Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mary Burns-Klinger - A Life Shaped by Flowing Water: Memories and Ancestral Connections

Mary Burns-Klinger, who is the Executive Assistant at the Minnesota Humanities Center, is living multiple lives. She grew up on a farm but now loves living in the city, as long as she has regular forays into nature. Mary has a B.F.A. in theater arts from the University of South Dakota and spent several years as an actress in New York before returning to the Midwest to raise her family. Mary very much enjoys her work at the Humanities Center — including time spent with the Communications Team working on various writing projects — and is especially proud of the fact that all of the programs/projects created here are based in the humanities.

With my wings resolutely spread, Missis Burnside, And my old inhibitions shed, Missis Burnside….” It was a warm June day and there I sat, on a large grey, platform-like rock situated in the middle of a rushing stream near the Black Hills Playhouse campus, rehearsing the song I would use to audition for a part in the summer musical, Mame. I not only found comfort in the coolness and in the sight and scents of the beautiful pine forest with rugged, wooded hills rising around me, but in the sounds and the light mist of the rushing stream, as well as my awareness that many others — including the native Lakota people who first traversed the Black Hills — had experienced this stream and the Hills before me. Although this actually happened to me over 35 years ago, while spending one of three summers at the Black Hills Playhouse, the memory of that place and time has stayed with me. I may not remember all of the details clearly, but I’ll always remember the feelings that surfaced while sitting on that rock in the middle of the rushing water.

Having grown up on an Iowa farm, where lakes were mostly absent, my opportunities to interact with natural water sources were limited. Our farmland, however, did include a small, shallow crick running through it, and, since our gravel road crossed over it, a large concrete tunnel was built to funnel the crick to the other side of the road, where it could cascade down what — in my memory — seemed to be a very steep spillway, but was probably only a 3-4 foot sloping drop. My younger sister, our dogs, and I spent many happy summer days splashing in the water and playing in the conduit. In the winter, we pretended to skate in our winter boots and sometimes helped our dad chop out chunks of ice to fill our old hand-cranked ice cream maker.

As time passed, my water horizons expanded with visits to lakes in Iowa and beyond, to major rivers like the Missouri and Mississippi, and finally to oceans, with trips to all three water-defined coasts. I experienced the wonders of many versions of nature’s water, but found the waters that flowed or moved in some way had the greatest effect on me. In Minneapolis, even with our beautiful lakes and the Mississippi River running through the city, my favorite place to be is near Minnehaha Creek, and its jewel, Minnehaha Falls. The Creek is a place that most resembles my Black Hills’ haunt and my childhood crick.

One of the primary things I’ve learned through my work with the Humanities Center is that “place” is a very important part of our personal and collective history. The mystery and magic of flowing water constitutes a huge piece of my “place,” although I’ve only recently figured that out. Not long ago I looked closer at the origins of my family name – Burns – and found that it is not at all what I thought it to be. Instead I found reference to the fact that, in its Scottish origins the name “Burns” refers to someone who lived by a stream.  I now wonder if perhaps my preference for flowing water — always moving from one place to another, touching many shores and lives on its journey — is really a major piece of who I am, and always will be.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Larry Rosen - The Diversity and Commonality of Human Experience

Larry Rosen is a senior instructor with The Moth, an organization based in New York City with a mission to “to promote the art and craft of storytelling,” and manager of The Moth Community Program, which offers workshops and performance opportunities to people who are under-represented in mainstream media or feel under-heard. Larry has been teaching, directing, and producing storytelling, theater, improvisation, and sketch comedy performance for more than 20 years, through institutions including Second City and The New York International Fringe Festival. Larry and two other instructors from The Moth Community Program came to Minnesota in May 2016 to lead a workshop for participants in the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Veterans’ Voices Storytelling Project.

In November 2014, I signed on to co-teach a storytelling workshop in collaboration with the Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness. The participants were people who’d been homeless at one time, or had somehow been touched by the experience of homelessness.

I was excited by the prospect – until about a week before the workshop, when I started to feel overwhelmed. I had no idea what this would be like.

I’d been teaching with The Moth Community Program for six years. During that time, I’d helped people develop and share personal stories about nursing, adoption, immigration, mental illness, developmental disabilities, and exoneration after years of wrongful incarceration. I had never worked on stories of homelessness.

I realized I knew very little about homelessness. I’d seen homeless people – but I had never had a conversation with anyone. I did some research, and found staggering statistics regarding the numbers of homeless individuals and families living in New York City.

But stories are about individuals, and individual journeys. And the story-building process works best when we can somehow relate to the stories being built. How would I relate to these stories? I’d never been homeless, nor did I know anyone who was homeless. If anyone I knew had ever been homeless, they hadn’t talked about it.

I thought about the folks we’d work with, and wondered: How did they get through it? What had been their journeys, and how could we best help to express them?

And then we arrived, and met these wonderful people, each of whom had applied to take the workshop. We said hello, sat down, and listened to their stories.

The stories were about parents and children, friends and support systems, rejection and rescue. Robin talked about her son. Jason spoke of his father. They were stories of sorrow, hope, failure, success, rejection, and rescue. Stories that expressed guilt, fear, frustration, respect, joy – and love.

And we got right to work, doing what we do in every workshop: we divided into small groups and, over the course of our 12 hours together, helped each storyteller pull out the pieces of his or her story, sift through them, flesh them out, and put them back together to form a strong and compelling narrative.

Again, I had not experienced the exact circumstances of the people I worked with. But I know what it is to have someone depend on me, and the fear and pain of letting them down. I’ve had things in my life I desperately wanted to change, but felt unable to, until I finally found the strength and motivation and resources to change them.

And this is what connected us – the universal, human themes of the story – just as they had connected me in past workshops to immigrants and Veterans and wrongfully-incarcerated prisoners.

At The Moth we seek to honor the diversity and commonality of human experience through storytelling. In sharing these essential human themes we are blessed to find our common humanity.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Britt Gangeness - No Water Flows In—It All Flows Out

Britt Gangeness coordinates and develops outreach and education projects at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). She has been working with the Minnesota Humanities Center on the Smithsonian Water/Ways project since 2014 and was thrilled to see the exhibit hit the streets this summer.

Minnesota has a very unusual geographic position. We sit atop a triple, continental-scale water divide, a divide that sends water north to the Hudson, east to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Almost all of our water comes to our state as rain or snow.

This means we are not receiving polluted water from a state with lower environmental standards. But it also means we have a responsibility to keep water clean—for our communities and for other states and nations.

Whoa, that’s a big responsibility. How are we doing?

There is a scientific answer, based on numbers and data compared to water quality standards. But there is also a community answer, which is comprised of the voices of people who care about that place and live in that place.

On June 25, the Smithsonian Water/Ways tour opened in Spicer, Minnesota. The exhibit draws upon science and the humanities to explore water and what it means to Minnesotans—exploring water from scientific, historical, and cultural perspectives.

Through my work on the project, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about water quality from my MPCA colleagues, listen to interviews of people from the six tour sites, and collect images of the special places they describe. Now I don’t just think of regional water quality trends. I think of people—THESE people. And I smile, because there are an awful lot of people out there who care about all the little plants, and animals, and flow rates, and smell of the mud, and the places where loons nest (to name a few of the many things they care about). They treasure the special events in their lives that happened in and around the water.

That’s one of the strengths of the humanities, I think. We understand things in a new way. We bring people to the table that might not usually sit down together. In our case, we build common awareness about water, help create a shared vision for clean water, and inspire broader participation in that future.

To ensure that Minnesota’s fish are safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our lakes are safe for swimming, we need to do a better job. Decades of monitoring and studying watersheds gave us scientific answers to water quality. Now we must bring this data alongside the voices of the people who care about and live in Minnesota to realize our clean water future.

The Smithsonian Water/Ways project is a start and I’m excited to see what bubbles to the surface during the Minnesota tour!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Rafael F. Narváez - Humanities as a Lens on Power and Politics

Rafael F. Narváez is Associate Professor of Sociology at Winona State University. Recent projects include a National Endowment for the Humanities “Enduring Questions” grant.

Homi Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, has noted that “[t]he humanities are facing serious challenges [as well as declines] in both developed and developing countries.” In various ways and degrees, these declines are the result of political and economic attacks, part of a larger effort characterized by Nobel Laureate, Al Gore, as an “assault on reason.” Bear in mind that collective ways of reasoning are of course essential for political structures. Literacy in the humanities, in particular, often results in increased understanding of power structures. It can help the individual read the world, scrutinize inherited values, beliefs, and cultural narratives, and see that, at times, what passes off as “common sense” is in fact a haven for error and bigotry, an effective way of disenfranchising individuals, groups, and generations. (Slavery, for example, was once considered “commonsensical” in the U.S.; homosexuality was once a diagnosis of mental “pathology,” etc.)

Of course, some writers in the humanities have sought to legitimize the given order of things, the inherited social and political conventions and hierarchies. But humanistic disciplines have also had another important social function: helping societies scrutinize and check the operations of power. In light of this, it is not surprising that the humanities, along with the critical human sciences, often become political and economic targets, even in the context of advanced democracies.

We must be attentive to these attacks. Humanistic ideas and ideals are vital for modern democracies – systems that, by design, work well when citizens are able to understand the given social order and the narratives and values that support it. To be sure, when citizens cease tending to these responsibilities, some aspects of democratic life come to resemble life under dictatorial regimes. Regimes sustained by rigid, socially-unexamined ideas – systems that indeed must forestall the spread of critical and deep processing abilities and habits.

If effective, systemic attacks on the humanities will have historic consequences, particularly at the level of political representation. Democracies are, after all, representative systems that as such will reflect the accomplishments and failures of society’s educational structure. In the U.S., we are experiencing the effects of the attacks upon the humanities. Partly as a consequence of the resulting weakening of humanistic ideas and concerns, we are more likely to quietly accept the fact that, in general, our political class depends heavily on marketing rather than on discourse, on the voters’ emotions, rather than on higher faculties such as reflection and deliberation. In an era that, according to near-consensus in the sciences, is only two degrees away from runaway climate change, such shifts may, in the end, carry consequences not only for the political system but for the life-system itself.