Tea Rozman Clark could tell a story of growing up in the midst of the civil war that split Yugoslavia, of working with the flood of refugees coming to Slovenia from Bosnia, and of her research on the Srebrenica genocide. And she could tell a story of a happy childhood with wonderful parents and winning a scholarship to study for a year at the University of Wisconsin. Which is her story?
The media, she says, likes to tell a simplistic immigrant narrative of tragedy, struggle and success. “The narratives that the media like to portray are the rags-to-riches narrative,” Rozman Clark says. They tend to want to tell an immigrant’s story as a deep tragedy, leading to a notable success, as if the majority of immigrant experiences were not filled with the more typical aspects that make up a life.
After she was awarded a scholarship to Eau Claire, a few years after she left her homeland, she tried to interact like every other student. But as soon as people heard her accent, she says, and learned where she came from, the assumption was that she must have suffered such tragedy that she couldn’t simply be a young woman interested in socializing with Americans on a Friday night. So much media-infused baggage was attached to her background that it made it difficult for them to understand who she really was.
Rozman Clark believes that she and other immigrants should be able to choose how to tell their own stories. She is co-founder and director of the nonprofit Green Card Voices, which tells stories of “everyday immigrants” and features people “sharing their stories and saying ‘this is my life, my job, my kids, where we live, my hobbies.'” Her goal is to help American-born people see immigrants as people just like themselves. “And then,” she says, “people listening to this can see, oh, she likes yoga, she doesn’t only like to talk about genocide.”
A first-generation immigrant from Slovenia, Rozman Clark earned a Ph.D. in cultural history, with an emphasis on oral history recording. For her Ph.D. research, she spent four years interviewing genocide survivors and Dutch peacekeepers who had been in Srebrenica during five days in July 1995 when more than 8,000 people were killed.
She saw people change as they heard each other’s stories, and describes the experience as “the epiphany of my life.”
What she saw making a difference was not politicians or the power of the United Nations, but rather “people and relationships and stories and taking time for all that.”
In 2012, Rozman Clark and her husband and daughters moved to the Twin Cities. As she began her job search, a friend called about a new project that focused on telling immigrant stories. She thought, “Someone just wrote my dream job!” After helping to begin and build Green Card Voices, Rozman Clark became the nonprofit’s executive director.
Green Card Voices uses a life narrative recording model that begins with six questions. Each person gets the questions in advance, so they have plenty of time to reflect on their story and create their own narrative. The questions are open-ended, asking that the immigrant tell about life in the country of their birth, why they moved, what the journey was like, how life was when first arrived, about their life now, and what contributions they have made to their new homeland. After they have had time to reflect, they meet with Rozman Clark, who guides them through the narrative process. The end product: a video and a short written story, which appear on the Green Card Voices website.
Green Card Voices hosts videos of 180 immigrants, each telling their own stories. The immigrants, who come from 75 countries, now live in Minnesota and four other states. The collection shows the immense diversity of immigrants. Janne Gossman married a Minnesotan after they met at university in her native Denmark. War drove Ibé Kaba from Sierra Leone and Kim Vu Friesen from Vietnam. Tony Oliva made a difficult decision to leave his home in Cuba for the Minnesota Twins, where he became an eight-time All-Star, batting champion and Golden Glove winner. Most of the immigrants would agree with journalist Ibrahim Hirsi, who says they are “not just here for a paycheck; we’re here to build a country.”
Besides the website and its immigrant stories, Green Card Voices offers traveling photo exhibits (see sidebar), a middle and high school curriculum, and a new book, “Green Card Youth Voices,” which features 30 stories of immigrant youth from Wellstone International High School.
“If you give people the space – safe space, humility, time, respect, ability to listen – they will share a story,” Rozman Clark says. “Everyone is fascinating ultimately, if you get to know them.” She believes that stories touch people on a level that’s different from political argument, more memorable than facts and numbers. Stories, she says, offer a way to move people “out of their fear zone and into a learning zone.”
For Rozman Clark, stories are only the beginning. “We encourage practicing intentional diversity – reaching out to people different from you, getting to know about their lives, building relationships, and creating an inclusive community. This is how it’s done.”