Denise Benavides facilitates dialogue about real world issues in the classroom

Denise Benavides believes poetry is about creating human connections in order to empower marginalized identities.

When Benavides performs her poems, emotion seeps into her rhythm and her shifts in tone. Her voice is both smooth and abrasive. Rather than exclaiming when she delivers climactic lines, she lets her words flow fierce and grave through gritted teeth.

In front of the microphone and in one-on-one conversations, it’s clear that her relaxed composure is genuine. She’s doesn’t play the “I’m chill as f*ck” attitude. It’s real.

She curses like she is in an intimate conversation with friends. She languidly runs her fingers through her long black mane, revealing her half-shaved hairstyle. She chuckles to herself. She never rushes to find an answer in order to fill the silence in the room.

Benavides confronts themes of religion, xenophobia, sexuality, love, and gender in her poetry. “Split,” her first poetry collection, was published in 2016 by Korima Press.

“I wrote “Split” because this kind of book didn’t exist,” Benavides said. “I write for the women in my family, but I also write for all women who share the same identities with me to validate their existence.”

Benavides received her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Mills College. She started her teaching career in Skyline last year, and she’s wrapping up her second semester.

Growing up, she never anticipated to become a writer, let alone become a published poet.

“In my public education, poetry wasn’t appealing to me because it came from old, dead white men,” Benavides said. “I asked: where was the queer literature?”

Rob Williams, an English professor in Skyline College, taught “Split” to his creative writing classes this semester.

“[Benavides] is such a crucial voice for our times,” Williams said. “I wanted to bring her raw and honest poetic style to the classroom to inspire my creative writing students to be brave in their work.”

Kristen Ersando, a communications major in Skyline College, had a profound emotional connection to “Split” when she read it in Williams’ creative writing class.

“Even if [Benavides] and I have completely different lives, I felt so much common ground with her as a woman,” Ersando said. “When she came to class, I was a bit starstruck, but I also felt this personal connection to her because she was so open to sharing her emotions. Her poetic style is direct and accessible, but she doesn’t present her message as black and white.”

Benavides, a part-time English instructor, is unapologetically herself in the classroom. A substantial portion of her curriculum focuses on a variety of social justice issues. She discusses topics such as internalized racism, intersectionality, and institutionalized racism. She takes an unconventional but engaging route that implements rap, films, short stories, music videos, and poetry.

“Politics can be a touchy subject for students and faculty to discuss, but someone’s gotta do it,” Benavides said.

Increasing representation in the classroom is also an integral goal for Benavides. It’s her way of fighting the intentional erasure of oppressed minority communities. One of the books she taught was “Microchips for Millions,” by Filipina author Janice Sapigao.

“We are never given stories with authors that look like us,” Benavides said. “I had a student that cried last semester because, as a Filipina woman, it was the first time she read a Filipina author.”

Williams, who has been an official mentor to Benavides over the past year, said that their relationship as friends and colleagues has allowed them to bounce ideas off each other.

“It’s cool to see [Benavides] grow as an instructor,” Williams said. “ It can be hard to call myself her mentor because I admire her and learn so much from her. She is a strong voice in the department.”

Benavides is enthusiastic about teaching at Skyline College because she’s able to hold conversations about oppressive social structures and theorize how to improve social conditions with her students in an open manner.

“It’s beautiful to be a part of a campus that values social justice, equity, and makes an effort to educate students about marginalized identities,” Benavides said.

However, building a sense of community in the classroom is not an intentional priority for Benavides.

She says “we are not here to be in unison.” In order to continue these conversations, her students need to be comfortable being open about their unique identities.

Benavides also encourages her students to come to the classroom with “radical vulnerability,” especially since the topics they discuss are challenging to tackle. By doing this, her students can share their thoughts on what divides them in society.

Embracing vulnerability and being honest about emotions are ideas that permeate her poems in “Split” and her philosophy with teaching.

“I admire [Benavides] so much because she can write about hardships and pain without having self-pity,” Ersando said. “[Benavides’] poems taught me to redefine my idea of courage: that vulnerability is not a weakness.”