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!