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Ming Holden
A creative writer, artist, and international development worker, Ming Holden was invited by the US Embassy to Suriname to a diplomatic speaking engagement under the U.S. Speakers Program for 2014 Women's History Month. (Here is the press release.) In 2011, she founded the Survival Girls, a self-sustaining theater group for young Congolese women in the slums of Nairobi. Her book about the experience, the nonfiction novella The Survival Girls, came out in 2013 through Wolfram Productions. Ming also won the USAID worldwide essay contest for inclusion in the USAID Frontiers in Development publication alongside work by Bill Gates, Indra Noori, Paul Collier, and others. Her essay about the Survival Girls got some love from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself in the book’s introduction! (Ming’s writing about the Girls was also nominated for the AWP Intro Award for Nonfiction.)

Ming served the Mongolian Writers Union as its first-ever International Relations Adviser during her year as a Henry Luce Scholar in Mongolia and worked towards the formation of a Mongolia PEN Center. She has since returned to Mongolia to work for The Asia Foundation on a literary translation and advocated for an exiled Chinese writer in Turkey at the Writers and Literary Translators International Congress 2010, where she was the youngest presenter and one of the only Americans. Ming won Glimmer Train's 2013 Family Matters story contest and The Chattahoochee Review's 2013 nonfiction contest, and her nonfiction has placed as a finalist or runner-up for the annual nonfiction prizes at Arts & Letters, Passages North, and the Crab Orchard Review. While an undergraduate at Brown University (’07), Ming co-founded and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Brown Literary Review.

Ming is the recipient of the Herman Wells Graduate Fellowship, Indiana University’s most prestigious student award, designated for “leadership abilities, character, social consciousness, and generosity of spirit,” and the Woon-Joon Yoon Memorial Fellowship, for “students who have exemplified tolerance and understanding across racial and religious lines through service, personal commitment, academic achievement and future potential.” (Here’s the press release for the Wells.) Ming’s poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, photography, and literary translations have appeared in Alchemy, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, Cerise Press, The Best American Poetry Blog, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Huffington Post, Molotov Cocktail, Passages North, Peaches and Bats, The Poker, Prospect, the Santa Ynez Valley Journal, The Santa Barbara Independent, Slice Magazine’s blog, and others. She taught a cross-genre workshop at the Richard Hugo House. Last fall she played Janey in the Plaza Playhouse production of Calamity Jane in Carpinteria, and over the summer played the role of Reika in Dijo Productions' Ghetto. She can next be seen in Plaza Playhouse's Old Time Radio Show as several characters, including the time-traveling stripper Helen La Tour.

Ming has worked in community development Russia (at the Silver Taiga Sustainable Forestry Foundation); Syria (with Every Syrian); Turkey and Syria (independently); Ecuador (at the CEMOPLAF family planning clinic); Bolivia (at the Rio Beni Health Project); Mongolia (at The Asia Foundation and the Mongolian Writers Union); Kenya (at the UNHCR and with the Golden Globe Foundation); Suriname (through the American Embassy); and also in New York (at Archipelago Books) and California (at People Helping People).

A Recipient of the University of California's Special Regents Fellowship, Ming is currently pursuing a PhD in the Theater and Dance Department. She was a part of the pilot Graduate Affiliate Fellow program at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, and this year she is the teaching assistant and research assistant for the Odyssey Project, which brings incarcerated young men to the UCSB campus for a theater workshop.

A list of Ming’s publications is here. A list of her honors and awards is here.

She’s got profiles in all the usual places: LinkedIn, Picasa, Youtube, & Facebook.

Entries by Ming Holden

Iraq Documentary Filmmaker Turns His Lens on the US Prison Pipeline

(0) Comments | Posted August 21, 2015 | 5:33 PM

The above is a work-in-progress for a documentary film about rehabilitative theater with incarcerated young men of color called The Odyssey Project.

"I wanted to tell the story of the criminal justice system"

Iraq, the BP oil spill, the rights of union workers, food insecurity, and the juvenile incarceration system aren't necessarily the first things that come to mind when one thinks of a summer afternoon in Santa Barbara. However, they're what documentary filmmaker and longtime Santa Barbara resident Mark Manning concerns himself with. I walk down a red brick path through a verdant garden to arrive at Manning's office at Conception Media, which is in the back cottage of a nice town house. Inside, a husky sleeps on the floor, a few screen-savers swirl on several monitors in the background, and Manning goes about brewing herbal tea after kissing his beautiful wife goodbye for the afternoon. He probably went surfing this morning, but he spent all last summer filming incarcerated youth.

After journeys across the country and world for his documentaries, what about the Odyssey Project -- a partnership between UCSB and the juvenile justice system that brings incarcerated young men into a theater workshop -- caught Manning's eye? Why this, for his newest film?

"I always look for a way to tell a real important social issue through characters. To humanize the issue," Manning says, leaning back in his chair.

"I wanted to tell the story of the criminal justice system...and I did it because I was a little bit afraid. I had some fear about meeting them. I realized I don't know anything about young people of color who are locked up. I'm living a life of white privilege here; Santa Barbara is one of the centers of white privilege in the world. To tell the story of the prison pipeline here is a good juxtaposition."

So, last summer, Manning and his crew followed the "personal odysseys" of the incarcerated young men participating in UCSB professor Michael Morgan's Odyssey Project theater class. Those young men created pieces of personal creative writing and art, performed their own spoken word raps, and acted and danced alongside UCSB undergraduates in a public performance retelling The Odyssey as an epic tale of contemporary homecoming. The Odyssey Project film, if it gets produced, has the potential to change the way juvenile incarceration works in America by demonstrating how successful the arts can be as a tool for rehabilitation and reducing the recidivism rates of jailed youth. Manning's company, Conception Media, collected the footage without certain knowledge of where funding would come from to finish the film.

An incarcerated youth performs in The Odyssey alongside UCSB undergraduates (photo credit Clarissa Koenig)

It's a labor of love, but Manning wasn't paid to make the award-winning Road to Fallujah, either. Social justice is what makes Mark Manning tick, and what I find most fascinating about him is that this wasn't always the case: he came to Santa Barbara when he was still a teenager to go to diving school so he could work for Big Oil out in Louisiana. Born and raised in California's bay area, Manning was a surfer from early on, and wanted to make a living on the ocean. "There was an oil boom going on at the time," Manning recalls. "I did underwater welding, burning, construction, explosives, whatever it took. Working 60 to 600 feet down underwater. Fun job, made a lot of money."

But somewhere in those two decades of working for offshore oil companies, Manning slowly grew a conscience. "I didn't like the way things were going," he says simply. So by the time he signed up for an eight-week night class in filmmaking, he knew firsthand "how powerful those corporations actually are. How big they are."

"A sophisticated machine"

By chance, Manning heard a program on the radio about a documentary about Palestinian children. He quit his oil job, took that filmmaking class, and started making nonprofit PSAs in Santa Barbara. It was 2001, and he couldn't believe 70% of Americans supported the war in Iraq. "Go up and down State Street and ask people why," someone suggested.

Mark Manning (photo credit Clarissa Koenig)

Manning followed that suggestion -- except he didn't just go to downtown Santa Barbara, he went all over the country, talking to Wall Street bankers, members of the Ku Klux Klan, farmers, urbanites, in the South, the Midwest, Los Angeles. He asked them all the same questions, "and no matter the class, race, gender, or location of the person I asked," Manning says, "they all said the same thing. If they were for the war, they said it was because terrorists hated us for being free. If they were against it, they said it was about oil." But whenever he asked the interviewee for a fact to back that up -- even one -- from the Wall Street bankers to the KKK members, no one really had any. Thus Manning made the film American Voices, and in doing so, he learned that the mainstream media is as powerful as the big corporations he'd been working for. "It's a sophisticated machine out there, influencing all of us."

Manning's current work on The Odyssey Project film grows out of the belief that relying on that "sophisticated machine" of mainstream media to tell the truth about incarcerated young men of color would be an exercise in futility. This belief was informed not only by his experience working for Big Oil and making Voices of America, but his firsthand experience in Iraq. As Manning interviewed people for the documentary that would become American Voices, he met Nadia McCaffrey, the mother whose son Patrick was killed in Iraq and who became famous for standing up to the Bush administration (which had claimed it banned the press from documenting military caskets coming home for the sake of the families' privacy) by inviting the press to view the return of her son's casket. Nadia asked Mark if he'd come with her to Jordan on her subsequent peace-building mission, where Iraqi families and American families who had lost children in the war were going to meet. That's how Manning made Journey to Peace. "There was a lot of press there, just not American press. I was the American press," Manning says wryly. "Some people needed to vent. Some needed to testify. Some people had lost their kids just days before that meeting. I mean, it was raw."

And in challenging the fear Manning himself had around youth of color in the prison pipeline by embarking on this new documentary about The Odyssey Project, he discovered a similar rawness in the extraordinary space that professor Michael Morgan creates every summer with incarcerated youth in his very own Santa Barbara county. "Just getting to know these incarcerated young guys," Manning recalls, shaking his head, "and seeing the friendship and relationships and seeing the beauty involved there, the willingness of everybody involved to drop preconceived judgements together, reminded me of watching the American and Iraqi families come together. They just let it go, and that's where peace happens."

Incarcerated youth rehearse for The Odyssey alongside UCSB undergraduates, summer 2014 (photo credit Clarissa Koenig)

"The Truth is in the Voices of the People"

While making Journey to Peace with Nadia, Manning befriended an Iraqi woman name Rana, who regularly stopped US Marines from dropping bombs by telling them where she was running to among their targets and emerging with women and children. When Manning went into Iraq in 2004 and 2005 and lived in the city of Fallujah, he did so alongside Rana as one of the only outsiders to live un-embedded in Iraq. Rather, he lived simply as another human in the holy city, which had been the site of the Iraq War's bloodiest battle in 2004 after four American contractors were killed there. Manning made it a point to tell the story of Fallujah from the perspective of the Iraqi people, and when the resultant film, Road To Fallujah, was released in 2009, it hit the festival circuit with a life of its own, garnering a few awards to boot.

"What's generally missing in the media," Manning explains, "are the voices of the people in the stories. You have paid-for pundits, paid-for research, but not those voices. With the Odyssey Project, that's the missing element of the prison pipeline: where are the voices of the people who are in the pipeline? Where are those voices? That's where the truth is. The truth is in the voices of the people."

We conclude our interview by talking about courage, which it takes to make documentary films that might make a difference, sure, but Manning is talking about that of the incarcerated men themselves: "their courage to explore their emotional side, which is difficult when you have to be vulnerable with the new peers you just met, and then with the other people you're incarcerated with and deal with whatever the framework is there. The courage was a constant blessing to be around. To get along with each other, to drop judgements, to listen, takes courage. And they have it."

Incarcerated youth perform The Odyssey alongside UCSB undergraduates, summer 2014 (photo credit Clarissa...

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From Teens in Jail to Teens Onstage: The Odyssey Project

(0) Comments | Posted August 12, 2015 | 10:13 AM

This is the first of a series of blog posts from me this summer about The Odyssey Project. I also wrote one last summer here.

An incarcerated youth performs in a mask he made for The Odyssey (Photo credit:...
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Women's History Month Through One Woman's History

(0) Comments | Posted March 10, 2015 | 12:49 PM

One year ago, the United States Government invited me to Suriname through the U.S. Speakers Program in recognition of Women's History Month. I spent a week in that balmy, tiny South American country -- which is nestled above Brazil and between Guyana and French Guiana; where the various...

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The Odyssey Project: Incarcerated Youth Bring a Classic to the Stage at UCSB

(1) Comments | Posted July 17, 2014 | 6:58 PM

An incarcerated teen performs as Odysseus

We've lost our Cyclops.

The boys shuffle in from the bright Isla Vista heat outside, eight teenagers (or "campers") dressed in the navy blue polo shirt, slacks, and black-and-white converse sneakers that constitute the uniform...

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Adriana Reyes: Behind Heartbreaking Photos of Syria and Jordan

(0) Comments | Posted February 24, 2014 | 8:26 PM

Young Syrian refugee in Atmeh "Olive Tree" Refugee Camp, Syria (All photos featured here were taken by Adriana Reyes and are being used here with her permission.)

Last summer, I crossed the Turkey-Syria border into Syria to visit Atmeh Refugee...

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The Kardashian Index: On the "How" and "Why" of International Development Work

(1) Comments | Posted February 4, 2014 | 10:51 AM

"Why are we here?" I asked Michael as the Jeep hydroplaned again. We were in Costa Rica, although Michael (aka Michael Solis, an international development worker) was based in Nicaragua at Trócaire, an Irish organization that has assisted nearly 3 million people in need. In between...

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What I Learned On The Ground In Syria

(2) Comments | Posted September 9, 2013 | 10:52 AM

I am anti-war. That's precisely why I support a US strike in Syria.

Atmeh Camp, Syria, 2013 (author's photo)

I took the above photo in Syria's Atmeh refugee camp, but my encounters with Syrians began before I crossed the border earlier this...

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An Interview With Brown Moses, UK-Based Syria Weapons Tracking Pioneer

(1) Comments | Posted June 14, 2013 | 2:31 PM


Higgins's own photo of his interview with Channel 4 news

There aren't just citizen journalists now, sending out YouTube clips to the world. Where Syria is concerned, there are now citizen analysts, scouring that footage for weapons tracking. One of them, Eliot Higgins, is...

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Redefining the Female Role Model

(2) Comments | Posted February 15, 2013 | 4:40 PM

"What's Sex Got To Do With It" by Jody Joldersma, reprinted here with her permission

Today was bright white, as I've come to appreciate about Seattle. I feared dark days. Instead, the ocean near the Paccar Pavilion was lit up by...

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Be Mine, Except in International Development

(0) Comments | Posted February 11, 2013 | 3:04 PM

Valentine's Day is upon us, and those little candy hearts pervasively sugaring the public sphere with the words "Be Mine!" got me thinking recently about the possessive language we use to describe love.

I first belonged to Teresa.

I was sixteen the first summer I observed her clinic in...

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Curation Culture: USAID and the Mashup

(1) Comments | Posted October 22, 2012 | 6:30 PM

"To begin with, the context in which we operate has shifted." -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the introduction to USAID's 2012 "Frontiers in Development" publication

In order to illuminate the contemporary conversation about foreign aid and policy we're going to have to talk for...

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Blogs Never Promised You a Rose Garden

(0) Comments | Posted July 25, 2012 | 5:33 PM

Ahem. A word about the blog I started in college called Cliterati.

(Yep. "Clit" meets "literati." See what my twenty-year-old self did there? If I hadn't been a librarian at the Women's Center in college, I'd say I should've been.)

As I blog I wonder every so often if...

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The Social Century

(0) Comments | Posted July 3, 2012 | 11:05 AM

The incredible response to Anne-Marie Slaughter's landmark cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" (easily a hundred articles and blog posts, hundreds of thousands of shares on facebook, broken readership records at The Atlantic) serves as a cultural litmus test for issues ripe for debate. Slaughter...

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We Can't Have It All, But We Can Give Her Credit

(4) Comments | Posted June 28, 2012 | 11:56 AM

Two main misconceptions have cropped up in the buzz around Anne-Marie Slaughter's current cover story in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." One is that Slaughter imagines herself to be speaking for women other than those in her demographic, when she explicitly states otherwise. The...

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Dr. O & The Women

(5) Comments | Posted June 11, 2012 | 12:55 PM

I caught a piece of BBC TV news about Michelle Obama one hot afternoon in Nairobi last summer. I was standing on the balcony beside some orange-blossomed flame tulip trees, thinking about the group of young Congolese refugee girls I was working with, when my first lady's voice brought me...

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On the Public Shaming of Asma al-Assad

(2) Comments | Posted April 30, 2012 | 7:09 PM

I teach an extract of John Berger's 1972 "Ways of Seeing" to undergraduate composition students. Berger's claim that "men act and women appear," a seemingly antiquated notion, is always fodder for lively debate, along with his suggestion that women fashion their social presence such that others treat them...

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Confessions of a Development Dilettante

(1) Comments | Posted April 10, 2012 | 12:38 PM

I took one introductory international relations class my freshman year of college. It was painfully dry; I spent lectures slouching in back, admiring my combat boots and writing bad poetry. After that one foray into the formal study of international relations, fully half of the rest of my literary arts...

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The Dream Team Initiative

(2) Comments | Posted March 27, 2012 | 12:56 PM

When I visit my childhood home in California, I often postulate to my schoolteacher mother while standing in the bathroom doorway as she brushes her teeth. (I talk a lot; it's one of the only times I can corner her into listening.)

About five years back, my big idea...

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America Does Not Happen By Accident

(0) Comments | Posted January 17, 2012 | 3:44 AM

"Neither peace nor war happen by accident."

Madeleine Albright said it at her lecture here in Bloomington, Indiana a few months ago. It was a succinct and eloquent nod to the power of intentionality, and she uttered it at the outset of election-campaign season in American politics, a...

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Kenya Dispatch: The End of Structure

(0) Comments | Posted December 21, 2011 | 6:21 PM

The first issue of the comic ElfQuest, written in 1978, depicts a kidnapped elf called Redlance. Elves can "send" thoughts telepathically to other elves within "sending range." The captured Redlance is saved because his loved ones "send" to one another, collaborating to ambush and free him -- without...

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