Thursday, February 25, 2016

Phyllis May-Machunda - Becoming the Change We Hope To See: Building Our Common Humanity

Dr. Phyllis May-Machunda is a professor and former Chair of American Multicultural Studies, Minnesota State University Moorhead, and was previously employed as a folklorist and ethnomusicologist at the Smithsonian Institution. A graduate of the University of Iowa and Indiana University Bloomington, her research interests include African American cultural traditions and performance, children's folklore in the U.S., disability studies, multiculturalism, and anti-oppressive education. As a former board member for the Minnesota Humanities Center, she is passionate about the public humanities, engaged scholarship, transformed teacher education, and social justice. She is married to a regional economist and is the mother of a miracle daughter.

In reflecting in preparation for this blog post, I realized that I have been increasingly dedicated to a specific quest. Absent narratives infuse their wisdom into academic curricula, at least since my undergraduate honors research and teaching unit project on Black music several decades ago (when such knowledge was not part of public school curricula). However, I did not label these resources absent narratives. Instead, I have understood my work as restorative, extending my own knowledge base and voice as an African American scholar and educator to assert an often absented presence in arts and humanities discourse. I seek to create a more truthful and inclusive narrative for myself, and to infuse dominant discourses with the vibrant and multiple ways of knowing that exist in communities – ways of knowing that are too often ignored or erased from important conversations.

In fact, it is revealing that all of my professional fields actually address narratives of communities using authentic voice outside dominant frameworks: African American studies, American multicultural studies, folklore, ethnomusicology, women/gender studies, and disability studies. Each discipline presents and analyzes rich narratives and traditions commonly absent from or misrepresented in dominant discourses. Each has been structured to partially address aspects of the frequently unquestioned frames of dominance by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or ability. This provides us with insight into the opportunities and challenges of living more inclusive, interconnected, and compassionate lives by recognizing the intersections of our identities and experiences in a multicultural world.  

At first I reveled in the richness of each discipline’s creative expressivity and the humanistic questions they explore: questions of life, difference, and humanity. After some time, however, my understanding of absence intensified, and I began to grasp how systemic, structural power creates or perpetuates absence. Knowing that the education system -- if left unchallenged by social justice praxis and perspectives -- will continue to leave out non-dominant narratives, informs my commitment to transform multicultural outcomes.

As we celebrate Black History Month, significant role models offer guiding wisdom about the importance of addressing absent narratives. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, as “father of Black history and grandfather of Ethnic Studies,” dedicated his life to making absent narratives visible and accessible, providing counter-narratives to nurture generations of African Americans with knowledge and understanding of their histories and humanity despite what gets taught in schools. Likewise, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, who I met as a child, summons us to invest in our human interconnectedness. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he contended, “Whatever affects one indirectly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Accordingly, we must engage with absent narratives to learn, understand, and care about the stories of others with varied experiences and continue building our common humanity. In that process, we can mutually grow. Are we willing to do the necessary work to become the change we hope to see? I truly hope so for the sake of future generations.

If you are interested in engaging deeper with the Humanities Center’s Absent Narrative approach, visit our website to learn more about our workshop Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sarah Lahm - Learning to Listen

Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based education writer, who blogs at She previously taught composition and literature courses at Normandale Community College to students from all walks of life and has a lifelong passion for studying, practicing and promoting project-based, progressive education.

In January, I was fortunate enough to attend the Minnesota Humanities Center’s day-long education-centered “Absent Narratives” training—Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives workshop. I am a lover of all things education, and therefore, getting to spend a whole day talking with others about what we know, what we value, and what we have yet to learn—about everything—was richly rewarding for me.

I had first heard of the Absent Narratives approach just months before and was immediately drawn to it. The framework is built around relationships and human connection, asking participants to consider the stories that are “absent” in their lives, as well as in our public discourse—not to mention in our public education systems. To me, this is a beautiful chord to strike. I have been a classroom teacher, and I am a parent. I know—through practice—that how we relate to one another, and whether or not we give students the benefit of the doubt, is immensely important.  

But there is more to it than that. During the Humanities Center training, the participants, including me, were asked to share our own personal stories and ideas. Who were we? What did our names mean? Where did we come from? I mostly sat and listened, and was struck by one woman, who said she lived in a rural part of the state. She was white, Lutheran, and therefore absent, blank. Why? Because our collective story about what it means to be American is set to “white,” as our neutral, invisible jumping off point. If you are white, middle class, healthy—you just “are” you don’t have to explain yourself. You are not asked where you are from or how you got here. You don’t have a story.

I had been used to strenuously listening in for other’s stories, in a way that confirmed this “neutral” narrative about being white in America. They have struggles. They have histories, trauma, painful baggage that I am somehow responsible for, but not capable of handling. Is that what it means to be white? In a small group breakout session, a fellow group member—a white, middle- class man—and I shared this feeling of absence. Our own histories were muddled and indistinct; our roots faintly traceable back to northern and western Europe and our names given to us simply because our parents liked them. We just “are.”

It is this lack of knowing my own story, I think, that can make me feel like I have to have an answer for things, or a way to bear the stories of others. At this Absent Narratives training, I encountered a friend of mine, whose worldview I cherish. At our lunch break, she and I discussed the discomfort not so much of hearing other people’s stories, but of feeling as though there had to be a way to ‘fix’ the issues surfaced by those stories. There was that weight in the training room. There was tension between providing space for absent narratives—of Native people, Asian people, African-American people, Veterans, and so on—and, for some of us, feeling as if we had to fill that space with insights or hopeful notes for the future.

It was a relief, at that moment, to take a step back and let go of that feeling. My friend and I both agreed that trying to resolve the issues surrounding other people’s stories was not our purpose. Instead—because I cannot speak for my friend—I took a leap forward, and gave myself permission to just listen, and to make space for the absent narratives of others. In so doing, I might just discover my own.

For educators who are interested in engaging deeper with the Humanities Center’s Absent Narratives approach, visit our website for details about the upcoming weeklong Summer Educators’ Institute: Transforming Education Through Absent Narratives

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Prayers on the Prairie: Asian-Pacific Minnesotan Religious Practices

Minnesota is home to over 250,000 Asian-Pacific Americans, including the largest Tibetan, Karen, and urban Hmong communities in the United States, according to the 2010 US Census. In May 2009, the Minnesota State Legislature asked the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans (CAPM) to collaboratively create new programs that celebrate and preserve the artistic, historical, and cultural heritages of these Asian-Pacific communities. The Prayers on the Prairie: Asian-Pacific Minnesotan Religious Practices documentary grew out of this partnership.

The stories and histories of Asian-Pacific Minnesotans are woven into the story and history of Minnesota. Many Asian-Pacific Minnesotans utilize strong Christian traditions and worship as church communities; however, others practice different religious traditions that are not always understood by their fellow Minnesotans.

Prayers on the Prairie is an attempt at bridging this gap in knowledge and understanding. This project, created in partnership with the Humanities Center and CAPM, features an educational documentary video, informational booklet, and educator resources that examine five distinct religious traditions—Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism, Chinese Ancestral Worship, Hmong Shamanism, and Islam—that are thriving among Minnesota’s Asian American communities. The documentary introduces and draws on the experience of practitioners and scholars who describe how differing religious communities are able to thrive, practice, and live out their religious tenets in the land of blue skies, prairie lands, and 10,000 lakes.

For more information about Prayers on the Prairie visit the Minnesota Humanities Center's Absent Narrative Resource Collection.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Nick Swaggert - Bridging the Civilian-Military Divide

Nick Swaggert is a Veteran of the Marine Corps who served since 1999 as an infantryman and was deployed twice to Iraq. Nick is the VP Corporate and Government Affairs for Occam Group Ltd – an IT organization owned by Veterans and dedicated to transitioning our nation’s heroes. His work has helped both Veterans and companies by bridging a gap between Veterans seeking employment and companies who want to hire Veterans. Nick is a Pat Tillman Military Scholar and currently serves as a company commander in the Marine Corps Reserve. He is also a 2015 Veterans’ Voices Awardee.

Last week I was sporting a U.S.M.C. t-shirt and someone walked up to me and said, “What does U.S.M.C. stand for?” Of course it’s well known that the number of Veterans in the population is on the decline – from 23 million in 2015 to less than 14 million by 2043. This means that fewer and fewer people will have that very important personal connection to the military and will increasingly rely on the sensationalized modern media for their understanding of what it means to serve. I’m sure many Veterans have heard the oft-stated comment, “I’ve seen American Sniper (or pick a movie) and I have a good idea what it’s like over there.”

So with this separation of influence, what is the military doing to remain “known” by the civilian population? Some wonderful things, like Fleet Week in which the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard open their proverbial gates to citizens in order to improve relations. This was actually the brainchild of President Franklin Roosevelt who felt the need to improve relations and understanding between civilians and the military. During Fleet Week, New York City gets inundated for a full week by military flair, but here in Minnesota we do not get to experience that. There is, however, a pretty terrific Minnesota experience during which the National Guard, in partnership with ESGR, brings prospective employers up to Camp Ripley via air transport and they are given a tour of its wonderful facilities.

While I was in the Netherlands this summer as part of Exercise Western Accord, I experienced a very different landscape apparent in European civilian-military interactions. Not only were there numerous monuments and cemeteries dedicated to those American/Canadian/British soldiers from World War II, but we were able to take part in an event in which the Dutch and German soldiers made a literal link across a canal using their pontoons. Following their live pontoon demonstration, the soldiers marched onto a stage and were freed to go into town and interact with the local populace during the festival. This kind of interaction dramatically changes the way service members are viewed by the populace.

As the civilian population of our nation and the military move further and further apart due to the diminishing numbers of service members, we all need to keep sharing our stories, continue to make our voices heard, and strive to keep the dialogue open using creative methods of engagement.