Since 2013, Green Card Voices has produced video and print storytelling about some of the 40 million immigrants and refugees in the United States. The mission is to humanize what otherwise can be a misunderstood and mischaracterized community.
Executive director Tea Rozman Clark was a volunteer in refugee camps after war broke out in her home country of Yugoslavia. She received a scholarship to study in the United States, and eventually earned a master’s degree from New York University. She launched Green Card Voices in the Twin Cities, and has since branched into other areas of the state and country. We are partnering to feature some (adapted and updated) stories collected by her non-profit organization.
My father was one of three bright Cameroonian scholars who received funding through the U.S. Agency for International Development to pursue their educations at American universities. My father attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I was born. My family returned to Cameroon after my parents completed their education.
During summer vacation in Cameroon at my grandparents’ home, there were at minimum 20 grandchildren running around. You can imagine the commotion. We did fun things together and entertained ourselves. The girls learned how to braid by practicing on each other’s hair.
I was my great-grandmother’s shadow. I called her Mbombo. One of the things we loved to do together was to work the land. She said, “You can cultivate whatever you want.”
I’m a fan of peanuts so everything I cultivated was peanuts. She taught me how to make peanut butter from scratch. She taught me how to separate my boiled peanuts into different-sized containers and sell them. The one thing Mbombo wanted to instill in me was independence through interdependence.
After I came back from selling my boiled peanuts, I had pocket money. I learned to count through this practice. I had a simple goal: to get money to buy sweets. I had a particular chocolate bar that I liked. At that age, less than ten years old, it was the only thing that I wanted to buy.
On October 10, 1994, we moved to Côte d’Ivoire. I remember that day clearly because it was the most intense pain I had ever felt as a child. Leavingwas very painful, because I was leaving everything that I loved, everything that I knew, and the people who cared about me. I was lost, completely lost. For that first academic year I kept promising myself that by the end of the school year I was going to speak and behave like an Ivorian. I spent time strategizing how to belong, like everybody else.
By the end of that school year in ’95, I spoke and behaved like an Ivorian. The three cornerstones of remaking my cultural identity were how I danced, how I wore my hair, and how I spoke.
When war broke out in Côte d’Ivoire, my mother told us that we were going on a vacation in Belgium to visit my uncle. We went there and never, never came back.
College in my family meant returning to the U.S., because we were American citizens, born here. Receiving financial aid would reduce the family financial burden. I jumped on a plane and landed in Chicago. I spent the summer in Racine, a suburb of Milwaukee, because my brother was doing an internship there. Then I landed in Superior, Wisconsin.
That was a big shock. I had never seen so many white people per square mile. I lived in cosmopolitan places. Even a small town like Armentières had a mix of everybody.
In Superior, it was just white. Plain white. I couldn’t eat the food. I couldn’t find clothes that fit. Then I had to learn English. I had to go to class, do all these things that were expected of me, yet I’d never been prepared for life in rural America. I had to make the best out of it.
In 2001, at the University of Wisconsin – Superior, there were five African students on campus. I really didn’t care about making friends at that time, because I was on a mission: finish school and get out. So my friends were literally my brother and his friends. I graduated in three years.
Eventually, as a K–12 educator, I incorporated the Metamorphosis Project in Duluth. We began by creating a space to build black girls’ assets and nurture their positive outlook on life. By the end, we built robots with elementary students. I retired the nonprofit after I began my doctoral program at the University of Minnesota.
From there, one thing led to another. I gathered my money and incorporated Language Attitude, a mobile hub of multilingual and multicultural indigenous artists, elders, and scientists, working to promote and protect culture and language. We honor traditional ways of life through our traveling exhibit, creating a unique collection of artwork that allows communities to experience the remaking of culture.
As a Change Network Minnesota fellow, I am working on two projects. One is on language. I published a graphic novel and a card game based on the traditional Bàsàa knowledge system. The second project is on the land. I am developing a framework to promote sustainable agriculture with farmers in southern Cameroon to manage their natural resources.
Language Attitude is interested in changes that benefit communities. Reciprocity and relationality are part of our work. Through our research, we ensure that science listens to, acknowledges, and benefits indigenous communities.
Because we moved frequently when I was growing up, I figured out strategies to deal with leaving people behind. At the time, we had email, but it wasn’t as prominent as it is now, so before leaving it was important to have everyone’s postal addresses. We wrote handwritten letters. I still love handwritten letters.
What has really shifted for me is understanding how to talk about painful events with a positive light. For me, art has been the tool that I’ve used to do that.
What my parents taught me is my guiding principle: I cannot sit and complain about things. I must come up with solutions. If I cannot find the answer, then I need to stop complaining.
In June, Green Card Voices released its fifth book, “Green Card Entrepreneur Voices: Inspiring How-To Stories FromMinnesota Immigrants.” The non-profit organization offers touring photo exhibits, is looking for new locations to film stories, accepts tax-deductible donations, and continues to seek immigrant stories to tell. For more videos and links to books, including teaching guides, and full video stories from these women and others, visit GreenCardVoices.org.
Minnesota Women’s Press featured a profile of Green Card Voices founder Tea Rozman Clark in 2016.
The Advocates for Human Rights’ report “Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrants Rights in Minnesota Today” is theresult of more than 200 interviews and 25 community conversations held throughout Minnesota. Participants noted that while Minnesota is welcoming, the welcome does not extend very far. “Newcomers face discrimination and exclusion from social networks and by extension, exclusion from the economic opportunities and political power such networks bring.”
MinnPost has a series of articles about immigrants: minnpost.com/category/minnpost-topic/politics/immigration