Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sheila Laughton - Another Side of Storytelling

Sheila Laughton works with Veterans and their families to address the spiritual dimensions of reintegration, moral injury, and other life issues. She is a facilitator for Healing of Memories Workshops, providing one step on the healing journey for anyone who has experienced trauma. Sheila is a 2016 Veterans’ Voices awardee.

I am a professional listener; it is my job. But sometimes, I get to tell my story.

A few months ago I, along with fourteen other individuals, mostly strangers, drove though the first blizzard watch of the season to sit in a circle and share our life stories in an effort to deal with some memories that were affecting our lives. We were an eclectic bunch — young and old, male and female, Ph.D.s and high school dropouts, African- and European-Americans, alcoholics and abstainers, pillars of our community and homeless. We had been promised a safe place to tell our most traumatic stories. For some, this would be the first time; while for others, the stories were well-rehearsed. We thought we knew how much we would be willing to share, but we would all be surprised by the depths we actually reached. This time we would not only tell our stories, but we would be heard, believed, and acknowledged by multiple witnesses. We would be affirmed as valuable human beings. And we would see that it was our pain that connected us.

Storytelling has been a part of every culture for longer than recorded history. It entertains, educates, transmits culture, and creates community. But it can also reinforce a climate of “us-versus-them” to create an “other,” or strengthen existing negative stereotypes. And then there are the personal stories we have never told which have become self-destructive, overpowering our otherwise rational mind.

Each of us sees life through the lens of our unique experiences, but sometimes our perspective is clouded by trauma or physical, emotional, or spiritual injury. Are we aware of the ripple effects of family and community stories? Which stories do I share? Do I remember what actually happened—what I did, what was done to me, or what I failed to do—or could the ‘facts’ be distorted by time or trauma? Does how and what I tell convince me the ‘other’ always has the upper hand or that I’m somehow not worthy—or, do they help me make meaning of my life? Can I see the positive in life, or is everything negative? And what about those stories I never share—the ones where I am the shameful victim or the villain? Can good listeners help me put my stories into a context beyond my vision?

Now each time I tell my story, it’s different because I have seen it through the perspective of my listeners. I can see cause and effect between my past and present because I have been able to tell my story to multiple people who honored it. I learned to no longer judge yesterday’s actions by today’s insights. I’m even learning to forgive my worst critic—me.

I cannot change the past, only my interpretation of it. But I can change the story I tell.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Dr. Juanita Hoskins - Place

Dr. Juanita Hoskins is the Director of Educational Equity for the Roseville Area Schools; she brought in a team of educators who participated in the Humanities Center’s 2016 Educators’ Institute. She works with a group of teachers of color and American Indian teachers who are part of a group called F.O.C.U.S. (Future Oriented Collaborative United Support). Juanita believes in the importance of providing a diverse staff of teachers to our students.

I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee in a small rural section of town called Shepherd. It was a predominately black neighborhood. It had four small full-service grocery stores, four churches, an elementary school, a community center, a motel, and two gas stations.

On my side of Shepherd there were five streets where families lived. On each street, ninety percent of the people were related to each other. It was like each street belonged to seven different families. While the streets were represented by different families, we depended on each other. We knew each other. We cared about each other. If one family was in need, we all pitched in to help.

This place has meaning for me because it is where I was taught to love everybody. This is where I was taught the importance of education. This is where I was taught to fear a loving God, who would forgive me for anything. This is where I was taught to forgive others.

Most of the mothers and fathers in this community worked as domestic help and factory workers, and were mostly poor. As all good parents do, they took care of us without complaining, so I did not fully understand the level of poverty around me until I left home. I describe it as a different kind of poverty, because we owned our own land. In the summer our families grew vegetables and shared them with each other. We had chickens and hogs and goats that provided the meat we needed. There were also apple, plum, and peach trees in the neighborhood. When those things were in season, we did not go hungry. My brother tells a story of not having enough to eat, but I don’t remember that. I was the youngest of nine, so I can imagine that I got a few things that they did not get. I also lived across the street from my uncle and his wife who never had children and I was their favorite niece. I remember eating at their house every once in a while. I can not recall ever wanting for anything. The community had high expectations for us. They taught us what things in life were important, with family being at the top.

What makes this place so special for me was its focus on education. My elementary school principal lived on one side of the neighborhood. The first grade teacher lived on the other side of the community. One of the elders in the community named the streets when the community was being formed. The streets had names like Talladega, Walden, Atlanta, Fisk, and Shaw. What I did not know growing up was that these were the names of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. It was as if by giving the streets these names we were destined to do great things. From that little elementary school, many of us went on to become doctors, teachers, lawyers, principals, businessmen and -women.

Place matters.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Laura Benson - Finding Warmth in Unlikely Places

Laura Benson is the Grant/Contract Projects Manager for the Minnesota Humanities Center, overseeing all grants and competitive processes for the organization. Laura, who is a native of Northern Virginia, managed the professional development and grant opportunities for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, a national service organization for the performing arts field, based in Washington, D.C. She believes in the enrichment of cultural life and that we should all pet more dogs.

If I can share a secret with you…I wasn’t sure what to write about for this blog post. The Minnesota Humanities Center programs (and the staff who work on them) highlight our experiences as humans, as community members, as parts of a whole, and all of those things resonate with a certain way of being in relationship to one another. I’m the Grant/Contract Projects Manager for the Humanities Center; I spend most of my days reviewing Federal Cost Guidelines, preparing check requests, and finessing contract language, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to read a blog post about that. And yet, there are a couple of significant intersections between my role and our mission and values that won’t put you to sleep:

(1) I process a lot of payments for the organization; and it’s because the organization values compensating individuals for their time. If you’ve been involved with the Humanities Center in the last year and a half, I’ve probably asked you to fill out some kind of form or paperwork, which doesn’t exactly exude warmth. Our system isn’t perfect and there’s always room for improvement, but financial compensation is one way we can honor the personal cost that often comes with speaking from the heart and sharing of one’s self. Even the term ‘financial compensation’ feels cold and institutional, but when it stands for an expression of thanks and gratitude from another person’s heart, perhaps there’s a little more warmth there after all. (I’m also here for hugs, if anyone wants one. I’ll understand if you just want the check, but the offer stands.)

(2) As you may already know, the Humanities Center manages Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment grant funds on behalf of the state of Minnesota for 12 different organizations. Because they are state funds, there are a significant number of guidelines and policies involved. When I first started here at the Humanities Center, I was able to set aside time to meet representatives from all of the organizations face–to–face, in their individual organizational spaces. Before we dug into the state guidelines, contracts, payments, etc., I wanted to hear their personal stories, and I shared my story with them as well. I like getting to know people — especially if they have pictures of their dogs they can share with me** — and I consider this relationship-building an important part of the grants management experience. The Humanities Center isn’t here to simply enforce state policies (although we do that, too; don’t worry!) — we are here to be humans with one another.

So I guess, when you take the time to look for it, there is always warmth and humanity to be found, even in unlikely places.

**Fine, yes, I’ll share a picture of MY dog…his name is Pepper, and I think you’ll agree that he’s the cutest you’ve ever seen.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Adam Wiltgen - Water/Ways Amplifies Community Solutions in Lanesboro

Adam Wiltgen, a native of Southeastern Minnesota, is Program Director at Lanesboro Arts, a multidisciplinary arts organization that has engaged the rural town of Lanesboro, Minnesota—population 754—in diverse programming, including visual art galleries, performing arts, theater, artist residencies, public art initiatives, and educational outreach, working to enable access to the arts while providing innovative solutions to community challenges. He has lived in various river towns for the past twelve years and relishes the rich culture, character, and history that river towns of all sizes possess. He is the project lead for Lanesboro's cross-sectoral and collaborative experience hosting Water/Ways.

In many ways, Lanesboro is a town defined by the river that runs through it. The town's past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined with the winding Root River. Founded by the Lanesboro Townsite Company of New York City, which envisioned building a resort destination within the steep and scenic limestone bluffs, the town's initial growth ended up being propelled by industry that sprouted up beginning in 1868 as a result of the completion of a railroad and the Townsite Company's construction of an unmortared, dry-laid stone arch gravity dam. And while the visitors did not come, commerce in Lanesboro entered a new era in 1895 when the dam became a hydroelectric power source.

Fast forward nearly 150 years to the present day and Lanesboro has come full circle. During the summer months, it is not uncommon for me to hear wild squeals of joy and laughter emanating from the window near my desk on the 2nd floor of the Lanesboro Art Gallery as tubers, canoers, and kayakers pass by on the river below. At the end of the day, as I walk from the Gallery building to my vehicle in the Poetry Parking Lot at Bass Pond, it would be entirely ordinary to find myself giving directions and chatting about trout fishing spots with a group of cyclists from India entering town on the former railroad bed -- now a paved state bike trail. On my ride home, I'm not surprised when I encounter trucks from Colorado or Nebraska, in town for a cattle auction at the Lanesboro Sales Commission, competing for parking with patrons of the professional Commonweal Theatre Company (whose slogan is "Drama unfolds where the Root River bends").

Lanesboro is an historic destination for the arts, outdoors, and agriculture. And whether it will continue to be in the future depends partly on the fate of the Lanesboro dam, as well as the health and vitality of the Root River. Flagged by the MN DNR as an "unstable...high risk structure," action needs to be taken to prevent the catastrophic loss of life, environmental havoc, and economic devastation that would result if the dam were to fail. While sitting at the dam after heavy rainfalls this past September, I couldn’t help thinking about the many setbacks Lanesboro has endured in trying to secure its future. Still, I felt hopeful and optimistic about Lanesboro's resiliency and ability to amplify community solutions for change.

The process of organizing and planning for Lanesboro's six weeks as a Water/Ways host site has been an incredibly rewarding and inspiring exercise in community building. A town of 754 people could not host a Smithsonian exhibition without working closely together. And because of the unique cross-sector collaboration between five local non-profits (two arts organizations, a history museum, and two environmental and stewardship groups), the many local programs and events developed in Lanesboro will utilize the arts and the humanities–individual human stories and experiences–to make complex, varying, and, at times, divisive water issues more relevant and accessible by focusing on how we are connected. After all, knowing each other better and discussing what unites us will help secure our common future and keep our water safe, clean, and flowing freely.

Learn more about the Water/Ways traveling exhibit and explore all Lanesboro has to offer January 7 through February 19, 2017 by visiting: