Thursday, December 17, 2015

Shelby Hadley - Women Veterans: Changing the Definitions of Military Service

Shelby Marie Hadley is a Minnesota Army National Guard Veteran who was deployed twice as an Air Traffic Controller—Bosnia in 2003 and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in 2008. She is involved in the St. Cloud area Veteran community and serves as Peer Mentor with Wounded Warrior Project and on the advisory board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota. Shelby shared her military story by performing in The Telling Project’s play Telling: Minnesota 2015 at the Guthrie Theater. Shelby continues to give back to her community through volunteer work with Veterans service organizations and committees and projects advocating for Veterans, military service members, and their families.

Back in September, I mentioned on social media that I was participating in a 12-mile ruck march for military suicide awareness and prevention. In response to that, I had a friend reach out wanting to participate as well. However Carly is more than just any old friend; she is an Army battle buddy. I served with her in the Army and deployed to Bosnia with her in 2003-2004.

As Carly and I were walking the 12-mile route, she told me that some of her co-workers were surprised to hear that she would be doing this walk because she had never shared with them that she served in the Minnesota Army National Guard. Carly said, “I joined the military to get out of Aitkin. It really wasn’t a big deal”. This made me curious about how other female service members I served with felt about their service.

In 2003 Carly, Jamie, Linnea, and I deployed to Bosnia. We were young women, each with a different story but also the same story. These women are the only ones that know what it feels like to be at that place and time with me and also be a female.

Linnea shared with me, “I’m less comfortable with the whole Veteran thing. I don’t feel right with that title—deployment or not—not when it’s the same title given to my uncle who spent two years in Vietnam.”

When my two youngest children first met Jamie at a birthday party, I wanted to kick myself afterwards because of the way I had introduced her to them. I said, “Kids, this is Jamie, a former co-worker of mine.” I should have said, “Kids, this is my sister-in-arms, and I had the honor to serve and deploy with her while in the military”.

Why did I talk about my military service during that 12-mile ruck march I shared with Carly? For the longest time I had a hard time seeing myself as a Veteran. I imagined, like the community around us, a more typical (male) rendering of a Veteran. I remember not using the word Veteran specifically, and would instead say dismissively that I had served in the military. Even to this day, sometimes I still have to push myself to say, “I’m a Veteran” after two deployments and nine years in the Minnesota Army National Guard. The more I say it out loud, the prouder I feel of my service, and I know in my head and heart that this is a lasting part of my identity.

When we as women Veterans personally struggle with the perception of being a ‘Veteran’ and are unable to identify ourselves as military Veterans, how can we expect others to include us in their definition of Veterans? This is the first step in identifying the stigma we place on ourselves. All of our service looks different, but it is in no way less regardless of if we are men or women. We still served, and I implore women Veterans to be proud of that service and help redefine the perception of a Veteran.

It comes down to the fact that I have a little girl. I want my daughter to hear my story and know that a Veteran can and does look like her mother.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Marian Hassan - A Nation of Bards: Sharing the Stories of Somalia

Marian Hassan is an empowering educator, consultant, and children’s picture book author. As an educator, Marian advises, mentors and trains lots of folks about areas in early childhood education, family literacy, program development, evaluation, and coaching. Lately, she has been speaking to dual language families and teachers about the importance of the home language to the development of the second language. As a writer, her love of literature began at an early age listening to relatives tell Somali tales, a natural backdrop of the rich oral culture of her native Somalia. She is the author of bilingual children's books Bright Star Blue Sky and Dhegdheer: A Scary Somali Folktale.

The other day, on one of my regular weekly visits to the local Washington County Library branch in Woodbury (a suburb east of St. Paul), I walked into the children’s section and spotted the purple sleeve of the cover of Dhegdheer in the pile of books waiting to be re-shelved. Dhegdheer, A Scary Somali Folktale, is a retelling of a beloved Somali folktale. I wrote it as one of four Somali bilingual books published by the Minnesota Humanities Center in 2007-2008. This pioneering project ensured that these classic folktales, which have entertained many generations and are part of Somalia’s rich oral tradition, are now available as high-quality picture books.

I was ecstatic to see Dhegdheer in that stack—but why was I feeling so elated?

Any writer might feel humbled and affirmed by the discovery of her book in the stack of returns, especially in this library that serves highly educated, well-read patrons. My rush of excitement, however, had more to do with my belief in the power of stories and the necessity of using diverse voices to expand our imaginations. I believe that through these things, words are capable of sparking greater relatedness via the “native language of the humanities.”

Stories have been enriching companions for me throughout my life, each time guiding me, showing me the way, and reminding me of who I am, where I come from, and why I am here on this earth. These are the deepest and the most essential questions we ask ourselves and seek to understand in our quest for meaning and purpose. These are also the very questions the rich oral tradition of Somali literature aims to answer.  

Somali literature is indeed majestic in its use of language. Somalis are themselves poetic and eloquent in expression. Richard Francis Burton, the19th century British explorer who visited the Somali Peninsula, in his book First Footsteps in East Africa, described Somalia as a “Nation of Bards.” He said:
“[The] country teems with poets... every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines - the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetic expressions...”
It is not in any way pretentious to describe Somalia as a “Nation of Poets,” as the Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence put it. Reciting a verse of poetry, or repeating a story told many times before, or sharing entertaining cultural riddles or proverbs, are common in everyday Somali conversations. The use of rich oral language in daily life has worked to convey meaning and connections in all facets of life. In fact, it was used instead of electronic and modern technologies like the telegram, telephone, TV, and the Internet. In that regard, literature was never the aesthetic experience for Somalis as it often is in western literature. Instead, it is an everyday necessity and delight, much the same as food and water.

The enriching stories shared through the Minnesota Humanities Center publications are ideal narratives to be used in classrooms. They promote the development of the home language, in oral and written forms, and the acquisition of the second language. They are also effective tools to engage preliterate parents in story sharing and book use to encourage overall positive language development outcomes.

Is it any wonder I had such a sense of pride and elation when I saw Dhegdheer in that stack of returns and knew that it had been out in the world sharing one of my stories?

Dhegdheer by Marian Hassan is part of the Humanities Center Somali Bilingual Book Project  and is available on the Humanities Center’s Absent Narrative Resource Collection as a free PDF or via as print-on-demand for $5.70 each along with four other Somali bilingual book titles.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Maria Asp - Change is Possible with Community

Maria Asp is the Program Director and a teaching artist with the Children’s Theatre Company’s Neighborhood Bridges program, where she partners with classroom teachers to use storytelling and theatre to teach Critical Literacy to inner city public school students.  As an actor, Maria has appeared in 22 productions with FRANK THEATRE as well as several independent films; she also plays and sings music. 

While participating in the 2014-15 Educators’ Institute offered by the Minnesota Humanities Center, I felt challenged, inspired, confused, and hopeful. What parts of my thinking were shut? What did I see as a fixed truth? Any change that I could possibly make within my teaching and artistic practices had to start with changes inside myself.

The Humanities Center provided us with a new lens to widen our thinking. How do we know what we “know to be true?” What is the process that cements these truths? What possibilities do I have for changing my thinking? What could cause those changes? If we are truly working for a more just world we have to believe that people, thinking, institutions, and systems can change. 

What is in my capacity to influence?

In the Children’s Theatre Company’s Neighborhood Bridges program, all of the managers, directors, and administrators are also teachers. We feel that it is critical for us to remain inside the fabric of public education to ensure that all programmatic decisions are made by people working in classrooms. 

During the 2014-2015 school year I was a teaching artist at Anishinabe Academy in Minneapolis. At the beginning of the year, I struggled. How was it possible that the techniques that had worked for me for 20 years were not working at this school? I could see how smart these students were—I needed to change my approach.

What were the other ways of knowing and being they were expressing? 

In the process of making art, you cannot know where you are headed or how you will get there. You have to set off, taking risks together, and trusting that the students will find the solutions. We had a break-through session the day we built puppets. The students moved with confidence through their experimentation; they were curious, exploring and working together, and thinking with their hands. Ida Downwind invited me to attend Language Table at the school on Monday evenings. Language Table was like nothing I had ever experienced. I was exposed to a different world through words, and I shared with my students what I was learning.

When I started sharing my curiosity about the students’ culture, our trust in each other started to shift.

I felt strongly that I wanted to share with the students some of the stories I had learned on the Humanities Center’s Bdote Field Trip. With the help and support of Ida, we created curriculum that told the Dakota perspective about Fort Snelling. The Bdote Memory Map and all of the online resources available through the Humanities Center were invaluable. When I told the story of Fort Snelling to the students, our discussions were profound. Together we pulled up the images of Fort Snelling from the Memory Map and talked about why these stories aren’t told and how it is our responsibility to tell them now.

Change is possible within the community.

At the end of the year when it was time for the students to choose what story they wanted to turn into a play, one of the students said, “We need to do the story about Fort Snelling, because there needs to be a play about us.” The other students agreed and on May 11, 2015, in a theatre filled with community members, the 4/5th grade class performed their story of the Fort Snelling field trip.

I am thankful for the resources and support that the Humanities Center provided. I am forever changed. It changed the way I looked at the world and the narratives I had been told as truths. The students helped me not to be afraid to tell these stories. If I can change, and that change can animate new curriculum for the Neighborhood Bridges program, if more people hear these absent narratives – maybe we can begin to make visible the systemic oppressions in our world. Through working with young people and listening to the community, we can change.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

The Minnesota Humanities Center wishes all of our blog readers a very happy Thanksgiving that is filled with meaningful time to reflect and connect with family, friends, and community.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sun Mee Chomet - A Seach for Meaning After the Paris Attacks

Sun Mee Chomet is a St. Paul-based actor, activist, and playwright. Upcoming in 2016, Sun Mee will be in Mu Performing Arts production of You for Me for You in the Dowling Studio (Feb. 19-March 6) and the Guthrie Theater's production of Harvey (April 9-May 15). She will be Assistant Directing the Guthrie's production of Disgraced (July 16-August 28). She is currently working on a new piece through a TCG Fox Fellowship called The Sex Show, exploring intimacy and sexual stereotypes in the Asian American community.

I am writing this in the wake of the attacks in Paris, France. Sitting and watching the news last night for hours, it sparked a familiar and unfortunate sensation. My body memory was taken back to the day I sat in a building on lock-down. I was in my final year of the N.Y.U. Graduate Acting Program. It was my first day of class and it was September 11, 2001.

My classmates and I all sat quietly, our hearts clasped with the unknown. Water bottles were brought into our classroom; then a television. We watched the World Trade Center towers come down, one and then the other a mile away from where we sat on the 5th floor of 721 Broadway. 

As actors, we are living and breathing vessels of the humanities. It is in moments of tragedy, of incomprehensible violence, that we are stopped in our tracks. On a cellular level, actors’ bodies instinctively attempt to digest how the world has just shifted forever. It immediately affects our life’s work. After all, actors are the players on the stage set to examine the human experience. We are assigned the task of portraying the unspeakable because that, too, is part of the human experience. What one human being does to another is part of the truth that actors commit themselves not only to shed light upon, but to embody completely.

Everything we do as artists can suddenly seem meaningless. After all, my biggest worry on September 10th was how would I secure a good agent and get new headshots. On September 11th, when we were finally permitted to leave the building, my worry shifted to giving blood. My friends and I walked to the blood bank, but were turned away. We were told that there weren’t enough survivors to require donations of blood. 

I was living in the East Village at the time, at 2nd  Avenue and 2nd Street. White dust lined the streets. Second Avenue was closed to the public to make it a throughway for fire trucks to get downtown. School was closed for the next week. Many of us tried contacting family in other states, but lines were jammed up for days. My classmates and I stayed in touch; yet it was an eerily quiet time.

A week passed and school was finally re-opened. An all-student meeting was called. Most of us sat there stone-faced. Zelda Fichandler (world-renowned theater maker and founder of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.), head of the Acting Program, sat quietly waiting, listening to the silent chaos of her students’ minds. My classmate, Darren, finally spoke, “I just don’t know what it’s all for…I mean what are we doing? We should be down there helping the firefighters. What is the point of acting now? It’s meaningless....” There was silent nodding in a room filled with fifty plus aspiring young actors at the cusp of their careers. 

I will never forget Zelda’s response. She said quietly, “The firefighters are doing their jobs. We are not trained to do what they do. We would be in their way. We must do what we have trained to do. The world will need to try to understand life again. They will need to heal. We, as artists, will help them to do that. The world needs us, just as they need the firefighters.”
That afternoon, we begrudgingly began rehearsals for The Three Sisters, a play by Anton Chekov. We continued rehearsing…amidst the din of sirens. We continued rehearsing…watching the firemen high up in their trucks, returning from downtown covered in white dust with ghostlike, stoic faces. We continued rehearsing…until one evening, we were interrupted by the sound of singing. We walked over to the window. The theater was directly across from a small church and the congregation was filing out into the street with lit candles, singing songs for the deceased. We all watched, crying and holding one another before our director encouraged us to continue rehearsing.

Zelda was right. People did come to the play to laugh and cry and to examine life with us. Towards the end of the play, as the youngest sister, Irina, each night I said the lines Chekov wrote in 1900: “The time will come, and everyone will know the meaning of all this, why there is all this suffering, and there won't be any mysteries, but meanwhile, we must go on living… we must work, we must work! …It's already autumn, soon it will be winter, the snow will fall, but I will be working, I will go on working…”

The audience wept with us, a few weeks after 9/11 and as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan began.

My heart goes out to Parisians. My heart also goes out to the thousands of innocent Syrian families that will now be turned away at immigration borders internationally. And, as an actor in search of truth, my heart is trying to wrap itself around the heart of a terrorist, an actual living and breathing human being who is so marginalized, so poverty-stricken, that in this moment in his/her life, violence and hatred seem like the only answer. It is not something I comprehend, but I can only begin to try. May the tides turn towards peace, I can only hope.

The offices of the Humanities Center will be closed the week of Thanksgiving, November 23-27. The Humanities Center will reopen at 8 am on Monday, November 30.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Shannon Gibney - What is ‘Black’ in #BlackLivesMatter? Uncovering the Politics of Identity in the American Present

Shannon Gibney lives, writes, and teaches in Minneapolis. Her creative and critical work has been published in a variety of venues, including in the anthologies Parenting as Adoptees and The Black Imagination: Science Fiction, Futurism, and the Speculative. Her young adult novel See No Color was published by Carolrhoda/Lerner Books in November 2015, and she is currently at work on a novel about African Americans who colonized Liberia in the 19th century.

In a recent forum on the fight for $15 minimum wage movement, #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza articulated some of the present tensions around “identity politics.”

Garza was impatient with the notion that 21st century black folks can talk about our racial identities without also talking about our class, gender, sexual, and other identities. She said, “There is space for us to fight along multiple dimensions at once. We don’t have to pick one. I don’t have to be a worker today, a queer person tomorrow, a woman tonight. I can be all of those things, all at once, hallelujah. …It’s not about identity politics. It’s about our lives. The very sanctity of our lives is at stake. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

If we take apart Garza’s statement, we see that she is arguing that “identity politics,” at least how it has been practiced up to now, requires us to embrace one social identity over others. This in turn presents a false sense of unity, since social identity is always complex. So, as black people, we are always and at once women, middle-class, American, and more.

But if this is, in fact, a social reality of identity, what about its political implications, especially considering that affinity groups such as people of color, queer folks, and women have all used notions of a unified social identity to move forward a politics of inclusion? Put another way, can the #BlackLivesMatter movement put forth its political demands effectively and successfully without a shared, although limited, notion of what it means to be “black”?

These are just some of the questions we will be considering at the next #UncoveringPublic session on “Identity Politics in the American Present.” The discussion will take place on Tuesday, November 17 at 7 pm, at the Minnesota Humanities Center and simultaneously on Twitter under the hashtag #UncoveringPublic.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Trista Matascastillo - Finding the True Meaning of Veterans Day

Trista Matascastillo served 16 years in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army National Guard. She currently serves as the Veterans’ Voices Program Officer with the Minnesota Humanities Center and as Chair of the Women Veterans Initiative, a non-profit advocating for equality and develops programming specific to the needs of women Veterans. Trista is a contributing author of “The Attorneys Guide to defending Veterans in Criminal Court” and has become a frequent blogger and public speaker. Trista was honored as the 2011 Woman Veteran of the Year. She and her husband Hector live in St. Paul with their five sons.

On the cusp of Veterans Day I am finding myself in deep contemplation about how and why we need to radically change the notion of that day in America. I’ve already seen the list of restaurants serving Veterans a “free meal” on my Facebook feed. I used to go to one of them for lunch on Veterans Day with a group of my colleagues. I stopped going because repeatedly I would be charged for my meal or denied the Veterans’ menu because it was “just for Veterans;” apparently my own documentation and identification card didn’t override the gender stereotypes or the general assumptions about who a Veteran is or isn’t.

My personal motivation, coupled with a larger need arising from the community, is the energy behind the Minnesota Humanities Center Veterans’ Voices Program. In 2014, we worked to pass legislation to declare October as Veterans’ Voices Month in hopes of encouraging educators to engage students in taking a deeper look at what it really means to be a Veteran during the month of October, prior to Veterans Day.

This year in early October, we gathered educators and Veterans together at the Humanities Center for an intensive weekend focused on curriculum to offer a teaching resource using literature that features Veterans’ stories and voices. But it was so much more than just a weekend around literature. What actually emerged was a true sense of community coming together; teachers from across the state, sitting next to Veterans, reading, talking, and learning from and with each other. It was truly amazing as Veterans and educators formed bonds and made connections with each other. There was a spirit of healing that wasn’t the intent but certainly was the result.

What we discovered more than anything is that we (me included) need to be and feel part of the community. We need to have our community not disengage from us as military members or Veterans, but instead we need to be welcomed back into the circle for the sake of us all.

If you are not already aware of the number, more than 23 Veteran suicides are reported every day. We have lost more Veterans to suicide than in combat. The mission of defending the country is so important that those who join resign themselves to the idea that they may die in the process. Military service is a deeply emotional commitment that is hard to understand if you haven’t made it.  The one thing that never crosses the minds of Veterans like me in making such a commitment is that once we leave our community we are practically forgotten. Returning to our “home” does not mean we are accepted back into the community.

There lies the problem. We leave the circle of community and are never really welcomed back into the circle. It is so isolating, so alienating, that it is literally killing us.

There are some who are doing very well in bringing us back into the fold, and Veterans are helping each other as best we can by building new communities and new groups. But, too often, America is just selling mattresses on Veterans Day.

I ask that this year on Veterans Day you make a commitment to not just say “Thank you for your service,” but to really welcome a Veteran back into your community. Get to know who the Veterans around you are and welcome them into the fold. It might be awkward at first, and that’s ok. We might not trust your intentions immediately, but keep trying. There are Veterans from every era and generation who are still standing outside the circle and dying at a rate of 23+ each day. And trust me…you’re going to like us!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Resources in Support of Veterans’ Voices Month

Did you know that October is Veterans’ Voices Month in Minnesota? Facilitated by the Minnesota Humanities Center and our partners, in May 2014 the Minnesota State Legislature passed a law by unanimous vote designating the entire month of October as Veterans’ Voices Month—with a focus on building public understanding of what it means to be a Veteran. The Humanities Center is creating resources to support Veterans’ Voices Month and a few are highlighted this week.

Veterans’ Voices Program Video
This video by Whirlygig Productions highlights the importance and impact of the Humanities Center’s Veterans’ Voices program, which began in 2013. The video features interviews with Veterans’ Voices Program Officer, Trista Matascastillo and 2014 Veterans’ Voices Awardees Brockton Hunter, Evan Tsai, and Richard Leonard.


Ampers Radio Partnership with the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Veterans’ Voices Program:
Ampers Radio recorded, and will offer for broadcast to its network of 16 diverse community radio stations from around Minnesota, a series of short audio stories from Veterans’ Voices Awardees and others from the Minnesota Veteran community—stories told in their own voices.


Veterans’ Voices Month Resources for Educators
This collection of online resources supports educators during Veterans' Voices Month and beyond. These materials capture the authentic stories and experiences of military members, Veterans, and their families; meet real needs of both military and non-military communities; reflect a diversity of experiences; and align with the mission of the Humanities Center.

[Learn more]

Coming Soon! Veterans’ Voices Literature Resource for Educators
Created in partnership with the Great Books Foundation, this evolving project uses the anthology Standing Down and other literary tools to support educators in cultivating a deeper understanding of military culture in the classroom. Selections from Standing Down include: A Journey Taken with My Son by Myrna E. Bein, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by William Butler Yeats, Perimeter Watch by Brian Turner, The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln, and The Things They Carried (selection) by Tim O’Brien to name a few.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

John Baker - Veterans’ Voices: A New Approach to Veterans’ Challenges

John Baker is a partner in the Baker Williams Law Firm located in Maplewood, MN. John represents Veterans and service members in the criminal justice system and with a variety of legal issues that are related to their military service, including Veterans’ preference and military law. John chaired the initiative to start Veterans Courts in Minnesota. Minnesota Lawyer named John as an Attorney of the Year in 2010 for this work. In addition, John is active at the legislature in writing legislation to benefit Minnesota Veterans. John is chair emeritus of the MSBA Military & Veterans Affairs Section. John retired from the United States Marine Corps after 22 years of service. He currently travels the country teaching law enforcement on how to deal with Veterans in crisis.

One of my favorite war correspondents is Sebastian Junger. During 2007-2008, he was embedded with an Army unit in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, which at that time was known as the ‘Deadliest Place on Earth.’ Junger and a photographer by the name of Tim Hetherington produced the award-winning documentary Restrepo, which was about the battles the soldiers fought in the Korengal Valley. Junger also wrote a book called War — an outstanding documentary and book.

In my work teaching law enforcement how to deal with Veterans in crisis, I had the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia two years ago for the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference. I had the privilege of giving a presentation to Police Chiefs from all around the country about our returning Veterans. I told them that we have our “Next Greatest Generation” of Veterans coming home from these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These young men and women have been through some of the best training in the world and have been tested on some of the toughest battlefields. Like the “Greatest Generation” that came home from World War II and built a nation, I told them this “Next Greatest Generation” is equally capable of coming home and becoming a generation of great police officers and public servants. Unfortunately I had more than one Chief come up to me after my presentation and say that they did not want to hire a Veteran because we all have PTSD and will be a liability to them. I came away from that conference more determined to help change that narrative.

Junger recently wrote an article for Vanity Fair about the challenges our Veterans face when they come home. His piece is called “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battle Field.” Among other things, Junger talks about the growing disconnect between Veterans and society. Junger has a call to action in his article. He says that as a society we need to hear Veterans’ stories, and we need to hear that they do not all have PTSD and that they are not all broken. In other words, we need to change the narrative.

Here in Minnesota, there is an organization that has taken up that challenge. In 2013, the Minnesota Humanities Center introduced the Veterans’ Voices Award — part of its Veterans’ Voices programming — which recognizes and gives voice to those Veterans who served and have come home to continue to serve. But more importantly, this Award provides them an opportunity to share their stories and create a connection between Minnesotans and those that have served. It is helping to change that misguided narrative many people have of our returning Veterans. In amplifying the authentic voices of these Veterans, a more complete narrative emerges and creates space for the “Next Greatest Generation” to realize their greatness after coming home.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Odia Wood-Krueger - Places That Hold Magic Are All Around Us

Odia Wood-Krueger is originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and now calls Minnesota home. She is a District Program Facilitator for Minneapolis Public Schools in the Indian Education department. In her spare time she can be found cooking, exploring, or crafting. She and her husband Tim recently started their own bicycle company called Advocate Cycles.

My husband, Tim, and I have been on vacation for the month of July. We have meandered from Minneapolis to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago in northwest British Columbia. Living with no agenda has given us time to enjoy simple pleasures like drinking tea and reading magazines, not to mention, resting our heads wherever the spirit takes us.

One of Tim’s favorite magazines is filled with stories of travel afar. In the current edition, two sightseers travel to Mongolia and, at first glance, I was excited to read of their adventures, since Mongolia has been on our bucket list. While I’m sure the writers had good-intentions, I felt a rub at their reference to Khuvsgul Lake and how the locals “believed” it to be their mother. The inability of the writers to take this as fact sent a red flag up for me. Shouldn’t we as travelers be willing to have our worldview lens challenged? Who are we to journey thousands of miles to question the traditional knowledge of the peoples we share our experiences with?

This morning we awoke on the east beach of Haida Gwaii. As we ventured back to civilization, we neared the place of origin for the Haida peoples. It is at Rose Spit – in the most northeastern tip of the archipelago – where Raven tapped on the giant clamshell and Haida climbed out. While we weren’t joined by abnormally large clamshells or ravens for that matter, it didn’t lessen the reverence of the place. You see, there is magic all around us, assuming we’re open and willing to accept it; accepting someone else’s narrative as fact doesn’t make our own views less valid.

Where is a place that holds magic for you? How has learning someone else’s traditional knowledge made your experience more meaningful? These are questions you might want to take some time to answer for yourself wherever you happen to be on your earth travels.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Jack Rice - Who Do War Memorials Represent?

Jack is a criminal defense attorney, former CIA officer, journalist, and storyteller. He is unique across the entire state of Minnesota and the U.S. as the only criminal defense attorney who is also a former Central Intelligence Agency Officer as well as a former prosecuting attorney. He has a national reputation and can be seen frequently on MSNBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, and other networks across the country. He is also a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He also hosts his own radio show.

So who do war memorials represent anyway? What are we supposed to think when we look at them? Or are they just about waving flags and pounding chests?

He was born in 1911 so that makes him one hundred and three years old. How is that even possible? More than double my age. What can he remember? Will he understand me? And it’s not as if he has led this quiet sedate life without trauma. Far from it. As I walk into the room to sit down with this man, he immediately sits up taller in his chair and stares me straight in the face with a look that seems to say; I know who I am and where I come from.

Staff Sergeant Walter Ortman served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1946, and he surprises me. As I ask him about his life, I watch him change before my eyes. As he talks about his experiences during the war, I watch the years drop away until all I see is a young man sitting in from of me talking about something that happened a couple of weeks earlier instead of a series of memories dating back more than seventy years. He talks about being lucky and surprised. About how throughout the war, he never killed anybody, never shot a weapon at anybody nor even had to aim it at a human being. Instead, he and his men saved the lives of downed pilots and their crews by the thousands. I sit dumbfounded.

Sometimes, when we look at war memorials, we think of the men and women who served as icons, as heroes, almost as super humans. And yet, while some of their feats were extraordinary, we frequently forget that these were just normal men and women who frequently faced impossible circumstances and had to find it in themselves to do and be more. This may sound surprising but it strikes me as wrong to see people who have served as super-human because it makes their contributions seems inevitable – that's just what super humans do, right? But they were not and are not. Those who serve are our friends, our parents, our children, our neighbors. They are us. And that's who these memorials represent.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Evan Tsai - Veterans’ Voices Month Is On the Rise in Minnesota

Evan C. Tsai is a criminal defense attorney and a recipient of the 2014 Veterans’ Voices Award in the “On the Rise” category. He served as a United States Marine from 1994 to 1999.

We recently celebrated the 2015 Veterans’ Voices awardees at the September 11th Veterans’ Voices Award Ceremony, and Veterans' Voices Month begins today--October 1st. I was recently reminded of what Veterans’ Voices means and looks like when at the Ramsey County Veterans Treatment Court. I was immediately struck by the diversity of our local Veterans population and how that is reflected in the participants of the court: Vietnam-era Vets, Desert Storm-era Vets, OIF/OEF Vets, and everything in between. Ramsey County's Vet Court includes women and men, Asian, Hispanic, and Black Veterans. Our court serves gay Veterans equally with straight Veterans. And each of my clients has a story to tell about their service. I enjoy learning each of those stories, and I share them as often as I can. I am my clients’ lawyer, after all. If they’ll let me, I’ll share some of those stories in future blog posts.

We have an obligation as Americans to acknowledge the service and sacrifice of our fighting women and men. Our obligation exists regardless of political, philosophical, or religious preference. Certainly, our obligation transcends our belief of whether service to our country is even an important component to our society. But most that do choose to acknowledge our nation’s warriors, do so by participating in causes that provide help they think Veterans need. That’s not to say that those causes are not beneficial, but acknowledging a Veteran’s contribution to our safety and security should be more meaningful than just displaying a bumper sticker. We should make every effort to listen and pay attention to what our Veterans have to say. To our benefit as Minnesotans, our lawmakers (through the tireless efforts of the Humanities Center) decreed October to be Veterans' Voices Month. We have an entire month dedicated to meeting our obligation!

During October (and, frankly, each and every month of the year), the Humanities Center celebrates that diversity by sharing those stories, through art, performance, and the written and spoken word. Each story expands our understanding of why we serve. Each Veteran expands our picture of who Veterans are, both in the present and in the past. And each story, each participant becomes forever connected in the network of Veterans, Veteran-advocates, artists, and citizens. They are a congealing force that celebrates inclusion through a wondrous variety. I am privileged to be part of that.

I've chosen to acknowledge the diversity of Veterans through a collaborative project between local high school educators, other Veterans, and literary scholars through the Veterans' Voices Literature Workshop for Educators. This initiative seeks to change the conventional understanding of Veterans by providing grade 6-12 educators with resources and discussion materials around a collection of literary works by Veterans. Students can contemplate their own perspective of who a Veteran is by critically engaging with these materials alongside their classmates. The collaboration was an enriching opportunity, and it helped me see how written work can speak to me and rekindle memories of my service. I want to personally thank the group of educators and Veterans who convened to design these resources and materials, in particular: Captain James “J.A” Moad, USAF; Eden Bart; Anna Newcombe; Rebecca Biel; and Joe Pahr. If you are an educator who believes in our collective obligation to acknowledge our fighting women and men, please learn more about Veterans’ Voices educator resources at the Humanities Center’s Absent Narrative Resource Collection.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Somali Bilingual Book Project

In 2006, the Minnesota Humanities Center, in collaboration with members of the Minnesota Somali community, launched the Somali Bilingual Book Project. Our shared goal was to ensure the community had high-quality authentic resources that represent multiple voices. The project culminated with the publication of four traditional Somali folktales, using both English and Somali, as well as dual-language audio and video recordings. The books, audio/video recordings, and reading guides are all available for free download on our Absent Narrative Resource Collection.

The Lion's Share - Qayb Libaas
Retold by Said Salah Ahmed, Illustrated by Kelly Dupre.

This traditional Somali folktale tells an animal fable about the misuse of power. The animals all work together to kill a camel, but then the lion comes and demands that they give him a share. Although he did none of the work, he ends up with most of the camel, prompting the other animals to say, "The lion's share is not fair."

Dhegdheer, A Scary Somali Folktale
Retold by Marian A. Hassan, Illustrated by Betsy Bowen.

In this hair-raising cautionary tale from Somalia, the Hargega Valley is plagued by the monstrous Dhegdheer, a witch who gobbles up anyone unlucky enough to cross her path. A widow and her young son try to escape her. Will they be Dhegdheer's next meal or will their virtue save them and help bring an end to Dhegdheer's reign of terror?

Wiil Waal: A Somali Folktale
Retold by Kathleen Moriarty, Illustrated by Amin Amir. Somali translation by Jamal Adam.

When a wise Somali leader asks the men in his province to bring him the part of a sheep that best symbolizes what can divide men or unite them as one, most present him with prime cuts of meat. But one very poor man's daughter has a different idea. In this clever folktale, a father reluctantly follows his daughter's advice and has astonishing results.

The Travels of Igal Shidad - Safarada Cigaal Shidaad
Retold by Kelly Dupre, Illustrated by Amin Amir. Somali translation by Said Salah Ahmed.

The figure of Igal Shidad is a staple in Somali folklore. Like many Somali people, he and his family were nomadic herders of camel and sheep. Thousands of funny stories were told of Igal because even though he was a wise man, he was also known as a coward. Igal's unreasonable fears caused him much trouble, but with cleverness and faith, he always managed to find solutions to his problems. In this story, Igal walks the drought-stricken Somali landscape, searching for a better home for his family and animals, asking for Allah's guidance along the way. As he confronts obstacles, both real and imagined, he discovers his prayers can be answered without his even realizing.

These books are all part of the Humanities Center’s online Absent Narratives Resource Collection – a searchable database of ready-to-use videos, educator guides, and readings that will support efforts to include the ‘missing stories’ of various communities in your classroom or workplace. Most items included in the collection have been created or developed by the Humanities Center and its partners.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sushmita Hodges, PhD - My Absent Narratives Journey: Bringing Human Connections Into Focus

Dr. Sushmita Hodges currently teaches courses in world history (10th grade) and global issues (senior elective) at St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul. During her 15 years at SPA Hodges has advised student groups including Women in Learning and Leadership and Intercultural Club and Common Ground (affinity group for students of color). She has also held adjunct positions at Hamline University teaching the South Asian immigrant experience as well as courses for the Asian Studies department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. Hodges’s focus as a historian has been to develop curriculum that engages students in critical thinking and problem solving skills through relevant collaborative projects.

As a historian and globalist who has taught for 25 years, both in higher and secondary education, I deeply value and support the humanities as a core aspect of a liberal arts education, and believe they can help build a globally competent society. Regardless of whether students pursue science, technology, or business, the humanities provide the tools necessary for individuals to relate to each other in the real world. The humanities are the window into the past, present, and future from which we can learn and build a better, more sustainable and equitable future. I believe – both on a personal and a professional level – it is the humanities that provide a cross-cultural context to recognize the importance of how all humanity is inter-connected.

Over the course of the last three years the various professional opportunities that the Minnesota Humanities Center has afforded me have strengthened and informed my work as a historian. Starting with their foundational workshop, Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives, to participating in the year-long Absent Narratives Collaborative, utilizing the Digital Suitcase curriculum resources on human trafficking, taking part in the Humanities Center’s Educators’ Institute pilot program, and finally, collaborating on the development of  curriculum resources for use with the Blues Vision anthology of African American writing in Minnesota, the Humanities Center has raised my consciousness exponentially about the real impact of history on marginalized communities at the local level. I have always—in my curriculum development and teaching of world history—been aware of the dominant Eurocentric narrative and have made a concerted effort to teach with a focus on voices in the periphery such as the working class, women, indigenous people, slaves, and the global south. However my association with the Humanities Center, and continued work with the absent narratives pedagogy, has further helped me fine tune and hone in those skills.

Throughout writing lessons for my 10th grade world history classes I am conscious of the power of words and descriptions of the historical narrative. I see the importance of teaching students to question and challenge the master dominant narrative as they engage in this writing exercise. Teaching about the modern period in history I constantly struggle with trying to help students be open to new ways of knowing and being that are different from mainstream cultural norms. This teaching process frequently involves critically examining how the idea of “modernity” is only defined through the lens of Western values. For example, I have shown students how the “colonial enterprise” flourished as a result of the exploitation and oppression of the colonized peoples which resulted in the demise of traditional cultural practices, quashed by European ruling class practices. Once students can attribute the “rise of the west” to the resources, labor, and land of the colonized, and not merely to the prowess of the colonizer, they are able to begin opening their hearts and minds to an honest narrative. Understanding a more multi-dimensional narrative makes room and space for communities and groups whose voices have been historically silenced.

For students to gain insight and build empathy it is important to develop authentic projects that are inquiry-based and include a problem solving component. Teaching students the framework of grassroots movements, how to campaign and resolve conflicts as well as build a future based on equity and justice. To arrive at this juncture I emphasize the value of dialogue and conversation rather than simple debate. The absent narratives method has taught me to move beyond deconstruction and “healthy skepticism” to understand and embrace experiences that have been historically undermined. It is important to recognize not just adoption of the additive approach to absent narratives but also being willing to accept the value of different worldviews.

As a teacher in the humanities it is my responsibility to create opportunities for students to experience and feel the historical narrative from the disenfranchised perspective through research projects and other relevant activities. This approach in the long run will help build global and cultural competencies among students and enable the creation of a more collaborative, sustainable world.

Personally, for me, the absent narratives journey has empowered me not to just acknowledge wounds inflicted through the dominant master narrative, but through telling the whole story, begin the healing process that is long overdue.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Louis Goldstein - Who Is Really a Hero?

Louis Goldstein, a Veteran of the Army Reserve from Hutchinson, has been described as a “pillar in the community” for Veterans returning wounded from a tour of duty. While under fire on a deployment in Afghanistan, he suffered Traumatic Brain Injury and was awarded the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and an Army Commendation Medal. Goldstein works with the Wounded Warrior Project in the Twin Cities, where he is the Alumni Manager and helps those suffering from traumatic injury in wars since 9/11. He is also a 2014 Veterans’ Voices Awardee.

Recently, while traveling, I was approached by a gentleman who asked if I had served in the military (I was wearing a t-shirt that had a military theme). I stated that I have, and still do continue to serve, thinking that he would thank me for my service and be on his way. This was not the case. He did thank me, but added that he thought what I was doing was heroic. This gentleman knew nothing more of my service other than that I had served in the military in some capacity and in some way, shape, or form still serve our country.

While I appreciated his kind words and his appreciation for my service, the term heroic struck me. I have come to despise the term hero for its overuse in regards to military service. I do not think of myself as a hero and many -- if not all -- military service members who I have spoken to about the term hero would say the same. There is nothing implicitly heroic about serving in the military. This over use of the word hero has diluted its meaning and purpose to the point that we as a society cannot truly identify real heroes.

As an active participant in the Wounded Warrior Project and a 2014 Veterans’ Voices Awardee, I have witnessed many heroic actions. Tomorrow, on September 11th, the Minnesota Humanities Center will again celebrate and honor Minnesota Veterans for their service to this country and continued leadership in their communities. These Veterans may well be heroes, but not just because they served in the military, but because they continue to work for the good of their communities and those who rely on them in their own hometowns.

The next time you feel yourself wanting to call a Veteran or a member of the military a hero, stop and ask yourself, why? What is it that makes someone a hero? Does the Veteran or member of the military you are addressing possess those qualities, or do you just feel compelled by society to use that word?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Marya Morstad - Art & Humanities: A Timely Collaboration

Marya Morstad is the longtime host of the weekly arts interview program, “Art Matters” on KFAI-FM Community Radio. She produced the award-winning documentary, “Art and Spirit Matters: Arts and Religion in the Twin Cities” as well as the program “Art is Patriotic: Artists Respond to the Republican National Convention,” and has produced 80 audio portraits of Minnesota artists for Marya has also worked for Mizna’s Twin Cities Arab Film Festival and for the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

A suggested question for a guest blogger for the Minnesota Humanities Center is: How do you personally define, think about, or relate to the concept of “humanities.” When I researched the humanities, I found many defining concepts: The study of human culture. Self-expression. Significance. Meaning. The disciplines of memory and imagination. The immeasurable. The pursuit of ideas. The heart and soul of the matter. The microcosm of life. Probing what it means to be human. Answering the question: Why are we here?

As the host and producer of the weekly arts talk program, Art Matters on KFAI-FM Community Radio (Wednesdays at 7pm), I curate conversations and engage others in dialogue about arts and culture. In over two decades of producing my program, I estimate that I have conducted over 3,500 radio interviews. I keep asking questions, but I know less about the mysteries of human imagination and creativity than I ever did, although I never tire of this exploration. I recently read that the humanities offer clues, but never a complete answer. I have never defined what I was doing as the work of the humanities, but it is nothing if not that. I respect that it is not easy baring your soul on the stage, or in a memoir, or on the big screen. But that artistic self-disclosure can provide more meaning, insight, empathy, and understanding to the audience, which in turn enriches the cultural fabric of society as a whole.

Several years ago I produced an audio documentary, “Art and Spirit Matters: Art and Religion in the Twin Cities,” an interfaith, cross-cultural look at matters of art and spirit, with topics ranging from Gospel to Goddess worship, Islamic installation art to Jewish Sephardic music and the preservation of the Tibetan sacred and folk arts. Ironically, in some of the cultures of the artists I interviewed, there was no word for “art;” it is not a separate endeavor, but part of everyday life. One of the artists I featured was the poet J. Otis Powell‽ (the interrobang—a punctuation mark combining both a question and an exclamation point—at the end of his name is worthy of an interview on its own). I told him that I appreciated delving deeply into the material and producing a documentary that was not time-sensitive, but more timeless in nature. Ever the prodding mentor and wordsmith, he countered: “Timely!”

I also produced an audio documentary called “Art is Patriotic.” In politically charged times, conversations of art and culture offer a soothing balm and open the path for dialogue. If you talk about politics, it can be polarizing, but if you talk about art and politics, you may be closer to having a meaningful discussion about how policy affects society. In my work for Mizna’s Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, we screened scores of films from 22 different nations ranging from The United Arab Emirates to the Gaza Strip in Palestine to North Africa during the Arab Spring. The humanities manifest in the film arts though the authentic lens of independent filmmakers and allow one to deconstruct and reconstruct images we are fed in the media, by connecting directly with everyday people.

Often, artists can measure the temperature of a society by reflecting back through music, visual art, theater, and other art forms what we are collectively witnessing and experiencing. They can be creative visionaries and truth-tellers, and the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. Art and cultural expression can be beautiful, provocative, humanizing, and soulful.

What are the humanities to me? Timeless and Timely!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dakota and Ojibwe Educator Guides and Virtual Exhibit Tour Now Available Online

In a partnership with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, a group of Dakota and Ojibwe scholars and educators developed educator guides that enhance the Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations exhibit content. This traveling exhibit - now available online - focuses on treaties between Dakota and Ojibwe Nations and the U.S. Government. Each guide includes teacher background, student readings and activities, vocabulary, and suggested resources.

Guides explore:
  • A Deep Connection to Place
  • An Ojibwe Narrative: Reconnections to Place
  • Ways of Learning: An Ojibwe Childhood
  • The Chippewa National Forest
  • Traditional Anishinaabe Economy
  • Treaty Economy
  • We Have Always Been Sovereign Nations
In August 2010, a resolution creating a unique partnership of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the Minnesota Humanities Center, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. was approved by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and made it possible for development of the Why Treaties Matter traveling exhibit as an educational tool for Minnesota audiences.

Educator guides are available at
I learned a lot about the Dakota and Ojibwe's past, how they were impacted by the settlers coming here, not just by how the settlers were impacted by them. I also learned about the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples' traditions and cultures, and how they interpret the world. - 9th grade student, Eden Prairie High School

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Marty Case - Public Discourse and the Need for Civil Engagement

Marty Case works with Allies: Media/Art, researching the networks of people and businesses that represented the U.S. in treaties with American Indian groups. His work challenges the “master narrative” that shapes many assumptions about U.S. history and identity. He has also worked as Director of Development and Planning for a state-wide arts organization, and as writing and planning consultant to 45 widely diverse organizations in the fields of art, culture, education, social service, religion, and politics.

As the long Presidential debate season gets underway, proving as always that our political system is broken, I’m reminded of a newspaper article that appeared in 1848. Anyone who thinks that contentiousness in politics is a modern problem might consider how the abolitionist press described a Presidential candidate back then:
Lewis Cass is one of the most miserable demagogues alive. Gross in person – almost idiotic in visage – narrow in intellect – shriveled in soul – vulgar in taste – treacherous by instinct – crawling in his ambition – devious in his course – truckling to his superiors – mean among his equals – domineering to his inferiors – without one particle of frank manhood in his composition.
Public discourse in America has always been contentious. But has contentiousness ever been effective? The most famous political debates in our history, between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, did absolutely nothing to solve the big issue of their day: slavery. In fact, the debates helped to fence opposing camps in intractable positions that resulted in a bloody Civil War.

In a large country with a diverse population, can there be a public arena in which, a) everyone has a voice, and b) solutions – and more importantly, problems – are effectively stated and considered?

The Minnesota Humanities Center is currently hosting a three-part discussion of public discourse in America. Each session includes a group of participants in the room at the Humanities Center and also a simultaneous public “Twitter Town Hall” (#uncoveringpublic) event. The first session was held in July, and the final session will be  September 1st. In these salons, a great group of insightful people with diverse perspectives (ranging from the local to the global) is considering how public discourse works, and how it might work better.

The first two sessions have indicated to me that mutually respectful, intelligent conversations like these are themselves part of the solution to improving how we tackle big issues. The challenge, of course, is to incorporate more perspectives into public discourse on a larger scale, where the stakes are highest: Where and when is violence sanctioned? How are material resources acquired, maintained, and distributed? Beyond material measurements, how is the well-being of our society and its members defined and nurtured? Who gets to weigh in on these (and other) questions with any meaningful chance of being heard?

The political and historical realities that shape the answers to these questions are present in the room during our discussions. The roles of the mass media, historical oppression and trauma, and master narratives in shaping public discourse are topics on the table. And while nobody thinks the answers to these large questions will be finalized in six hours of conversation, my sense is that everyone agrees on the importance of discussions like this as part of a larger conversation, part of any movement to build a more just and equitable public arena.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

David O'Fallon - Notes from the Road: Lessons Learned at Music/Art Educator Conferences

David O’Fallon, Ph.D., is the President of the Minnesota Humanities Center. His vision for the Humanities Center is to transform education and find common ground to renew and strengthen our democracy through key work with partners. Prior to taking over as President of the Humanities Center, Dr. O’Fallon served as President of the MacPhail Center for Music, Executive Director of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, and Director of Arts in Education for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to spend a week with educators in Tampa/St. Petersburg and then in Orlando, Florida.

Let’s start with this premise: a school is first of all, a human community, a gathering of people, young and old. It is not a system to be ruthlessly made more efficient.

In the Museum of Fine Art in St. Petersburg, some 30 art and music educators gathered. People who carry the arts in the schools of Pinellas County and across Florida — caring for students in a highly stressed system — find openings for imagination, for the creative spirit, and for the capacities, skills, and passions of life that go beyond the exams.

The Tampa/St. Pete group tallied up their years of experience; over 350 years in that room — 350 years of learning, of educating young people in their charge as they dealt with a system of education undergoing years of stress. How many young people? In a given week the people in that room reach, connect with, inspire, wonder about, and engage over 10,500 people. Pause with me a moment; 350 years of experience, 10,500 young men and women — each week! 

In Orlando, I spoke with educators who sought ways to advocate more effectively for the arts. In a system increasingly test-stressed and tight with time, can more room be found for music, art, dance, and the humanities?

At each gathering I found a hunger for the human community to be recognized as the soul of education itself — the need for us to be in relationship with each other as the foundation of learning.

That is the work of our Minnesota Humanities Center.

The humanities bring a deep aquifer of resources to this hunger. The arts and humanities aren’t just subjects; they are a powerful means of engaging the world. The system of education we have now was created some 150-200 years ago to serve the needs of society in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Now we need a new system — for different purposes. We imagine what must be created; we manage what exists. We care for the people within — and for each other. As someone once said, “be hospice workers for the old, midwife the new.”

The humanities and the arts are uniquely positioned and equipped to do this. I took heart from the people in Orlando and Tampa/St. Pete, from their intelligence, expertise, and commitment to reaching each child — as a person — to help build and maintain a thriving human community, which is the mission of the Minnesota Humanities Center.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Meryll Levine Page - Saved by the Humanities

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:  More Jewish Luck. 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.

Picture a life preserver bearing the word ‘Humanities’ thrown out to a struggling young girl. She grabs hold and doesn’t let go until she reaches dry land.

Until I researched the lives of two Jewish women under the Soviet regime for our book, Jewish Luck:  A True Story of Friendship, Deception, and Risky Business, I would have thought “saved by the humanities” was hyperbole. Hours of interviews taught me that books and the arts were truly a lifeline for girls who understood from a young age that school and Soviet ’culture’ were intended to squelch individuality, creativity, and free thinking.  Both women remember — with an emotion approaching rapture — the books that promised them hope, a future, and a sense of identity — books that were smuggled into the USSR and shared among trusted friends at the risk of imprisonment. For others, underground music or the underground art scene offered a way out of the gray Soviet life. Humanities meant possibilities.

Our American educational system is not designed to create automatons and robotic allegiance to our country like the USSR’s schools. Yet, many students feel alienated, estranged, and ill-served by their schools. Can the humanities serve as a life preserver for them?

In May 2014 I attended an Omaha Public School District teacher’s meeting to review the efficacy of their partnership with the Minnesota Humanities Center. I felt like I was part of a revival meeting. Teachers ecstatically testified to the power of the ‘absent narrative’ and building an ‘innocent classroom.’ The stated goal of the initiative — to build and strengthen relationships, recognize the power of a story, learn from multiple voices, and discover that solutions to problems are often entrenched in the community — was endorsed and celebrated. The humanities approach made students, parents, and community members of all races and ethnicities feel welcome and affirmed. Children saw themselves reflected in the curriculum and they flourished.

What struck me more than the statistical proof that adjusting curriculum to include absent narratives was successful was the emotional impact it had on teachers. Teachers want to succeed with every student and this approach supplied them with tools to be the best teacher — a teacher who begins by building relationships with students.
Unlike the women who grew up in the USSR, we don’t live in a dictatorship where the humanities are proscribed and conformity is celebrated; yet, students are marginalized by curricula that ignore multiple viewpoints and cultural realities. I urge all Minnesota teachers and administrators to investigate the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Educators Institute. Learn about the possible. 

It could be a life preserver for a Minnesota teacher and Minnesota students. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hannah Lee – Linking the Humanities with Data Sets and Algorithms

Hannah Lee recently moved back to St. Paul after working for the past two years as a Program Manager for the Blue Mountain Center in New York's Adirondack Mountains. A graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in English, she is spending working as a Communications Assistant with the Humanities Center's Communications Team.

Have you ever used a random Facebook post generator or noticed someone else using one? Social media users plug their post histories into apps like What Would I Say? or Random Status Generator, which spit out nonsense versions of their typical posts, using their syntax and frequently used words or phrases. It’s a goofy way to learn what you are most likely to share, or just look at your online persona in a funhouse mirror, but it’s not really what you’d call useful.

Imagine the reaction of Brown University professor Elias Muhanna when one of his students handed in a randomly-generated paper. In his recent article “Hacking the Humanities”, Muhanna describes a seminar he taught on encyclopedic writing. Assigned to write in the style of Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, the student wrote an algorithm instead. Using an English version of Pliny’s “The Natural History,” this algorithm produced sentences like, “Also great creatures resembling sheep come out on to the land for an unascertained reason, and they bud best under those circumstances, as otherwise it would make only leaves.” Muhanna understood that this was a great way to make new observations about Pliny’s expository style. Since he was also interested in coding, he ended up hiring the student to help him with an analysis of Arabic poetry.

Algorithms like this one offer students of the humanities a tool for analyzing texts that is unprecedented in terms of efficiency and scale. A literary critic, for instance, can strengthen an argument by examining exactly where and how often a symbol appears in an author’s complete works by analyzing characters’ word choices based on gender, or mapping the evolution of a cliché.

It seems strange at first to apply number-crunching to novels, but it’s refreshing to remember that we can use numbers and formulas to make subjective observations, not just draw objective conclusions. In the words of Stephen Ramsay, author of Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism, “The scientist is right to say that the plural of anecdote is not data, but in literary criticism, an abundance of anecdote is precisely what allows discussion and debate to move forward.”

Plus, it turns out it works both ways; data (or anecdote) visualization is useful for artists as well as critics. The New York Times even had a Data Artist in Residence—Jer Thorp—who says he wants to humanize data. “Each data set has its own unique character,” he explains, whether it’s the UK’s National DNA Database or the names on the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. The traditional disciplines of the humanities have always shown us our own reflection; now, data sets and algorithms can help make its outlines much more precise.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Blues Vision - African American Writing from Minnesota

Edited by Alexs Pate with co-editors Pamela R. Fletcher and J. Otis Powell

Enthusiasm is growing for Blues Vision! In celebration of the short summer season in Minnesota, we hope you enjoy these summer selections.

Blues Vision is a groundbreaking collection of incisive prose and powerful poetry by forty-three black writers from Minnesota who educate, inspire, and reveal the unabashed truth. This anthology was co-published with the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which was made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2004.

Lilac Week by Roy McBride
It’s lilac week.
Everywhere you

Heard these punks
Running down the
Laughing their fool
heads off,
Old Lady Duncan
yelling at them about
stealing her lilacs.
It’s lilac week.

Hey, man!
Some good shit!
Meet me back
in the alley
Smell those lilacs.

and every shade

It’s lilac week.
Lilac week.
The world
surrenders to lilacs.

Migrations by Angela Shannon

The diesel truck grunts to pick up the house, to
ease the residence onto its broad back, to haul 1619

whole down the highway. The home­­­­­–––wobbles
without foundation, trembles by sudden movement,

by turbulence and blurring trees, is disturbed
by groundlessness. It wavers and hiccups,

reduced to numbers on a flapping door, growing pains
without Little Africa or Creek Center claiming its walls.

After this crossing from South to Minnesota, will
wooden floors hold when the truck settles them?

Will walls endure after being upswept or will
the house crack and crumble? What of the father

driving the Buick, the mother unwrapping
sandwiches, the three children in the backseat singing?

Preston’s Dream:  Version No. 1 by Philip Bryant

Preston came over one Saturday afternoon
with his usual six-pack of Miller
and armful of records. He was in a quiet
pensive mood – almost doleful.
My father caught on and started playing
some Billie Holiday.
“How’d you know I was thinkin’
about Billie?” Preston asked.
“I don’t know,” my dad said. “A hunch, I guess.”
They listened to
Billie’s version of The Way You Look Tonight.
Billie’s version of Pennies From Heaven.
Billie’s version of I’ll Never Be the Same.
Finally, Preston said,
“These are all Billie’s songs, you know.
She coulda written ‘em herself.
In fact, I think she just took ‘em
Hokey and corny as they are
‘cause nobody wanted ‘em anymore.
Like in slavery days, the slaves
gettin’ pigs’ ears, snouts, feet, and guts
---all the pieces
the massa felt beneath him to eat---
and makin’ ‘em into delicacies.
She mined songs,
Got the diamonds in ‘em that
Nobody cared for or knew how to get.
She got it.
Re-created these songs into her own.
She adopted them.
They were all her children,
and they called her Mama.
Because she was.”
My father drank a little beer and smiled.
Billie was singing Laughing at Life.
Preston continued.
“I had the strangest dream last night.
I was in this small Midwestern town, all white,
on the Fourth of July. It was sunny,
and a warm breeze blew the flags aloft.
I was watchin’ the parade go down Main Street,
bands playin’ Stars and Stripes Forever
and floats of all kinds advertisin’
the Jaycees and historical society
and people all dressed up in buckskin and Indian outfits.
I was gettin’ nervous
‘cause I was the only spot in the crowd,
when here comes the last float in line---
I hear Teddy Wilson playing the opening of
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.
And there
on a float made of white and yellow gardenias
---Billie, in her prime---
big and beautiful and leanin’ and singin’
into one of those old-fashioned microphones.
and Prez was there, too---pork-pie hat
and shades and cream-white suit
and Little Jazz Roy Eldridge and Joe Jones
and Walter Page and Ram Rameriz! All of ‘em!
I couldn’t believe my eyes!
I said to a woman holdin’
a big blond baby boy high
over her head and
bouncin’ in time to the music
What year is it? I thought
They’re all dead---but there they are!
She didn’t say anything,
just nodded and smiled
and kept time to the music.
Then I saw Billie turn as she passed us
and smile at the baby
and throw a white gardenia to the mother.
By this time I was cryin’ and wanted to catch up---
the float had almost disappeared down the street,|
the crowds were too thick,
I couldn’t get through.
Then an old toothless farmer in dirty coveralls
put his hand on y shoulder and said
They’re gone now,
But they’ll be back next Fourth.
You be sure to come back, son,
you’re more than welcome here.
I shook his hand, so dirty and gnarled
And hard from heavy farm work.
I said I would, I will---
And then I woke up. My heart was poundin’.
I wondered how I could get back, but it was only a dream.”
Billie was singing Why Was I Born?
“Jesus, Preston, that was some dream.”
“James, it was like it was real.
Prez, Billie, Joe, Teddy
---all of ‘em alive!---
playin’ in that hick town somewhere
in the middle of nowhere
on the Fourth of July.”

Blues Vision artwork by Ta-couma T.Aiken, “Speak”

Available for purchase at Minnesota Historical Society Online store and on

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sia Her - Hearing the Stories Behind the Story

Sia Her is the executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, a state agency that advises the Governor and the Legislature on issues of importance to the Asian Pacific community in Minnesota. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Macalester College.

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of Hmong American students, when I was invited to speak about my experiences as a Hmong American woman in a leadership position. These were young women, ages 15-18, struggling at home with cultural and gender-specific expectations, having difficulties in the classroom, and wanting more than anything to be seen, understood, and valued by their parents and others. They strive for recognition as more than just their failings which define them as simply either a worthless Hmong daughter or, in the alternative, as someone who is the ‘model’ minority.

I shared with the group that for as long as I could remember, I spent all my time reading and dreaming about the day when I would be strong enough to determine my own fate. To the best of my ability, I avoided acquiring the traits and skills of the dutiful daughter my Hmong mother dreamt of. For her part, my mother dedicated much energy and time to trying to change me, pointing out that all of my friends could sew perfectly and were married by age 14. As a response, I made a list of what I would take with me in my backpack should I decide to run away: my favorite Nancy Drew books and Benjamin Franklin’s Almanac.

The participants laughed with cautious relief throughout my talk. After, they shared that their parents often tell them they are burdens and likely to dishonor the family, too, because they stay out with their friends, speak their mind, and wear "objectionable" clothing. Inside their ethnic community, they are not good enough Hmong daughters; inside the schools, they are not academically successful enough. As neither the “good Hmong daughter” nor the “model minority,” these young women feel they belong nowhere.

“Is there really no place?” they cautiously asked, “for daughters who are Hmong but do not always come home directly after school to cook and clean; daughters who are seen and heard (in English mostly)?” Is there no place for daughters who spend time wondering how it is possible to feel so lonely in the midst of so many? How does one survive this journey?

These young women reaffirmed what many of us believe:  our understanding of our Southeast Asian Minnesotan youth is not nuanced enough to enable us to meaningfully support them so that they thrive without meeting all of our expectations. We have yet to succeed in helping them to navigate the complex, rigid, and incompatible paradigms established by linguistically and culturally diverse communities.

It is tempting to view them as just a group of American youth of color about to fail, while who they really are is a mix of their immigrant/refugee parents and a whole lot more of America. In our time together, their choice of words, body language, and what they chose to share reveal that they desire their ethnic community’s approval, strive to succeed despite their circumstances, and also just want to have fun. The tears threatening to fall from several participants’ eyes indicate their determination to not buckle under the weight of the challenges they face and to make good use of the opportunities they have as Hmong Americans.

I concluded my talk on the note that it was only when I was much older that I understood—my  parents’ hurtful words and expectations/demands were their fears, hopes, and dreams for me bundled into one package and wrapped in a language the American in me had not learned to decode. In the end, I emphasized, “successful” people are not born successful. They fall before they rise, build and rebuild themselves, and seek to help others and themselves to become increasingly “culturally competent” in each other’s stories so that one’s calls for help are heard and understood by another.

A year after our meeting, I continue to hear that several of the young women still talk about how our time together empowered them to find comfort in belonging to no one paradigm, believing that this may very well be the answer to their question of “belonging” as American children of, as Ronald Takaki puts it, “strangers from a different shore.” Their questions and comments then and today emphasize how critical it is for us to create safe and secure spaces for the intentional sharing of how our interactions impact the trajectory of one another’s lives. To hear these young women tell stories from their point of view is akin to putting flesh on the skeleton that is often the preferred starting and ending point of the national Asian American narrative.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Patrick Henry - Introduction of Krista Tippett

Patrick Henry, who lives in Waite Park, Minnesota, was professor of religion at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania (1967-84) and executive director of the Collegeville [MN] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research (1984-2004). Since 2007, he has been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. He joined the Minnesota Humanities Center Board in 2013 and is especially interested in fostering its work in Central Minnesota.

This post is adapted from Patrick’s introduction of Krista Tippett, who was honored at an event at the Humanities Center on April 30, 2015.

The New York Times says Krista Tippett’s style “represents a fusion of all her parts.” Those parts can be traced to and through her story: growing up in Oklahoma (born on the day John F. Kennedy was elected President); graduating from Brown University; Fulbright to the University of Bonn; newspaper reporter; chief aide to the U.S. ambassador to West Germany. In this last position she saw “high power, up close,” and became disillusioned.

Far more fundamental than her disillusionment was the conviction she came to — through the lens of study at Yale Divinity School — as the world transformed in the early 1990s. “There is, at any given moment, much reality we do not see, and more change possible than we can begin to imagine,” she writes. Krista believes this about history, cultures, nations, communities, people — you, me, herself, everybody — “much reality we do not see” and “more change possible than we can begin to imagine.” This is what the humanities have been about ever since Socrates got into conversation with his friends.

Krista, who has a scholar’s precision and a journalist’s flair, conjures with time. In her heart Krista thinks Lewis Carroll penned what could be the motto for her radio program, On Being and its earlier iterations. The White Queen says to Alice, “It’s a poor memory that only works backwards.” In a 1997 talk she said, “I have long suspected that the spiritual impoverishment of our due at least in part to the way we Americans devalue memory, seek quick fixes, mistake reinvention for progress, forget, move forward, move on.” In other words, we don’t even remember backwards!

Krista is a both/and person. She sides with Charles Dickens, not his publisher, in a New Yorker cartoon that has the publisher saying, “Come, come, Mr. Dickens, surely it was the best of times or the worst of times, but not BOTH!”

And like Dickens, she knows that truth is in story. She is a wizard at eliciting stories that reveal her interviewees not only to her listeners but also to themselves. One reason she’s so good at this is her alertness to what she calls “the insides and edges of words and ideas.” On Being provides its worldwide audience a safe space for wondering about, being frightened by, marveling at, their own deepest questions, and then often finding surprising answers: “If that famous and thoughtful person can be puzzled, then it’s okay for me to be too.”

At the beginning of this century Krista undertook what seemed a quixotic task: persuading public radio that there is an audience for serious conversation about perennial spiritual questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Minnesota Public Radio, to its everlasting credit, listened, and decided to give it a try. Now, twelve years later, On Being airs on more than 330 public radio stations nationwide, and the podcast is downloaded around the world. From the beginning, Krista has imagined “a social enterprise with a radio show at its heart.” And it really is a two-way, both/and street—as we read on the website for what has been, since 2013, Krista Tippett Public Productions: “We keep finding new ways to listen to our listeners and online communities, and they keep pointing new ways forward for this adventure.”

The citation for the National Humanities Medal presented to Krista by President Obama at the White House on July 28 last year sums it up: “Radio host and author, for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of all faiths, no faith, and every background to join the conversation.”

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Lorena Bonilla and Felix Valanzasca - Journey from Immigrant to U.S. Citizen: Two Voices

“Remember, remember always, that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Journey of Lorena Bonilla
(As told to Mary Burns-Klinger)

As Franklin Roosevelt stated, “all of us” living in the United States are or have descended from immigrants. Lorena Bonilla, who is the chef for the Humanities Center events venue, recently sat down to share her personal journey to citizenship with this writer and our blog readers.

Lorena was born in Mexico and immigrated—at age 5—with her parents, and an older brother and sister, to California where they hoped to find work and, as a result, a better life. She spent her formative years growing up and attending school in California. Then in 2001, at the urging of her brother and sister who had moved to Minnesota a few years prior, Lorena traveled to Minneapolis-St. Paul to continue her life journey in the Midwest. Although she had no specific plan to pursue a career as a chef, circumstance brought her into the right place at the right time. In 2003 she came across a job posting for a cleaning position at the Minnesota Humanities Event Center. When she applied, however, that position had been filled but she was offered a position as a kitchen assistant. Lorena took the job and, even though she had no formal training, proceeded to learn by watching the then–current chef and by doing the work. She is now the head chef and a 12-year employee of the Humanities Center. For those who have not had the pleasure of eating a meal or attending events with food prepared by Lorena, you can be assured that she has found her career niche and it is delicious!

When asked about the specifics of becoming a citizen, Lorena noted that both she and her brother took their citizenship exams in 2007. According to Lorena, the decision to become an "official" citizen was easy for her on many fronts: she grew up in the U.S., almost all of her family now lived here, and—not the least of her reasons—renewal of a “green card” on a regular basis was costly and complicated. Lorena shared that although the citizenship exam was hard (applicants needed to memorize the answers to over 100 questions, but were only asked to answer 6), she did only have to take it once!

In answer to my query as to what being an “American” now means to her, Lorena immediately noted that being able to vote is probably the best benefit. She added that it “feels good to be an American,” but knows that not every immigrant chooses that path – including her mother and older sister, who are continuing to hold tightly to their Mexican heritage and citizenship, despite the urgings of Lorena and her brother.

Nearly all Americans have ancestors who braved the oceans – liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal – the largest voluntary migrations in recorded history… Immigration is not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future.” - George W. Bush

The Journey of Felix Valanzasca

Felix Valanzasca was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he graduated from the Catholic University of Argentina, Law School. He is licensed to practice law in Argentina, as well as in the U.S. Since receiving his second law degree in 2007 from William Mitchell College of Law, he has focused his law practice to help the growing Latino community in the Twin Cities. Felix is a current member of the Humanities Center board, and was also involved with the Latino Economic Development Center and the Volunteers Lawyers Network, where he provided free legal advice for small companies and lower income families. In 2008 he taught the first International Law course at the National American University. During the past few years he has also hosted radio shows on different Latino stations to inform the Latino community on different legal issues. Felix became an American citizen in May 2015.

The experience of becoming a United States citizen has been difficult, but surely rewarding. From the moment I got my green card and became a U.S. “Lawful Permanent Resident,” to the naturalization ceremony, the process would not have been possible without the support and patience of my family and friends, both in Argentina and the United States.

In spite of the obvious differences, this journey was roughly comparable to the decision of having our children. Just as in our pregnancy and the births of both of our sons, Luca and Jax, sometimes the path to citizenship was not an easy one.  There were obstacles and times when I wasn’t at all sure things would work out, but in the end, both the births of our children and the closure of the naturalization process felt like a big relief and a new start with lots of benefits as well as new responsibilities.

Going through this process also helped open my eyes to people who don’t do something because they have to but because they are good people and want to help. The clearest example of one of those "good people" for me is the person who trusted me and became my sponsor when I needed it most. Without this person I would not have been able to gain my citizenship.

As an added bonus, obtaining citizenship finally gave me the chance to reunite my family by bringing them here to Minnesota and also provided the opportunity to fully engage in my local community and U.S. society. Last but not least, it also provided me with the tools necessary to better care for my family in the place I have decided to call home.