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.