I Am Starr King: Interview with Som Pourfarzaneh

SomSom Pourfarzaneh

Graduate of Starr King (MASC, 2007)

What inspired you to become a religious leader?

I went to Cal (UC Berkeley) for my undergraduate degree and I studied integrative biology. I was excited about what I was doing in terms of the academic study. I knew that I wanted to be in the academy but I learned after completing my bachelor’s degree that I was more interested in studying spirituality than I was going the “hard science” route. At the time that I graduated I was deeply involved in studying martial arts and I decided to go to the Monterey Academy of Martial Arts and do an apprenticeship program there. So I lived in the dojo for a year, training and learning and getting my teacher’s certificate, and when I returned I wanted to do something that allowed me to study religion as well as spirituality in an academic setting. So I started teaching martial arts in the Bay Area, and Starr King allowed me to do my master’s degree and study Japanese martial spirituality as an academic focus, but also study Islam, which would turn out to be my academic focus for my PhD program.

Why did you decide to study at Starr King?

I liked that it was part of the GTU and had a history of being in relationships with different seminaries as an academic institution as well as a seminary. I also liked that the program was so open and flexible that I was able to study things that no one else, at least that I know of, would allow me to do and get a degree out of it. I also liked that I was getting in on the ground floor of the new MASC degree and that religious leadership was a component of the degree and not just something that one does outside as an extracurricular thing.

Can you tell us a little bit about your work, and how you’ve used your MASC degree since graduating from Starr King?

Sure. After I did my master’s I opened up a martial arts school of my own in Emeryville and we just celebrated our 8th anniversary in July. I don’t know that that was an expression of religious leadership, but definitely spiritual leadership, self-empowerment, and offering people a place where they felt safe to not only learn martial arts and self-defense but also express themselves spiritually. That’s something that I’ve kind of moved away from over the years. It’s become a personal practice for me.

But a major success that I’ve gotten through doing a master’s degree was simply having a master’s degree program under my belt so that I could apply for PhD programs. I got into the GTU after doing my master’s and I already knew a lot of the faculty in the GTU, so that really streamlined the process for me of getting my PhD in Islamic Studies.

What is your most memorable or meaningful experience at Starr King?

Wow. That is a really hard question to answer. There’s one thing that I tell people quite often. My first semester at Starr King pretty much changed my life, in terms of my outlook on social justice issues and the Educating to Counter Oppressions (ECO) seminar that I took. I was required to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I had tinkered with before but never really read. As a Muslim who’s living in America it was kind of silly that I had never really ventured in it. I also read another book by Leila Ahmed called A Border Passage. These are two books that I actually require my students to read in my intro class to Islam. Both of them shaped not only my outlook on social justice matters, but the importance of everyone being involved in matters of social justice regardless of what they do.

For example, I just published my first novel called Entromancy. It’s a fun, cyberpunk, sci-fi, action-adventure book set in San Francisco about 50 years from now. It’s the first book in a trilogy and I combine so many exciting things about science fiction and fantasy that any Star Wars or Star Trek nerd would be really happy to read. But it’s come out of this really long process of ruminating, writing, and philosophizing about matters of social justice issues that came out of that class that I took in 2005.