3/26/2009

Lunch with the Speakers

Before the Women of Color symposium officially launched, we gathered together at the Fireside Restaurant in the "new" part of town, wheatfields converted to strip malls and health care facilities in the last decade. I'd visited the Fireside in 2006 when it was only a few months old - my in-laws took me to dinner there to celebrate my first gig at WSU. It was a bit surreal for me since I had only related to them as their daughter-in-law for so many years. They were treating me like an out-of-town guest and I remember stumbling over small talk because of the shift.

I'm not a naturally gregarious person and I have to work hard to make small talk. I got lots of practice when I arrived at the Fireside this year when I arrived a bit early for the lunch and most everyone else arrived quite late. The restaurant had lost our reservation and so I sat in the lobby waiting for one of the organizers to arrive. I was feeling a displaced sort of otherness, untethered by my own nervousness heightened by the realization that I had left all my contact information back at my in-law's house.... along with my cel phone.

After about 10 minutes, a well-dressed woman came in who possessed an assurance that I recognized as someone who knew where she belonged. After confirming that the group she was with didn't have a reservation, she wandered toward me. I mustered the courage to introduce myself and ask if she was with the Women of Color Conference. She was kind and gracious, another Rebecca, and we tried to make small talk together. Our conversation was halting, but we learned about our children and our connections to WSU. She told me she was the senator from the Native American Women's Association and a returning student, and I think that's when I found myself recursively and self-consciously relating my connections with Swil Kanim and Gene Tagaban, performers she wasn't familiar with. I couldn't find much else to say and I sensed that I was making more of them and her heritage than she felt comfortable with. I'd fallen into that reductionist trap of race and I didn't know how to get myself out of it.

My closest ties to the realm of the indigenous is through the Native American culture - I still know so little about the Mangyan and T'boli cultures and they are not tied to the land on which I walk. It was awkward, and I became increasingly aware of my pushing for connection with her. She was kind and patient, thankfully, and after a few long pauses, the rest of the group arrived.

I found myself at the end of the table with Turea Erwin, the director of the Women's Center and Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith of UNCW. I studied my menu, searching for something vegetarian, nothing expensive, but perhaps different from what I'd usually order. The room was charged by hunger, a feeling of lateness, and a sense of not belonging. The restaurant never did find our reservation but by the time we were seated, there was enough space to accommodate the eight of us. The sweet potato fries were wonderful as was the portabello mushroom burger I had. Conversation varied from complaining about the weather, talking about the isolation inherent in the Palouse, and activism. We were slowly getting to know each other, but in a tired sort of way. We hadn't picked up on the energy of the conference and I think each of us was feeling a responsibility to create that energy, travel-lagged and hungry as we were.

I learned about Kimberly's work as a diversity trainer as she told us about how the African American's in her constituency were forced out by whites in the early part of the 20th century, relegated to the periphery, yet still a part of the economy. Making the majority aware of the black population was the first task - history had erased the memory of those early people, the first non-slaves in the area. The awareness had to come for both sides of the fence, black and white, for the African American's had forgotten their history too, and accepted complacently their second-citizen status in the area. Her frustration was evident and we were all amazed at the revisionist memory of her area.

I jotted down these notes:

Activism and Advocacy ==>> awareness, "being aware," "bringing awareness," "acting on awareness," stating the problem and telling the story.

We might not always know how to relate to each other in those first awkward moments of relationships, but when we tell the story of what we're passionate about, then we begin to create community, deeper community.

The speaker's lunch was a start, and over the next 24 hours I would find myself transformed by the community.

3/24/2009

Online Writing Workshop Begins April 1

Although I haven't finished blogging about the WSU Coalition for Women Students Women of Color symposium, I've had interest in extending the workshop I presented to an online environment and thought I would open up the workshop to the greater community.

The workshop begins April 1st and will run initially for six weeks. It's open to all levels of writers and all genres of writing. I see myself as a facilitator rather than an instructor and I'll be working with the participants to create a safe, energetic, and supportive environment where writers can be in community with each other.

Here's the description:

Tao Po! Sharing Ourselves, Changing the World

Our lives are stories made of stories: ancestor stories, environment stories, relationship stories, role stories. Many of these stories are given to us without our awareness, while others are built from our experiences.

Using the babaylan concepts of kapwa, loob, and Tao Po! this workshop will focus on creatively expressing our stories throught the written word to help us find and create meaning in our experiences. We will reflect on small and big events, tease out the stories that have been given to us, and share our writing with each other. Our stories exist in the details of our lives and sharing requires a belief that our stories matter to not just ourselves but to others.

By writing down and sharing our experiences, we pass on the gift of our lives to others. Even if we are not physically with the reader, our writing can provide a new perspective and new information they would not otherwise know. Bringing our experiences to the page, even if they are cloaked with metaphors or changed slightly to protect the innocent and the guilty, a kernel of truth can be revealed. Isolation divides, but community can heal if approached with honesty and integrity. That's the beauty and wonder of writing.

Each of us has a story to tell; that's what makes each of us storytellers.
If you are a storyteller, you can write.
If you can write, you can change the world.

Leave a comment here for more details or leave an email to find out how to sign up.

Mabuhay!

Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor received her BA in Humanities from Washington State University in 1998 and her MA degree in English with honors from Western Washington University in 2003 for her thesis "Notes from the Margins," a mixed work of memoir and fiction. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in the Byline Magazine, Katipunan Literary Magazine and the online magazine Haruah. In Spring 2008, her piece "Becoming a Woman of Color" was the First Place Winner in the Writing it Real Personal Essay Contest hosted by Sheila Bender. Her short story "Yellow is for Luck" is forthcoming in Growing Up Filipino II, edited by Cecilia Brainard, an anthology for young adults. Currently, she is a Senior Editor at a non-profit scientific publisher. She performs regularly as a storyteller, and her Twitter handle is "@wordbinder".

3/10/2009

Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith

The night before I left for WSU, we picked up the mail and I found that my godmother had sent me a copy of a a guest column written by WSU prof Alex Kuo. Although I I never had the chance to take a class from Dr. Kuo, I've read a few articles by him. I read the column in haste between packing bags for the trip. The tone of the letter disturbed me - it was apparent Kuo was angry and trying to cram more information into the piece than was easily comprehensible given the length. The copy came with just a sticky note from my godmother "an editorial in our Sunday paper. Hope all is well with you." I found it strangely timely that her letter arrived the night I was leaving for the symposium.

Although we don't communicate much with each other, I do get the occasional spam-meme-of-good-luck from my godmother as well as news that my alma mater hasn't been all that friendly to folks like us. As before, I was disturbed by the article, recalling the other articles she'd sent me about racial incidents on the WSU campus flaring up every few years. When I attended school, I conducted workshops in the dorms (er Residence Halls) on effective cross-cultural communication and helped organize cultural programs. Still, my activism was limited to these small events and I wasn't involved with any of the coalitions and student groups who sponsored my workshop last weekend. WSU is a college tucked in a small town surrounded by wheat fields. When I attended, there was a Filipino restaurant and a few Chinese restaurants, but these were like small rocks in a very large stream, and honestly I let myself get swept along quite often. It's wearing to think the worst in people, that at any given moment, someone might say or do something racist and/or sexist toward you. I just knew that there were certain places that I wasn't welcome and didn't try to change that.

My self-racism and sexism ran deep and rarely touched the surface for examination, but I think I knew that those things existed on campus and off. It was a given. I remember being followed around in stores as if I were a likely shoplifter. I remember the epithets shouted against my supposed Muslim heritage because I wore a particular scarf in winter. I remember when the black man was found hung in the UI (next county over) arboretum and the days after when we wondered if he'd been lynched by folks from Hayden Lake and the days after that when we breathed a sigh of relief when it was determined he'd killed himself. We were relieved about a suicide. Better than a hate crime, somehow.

Nearly 20 years later, I sat listening to Kim McLaughlin-Smith talkin' 'bout bein' ire, shakin' her dreadlocks, and makin' a case for better cross-cultural communication. Can't make assumptions, she say, can't be afraid o'aksin' questions. As it turns out, Kim haint no Jamaican born, but she uses the persona to emphasize how easy it can be to slide into assumptions even with the best of intentions. Kim was our keynote for the symposium, setting the tone of the event as one where we needed to extend our comfort zone a bit, see where we still harbored prejudice and experienced racism/sexism, then use our knowledge in a constructive, creative, and artistic way. Here's the notes I jotted down during her talk:

* Exposure to anything is Everything. Lack of or poor exposure can lead to poor relations and confusion among the masses.
* We hate some persons because we do not know them
* Understand your own cultural lenses. Apply this understanding to enhance relationship.
* Things that inhibit positive cross-communication: fear of the unknown; more differences than similarities; relying on "That's just the way they are."; don't say the wrong thing, mistakes can be irreparable; stick to what you know; don't ask dumb questions!
* See people how they see themselves.
* Poor cross-cultural communication is based on cross-cultural misinformation
* Limitations of US culture - arrogance, ignorance, and presumptuousness
* The historic inability of many majority Americans to view minorities as palatable unless they are repackaged, stems from a particular mindset that prefers to remain within a specific comfort zone. Any behavior or marker outside that zone creates tension.
* The racial struggle of black peoples in America is very often the first point of reference used in the argument to gain GBLTQ equity
* The women's sufferance movement was probably one of America's most exclusive (meaning designed to exclude women of color) civil rights initiatives in our country's history.
* "Life is not a playground, but a classroom." -- Susan Taylor
* "Be the change you want to see." -- Ghandi

Each night after the symposium, my in-laws would ask me how my sessions went. A harmless enough question, but there was a certain tension in the air that I couldn't place right away. I thought perhaps that they were uncomfortable with me leaving the girls behind and being the one out in the world doing things instead of DH. When I returned home, I started researching Dr. Kuo's article after reading the scathing comments to his column. One of the symposium organizers had mentioned that there had been a backlash online about his column, but no one knew if there was any sanctioning of him professionally because of his piece (but isn't it interesting that this was even a worry? Would we be concerned if it had been a member of the majority who spoke against the racial climate?).

As it turns out, Kuo's column was a response to a column in the International Examiner which painted a very rosy picture of life as an Asian student at WSU. In turn, this piece was a response to an even earlier letter sent to the Greater Seattle Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans which was quite the opposite. Given this thread of statements and rebuttals as well as the verbal attacks on Asian American women in 2005 and the more recent attacks on gay men on the WSU campus, no wonder my in-laws were concerned that I was turning into a radical activist bent on causing all sorts of headache for the WSU administration.

We protested in 2006 against one campus group's an untimely choice of using Chinese tokenism at a dinner hosted in the same building as the CAPTIVATE conference, but this year we were definitely focused on flexing our creativity and art to make space for positive dialogue. Ultimately, I was challenged by Kim's words and I began to ask myself if I really am doing all I can to eliminate racism and sexism in my own community. I realized that I still have much work on myself to do to heal the self-racism and sexism within me. But I was also inspired by the students I met who believed in making positive change and were looking for effective ways to do that. We created a community in a short time designed to support each other's work going forward. Truly an amazing symposium.

Next: Lunch with the Speakers

3/09/2009

Putting It All Together

To say the weekend was wonderful, inspiring, amazing, terrifying, fulfilling, and otherwise awesome would be an understatement.

The WSU Coalition for Women Students put on an awesome symposium this year and I felt so honored to be a part of it. There's a great write up in the Daily Evergreen: The journalist who came to my class was really sweet and asked good interview questions. I was caught off guard and feel like I stumbled over my words, but she made me sound really smart.

So, to backtrack a bit, I was scheduled to give four writing workshops at the symposium, two back-to-back on Friday and two back-to-back on Saturday morning. In the past I've given one workshop at an event, so the prospect of giving the same talk four times in a short period of time had me a bit concerned. I didn't want the material to go stale on me, but the participants were wonderful, laughing at all the right moments and digging into the work, even as I threw unfamiliar terms from babaylan practices at them. I was especially excited to see two students from Association of Pacific and Asian Women (APAW) whom I had met in 2006 when they were Freshmen and who asked me to come back this year. One even mentioned still having her special Slinky that I had given her (yes, Slinky. It is, after all, the Key to All Wisdom) and I was happy to add to her collection this year.

I used some of the slides from my previous presentation, but changed up the format to focus more on storytelling in the written word. Since the focus of the symposium was Art, Activism, and Advocacy, I wanted to provide ways for participants to bring awareness to their own lives and to the topics they felt were most important on an activism level.

Activism and Advocacy are such multi-dimensional topics covering a diversity of issues that it can sometimes be overwhelming to tackle in just a 45 minute talk. Thankfully the Coalition put together a strong program that brought together activists and artists from different backgrounds to share their take on the movement. Rather than try and mush the entire weekend into one post, I plan on talking about special moments from the symposium over the next few days to give myself time to digest and share the event. (I may even reveal the Secret of the Slinky...)

Getting to the symposium was a trick and a half, though. We had planned on taking off work/school on Thursday (the symposium started on Friday) so we would have the entire day to travel. By car, it takes about 8 hours on good roads to make the trip. We didn't have good roads on Thursday. We didn't have bad roads on Thursday. We had white-knuckle, chains-in-the-pass, ohmygosharewegoingtoditchit roads on Thursday. Did I mention how much I appreciate my DH for being such a good snow driver?

After weeks of no snow and relatively clear passes, we hit a late winter storm that caused the DOT to close the pass... right after we made it over (thankfully). Mid-state was pretty clear, but then right around dinnertime we hit whiteout conditions - about 80 miles of whiteout conditions. DH was exhausted by the time we arrived, but we got there after almost 11 hours on the road. My girls were troopers, watching lots of Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends (we loves iTunes, we do) and listening to everything from Imogen Heap to Shared Voice to Thomas Dolby.

DH's mom had chili all ready to warm our tummies and in general, it felt very much like being home again. After living in the Palouse for 14 some odd years, it was great to be back, even with the cold and the snow and the snow and the cold, all such typical weather for the region. I fussed over my workshop materials before I went to bed and made a few calls with one of the organizers to be sure I knew the schedule for the following day. Before falling asleep, I realized that I was coming full circle in a lot of different ways - returning to present after 3 years, returning to the campus where I went to school and worked for 5 years, returning to see DH's family in their town after over 2 years.

But most of all, coming full circle to a Woman of Color symposium, the same sort of event I went to in Vancouver in the Fall of 1999 when I discovered to my great surprise that I wasn't a white man after all the years of trying to pass as a member of the mainstream. That I was, quite distinctly, a Woman of Color and that perhaps the discovery might be something well worth writing about.

Next: Multicultural Communication with Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith