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SDSU professor reassigned over racial slurs in course about language, racism

 March 11, 2022 at 12:19 PM PST

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The use of racial epithets in class stirs controversy at SDSU.
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Some people say he went overboard , but other people saying these kids need to have an understanding of what is racism and what isn't.
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I'm Jade Hindman.
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This is KPBS midday edition.
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We'll tell you how a tweet helped two people fleeing Ukraine.
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I put out a tweet and I just said my 94 year old grandma , who's a Holocaust survivor and my father who's disabled , are trapped in their apartment in Kiev.
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He can't drive.
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She has trouble walking.
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Does anybody have any suggestions to get them out ? Plus , there's a lot happening on the art scene this weekend.
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We'll have a rundown.
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That's ahead on Midday Edition.
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San Diego State University has been both praised and criticized for its decision to reassign a professor who used racial epithets in a course about language and racism.
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The move has also brought renewed scrutiny from a Philadelphia based civil rights group who claims that SDSU violated the First Amendment rights of the reassigned professor.
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Joining me now with more is San Diego Union Tribune reporter Gary Robbins.
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Gary , welcome back to the program.
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Hi , good to be with you.
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So can you start off by giving us some background on why this professor was reassigned in the first place ? Professor Angelo Carlat teaches a course in critical thinking , and as part of that , they talk about racial epithets.
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It's his belief that you have to say the specific words so people know specifically what you're talking about , and then you can explain whether the word is racist or not.
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He says it's important to be very , very careful with language and then make sure that , you know , everybody agrees that it's racist or not.
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So during a couple of his classes , he uses words.
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In fact , what he did was he posted 10 to 12 epithets on one of those overhead screens , so everybody could see it.
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And he spoke about them during the class.
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Some students became uncomfortable with it.
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There were some complaints made to the administration about it , and they moved in and they reassigned him from two of his classes , saying that it was just too many complaints.
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That drew this letter from Fire , a civil rights group saying , Hey , you can't do that.
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That's a violation of free speech and a violation of academic freedom.
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Were there calls for any groups within the university to remove him ? That's where it gets kind of hinky because there was I keep hearing this.
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Some professors are in favor of this , and then I hear other professors are not that it may all come up in front of the University Senate , so there's a lot of discussion in the background.
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I think what triggered this more than anything was that a student who was not registered in Collette's classes suddenly appeared during one of the classes and confronted him about what he was saying.
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The student who was black felt that it was wrong for him to use his racial epithets during that particular class.
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Things got a bit heated and Collette did not back down.
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In fact , he continued to use the words while talking to the student.
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There's a great bit of confusion about how many times Corlett use the words.
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He told me that he used them about 12 times.
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The university said it was about 30 , and then some of the online petitions that we're seeing say it was about 60.
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So some people say he went overboard in using these words , but other people saying , Wait , these kids need to have an understanding of language and they are not.
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All students agree on what is racism and what isn't.
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When it comes to language.
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So it's kind of this free speech issue that just keeps getting deeper.
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Have you been able to reach the professor for comment ? I have.
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I've talked to him six or seven times.
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He feels pretty frustrated because he's taught at San Diego State for about 25 years.
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He's been using this kind of language in class for about 20 of those years.
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It's not an every week kind of thing.
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It's something that's part of the curriculum.
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So they may spend like a couple of days on it to get through it each year in classes , on critical thinking and on on racism.
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He's frustrated because he thinks some students are overly sensitive and that they just want to shout down any words that they don't personally like.
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This is the kind of complaint that I've heard faculty make sometimes about students or members of Generation Z.
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Now this is a most diverse generation of students we have ever had.
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Many people think they're the most welcoming when it comes to race and ethnicity.
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But , you know , there have been times where people are saying that their appreciation of the First Amendment may not be as strong as previous generations , and perhaps they don't fully understand that a person does have the right to say these things , even if they're very offensive.
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He's saying , I'm doing this in a classroom setting.
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I I've announced ahead of time what I'm doing.
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I'm doing it for a specific reason , and he feels that he , if he doesn't use these words , that they can't have a real world conversation about what he's trying to get across.
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You know , you mentioned the civil rights group that took to condemning the decision on the grounds of free speech infringement.
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There's actually isn't the first time that this group has had SDSU in its crosshairs.
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In fact , you've done reporting about this group and their interactions with San Diego State.
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What can you tell us about that ? Yeah , they've had several interactions with San Diego State.
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And one of them was very recent.
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You may remember that the University Senate took up the issue of whether it should drop a rule that required faculty to include a so-called land acknowledgement about the Columbia Indians in course syllabi.
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The Senate had required that of the faculty.
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Some faculty didn't like it.
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They they felt like the university was forcing political ideology on them.
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That by agreeing to include the statements in their in their course syllabi , that they were agreeing to the point of view that that was expressed in the message.
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One or more of those faculty members contacted Fire , a civil rights group based in Philadelphia , which gets involved in free speech cases.
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Fire sent a letter to the university in January , and the university really kind of backed down right away.
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This issue came up very rapidly before the University Senate.
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It was a.
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Close vote , you know , I think it was forty to thirty five in the end.
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But the president of the University Senate said , Look , you know , we checked with the CSU system in Long Beach.
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They said that we're on shaky ground here , that it is a First Amendment issue and that , you know , some would interpret it to be forced ideology.
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So the Senate backed down due to the pressure that fire brought to bear.
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The same thing happened about a year and a half earlier , when there was complaints that the University Senate was considering a proposal that would allow them to strip the emeritus status of professors if they said anything that embarrasses university Fire said that is totally a breach of free speech.
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And you know , what are they talking about anyway ? How do you define offensive language here ? Fire does this all over the United States.
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It's not just one university on the West Coast , they get involved in cases of free speech and academic freedom and in many cases , the women I've been speaking with Gary Robbins , a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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Gary , thanks so much for joining us.
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You're welcome.
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According to the United Nations , more than two million people have fled Ukraine since Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of that country late last year.
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Two of them are a 94 year old mother and her 70 year old son with family in San Francisco.
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The California reports Mary Franklin Harbin says they made it to safety in Germany just yesterday , thanks to a tweet that eventually reached two of Ukraine's most famous athletes who stepped in to help.
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Katya Safechuck was born in Kiev but emigrated to the Bay Area in 1989 as a Soviet refugee.
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She came with her mother and maternal grandmother to escape anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union.
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Her father , Yevgeny Berdahl , is a retired government worker , and he has a disability that prevents him from driving.
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His mother , Katya's grandmother , Zoya Berdahl , is 94 and has weathered significant challenges in her life , including losing both parents during the Holocaust and only recently surviving COVID 19.
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Up until they fled recently , they shared an apartment in Kiev.
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Safechuck said her father didn't initially believe that the invasion would happen.
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He kind of was constantly monitoring the news and would tell me , You know , we hear explosions.
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We have the lights off.
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You know , they turn the lights off at night to avoid being seen by aircraft.
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Subject's grandmother didn't feel safe getting down to the bomb shelter in the basement of their building and was hesitant to evacuate.
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You know , she's lived her entire life there.
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I think she was very frightened.
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She actually hadn't been outside.
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I think in a year , she she just , you know , was adamantly refusing to go.
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But Saab , Duke's father , finally convinced her.
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So I put out a tweet and I just said , my 94 year old grandma , who's a Holocaust survivor and my father , who's disabled , are trapped in their apartment in Kiev.
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He can't drive.
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She has trouble walking.
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Does anybody have any suggestions to get them out ? And I did not expect the response that I received more than 30000 retweets , more than 90000 likes.
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And according to Save Chuke , at least 100 direct messages.
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Among these viewers was a German journalist whom said Chuke didn't know directly.
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He saw the message and was moved to act on her family's behalf.
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He knew Vladimir Klitschko is a famous Ukrainian boxer and his brother , who's Vitali Klitschko , who's the mayor of Kiev.
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And he mentioned the situation to them , and they decided that they wanted to help.
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Klitschko asked for help from a volunteer branch of the Ukrainian Armed Forces , so they they found a Toyota minivan that the dealership just just lent to them , really.
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And my dad , my grandmother and a friend of my dad's who's who also helps care for her and also that woman's parents got in this minivan and then set off on this journey with armed escorts who just weeks ago were regular civilians.
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The guys that were with them in normal times , you know , one of them's a film producer and on the City Council , but now they're wearing a bulletproof vest.
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They Kalashnikovs and they , you know , escort them to the Hungarian border.
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Finally , yesterday morning , they reached their destination , a hotel in Heidelberg , Germany.
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Her grandmother , Zoya , weathered the trip like a champ , Sobchak said.
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I think one of the first things she did when they arrived in the hotel was to ask her some cognac.
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They have these accommodations in Germany for now , but aren't really sure where their next permanent home will be susceptible.
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And while she's so grateful for the waves of support that have been life-changing for families like hers , she still feels conflicted.
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You know , the refugees in this war are , you know , being portrayed a little bit differently than than refugees have been in the past from other parts of the world where people aren't necessarily white and European.
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You know , I'm really glad that there's such an outpouring of empathy for refugees from Ukraine.
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I just do wish that the same , you know , sensitivity of coverage and perspective was also applied to refugees coming from anywhere.
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And in the meantime , Sobchak feels even more responsible to support others with similar plights with the resources she's gathered through this process.
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That was Mary Franklin Harvin reporting for the California report.
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You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition.
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I'm Jade Hindman in the arts this weekend.
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We have pinatas and craft as art , a dance performance from Monica Bill Barnes and an open house filled with music and dance.
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Joining me with all the details is KPBS Arts editor and producer Julia Dixon Evans.
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Julia , welcome.
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Hi , Jane.
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Thanks for having me.
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So first up , we have an art show featuring pinatas.
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Tell us about this show.
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Yeah , this is border artist Diana Benavides , and I love how she takes that traditional pinata , making craft into artistic territory and sometimes being really political kind of disruptive.
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This exhibition is a solo show.
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It's at the Athenaeum Art Center in Logan Heights , and it's made up of 10 pinatas , and it's about all these little rituals that women or Nancy's men perform in order to feel safe.
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Stuff like telling each other to let someone know you got home safe , or the way that you use everyday objects like keys to turn them into a makeshift weapon.
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I talked to Diane Obiettivi this earlier this week , and I asked her about the exhibition.
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Each of the sculptures either represent , like I mention , of these everyday objects , or they are specifically describing some of the fears that some women might find common to theirs , like jogging at night and also using some of those spaces that are common in American culture , as well as in North American culture like statements like , you know , she was asking for ID or just simple , comforting messages.
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So some of their pinatas do have phrases on them , and this is where the title comes in as well.
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Text me when you get home is on one of them.
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But one of my favorites in the show is a pinata that takes two bombs in the shape of a bra , and it has the words painted to chair across the front.
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That phrase has come to mean.
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Be aware , but Benavidez said it literally translates to something more like where a trout.
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And she also has some pinatas that are brass knuckles , their sets of keys and some sneakers.
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This one is going to be up through May at the Athenaeum Art Center , which is that the bread and salt complex and that opens with a reception on Saturday from five to eight.
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And there is plenty more to check out at bread and salt while you're there.
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That's Text Me When You Get Home by Diana Benavidez.
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One more art exhibition sort of along similar crafty lines.
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This one is called small acts the craft of subversion.
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Tell us about that , right ? This is an exhibition at Center City Gallery at City College , and it's curated by Carrie Ann Quick and Adam John Manley.
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They also run an art magazine called Craft Dessert , and this one revolves around the idea of craft being more significant than society makes space for , and kind of how small , subversive acts can make a big difference by small.
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They mean literally as well.
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The works had to fit in a priority mail flat rate envelope.
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The artists list is not small , though there are something like 60 artists in the show.
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All of them are making really incredible work.
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There's Georgina Trevino , Sasha César Epstein , Martin Joy , Matthew Huber , and too many to list.
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There is a reception on Saturday that's from five to seven p.m. and then the work will be up through April 13th and again , that small acts the craft of subversion at City College's art gallery.
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Now for some dance , renowned choreographer and performer Monica Bill Barnes comes to San Diego Dance Theater with her show Many Happy Returns.
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What can we expect ? Well , this is a totally evolving show , so we really don't know exactly what we can expect.
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But if history is any indicator , this is going to be really heartfelt , but also funny.
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I know people in the dance world have known her for a long time , especially locally.
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She did study at UC San Diego.
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She's worked on Charlie Dances and other projects for San Diego Dance Theater in the past.
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But some of us didn't discover her until about 10 years ago , and she did a show with IRA Glass from this American life.
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It was called three acts , two dancers and one radio host.
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Monica Wilburn shows her always surprising their athletic motive , and she brings a lot of physical comedy to dance.
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And this one is a project with collaborator Robby Simons to victory , and it explores how we're all taking these tentative steps back to the theater.
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Our return ? That's Monica Bill Barnes and Co. , who will perform three shows at Lightbox Theatre at Liberty Station tonight at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday at six and eight p.m. by.
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Play some music and family activities at the Conrad Community Arts Open House.
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Tell us about this one.
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This is Sunday afternoon from the La Hoya Music Society.
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They have a full performance schedule , as well as a bunch of hands on art and music making activities.
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This is throughout their whole campus.
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The experimental percussion group Red Fish Blue Fish , they will play a set as well Ed Kornhauser and Rebecca Jade , and those two were both nominated for San Diego Music Awards again this year.
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And this is Rebecca Jade's latest single.
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What's it going to be ? No , you've only just begun.
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And there's also dance performances.
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The San Diego Civic Youth Ballet , culture shock and plenty more.
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And it's free , and that's Sun from one to four at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Hoya.
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You can find details on all of these events and more , and sign up for Julien's weekly KPBS Arts newsletter by going to KPBS Mortgage Arts.
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I've been speaking with KPBS Arts editor and producer Julia Dixon Evans.
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Julia , thanks.
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Thank you , Jade.
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Have a good weekend.

San Diego State was praised and criticized for its decision to reassign a professor over racial epithets used in a course about language and racism. A Philadelphia-based civil rights group says SDSU violated the professor’s First Amendment rights. Also, more than 2 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded, including a 94-year-old woman and her 70-year-old son thanks to social media and the help of two of Ukraine’s top athletes. And, in a preview of the arts scene this weekend, we have piñatas and craft as art, a dance performance from Monica Bill Barnes and an open house filled with music and art.