Thursday, June 30, 2016

Sung Ja Shin - The Layered Stories of This Place: Challenging My Ways of Knowing and Being

Sung Ja Shin is a Program Officer with the Minnesota Education Strategy with eight years of experience at the Humanities Center. She currently facilitates the design and implementation of the Center’s foundational knowledge workshop, Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives and co-leads the Educators’ Institute. Sung Ja is an active member of the Korean Adoptee community, bringing her experiences as a woman of color to important dialogues shifting paradigms in the public arena.

I love the way the air feels in my lungs when it shifts from its muggy warmth to evening crispness; in that single breath, my entire being is reunited with the land surrounding my grandparents’ home. In times of transition in my life, this place was my constant—reuniting with loved ones from across the country during one sacred week every summer. The cold, spring-fed lake surrounded by birch trees and well-worn dirt paths welcomed our small bodies from morning to dark. This was my place.

In the past few years, I’ve been challenged to think about how stories are layered in place. I didn’t realize that I had learned to think of the layers in a pile—the one on top clearly superior and covering over the rest. I had never really allowed myself to consider the other beings that inhabited my place, or the stories of how I, a transnational adoptee, arrived here.

I am learning from indigenous friends: “Know who you are, where you are, and who you are with,” and “Know how you are connected or disconnected to this place.” These words, from Mona Smith of Allies: media/art and Emily Johnson of Catalyst Dance, have washed over me hundreds of times. Every time I hear them, I’m challenged—challenged by everything I was taught, challenged to continue acknowledging what I do not know. These words call me into a place of humility, fighting against a culture disconnects humanity through “othering” and its checkbox mentality, demanding a mastery over knowledge that renders stories like mine invisible. 

The Minnesota Humanities Center works with amazing partners who are teaching us how this concept of “place” can surface the stories and lived experiences of the people who consider this place we now call Minnesota “home.”

By using the concept of place to bring absented stories into public, we can productively address:
  1. Stories of origin and arrival: How did I(we) get here?
  2. Stories of inclusion: What makes this place home?
  3. Stories of character: What makes my local community distinctive?
  4. Stories that connect the past with the present: What is the history of this place?
(Martin Case, Allies: Research and Writing)

The 2016 Summer Educators’ Institute: Transforming Education Through Absent Narratives will focus on these concepts. Participants will start with the stories of the people who have the longest relationship to this place, learning from Dakota scholars and the bdote area—where “two waters come together”—in the Twin Cities. Through rich humanities content, participants will deepen their knowledge base and practice around ways of knowing and being, interrupt the dominant narrative, and identify strategies to retell and reimagine our stories. Participants will leave with a plan to use place-based strategies to incorporate absent narratives in their classrooms.

These days, I think a lot about place. And now, I think not only of my grandparents’ home, but also of the many people and beings who have lived and continue to live in that place. I think about how I ended up here, and how the acknowledgement and telling of these stories makes me whole, and allows me to add my story to the layers of stories that make up this special place.


  1. Three verbs here are key: practice, interrupt, and reimagine. Practice, because there's no other way to break habits (as golfer Gary Player said, "The more I practice, the luckier I get"). Interrupt, because otherwise we're on autopilot, going where we've always gone. Reimagine, because, as Einstein said, "Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." And yes, understanding our life requires archaeology, sifting through the layers--and the layers are "in place." Thank you for a heap of valuable insights!

  2. Our time seems so often to focus on the global--on big data,big networks, and everything seems in movment and transition-- this focus on place is restorative and a needed balance. thank you Sung Ja