] belief in oneself. That’s one of the things I’m most fascinated by with hip-hop culture. It was all from the minds of very young people who had nothing. If you believe and have a passion and work hard, you can change the world.”

An SF State vibe

After high school, Payton selected SF State for its audio production and music recording program in the Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) Department. He discovered a hip-hop community that would not only shape his career, but also provide him with a deep scholarly understanding of the genre that he loves.

He took Africana Studies courses with Dawn-Elissa Fischer, an anthropologist renowned for her research of hip-hop and other aspects of Black popular culture.

“He is a great communicator and peer educator,” Fischer said. “He created pathways and opportunities for many students, and he has continued to do so for those who came to SF State after him.”

In the Africana Studies Department’s Hip-Hop Workshop course, he served as assistant to Fischer and Dave “Davey D” Cook. Davey D and Payton reunited for “The Murder Inc. Story,” where Davey D appears as a historian.

“[Including him in the docuseries] was one of my proudest moments,” Payton said. “He was a big anchor for a lot of the cultural context in this story, and BET just loved him and his contribution.”

Commuting from Antioch, Payton would arrive on campus early in the morning and stay as late as possible. He was active in the Black Student Union and was general manager of student radio station KSFS and booked shows at The Depot. His weekly “Turn Up at The Depot” event allowed student rappers (including himself), DJs and bands to perform alongside notable artists. He was having the time of his life and recorded an EP titled “19th and Holloway.”

“There’s nothing like walking from Parkmerced to Stonestown late on a Friday night with your friends,” he said. “I wanted to capture that vibe in that EP. To this day, I still go back and listen to it and feel the same feels that I felt back then.”

The takeover

A scholarship from Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation helped make it possible for Payton to attend SF State. When they met for an interview for “The Murder Inc. Story,” Jay-Z was so excited that he called his mother when the cameras stopped rolling: “Mom, look at this young man who we put through school! He is now working with BET!’”

Payton is now working on a project for the Shawn Carter Foundation’s 20th anniversary. Payton is also slated to direct a docuseries about women’s contributions to hip-hop and executive produce a documentary about jailed drug lord Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff.

Payton emphasizes that he aims for all of his work to be a catalyst for change and community involvement. “I always want to make sure we’re able to weave in things that are going to start necessary conversations,” said Payton, who earned his master’s degree from New York University and served as an executive fellow for the governor’s California Volunteers initiative. “It’s not just these people [who] made cool music and this cool thing they did. No, let’s also dig deeper into these stories of why and how and give that cultural context.”

Learn more about the Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts Department.

Student creates mural honoring essential workers

Emma Wakefield completed the mural, commissioned by the Lake County Arts Council, days before graduating

A new muralism class at San Francisco State University has already extended its reach far beyond campus, into rural Lake County. Utilizing both art-making skills and business savvy learned in the class last fall, a student won a grant to create a large mural honoring essential workers.

Emma Wakefield endured sweltering heat for a week in May to paint the Essential Workers Appreciation Mural, a project of the Lake County Arts Council. Days later, she graduated from San Francisco State with a bachelor’s degree in Art and a minor in Education.

The mural shows a child sleeping with a stuffed animal under a large quilt with images of first responders, a teacher, a power-line worker, a mail carrier, a grocery store clerk and others. Measuring 44 feet wide and 13 feet tall, it covers the full back wall of the Meals on Wheels Thrift Store in Lakeport, about 120 miles from San Francisco. It was dedicated July 1 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

In researching the mural, Wakefield learned about the varied, vital roles of essential workers. “It was very, very cool to see all these people who were incredibly brave during [the pandemic] and willing to go out and continue their work and face the danger of basically a plague,” Wakefield said.

The mural fits the overarching theme in all of Wakefield’s art: finding beauty in daily routines. “I would like my art to be something that people know they can look at and get a warm feeling from,” she said. “I want people to feel comfortable, to feel safe and to see the world through a new view. Something you do every day can be beautiful.”

Wakefield says she wouldn’t have thought to apply for the $8,000 grant if she hadn’t taken the “Murals and Public Art” class, where Lecturer Daniel Velasquez (B.A., ’16) aims to impart far more than artistic techniques. He also provides students with an understanding of the entrepreneurial aspects of careers in the arts, including governmental funding and contract negotiation.

“Assignments are focused around real-world opportunities that they seek out, stumble into and create for themselves,” Velasquez said.

SF State was Wakefield’s first choice for college. She was excited to move to an urban area. This shows in her “Sci-Fi in SF” series of drawings that reimagines the cityscape and SF State campus in a futuristic society.

“When I came to San Francisco, I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s a building taller than four stories! I was like, ‘This is the future!’” said Wakefield, who grew up in Loch Lomond in Lake County.

She jokes that the entire Lake County population could fit in Oracle Park, the 42,000-seat home of the San Francisco Giants and the SF State Commencement.

“Attending San Francisco State, as a whole, changed my life,” she added. “I met a bunch of people from different backgrounds and different cultures, talking with them and learning more about them — and seeing something outside from my very small town.”

Learn more about SF State’s School of Art.