Mid Atlantic Folk Arts Forum

Posts Tagged ‘story circle’

Essay: Courage, Motherhood, and the Act of Leaving by Amy Skillman

Posted by midatlanticfolkarts on May 6, 2010

As folklorists, we enter into any new community with some expectations about the group we’re meeting or what we might offer them.  Working with refugees and immigrants can be especially complex as newcomers navigate changing social, language, and cultural norms.  In this month’s essay, Amy Skillman writes about her experience working with PAIRWN, a group of refugee and immigrant women living in Central Pennsylvania.  Invited by a social service advocate, she first met the group ten years ago and expected to involve some members in the state apprenticeship or fellowship programs.  Here, she writes of that first meeting and the dynamic “Story Circle Project” that evolved.


Courage, Motherhood and the Act of Leaving

Since my early days as a folklorist, I have been drawn to the experiences of refugee and immigrant women.    Refugees and most immigrants experience a powerful sense of dislocation upon arrival in this country.  This is heightened by language barriers, unfamiliar customs and practices, fear of anti-immigrant violence, and the challenge of acclimating themselves to a strange new setting.  Perhaps most devastating is that newcomers experience a loss of identity trying to place themselves within the broader existing community.

Nine years ago I met Ho-Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who worked as the domestic violence and sexual assault advocate for immigrants and refugees at the local YWCA.  Concerned that standard domestic violence services were not enough to help women get out of the cycle of violence, she gathered a group of women from diverse backgrounds to discuss ways to improve those services.  They all wished to assist one another in developing leadership skills, self-confidence, and fellowship.  I attended the second meeting of the group in June of 2001 as an ethnographic fieldworker, wearing my folk arts coordinator hat.  I left as a community activist impressed by the passion and courage of these women.

At the time, I was hoping to find a connection to artists within the community and to help those artists apply to our state apprenticeship and fellowship programs.  (This is one of ICP’s roles as a Regional Folklife Support Center for the state arts council’s folk arts infrastructure.) In my effort to identify artists, I asked the women “what are some of the more important art forms you have brought with you to this country?”  Almost unanimously they all said, “Our food!”  This immediately triggered the animated sharing of stories – funny stories about food preparation, tearful stories about missing their mother’s cooking, and astonishing tales of cultural collisions in the kitchen.  While putting foodways into cultural or familial contexts is not a new idea for folklorists, it was for these newcomer women.  Nonetheless, they immediately understood not only the cultural importance of their food, but the strength that can be achieved by sharing stories.  In this moment, sitting in the sun in Ho-Thanh’s backyard, the Story Circle Project was born.

While I have yet to do a single apprenticeship application with the women I have met through Ho-Thanh in the nine years we have worked together, we have: created a non-profit organization, PAIRWN, with a board of directors that is exclusively composed of refugee and immigrant women; developed successful grant writing skills within the group; produced a cookbook, which has become an income-generating publication for the group; hosted two public events each year and conducted six day-long conferences on women’s health issues; published a quarterly newsletter; developed a website; created an exhibition which was installed at the PA State Museum for four months and now online, and produced three theatrical productions.

All of these projects are grounded in the Story Circle Project — a long-term program designed to collect personal narratives and turn them into public programs sharing these women’s experiences with the community.  I have served as a Board Advisor and facilitator for the Story Circle Project.  PAIRWN is composed of women from around the world, including the Bahamas, Bosnia, Cambodia, Canada, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Guinea, India, Moldova, Morocco, Niger, the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, Trinidad, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Uganda and Vietnam.  Participants reflect diverse ages, social class, occupations and religions.  Many of the Story Circles focus on the role of women in community life and the changing roles of women in Diaspora; their experiences of emigration and resettlement; adaptation and change; and their perspectives on diversity in Pennsylvania.

Story Circles vary in attendance, from three to 18.  But each month, the women are fully engaged in hearing each other’s stories.  The format is simple: we pick a monthly topic and throw out a question.  As the facilitator, my job is to toss another question out if the conversation lags.  But this rarely happens.  It has been powerful to watch this circle of women using story to draw closer in friendship and understanding. Together we have explored such critical issues as: the need to find humor in their experiences; getting used to the way Americans do things; adjusting to the personal transformations that must happen as women, workers, and wives in a new society;  recognizing the courage they each have to overcome incredible barriers in order to escape terror; motherhood and having babies without the usual extended family to help out, and later becoming invisible in their children’s lives; and the act of leaving everything behind.

Have the Story Circles made a difference?  Have they had an impact on that initial list of challenges faced by newcomers?  They have provided a safe place for these women to practice their English and grapple with ways to present their feelings.  They have created an almost sacred space where these women, who have to hold back in all other aspects of their lives, can say what is on their minds because there is someone there who understands; someone who shares the experience.  This has been one of the most amazing aspects of this work – to see these women learn that whether they came from the Philippines, Russia or Uganda, they have all had similar experiences.  Whether refugees or immigrants, they have mourned their losses together, laughed at their mistakes and shared ideas for dealing with insensitive attitudes in others.  Each woman has become a role model for the others in different ways.  And each woman has taken on responsibilities for which she is both capable and well-appreciated.  Just by listening, they have lent validity to each other’s experiences, reminded them of their strength and helped to re-establish their self‑esteem. They have created new traditions and a new sense of community.  This work has been about translating personal narratives into powerful tools for social change.

So what has this work taught me?  I was looking to support individual artists in the practice of their artistic traditions; Ho-Thanh was looking for ways to create leadership opportunities for women struggling with resettlement and all its domestic issues.  Once I left my own professional needs and expectations at the door, my path became clear.  My skills as a cultural facilitator have grown and found far greater use in my work with this unlikely group of women.   When I began the work, I remember explaining to one of the local funders that this was a multi-year project – that no initiative to gather and document local culture can be limited to the one-year grant cycle.  I argued that they should be supporting it for at least three years.   Now, nine years later, I see that real ethnographic fieldwork is about a long-term relationship.  If we want to make a difference in people’s lives, if we want our cultural skills to have meaning and use, we must engage with the community. From the women of PAIRWN, I have learned much about what is possible, about commitment to a cause, and about perseverance and standing up for what you believe.

Amy Skillman

May 2010

Amy Skillman is Vice President of Institute for Cultural Partnerships in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For eight years prior to joining ICP, Amy Skillman served as the director of State Folklife Program at the Pennsylvania Heritage Affairs Commission. She is past President of the Middle Atlantic Folklife Association and a former convener for the Public Programs Section of the American Folklore Society. As a public folklorist, Skillman has curated eleven exhibitions. She recorded and produced a CD compilation and teacher’s study guide of 16 different performing groups in Pennsylvania; six additional recordings of individual traditional performing groups; and Now That’s a Good Tune, a recording of 14 old-time fiddlers in Missouri. Now That’s a Good Tune, received two Grammy nominations in 1989, one for Best Traditional Folk Recording and one for Best Liner Notes. Other credits include serving as sound recordist and folklife consultant for Mone’s Skirt, a documentary film about the importance and beauty of traditional Lao weaving in the United States and in Laos. She has published articles about Southeast Asian textiles, old time fiddling, cultural conservation planning, and public folklore research in numerous publications.

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