When we first heard of the killing of George Floyd, we went to the scene that night, not knowing that the video was going to ignite much- needed change. The Lake Street area has been neglected for so long, so when the burning of buildings, the looting, and the needed ugliness happened, it brought attention to our community. Those that know the area also know that it is home for so many and see the beauty in it every day.
I have been taking to the streets since the murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, hoping that they would be the last victims of police brutality.
I also have been having courageous conversations. There is a lot of anti-Blackness in the Latinx community. I have been holding family and friends accountable as well for decolonizing everything that we have been taught — everything that has been embedded in us to feel closer to whiteness and to privilege. I have spoken with Latinx leaders, as well as those that have been impacted by the anti-Blackness in our comunidad. It is a lot. We have exploited Black culture but don’t show up when it comes to showing solidarity.
These days, I am mostly feeling numb. There are so many emotions to navigate. Working as an educator, I worry about my students and what they have lived through because of COVID-19. Then I worry about the impact George Floyd’s murder had on them. Then I go numb, because how much can I do if people in power don’t want to make change happen?
I am proud to live in Minneapolis at this time. It is now everyone’s job to make sure the energy from the uprising ignited here does not die.
For 13 years, the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP) has been a place for folks from diverse backgrounds and intersecting identities to come together to build bridges of understanding and support after decades of sanctions, war, and U.S. occupation in Iraq. I have had the privilege of working with IARP for five of those years. Although my role is shifting, I reflect on the incredible people I have been able to collaborate with over the years.
The Iraqi Voices program is an arts storytelling lab that pairs Iraqi-Minnesotans with professional artists to share their stories. Over the years these collaborations have produced nine books, 16 award-winning short documentary films, one Guthrie-premiered theater production, and an upcoming photography exhibition.
I have been moved by the commitment and vulnerability of everyone involved to sit down together around a table (often filled with tea, date-filled kleiche cookies, or stuffed dolmas) and reach across languages, cultures, and differences of opinion so they can bring complex, nuanced, and dignified storytelling to life.
As a 2019 audience member said, “We need more of this to help break down fears and unite us in America. We need to build more understanding and appreciation of the different cultures we have.”
My work comes from my realization that racism is everywhere, that I had been taught lies, and that I too caused racist harm.
My racism had shown up in a public performance at a “Women and Nonviolence” conference. I was an openly lesbian dancer, expressing aspects of that marginalized culture, and I had been asked to give a concert. One dance I had created as “humorous” parodied karate moves with a sexual suggestion. A woman of Korean descent walked out of the room and left the conference that night. I had appropriated an ancient, spiritually based practice and sexualized it for the pleasure of largely white audiences.
We stopped the concert, and I suggested we meet in racial identity caucuses. That night I made a commitment, witnessed by 20 women, to fight racism for the rest of my life.
The women of color with whom I was in touch were bemused. I was asked, “Please educate other white people. White people ask us to do it all the time. We have our hands full, navigating white supremacy every day.”
My work today is to hold workshops and trainings for white people who want to find their stake in racial justice and to be held accountable to it. My work is also to help build multi-racial coalitions around issues including police violence, environmental justice, and educational equity.
I was always out as a lesbian, and that put some collaborators and me through changes. For example, how does a self-described revolutionary lesbian dancer work with a man of the cloth? In the end, we do it by identifying the issue or cause we both are willing to fight for, and learning to recognize each other.
I collaborate by changing my expectations, actions, and assumptions as a white woman. I listen, listen, listen to BIPOC collaborators. In building coalitions, we don’t have to agree on everything. We need to commit to a goal that matters to all of us, make a strategy, and get going.
With the COVID-19 crisis, I was feeling lost. Although I founded the People for PSEO (Postsecondary Enrollment Options) team, a youth-led nonprofit that focuses on promoting access to college credit, I felt that none of the work I was doing in education was making a difference. Most of it seemed trivial and superficial when I thought about how unequal our systems are, and what students and families are dealing with.
BIPOC families are disproportionately impacted in unemployment rates and infection rates, and lack adequate access to technology and support during distance learning.
The murder of George Floyd reminded me that at the end of the day, racism still remains the greatest threat to Black and brown communities. Throughout these last few months, I have felt exhausted, and have continuously questioned things and debated if education is really the space in which I could make a difference.
Recently, I have leaned on many of my former teachers and mentors, who are mainly Black women. Conversations with these amazing women have reaffirmed the importance of this work and the importance of not waiting for the right time, or waiting for permission to challenge the status quo, even when there are many who are not ready to have these conversations. It has reminded me how important it is to have BIPOC women at the table. These women have been championing causes for years without recognition or financial support.
Right now I feel energized and excited, because finally it seems that many are recognizing that as a state and a country we have to do better. I applied to be a part of the Minnesota Social Studies Standards review committee, where I will work with other committee members to review the social studies standards in schools. There is so much evidence suggesting that teaching history as a Euro-American narrative causes students of color to disengage from learning.
Students deserve to see their histories represented with dignity rather than in supporting or tertiary roles. I have been pushing folks to think about how we can actively disrupt systems of oppression and create impactful change.
After the 2016 elections, I knew I had to do something different in the English classes that I teach for non-native speakers of English at St. Catherine University. Students were feeling anxious and afraid, and some had experienced racism and xenophobia. I wanted my classroom to be a safe place; I wanted students to feel validated and appreciated for who they are — immigrants, refugees, and international students from around the world. I sought to incorporate the challenges they were facing outside the classroom into meaningful, transformative work in the classroom, creating a vehicle for personal growth and social change.
After attending an Immigrant Stories workshop at the University of Minnesota, I incorporated a digital storytelling assignment into my immigrant literature class. This assignment, which combines spoken narrative with images in a 3-5 minute video, gives students agency to tell their own stories of immigration, to reflect on challenges they have encountered, sacrifices their family has made for them, new identities they have acquired, and to share their stories in a supportive environment, all the while developing important multimodal skills.
As students work on their digital stories, collaborating with others, they gain self-confidence in their social and academic skills, develop a sense of agency and voice, and discover new beliefs about identities that might be possible. Sharing their stories also creates empathy among students and builds a sense of community.
Storytelling is the primary way that we make sense of our life and the world around us. We need to hear the stories of others, so that our understanding of the world and our connections with others grow accordingly.
One of the most powerful digital stories I have seen emerge from this assignment was created by Samiha Kassim, a Somali student, who recounted that the U.S. election of 2016 was the scariest moment of her life, scarier even than the two civil wars she had lived through. She wondered how her status as an immigrant and Muslim, especially from one of the targeted countries, would affect her and her parents, her future, and her education.
Undeterred by the political climate in the U.S., Samiha persevered in her academic work, graduating from St. Catherine University in May 2020 with a degree in Respiratory Therapy, and is now working as a respiratory therapist at a hospital in Minneapolis.
Students’ stories of immigration are important reminders that the United States has always been a nation of immigrants who continue to make this country a stronger, richer, and more dynamic place, culturally, socially, politically, and economically. Through storytelling we can learn to understand each other, create community through collaboration and empathy, and effect social change.