Dodge Q&A: Ysabel Y. Gonzalez on creating, dismantling the why during times of crisis

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On Martin Luther King Boulevard between the Essex County Historic Courthouse and the Veterans’ Courthouse in Newark, the words “ABOLISH WHITE SUPREMACY” were installed and painted in bright yellow traffic paint from curb to curb. On Halsey Street, east of the Rutgers campus the words “ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER,” in the same font as the MLK street mural, taking up a City block. Learn more here. Photo credit: Photo Credit: Isaac Jiménez 

The Dodge Q&A series is designed to share what Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation staff are learning and thinking about as they engage with social sector leaders from throughout the state. They’ll also reveal a few things about themselves you might not have known.  

Ysabel Y. Gonzalez is assistant director of the Dodge Poetry Program.

Today we talk to Ysabel Y. Gonzalez, Dodge Poetry Program assistant director, about what’s keeping her moving forward in a time of multiple crises, how she is prioritizing racial justice, the virtual Dodge Poetry Festival, her hidden talent, and more. 

Before we jump into the conversation, how are you navigating the multiple crises we’re experiencing, namely the COVID-19 pandemic and community uprisings demanding justice? 

It’s been a really difficult period for us all. This spring and summer have been particularly difficult for me since I lost my uncle to COVID. But I have been grateful for my community, and family, gathering together around the pandemic as well as standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. A group of poets and I are working on a project entitled, Broadsides for Breonna, where we will be offering broadsides by local and national poets for large donations that support organizations doing work with the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly in support of Black women. I’ve also been lucky in that I’ve been able to create new work during this time that is in conversation with this period of our lives — including poetry and an essay.  So, I’ve been busy, however, I do think it’s important that we acknowledge that if we’ve been unable to create during the last few months, that’s okay, too. I know some folks are simply trying to survive right now, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.   

What is important to keep in mind right now? 

In terms of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s important to remember that this is more than just centering a conversation around a historically marginalized and impeded group of Black and Brown lives, it is also about stepping aside and supporting those lives by serving as co-conspirator. We keep hearing the word ally, but it’s much more complex than simply standing by Black and Brown people’s sides. It’s taking the heat, it’s doing the work, and it’s giving up power. These are all incredibly difficult things to do, so if it doesn’t feel hard, then you may not be putting in the kind of work to grow, develop, and challenge the impediments that exist preventing Black and Brown lives from thriving.   

What is something you are proud you helped achieve? 

I’m so excited to have helped the Dodge Poetry Festival go virtual this year. It was a difficult decision for us because we cherish the DPF in-person experience and have some fantastic poets lined up for this year’s Festival. We are working hard to think about ways we can re-create what makes the Festival feel unique, such as the connections that occur off the stage, along with the incredible conversations that occur in sessions amongst a diverse set of poets. And I’m very excited about making the Festival accessible to more people. This is really important to me.  I’m excited to see folks who may not have been able to join us due to lack of resources or location, now be able to find us online. We are offering live sessions at no cost to our public, so I hope that’s encouraging to people who have had the price of a ticket held as a hurdle. I’m also excited about being able to provide accessible programming to individuals who live in other wards of Newark and other parts of the state of New Jersey — heck, I’m excited about us providing poetry to other parts of the world! It’s an opportunity for Dodge Poetry to provide engaging, interesting poetry and touch someone who maybe has thought, for years, that poetry wasn’t for them. Or provide a reading and conversation amongst poets who people typically wouldn’t see in conversation with each other. It’s an exciting time to host a Festival because there are so many possibilities. I think if audience members remain hopeful and positive, they will get something new out of this year’s virtual Festival. I’m excited for our audience to engage with a very special experience we’re putting together.  

Dodge Poetry Festival will be all-online this year.

What is an example of how you have prioritized racial equity and inclusion in your work? What was the most challenging part of that work?  

I’m constantly challenging myself and my colleagues on how we can place equity at the forefront of all the things that we do at Dodge. Sometimes, the reason it’s so difficult is because we’re used to doing things the way we’ve always done them. I applaud my colleagues who, since we’ve begun the DEI journey at Dodge, have questioned processes that have been in place for years. It’s quite difficult to push the question around why we do things. It’s difficult because sometimes dismantling the why is rooted in things much deeper and far more grounded in a larger more complex system.  

As far as my own work, I believe that transparency and accessibility are two really important values for me at Dodge. I have been working with our Poetry team here in thinking about ways that we can be more transparent with our different constituents so that there is more understanding around Dodge Poetry’s values and decision-making, particularly around the work we do with poets in the schools. I also continue to think about ways the Festival itself can be made more accessible to those that wouldn’t typically be engaged or involved — either as performers/readers or as attendees.  There are lots of challenging parts of equity work, but getting it wrong, and being okay with getting it wrong and learning from that, is challenging, especially when perfectionism is embedded in our everyday culture.   

What would people be surprised to know about you?   

Between the ages of 8-18, I was a virtuoso accordion player! I’ve won many, many trophies in my accordion-playing days and loved to play everything from polkas to pop music. I competed in bands, in combos, in a duet and, of course, as a solo instrumentalist. The accordion remains a very important instrument to me, although I haven’t played in years. I learned after I picked it up that my grandfather used to play. I’m determined to pick up the accordion again one day and play for enjoyment! 

What do you love most about New Jersey? 

I love New Jersey’s expansive landscape. It’s such a large state and you can find pine barrens, lakes and oceans, and city life, moving from one county to the next. I grew up in the city of Newark, riding mass transit to Jersey City and NYC easily. I also have lived closer to the shore in Old Bridge, then the bustling little city of Somerville; and now, finally I reside in Warren County. I never would have expected to own a home so far from city life. There is just so much land here and I’m privileged to have a large backyard filled with a peach tree and fig trees and lots of flowers that the deer love to eat! Living in New Jersey, you can have many different experiences with the state’s geography. This great state’s land produces such fresh produce — lots of homegrown fruits and veggies available at the tips of our fingertips. 

Do you have a question for Dodge staff? Leave it in the comments or send us an email at

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