We all have rituals. One of mine is to turn up narratives that make me uncomfortable in my white skin. The Establishment is my daily dose of discomfort. This morning, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed while drinking my coffee, I came upon this article by Ijeoma Oluo: "White People Will Always Let You Down." The title stung; I knew I needed to read it.
Like much of Oluo's writing, it was filled with uncomfortable truths, like this: "People talk about building bridges, about finding common ground, and so you find that, and you walk together. And then when it is most important you find yourself standing alone over the water where the bridge has been unfinished and you look over at your friend and they say to you, “Oh no, I won’t go there.” And then you look down, and like in the cartoons, you fall." As someone who has built an organization driven by the "bridge building" story, this truth was hard to hear because...it's true.
I have to admit, I don't particularly enjoy this ritual. It's not a pleasant experience to seek out narratives that amplify personal or collective pain, and then link those things to my status as a white person or the structures that ensure my status. But the ritual is necessary, like exercise. It's essential to my health - as a storyteller, a "bridge builder," a white citizen, a mother. Because each time I turn up an uncomfortable truth, I flex the muscles that help me question my assumptions, listen anew, and chose what I want to model for my white child.
Germans have a name for this kind of uncomfortable process. It's called Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. In her essay, "Can German Atonement Teach Americans To Finally Face Slavery," Jane Yager describes Aufarbeitung as "notoriously difficult to translate — the English translators at my job bickered about whether to render it as 'unearthing and confronting the past,' 'coming to terms with the past' or 'reappraisal of the past.' The problem with all these translations is that they imply an endpoint, but Aufarbeitung has no closure. It’s supposed to be a ceaseless process of digging up the most uncomfortable parts of history — your country’s and your family’s — and grappling with what the actions of past generations mean for the present." Aufarbeitung suggests a kind of ongoing listening process - a collective pull to continually listen anew.
Whenever we're engaged in a process of listening for new or different information it not only disrupts the reality we stand on, but it shakes our very sense of self. It takes courage to question our core narratives because we have to accept that we might be wrong. Americans don't like to be wrong or to admit to our own fallibility. But I firmly believe that that is exactly what's required right now - to seek out uncomfortable truths and to listen for nuance in the stories circling around us.
We are at war with each other to define the America we want to live in. We're fighting over which narrative(s) will win. None of us is exempt from this process. We're all co-authors, and we must think carefully and critically about the stories we're consuming and letting loose within our communities, virtual or otherwise. Because those stories will create our future.
The dominant narratives are being cracked wide open. What are we going to do with this moment? What stories are we going turn up? How will turning up those narratives help or harm others? How do we want to narrate our path forward together?
We will be gathering to explore these questions on June 29 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. at Woodard Lane Co-Housing in Olympia. Won't you join us?
Founder + Curator
Window Seat Media
Who decides what stories we hear and what are the implications? How does the process of constructing narratives impact group behavior?
For the past 10 weeks, I had the good fortune of exploring these and other timely questions with a small cohort of students enrolled in The Evergreen State College's Grays Harbor Program. I was hired as an adjunct faculty to teach a course I designed called Enduring Stories. While not an official part of my work here at Window Seat Media, it’s hard to separate my teaching experience this winter from our work and mission at Window Seat Media.
The opportunity arose from a creative collaboration with a faculty who teaches a year-long course on the Harbor called Community Connections. His students were engaging in oral history projects during winter quarter; offering an elective that focused on story added depth to student learning and complemented the Humanities Washington grant project we were working on this year.
Each week in Enduring Stories we read ethnographies, watched documentaries, and listened to podcasts. We thought and talked about the power of listening, and students practiced listening skills by carrying out a story gathering project of their own in their community. About half way through the quarter, one of my students asked, “Are we ever going to answer these questions?” I empathized with her need for clarity and closure. I too struggle living in the grey areas. Part of my goal was to help students look at life through the lens of subjectivity. Our perception, which leads us to act, is based on who we are in the world – our ever shifting individual and group identity.
It’s amazing how much my own thoughts on these qustions have changed over the past few months. It seems we are in the midst of yet another struggle to define “the American story.” Who is an American? Who is not an American? What values and qualities define "America"? Who decides the answers to these questions? Of course, this is not a new struggle. Yet, we do seem to have entered a time of disruption, and we are all authors of this collective story.
As we spring back into action at Window Seat Media (after a bit of a hiatus as I focused on my teaching), we will continue to engage in this conversation through the various facets of our work. We have an exciting line-up of Resilience Project events, new video projects, and more. Stay tuned!
Founder + Curator
Window Seat Media
Forty years ago, Cambodia faced a humanitarian crisis similar in scale what we're witnessing in Aleppo. Between 1975-1979 at least 20% of the Cambodian population - 1.7 million - died from starvation, work-exhuastion, or execution when the Communist Party of Kampuchea rose to power. Musicians were targeted, in particular, because their role as culture bearers threatened the rise of communist ideology in Cambodia under Pol Pot's rule. As many as 90% of musicians were killed. Close to 150,000 Cambodians came to the US as refugees, many of whom settled in the Seattle/Tacoma area.
Last month I interviewed Srey Ryser, the founder of the Cambodian Cultural Celebration, for a video I produced for Washington State Park's Folk and Traditional Arts in the Parks Program. The Cambodian Cultural Celebration is an all-day event produced in partnership with Washington State Parks featuring music, dance, food and martial arts from Cambodia. It is a multi-generational celebration, revivial, and acknowledgement of the expressive arts that were brutally supressed under Pot's regime.
"The community looks forward to this event each year," says Srey, "as an opportunity to showcase our cutlure and our traditions. It brings the community together."
I interviewed Srey the day after the election. She spoke with poignance about the significance of this annual celebration - an event that is supported by a state institution - to the Cambodian Community in Western Washington. With her permission, I am sharing a bit of her story from our interview and video stills I gathered for the project.
I came to America when I was a teenager. We try to blend in to the American culture so much that we forget where we came from and at some point it's not important because that's not the norm, it's not what's expected. Now that we're older we can look back and say, "I didn't value my heritage. I didn't value my parents. Here's all the things that we went through as a community, as a culture for so long, and so many people don't understand that.
[The Cambodian Cultural Celebration] ties all of us together as Cambodian Americans. Having that tie back to the community is special to me and I need to teach my kids all the different traditions that I celebrate as a Cambodian whether they chose it in the furture or not. That's their chose. But at least they can understand: this my mom's value; this is what my mom celebrates; this is my mom's culture. I just don't want them to forget where their mom comes from.
Instruments that are brought from Cambodia are a highlight. People rarely get to see those because they're so old. The people who were trained to play those were killed in the war, so there's very few left to learn. So when we can get someone to come to perform using all those old instruments it's a huge highlight for the community. A highlight for me! I get emotional when I see them because it's so rare anymore.
In Cambodia, to be able to be a great dancer you have to start really young. Hard work. We have some of our young dancers that start as early as two or three. Really young. Most of our dancers are girls. The type of dance they perform are meant to be performed in the Royal Palace. In the past, in Cambodia, I would never ever seen those dances. It's meant for royalty. We're not. My sister danced in the Royal Palace when she was little. We've heard about it. I've never seen it. There are certain things that hold special places for certain level of your title. If you're royalty this is what you get. If you're a commoner, this is what you get. But now that we're here in America those dances can come out and they can learn those and show those, the thing that's happening behind closed doors. We don't have that barrier any more. People who are dancers for the Royal Palace are now dancers for us. They can perform. And to see that and to say, "Wow, this is what the King saw. I can see the same thing now." So it's quite an honor to be present to be in a place where you can take it all in and realize, we're all equal.
I hope that each time [park-goers] come to this event they learn something new. And I hope they ask questions. I hope they're curious enough to learn more and come back the next year. We just want people to learn more about us as a culture.
Window Seat Media gathers and shares stories to build community resilience, cultural identity, and human connection. Each year we focus on a theme and invite our community to join us on a year-long exploration of that theme through workshops, exhibits, and events. Our purpose is to use multi-platform storytelling to amplify and cultivate what unites us as humans while unveiling the beauty and complexity of difference.
We're excited to introduce The Resilience Project: Stories of Kindness, Strength, and Hope as our focus for 2017. The Resilience Project explores what underlies our human capacity to persevere. We’re curious about our ability to offer up kindness and hope – to ourselves and others – in the face of adversity and to have the strength to carry on. Our hope is that through this project we offer opportunities to slow down and delve deeply into one aspect of the human condition.
We'll be announcing our series of activities in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!
I’ve attempted to write several times in the aftermath of the election. I think many can relate to the sense of urgency to say something in response to the turmoil our nation is experiencing. Yet I’ve found myself becoming increasingly quiet and introspective as I wade through the deep trauma that is inundating our nation. I’ve been reading, watching, and listening voraciously. As I bear witness in the cybersphere - to ideas and positions and anger and fear and grief - I keep remembering the words of a dear friend: “Change happens because of relationships.”
This is not to suggest that laws and policy and protests and acts of solidarity aren't important. Equity within our institutions and day-to-day life demands all of these things. Yet the need to sit across the table from our fellow humans and have a meaningful connection and conversation also feels deeply nurturing and necessary. The challenge becomes inviting someone into your "window seat" with whom you fervently disagree, or with whom you feel painfully vulnerable, and find a way to move through that discomfort to a more enlightened place. For some, personal safety prevents us from engaging in such conversations - and that is tragic. For others, we lack the skills to navigate such conversation with integrity, respect, and compassion. Most of us were never taught as American children how to have really courageous and transformative conversations.
When I founded Window Seat Media earlier this year I wrote a statement of purpose that reflects my desire to foster opportunities to sit and listen that transform our world:
“Window Seat Media is an always-evolving experiment, trying our best to listen and effect social change. We work with communities, groups, and institutions to gather and share stories that express their values and traditions, suffering and aspirations. We do this to help build community resilience, strengthen cultural identity, and tackle complex challenges with creativity and commitment. Our purpose is to join with people and localities to help foster a hope and compassion.”
I believe deeply this mission. Yet I have been sitting with the seemingly impossible complexity of the practice I am compelled to cultivate. How could I possibly create spaces for deep human transformation through sharing stories? It felt more abstract and arrogant than ever. I should also say that have I no illusions of grandeur. I live a small life, in a small city, at the tip of a small inlet on the Puget Sound. I am just one person reverberating in this enormous human experiment. Yet aren't we all? And isn't how we choose to contribute to that cacophony what matters most? We all have the potential to be leaders in our own small and flawed ways.
In times of great uncertainty, the need for role models feels more important than ever. If we choose to listen, we will find people who are creating opportunities to cultivate compassion, understanding, and healing. They are driven by an innate curiosity and a deep need for discovery rather than truth. It takes an incredible amount of resilience to continue to peel back the layers of human fallibility, especially for those whose own human rights, dignity, and safety are at stake because of it. In my practice at Window Seat Media, I have found myself increasingly drawn to scholars like George Yancy, activists like Sisonke Msimang, story gatherers like David Isay, journalists like Krista Tippett and Al Leston, and world leaders like President Obama. These are people who choose to linger in the painful dualities of the human condition. And I am grateful to have people in my own life who model for me a compassionate discovery of our shared humanity, and who ground and steady me on this path ahead.
The idea of Window Seat Media being an “ever-evolving experiment” helps to free me from the immobilizing disease of apathy and disillusionment, and from the danger of visions of grandeur or fixed positions. Instead, it creates room for humility and error and flexibility, and it nurtures a commitment to curiosity and deep listening. How can story serve as a catalyst of social change? How can we create safe spaces to share our most painful or joyful experiences and our most deeply held values or aspirations? How can that sharing serve to transform the human condition? These are the questions we'll explore as we make our way into the uncertainty of the future. I don’t have the answers. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps that's the point. It is an endless journey of seeking and listening and learning.
I have much work to do, and I have never felt more awake. I hope you will follow along.
Founder + Curator
Window Seat Media
Democratizing Engagement Through Sharing Stories
“We’re often so busy doing that we forget to tell the story of our work.”
On Tuesday I traveled over the mountains to the Wenatchee Valley to an annual conference of conservation district staff. Window Seat Media was invited as a presenter to give a workshop in the communications and education track of the conference. Our workshop focused on the power and potential of community-driven storytelling to deeply engage our communities in our work. At the end of the workshop, one of the participants commented: “We’re often so busy doing that we forget to tell the story of our work.”
Absolutely! And why is telling our story important? In the age of information overload and electronic “friendships” how can telling our stories build “audience engagement”? I’ve been noodling on this question recently. How can we provide really meaningful opportunities for people to engage and, in turn, DO something to build resilience, identity and connection in our communities? How can we democratize our engagement to build commitment across socio-economic lines to find solutions to the most challenging problems?
One of the driving principles and values of Window Seat Media is experimentation. I’ve been curious about the role that community-driven oral history can play in building engagement and bringing diverse voices to the table, and I want to experiment with that idea. Last month I traveled to Portland to attend the Vanport Mosaic Festival. The Festival is“dedicated to capturing, celebrating, and preserving the experiences of those who lived in Vanport" during the flood of 1948 that destroyed Vanport and displaced the 13,000 residents (I think) who lived there. The weekend-long festival included film screenings of community produced oral histories, a play, an academic symposium, a walking tour, an exhibit, and Vanport resident reunion events. The events were not only sold out, the attendance was also the most diverse I’ve seen of any event I’ve attended in Portland. The project clearly resonated deeply across the city. It was a beautiful expression of community engagement across lines of difference to raise awareness about the diverse experiences of the residents who lived in Vanport during the flood.
Our sense of community and cultural identity is embodied and expressed through the physical places and spaces we construct and inhabit. What happens to a community’s sense of self when those spaces and places undergo significant transformation? What role can memory, story, and artifacts play in fostering resilience, building community, and sparking creative problem-solving across lines of difference during times of transition and change? Over the past few months, Window Seat Media has been collaborating with Evergreen State College faculty, Stephen Buxbaum, who teaches at the Grays Harbor campus, to design a series of events in Grays Harbor that will explore these questions with area residents.
The events will invite residents to participate in an inquiry about the built environment that follows the curricular design of Stephen’s course: Engaging with primary resources in the fall, community-driven oral histories the winter, and exploring contemporary issues in the spring. We will bring primary source materials to life in the fall along an interactive and participatory tour of places and spaces that hold special significance to the evolution of the Harbor. In the winter, we will perform stories from the Harbor and introduce residents to the value of community-driven oral history and the growing collection of 40 plus oral histories collected by Harbor student residents through Stephen's course. In the spring, community members will be invited to participate in a community conversation to share their concerns and hopes with local leaders regarding issues around housing and homelessness. Each term, students in the Community Connections Program will be invited to participate and showcase their learning and work with their community.
We were invited to submit an application for funding through Humanities Washington and are in the final stages of the application process. Keep your fingers crossed! I’m so curious to see where this project will take us and what will emerge.
Founder + Curator
Window Seat Media