Thursday, May 25, 2017

Meryll Levine Page - Memorial Day 2017: Why Remember?

Meryll Levine Page served on the board of Minnesota Humanities Center from 2004-2012. Following her tenure on the board, she served as a consultant, drawing on her thirty-nine years of teaching experience. Meryll also blogs at: MoreJewishLuck.com Together with her sister, Leslie Levine Adler, Meryll is the author of the nonfiction work, Jewish Luck: A True Story of Friendship, Deception and Risky Business.

I am conflicted about war. To me some wars seem justified; others do not. I am not conflicted, however, about war memorials. Whenever I travel, I’m drawn to war memorials. Some are monumental like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and others are modest like the simple obelisks with inscribed names found in small villages throughout Canada and Europe.

I’ve heard the claim that by building monuments and setting aside a day each May to memorialize our war dead we celebrate war. I don’t agree. War memorials make us confront a very uncomfortable reality—that the cost of war is very high, not only for those who died and suffered, but also for their families.

Phil Ochs’s lyrics always play through my head when I stand before a war memorial. He wrote:
“It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all.”
Ochs’s question hangs in the air whenever conflict is possible—is a war and the death of soldiers and civilians worth it? That’s a question worth pondering before we enter another war. To negotiate the future, we need to reflect upon the past.

Walking the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol, you’ll encounter a collection of war memorials that bear witness to the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers and their families. Some of the memorials may upset you, but they will also impel you to reflect. “I do not need to be told to remember,” writes Veteran Brian Humphreys. Many of us, however, do need to be told to remember.

The Minnesota Humanities Center has been helping all of us remember through its many programs focused on Veterans. Veterans’ Voices brings together Veterans in dialogue with each other and with literature through shared inquiry. I was privileged to write curricula focused on the memorials at the Minnesota State Capitol Mall, which are available to all at no cost via the Humanities Center’s website.

The humanities enable all of us to engage with the meaningful questions of our lives—why we remember the past, why we go to war, how we, as a society, treat our Veterans. Through civil discourse and a shared examination of literature, history, and the arts, together, we can tackle fundamental questions and begin to understand each other.

This Memorial Day, I encourage you to listen to Veterans’ voices. Take the time to visit a war memorial, drive along Victory Memorial Parkway, listen to the strain of ”Taps,” visit a museum, read a poem or book, or watch a film. Pausing to remember by engaging with arts, literature, and history can help us to build a more thoughtful future.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Jennifer Tonko - Building Water Relationships through Stories

Jennifer Tonko is the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Program Officer for Community Engagement and Traveling Exhibits

Over the last two years, the Humanities Center has been exploring the connection between the humanities and water through a partnership called We Are Water MN. The first phase of this partnership, where we shared the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street exhibit, Water/Ways, with six greater Minnesota communities is now over. We did some tremendous things. We worked as a group of five statewide agencies to build a complementary exhibit, We Are Water MN, that tells Minnesota’s water stories collaboratively through personal narratives, historical materials, and scientific information, and more than 7,000 people came to see it. We helped host sites build and strengthen relationships with 125 organizations in and around their communities. We presented about the partnership to about 500 people.

Last October my colleague, Britt Gangeness (from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), and I were invited to speak at a meeting of the Basin Alliance for the Lower Mississippi in Minnesota (BALMM) to make one of these presentations. Whenever we present we strive to do a few things: remind our audience that we’re in an indigenous place, give the participants a chance to reflect on and share their own relationships with water, and to help them experience the We Are Water MN partnership by actually doing our work with them—instead of just talking at them. We do this primarily through story.

This BALMM meeting was a pivot point for me, because it’s where I learned to tell my own water stories. When we do these presentations, we always share some of the wonderful stories that our professional interviewers have gathered. (You should look at them too; you can find them all at http://arcg.is/2hue8lL. Some of my favorites are the stories of Jim Rock, Emily Buermann, Sally Hausken, and Becky and Don Waskosky—but there are lots of good ones!) Then we ask people to reflect on what they heard and tell some of their water stories. Because I’m usually the one asking the questions, I don’t often share my own stories. But this time was different. I shared the story of when my dad and I got his truck stuck in deep mud at Dunbar Slough in Iowa when I was visiting home during one of my college summers.

It was one of those August days where even breathing makes you sticky, and we were four miles from home, three miles from my grandparents’ house. We walked and walked through the cotton batting air hoping that someone might drive by (which they never did). Then we came to the artesian well in the ditch that he and his brothers knew about from their childhood explorations on this same road. We climbed through the prickly grass and drank the cold, clear water—and it was the best water I’ve ever had! Sharing this story reminded me of my own relationships with water: visiting one of my special places from childhood, a love-hate relationship with humid Iowa summers, the refreshment and life that is the water we drink. This kind of exercise in reminding and reflecting is exactly how the humanities help shape the conversations that are happening about water right now. Sharing this story also built my relationship with the people from BALMM in the room—they learned a little bit about why I love the work that I do and saw the world from my perspective as they listened to me.

Even though the partnership is called We Are Water MN it could just as easily have been called We Are Story—hat tip to Mona Smith with Allies: media/art for making this connection for me. It has been my great honor to hear many Minnesotans’ water stories and to step into their hearts for those moments. I carry those stories with me now and they affect the choices I make every day. People here have a deep relationship to this place and to the water that shapes it and sustains us. I’m looking forward to learning more from people in additional communities throughout Minnesota. Looking ahead to phase two, we are hoping to engage a new group of eight host communities, where we can continue to learn from and amplify Minnesotans’ personal experiences with water in this place that we call home. If you think your community would be a good fit for this community-building exhibit, please let me know by reaching out to me: jennifer@mnhum.org.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jason T. Garcia - The Humanities: Our Ideas, Values, and Beliefs

Jason Garcia is the Program Officer for the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Veterans’ Voices program. As a 21-year Army Veteran and retiree, Jason is committed to serving our nation. His status as a combat Veteran, with first-hand understanding of the challenges and opportunities of transitioning from military life, makes him a welcome addition to the Humanities Center’s team and well-positioned to lead the Humanities Center’s Veterans’ Voices program.

For 21 years, I traveled the world as a soldier. Along my journey, I was exposed to countless conflicts of ideas, values, and beliefs. I witnessed the terrible destructive capacity of humans when diplomacy failed, and dwelt in locations of unimaginable dark desolation. When I reflect on my journey, I ponder the eternal question—Why? Why did I willingly place myself in harm’s way? Why did I voluntarily endure such hardships? Why did I expose my mind, body, and spirit to such hostilities? On an individual level, I relate to the humanities as a way of exploring those very personal and deeply emotional questions. As a member of the human collective, I think the humanities have the potential to allow us to transcend those conflicts in ideas, values, and beliefs.

The humanities allow us to experience different ideas, influence us to evaluate our values, and inspire us to challenge our own beliefs. They help us to understand one another by facilitating open-mindedness and illuminating culture, and empower us to share our individual experiences so that we may discover our commonalities. Artists like the renowned painter Francisco de Goya put pigment to canvas to expose man’s inhumanity, and the writings of spiritual leaders such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama provide insight into timeless cultural traditions of compassion. They have used the humanities to illustrate the full spectrum of our human potential. Throughout human history, the humanities have opened our minds and eyes to the world around us and have taught us to be teachable. The humanities relate to the issues of our current times by providing us with a means to explore the enduring question of what it means to be human.

“The arts and humanities are vastly more important in troubled times.” - Jim Leach

The Global War on Terrorism has been waging for over 15 years and has resulted in civil unrest and misunderstanding within our society. Today we are more disconnected from one another than ever before. As one soldier among a U.S. contingent of over 2 million troops, I often feel that disconnect and experience a deep longing to be understood. For I am a soldier, but I am a person too. I long to discover the differences and commonality among my civilian contemporaries. How does a civilian citizen experience our fight against terrorism and how do they see me? I yearn for an opportunity to express my story and I hope that the experiences of my comrades are not left unheard. I find faith in the humanities; for they are a means of expression to share how we individually experience the issues of our times. They are a podium from which to freely share our personal experiences and give us each a voice to whisper wind-gently or roar lion-loudly. Ultimately though, the humanities allow us to better understand each other’s ideas, values, and beliefs and “focus on what unites us, not divides us”.