Spotlight on Ana Elena Sisnett: Humble Heroine

By MJ Ali

I wanted the first entry in our Spotlight series to be about someone extraordinary, and there was one magical, eternally sparkling name that popped up for me: Ana Sisnett.

I knew of Ana through my older sister, for whom Ana was a mentor and very close friend. The one time I met Ana, she made an indelible impression on me, and I can’t really put it into words. She shone brighter than the average human, and anyone who stepped into the beam benefitted from it.

Ana accomplished more than most during her 56 years here on earth (Nov 5, 1952 – Jan 13, 2009). A published author, galleried artist, celebrated poet, and dancer with abandon, Ana was joy personified. She always asked the difficult questions, searched for ways to make inclusion an international priority, and recited her poetry to people who’d come from far away just to bask in her melodious creations.

Ana fought a hard battle with ovarian cancer for three years.

She was an academic and activist, two attributes not often encountered in one person. She was also a blogging advocate, digital divide educator and activist, executive director, founder, PhD, single mom, lesbian woman of color, bilingual, afro-latina, panamanian, american, and devotee of mangos.

Because she was raised to be humble, it’s hard to find anything online about Ana. I would have loved to have found her poem, “How to Eat a Mango,” but couldn’t find it anywhere. I can, however, find vivid descriptions of what it was like to be in her presence when she read that poem.

She wasn’t being intentionally enigmatic. I just think it didn’t matter to her. She didn’t seek recognition, status, accolades. Any attributions have been made by others from the heart, not from ego or politics.

The Ana Sisnett Library, housed in the Gender and Sexuality Center, a division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, is just one of the many ways in which Ana’s legacy is recognized and honored.

Ana fought tirelessly to find where technology was excluding, and how to fix it. She was a big supporter of Knowbility, a non-profit dedicated to improving accessibility in technology.

Ana was executive director of Austin Free-Net, a non-profit organization addressing the technological digital divide through providing access, training and education to Austin’s underserved and underrepresented people. That access can mean the difference between homelessness and gainful employment, families in crisis staying together or being pulled apart.

Ana co-founded TECHNOMAMA with Gisele-Audrey Mills. Together, they built working relationships with the Institute for Global Communications (IGC) and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to provide networking opportunities for activists. In the early 2000s, when we were in the beginning of a digital explosion, seemingly everyone was getting their voice heard on the internet. But access wasn’t equal, and countless voices were silent.

TECHNOMAMA trained women and others who didn’t have access to technology and the internet so they could be heard. There is still a serious digital divide, but thanks to the tireless efforts of Ana Sisnett and others, progress continues to be made.

Ana is a rare combination of quantifiable accomplishments and indescribable spirit.

It would take volumes to cite all the tributes made by people whose lives were touched by Ana and changed because of her. She had a gift of spirit that permeated everything she did, everything she communicated.

I’d like to share an excerpt from a poem written in memoriam by my sister Sandy, titled, “This Bridge Called Ana,” that paints a wonderful picture of this extraordinary beam of light called Ana Elena Sisnett:

This bridge called Ana listened hard
thought creatively and deeply
spoke honestly
and taught us to find
the quiet unasked question such as
“Who is missing from this table and why?”

Across difference and discord
Ana asked us to listen, to feel, to imagine.

Ana Elena Sisnett 1952-2009

Reading through our email correspondence
my eye stutters over a message at the bottom—
“Ana is not available to chat.”
At first, I clutch at loss.
Then, I smile.
Gmail does not know Ana very well, does it.
Our Ana is always available to chat.

If Ana is a constellation
she is a whale swimming with her mouth wide open
or a mango tree ripe with fruit
or a bridge into our dreams.

We don’t need maps to get there.
Holding hands with Ana, we walk toward our better selves.

– Sandra Shattuck

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