— Sifting through hundreds of pages of my mom’s writings about working in the shipyards in the San Francisco Bay Area from the mid-1970’s to the early 1990’s—with the intent of finally making a book from her notes—I found these photos of her with some of her students, after she’d left the yards to become a teacher. At the end of fifteen grueling years working in the shipyards as an electrician, one of only a handful of women, she took out a loan, went back to school and got a teaching credential to teach English as a Second Language to immigrants, mostly from Latin America. In the writings, fluid connections interlink workers, immigrants, women, citizens, race and class. Labor, survival, emotion and outlook cycle, making explicit the ways our very bodies let alone our thoughts and words, are shaped by the flows (and stoppages) of power.

Sandra passed away in 2015 from complications related to dementia. She left a chronicle of her extraordinary, and also ordinary life in file cabinets of photos and writings (on typed pages and in hand-written notebooks—she never owned a computer,) some of which seem meant for the world to read.

In this dangerous time now, with fascism and xenophobia on the rise, I thought I’d share these images and some of her own words toward a picture of humanity, a reminder of love and agency. The words that follow are culled from various pages, written over the course of some years, by Sandra Kahn. Photos by students. Black and white photo by Stanya Kahn, 1986.


ESL studies is teaching me that it’s worse for the
young than I thought
traveling here from Central America from Viet Nam from Hong Kong
leaving cultures, looking for gold
only to find a more subtle war bastardizing their essence.
looking for laughter and rivers
finding only dried up wells with a sprinkling of methods
that lie about relief.
how did we let the sun get so hidden?

why don’t we women just mass together and seize the White House?
turning it into a home—into a seat of humane understanding
the man’s wars with the dick on a flag post raised high have undone the planet.
to carry on becomes a huge task

Leonore, Gui-fang
Luis, Jose, Guadalupe and Enriquita
Angel, Alma and Salvadore
They all work so hard at learning English.
Nestor, Esther, Leticia, Isabel, Marina, Angelica…

Morphology, phonology, syntax, semantics and a class
of adults who need to get it
in this system that doesn’t want them—immigrants/us/women
no room in the inn
where we didn’t want a room anyhow.
It’s dread and fear they say for those who don’t believe in that
fairy world of a god… one is left without pretense.
raw fucking shit.


In LA, the new Rodney King trial
In Waco with craziness and too much money spent on the fire arms/alcohol division
In Bosnia/Herzegovina, people vulcanizing each other
And Hillary Rodham spends hours delving into the corporate healthcare system and her plan will still come up light-weight. She’ll fail to recommend a single-payer, national health system. Sorely needed.
Brothers are shooting brothers.
Any health care plan whichever way it’s addressed, does not address the wounded.
Greed is in tact.
Today I signed a petition for single payer. The petition holders believed.
Not me. I said not without a revolution.

The lotto is at $51,000,000.
I would help my kids, buy them each a house, send medical supplies to Cuba
take an unoccupied S.F. building and turn it into an alternative school
paying teachers at least $40,000 a year
Set up an ESL center in S.F.
Give myself some help at organizing.

You know what kills people?
The lack of love coming in.
Community strength.

You are dynamite.
flow with that.

Got a new job now
A healthy change
A life-line of communication
Warm receptive folks, newly arrived and determined to cope

From fifteen years in the shipyards
pulling cable, hard hat, steel toes, tool belt, security badge
swaying on the gangways high above cold down below,
supplying steel with 440 volts of electricity
to now supplying the language—English.

No more whistle sounding, reverberating every single nerve
at the punch-in-clock
I walked into the shipyard
knowing that the whistle was a plot
to deafen, destroy
and mess with my morning.

Now I’m writing a proposal for a scholarship to teach
an ESL workshop on poetics
How do I tell a board of decision-makers
that I qualify for the rights of poetry?
Maybe you wanna hear the flowers of light
that were my companion at dawn
when I leathered my neck and steeled my soul
to hook up yet another ship
in the yards of San Francisco.

Maybe I should dedicate this proposal to Joe Massey
with cajun freckles and a morning smile.
We worked long hours that night.
Put lights on the scaffolding going up the rudder
of that ship in drydock 2
50 feet.
Joe was at the top.
Circled the rudder.
Grabbed the rail
It was rusty. It gave.
Joe went down, down
to the steel on the dry dock’s floor.
We tried every which way to revive
never being able to compete with the 50 foot fall.

At the funeral in Oakland,
the laborers, the riggers, the electricians, the welders…
we locked hands around some words
I don’t even remember.

That was before John Ring got crushed between the pier
and the gangway on a hurry-up job
and it was before my foreman got electrocuted
on a gamble that the
power was secured—
on the other end of that voltage.

How do I take all this paper and turn into something
that will tell you
I have the right to poetry

Stanya Kahn was born in 1968 and grew up in San Francisco. She lives in Los Angeles. Kahn is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in video with a practice that includes drawing, sound, writing, performance and sculpture/installation. Recent solo exhibitions include shows at the New Museum/NY, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Marlborough Chelsea/NY, Weiss Berlin, Cornerhouse/Manchester, UK. Kahn is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow in Film/Video. Her recent film STAND IN THE STREAM is currently on view in the Gwanju Biennial (’18) and will screen at LACMA this month. Her writings and drawings appear in multiple publications including DIE LAUGHING (2nd Cannons), MOVING IMAGE (MIT Press), IT’S COOL, I’M GOOD (Cornerhouse), and ABSTRACT VIDEO (UC Press.)