Portland!

This past Saturday evening, I arrived in Portland, OR, shortly after 8PM.  Having just spent 11 hours driving up from San Francisco, my rideshare deposited me at the Hipbone Studio, bags and all, so I could attend the Urban Tellers showcase put on by Portland Story Theater.  Despite the fact that I had been traveling since 8:30AM and was pretty tired, I was whisked into the darkness of the theater and spent the next two hours listening intently to the true stories unfolding before me.

Portland Story Theater is like a local version of The Moth (whose podcast you should subscribe to if you don’t already).  Their focus is on true stories, both personal narrative as well as historical events.  Urban Tellers is a workshop series in which “ordinary people” learn to tell their own personal narratives, and the showcase is where they get to present the results of their work.  The founders of PST, Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, share my belief that through sharing our stories and connecting on that raw, human, level, we can break down barriers and build a better community.  They strive to do this in every work they present.

Lynne and Lawrence have also been my generous hosts in Portland, having spontaneously offered me a place to stay after I emailed them about PST last week.  The last few days have been full of wonderful conversation, lots of reflection, and excitement about my next steps.  I’m learning a lot about direct, simple storytelling, and have begun to think about my own stories.  Last night I got to sit in on the final post-performance reflection for the group of Urban Tellers that just performed, and tonight I will be sitting in on the weekly workshop of the group that will be performing in a few weeks.  I’ve connected with some wonderful people, and am looking forward to the rest of my week in Portland!

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, Oregon Coast

My store! They even spelled my name right!

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Grateful Sunday

Welcome to the second post in my new tradition of Grateful Sundays.  With this Sunday, I am in a new location: Menlo Park, CA.  I’m looking forward to spending some time with my sister and brother-in-law, and of exploring all the Bay area has to offer!

Things that I’m grateful for this week:

– New friends and all the wonderful ideas, resources, and worlds they introduce me to
– The beauty of nature, and the variety of natural landscapes in this country
– Family
– Having the confidence and determination to make things happen for myself

Starstruck in LA…

It’s not what you think.

I’m not the kind of person who goes chasing after movie stars.  Heck – I’m in Los Angeles, and I haven’t even gone out of my way at ALL to spot famous people (well, ok, I was kind of hoping I might see someone when I went to the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, but I would have gone there anyway!).  So this may sound a bit silly to the un-initiated, but today – while visiting the Cornerstone Theater Company – I think I experienced quite possibly the closest thing I get to starstruck.

You have to understand a few things in order to get an inkling of what I was feeling when I walked up to this graffiti-tagged office door in the middle of the Arts District.

First of all, Cornerstone is one of the longest-running and most well-known community-based theater companies in the country.  When I started investigating this kind of work early in college, they were one of the first names I came across and I quickly became fascinated with their work.  I spent hours poring over the pages of their website, reading about their history and current projects. The names quickly became familiar to me, and I dreamt about working with them some day.  When I did my senior project, a research investigation of the history and practices of community-based theater, it was really an excuse to learn more about this company and others like it.

Cornerstone is a company that really pulls at my heart-strings – in many ways it’s like the City Year of theater.  It was started, like City Year, by a group of young idealists with an interest in service. They wanted to bring theater to communities that didn’t have access to the arts. It was an experiment to see if it would work. They spent their first five years traveling around to rural communities, initially creating productions of well-known plays.  Soon, however, they ran into a community that wasn’t interested in Hamlet, or Our Town: “What’s in it for us?” the community members asked. “What does this have to do with US? We can’t relate to this.”  So these young idealists stopped, and listened. They heard the voice of the community, listened to their stories… and decided to re-write A Midsummer Night’s Dream, using the stories of that town.  The community was empowered, and it was a huge success.

Posters for a few of Cornerstone’s past productions

After a while they decided it was time to put down roots, and the company relocated to Los Angeles to build a home there. They have continued to create new works with and about communities all over the city and across the state.  For many years now, they have worked in cycles, focusing on a particular theme and exploring that theme with the various communities they work with.  They are in the process of starting their next cycle, in which they will focus on hunger and food issues.  They will be partnering with organizations across the city such as Homeboy Industries and food banks.  At the end of each cycle, they do a “bridge show,” bringing together all the communities they have worked with to create a culminating piece.  In this way, they allow communities to explore their own stories, as well as providing a space for different communities to interact and learn from one another.

The Cornerstone Theater Company has been building community and producing innovative theater for 25 years.  Needless to say, they have sort of grown to rock star status in my eyes.

Cornerstone, you rock my world.

India’s Growing Pains: A story of change

Recently, my mom sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal about India’s education system and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. The article focuses on a relatively recent law requiring private schools – which are infinitely better than the failing public school system – to set aside a 25% quota of their seats for children from impoverished families.  The hope is that this will enable a portion of the millions of impoverished children to improve their situations – ideally, growing the middle class and narrowing the income gap.

The article reveals both promising and somewhat disturbing outcomes of this experiment, which have brought to mind my recent experience attending the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in New Orleans.  In a country in which it is the norm for even a middle class family to have one or more servants, and in which the caste system has persisted despite various legal attempts to thwart it, this sudden change of circumstances has caught many people off guard.  Many people are unexpectedly faced with a situation in which their children are attending the same school as their servants’ children, and their reactions reveal deeply rooted ideas about class and status that sound eerily familiar to the racist mindsets that were not uncommon in this country such a short time ago.

Photo from the article - the boy on the right is one of the kids who has been allowed into the school as part of the quota. He is now the top student in his class.

Granted, the problems in India are of a somewhat different nature from the problems this country has faced: there is a language barrier between rich and poor, the culture is different, the gaps between rich and poor are much wider than they have ever been (to my knowledge) in this country. Yet there is a lot of overlap as well: a historically subservient class, vast differences in the quality of schools, arguments for “separate but equal” schooling (at least until the poor kids get up to par with the wealthier ones).  The fact of the matter is, people from different classes are uncomfortable being at the same table as one another.  It forces their relationship to change.  Sometimes, however, a little forced change in relationships is necessary to get over the first big hurdle.  The situation in India may not be violent right now, but just as the Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists had to stand at the forefront to break down barriers, the low-income children and their parents who are enrolling them at these schools are entering new territory and breaking down walls.

I don’t know if this quota is the best way to bridge the privilege gap or not, but I do know that bringing people together at the same table is an important first step.  Until people can get to know one another and see each other as equals, that gap will never grow smaller, no matter how many laws the government puts into place.

For now, India’s private school classrooms may just be the tables that people can gather around – no matter how difficult it may be.

Girl Power!

Catfish in Balmorhea Springs Pool, my campsite in the deserts of west Texas

Dear oh deary me! It’s been almost a whole week since I last posted!  Apologies for letting time get away from me – I spent the first 2.5 days this week traveling across the desert from Austin to LA and camping along the way – needless to say I did not have internet access, let alone could I charge my computer!  Upon arriving in LA, I checked into a hostel, which, while full of lovely international peeps, was a mite bit crowded and had REEEEEEALLY slow internet.  Plus I think I was catching up on sleep lost while on the road, and adjusting to the two hour time difference.  At long last, I have found a lovely co-op which has taken me in, and am starting to get settled into life in LA.

Ok, enough with the excuses.  Time to get you all caught up!  Today I’d like to spotlight one of the very coolest organizations that I checked out while I was in Austin: Grrl Action!

Program format: Arts mentorship program.
Art form(s):
Primarily theatre, but incorporates many different art forms.
Location:
Austin, TX
Community served:
Girls roughly between the ages of 13-18.
Mission:
To help teenage girls find voice and vision through the power of performance.

Grrl Action is an awesome program that focuses on developing artistic/theatre skills in teenage girls, and in doing so helping them to find their voice.  They are a subsidiary program of the Rude Mechs professional theatre company.  Two cool things about their program: 1. It’s a very safe space for girls to come together and explore things that are important to them, and 2. They have a great mix of girls – because of their connection with Rude Mechs, they get daughters of patrons of the theatre, but they also offer full scholarships and work with public housing, so they get girls from lower income backgrounds as well.  The girls learn a lot from each other and really seem to open up and blossom in the space.

A key philosophy shared with me by co-director Madge Darlington was actress Deb Margolin’s idea that, “Your everyday lives are worthy of performance. Everyone has a story to tell.”  I really connect with what this organization is doing because it resonates so much with what theatre did for me, but it takes it to the next level.  Theatre gave me a voice, it was an outlet for me to experience the world and learn to feel comfortable in my own skin.  Yet this idea that “your everyday lives are worthy of performance” goes a step further: it encourages girls to find the value in their own lives, to examine what they have experienced, learn from it, and create something beautiful to share with the world.

Cool news: a sister branch of Grrl Action is in the works for Boston!

Austin!

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Some of my more attentive readers may be wondering what I’m doing and why I haven’t posted about Austin yet… well the fact of the matter is, I’ve been too busy LIVING Austin to write about it.  I think that’s suited to the character of the city – it is a place to truly be lived in.  Over the last week and a half I have had the pleasure, with the aid of my dear friend Katie Visco, of discovering the most wonderful parts of Austin and the nicest people it has to offer.

Austin is a beautiful city, with lots of gardens, a beautiful river, and lots of nice people.  It is also unbearably hot and humid.  Despite that fact, I have managed to enjoy the best of it: swimming in Barton Springs, eating Amy’s Ice Cream, catching some good music, checking out the ubiquitous food trucks (I’ve never seen so many in one city!), perusing the food samples at the flagship Whole Foods store (it’s HUGE!), and just enjoying good company.  I have also, true to the mission of this trip, checked out a few great programs which I’ll post more about in the next few days: the Theatre Action Project, Grrl Action, and the Pro Arts Collective.

More than anything though, Austin has been a place to relax and reflect.  I’ve been thinking a lot about community building, what it takes, and what kind of environment it requires.  I have been very impressed by organizations such as the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans and the Pro Arts Collective here in Austin that serve not only as arts organizations but also as conveners, connectors, and active voices in their communities.  They promote and foster the arts in a variety of ways as well as providing a space for the community to come together.  I’m not sure that I really have anything further to say on that at the moment, it’s just something that has been on my mind.

At any rate, I head off in the direction of LA tomorrow, and will be on the road for a few days.  Hope to post once more before I leave.

The Beloved Community – How Close Are We?

Martin Luther King, Jr.

As any good City Year alum will tell you, one of the central tenets of Martin Luther King’s ideology was the Beloved Community: essentially, an ideal society in which extremes of inequality are eliminated, in which people of all races, creeds, and nationalities are fully integrated, living in unity with one another.

As human beings, we are designed to live co-dependently. We rely on the larger community for survival – each person has a role to play, whether it be growing food, making clothing, or providing services such as education or healthcare.

The problem is, in our modern society, we are bombarded with images and stories of hatred, of ignorance, and just plain criminality. We put up our guards to keep ourselves safe, but in doing so we sacrifice a little bit of faith in humanity. The more we give in to the stories we hear in the media, believing that our world is composed of people who are out to get us in one way or the other, the further we stray from the Beloved Community. How can we live in unity without trust?

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that we should throw caution to the wind. As the proverb says: “Trust your neighbors but lock your doors.” I just think it’s time to put a little more faith in our community.

While on the road, I am more than ever before at the mercy of strangers. I have relied on strangers for a ride, for a meal, for a place to stay, to loan me a bike in a new city, to give me directions… the list goes on (don’t worry folks – this is all with a healthy amount of caution and care – and I only stay with “strangers” who are friends of friends). The lesson I have learned is that ultimately, the vast majority of people in this world are helpful and friendly, when you let them be.

I remember reading a story recently about a woman in a hurry to get to work, who trusted a homeless man with the keys to her house so he could get something to eat. She realized after the fact that perhaps she should have been more cautious, and began to worry about her home being vandalized or precious items stolen. When she arrived home at the end of the day, however, she found her home in better shape than when she had left it – the man had cleaned her house and left a note of thanks. The note said, roughly, “Thank you for trusting me today. You have no idea how much it means. I was recently released from prison, and have received nothing but hatred and distrust since I got out. The trust you placed in me today has given me a new faith and hope to move forward.” Now, this is a very rough paraphrase, but you get the idea. When we place trust in others, amazing things can happen. And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, when you have the whole community together, anything is possible, because our diversity brings all the necessary tools to one place.

So today, try placing a little extra trust in a stranger, make a new friend, do someone a favor…. help to build THE BELOVED COMMUNITY.