Thursday, October 13, 2016

Kyla Villaroya: Filipino Community Stories

This is a guest post from a former student, Kyla Villaroya. I recently asked her for a testimonial, and instead she sent me her college essay, which unbeknownst to me explored her experience during a Baranov Museum film intensive on Filipino Community Stories. Her writing is as beautiful as her spirit!

For as long as I can remember I’ve always had a strong curiosity for the way things came to be. My days as an elementary student involved writing diary entries on the stories of my parents and checking out advanced books on human behavior. However, one particular experience that launched my passion for history was a summer ethnography film intensive with Kodiak Island’s Baranov Museum. The theme for that year was on the Filipino History of Kodiak Island. As we discovered that there was a lack of information of early and recent Filipino immigrants, I was even more motivated to excel in this course and learn more about my people. 
For two productive weeks, I worked on gathering documents and creating documentaries on Philippine history to be archived. I conducted interviews with Filipino community members and scholars on Kodiak Filipino history in general, while also paying
attention to the main topic of my film: the Filipino-AmericanAssociation of Kodiak Island. Digging into newspaper and photograph archives, I uncovered what was a poorly documented story in Kodiak. I then used these sources to craft a short, informative documentary. To expand my knowledge further I read books about ethnographic methods and the history of discrimination that Asian Americans have experienced in Alaska and United States.
While in the class, I shared my personal stories of immigrating to the US from the Philippines at five years old and the discrimination my family and peers felt as Asian-Americans. I gained the courage to use my own experiences to draw parallels between what we were learning about history and what immigrants experience today. My classmates were inspired by my journey that they even incorporated it into their own films! The film intensive also provided self-confidence to ask evocative and challenging questions of my interview subjects. For instance, I remember asking an interviewee on the brutal murder of a localFil-Am Association leader in the 1990s- a topic that most people shy away from, but one I thought to be an important aspect in their history.
I even changed the subject of my film. I was tasked with exploring history of the Fil-Am Association of Kodiak, but after beginning the interviews I determined that looking at
only one Filipino organization wasn't enough. Instead, I highlighted three different Filipino associations in Kodiak, producing a film that was later displayed in the “Filipino Community Stories” exhibit.
After the film intensive I became a regular volunteer at the Kodiak Baranov Museum. I spent my summer with Marie and Anjuli sorting new materials and transcribing interview footage. Through my volunteer work I discovered one interviewee in particular, one of the earliest Filipino residents in Kodiak and the well-loved janitor of my elementary years: Felix Canete. I sought to continue his story which turned into a project solely on Felix’s journey to America.
My time working one-on-one with Marie and Anjuli allowed me to use my curiosity as a way to serve my community. During these times, both Anjuli and Marie spent countless days working one-on-one to assist me. They took time off work to accompany me when I traveled to Felix’s residence for interviews. Every morning they always had new resources I
could contact, new leads to research, and readings that pertained to my topic.  Because of their dedication to me as a student and my community’s enthusiasm for the stories I was producing, I really excelled in the social studies. I am beyond grateful for instructors like them. My passion I cultivated with this experience lead me to shining in the next years of high school.

I am currently a freshman at D’youville College in Buffalo, New York on my way to becoming an Occupational Therapist. Just like how I explored and restored an aspect of the Kodiak’s community history through the Baranov Museum, I will restore the capabilities of my patients and uncover their personal stories as an Occupational Therapist.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Beautiful Mess

I haven’t blogged in a long time, and I have the same reasons and excuses that we all have. Too busy. Too much. Too full. For myself, underneath that is the desire to blog from a really relaxed, calm, centered place. I imagine myself spending hours in a quiet place looking out over magnificent trees or ocean. Words and beautiful reflections would come like spray off the waves. The one time this
the oasis of fish camp
summer I did write was at fish camp when trees and ocean and sleep and time with friends were mine. I wrote out the beauty I was experiencing (and it WAS beautiful!), but it felt false to latch on to a small window of beauty for my blog rather than the messy patchwork that is everyday life.

Everyday life is messy. There’s either too much or too little, the sun is scorching or the rain forces us inside. We are over-stimulated by too much activity or lonely with too little. Our desires flip-flop like the summer salmon we drag onto shore, trying to get comfortable and finding it impossible in the open air. Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about! We all know what it is to be overwhelmed with work or underwhelmed with life, to feel far from source.

When I blog (and when I live) I tend to take a gleam of light in the midst of the mess and celebrate it, feeling this is the medicine I need. The beautiful question a student asks in class, the glass ball that washes up onto the beach in-between Styrofoam and plastic, the sweet cup of tea in the middle of the morning rush. But what if the gleam of light is the mess? What if I give myself permission to complain, to sit in the ashes, to be overwhelmed when I’m overwhelmed, and not to make it something beautiful? What would happen if I just let things be what they are, messy, beautiful, harsh, boring, loving, uncomfortable? Yesterday at dinner I shared that a taste of yogurt and candied roses transported me to heaven, and my son said “but MOM, heaven is right HERE.” Is this mess, right here and right now, heaven?

Here I am, writing from a lovely and mundane mess. Tchabo is at Boy Scout camp this week, giving me the luxury of day time to work instead of in the wee hours. I have mixed feelings about it, as his day at camp is too many hours for his age, but the time for me is a treasure. This morning I smelled the smoke from the forest fire outside of Anchorage and felt a profound nostalgia for Uganda where the aroma of wood-smoke permeates every inhabited nook. I’m working on a curriculum for 10th graders to talk about their identity and how to honor themselves, and I have a giddy excitement that I get to go on that journey with them, and also a sense of how daunting it is to talk about identity, what a life-long process it is to discover the always-changing self. I dreamed last night that I couldn’t make a crepe correctly, that everything kept going wrong. I’m enjoying a cup of green tea. I am sticking with the waves, and I look forward to seeing where they take me. Perhaps, like salmon, upstream to my source. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

On Being a Sunflower

My birth month is typically accompanied by self-reflection, an almost involuntary reflex that I have grown to count on and value. It is a time to go back to my beginnings and my roots, to celebrate the ways that I’m honoring these roots, and to take stock of the ways that I could use an adjustment. While I do this throughout the year, February is a special time, and it helps when my son reminds me every morning “It’s almost the special day, it’s almost your BIRTHDAY!”

My work of late has been to let myself shine like a sunflower. Words that pop into mind around this work are self-centered (literally, centered in myself) and full-of-myself (growing into my own full-ness), ego-centric (centered in the “I”), all expressions that I grew up to think of as wrong. Perhaps it’s a shortcoming of our language and culture that there isn’t a word that conveys correct honoring of one’s ego, and so ironically we have found ourselves at the alter of ego and self-promotion in popular culture and beyond. We are either self-effacing, or self-glorifying, the woman who constantly apologizes, or the man who relishes in that apology. Both miss the mark.

There is a laundry list of ways that I have tried to hide my sunflower. Volunteering excessively rather than honoring the value of my time. Working really hard to make the grouchy person in the room like me, as if their approval will affirm me. Deflecting compliments. Hunching my shoulders. Apologizing after my inner lioness lets out a needed growl.

It’s easy to misunderstand what it means to unveil the sunflower inside each of us. Suddenly we find ourselves caught in new traps. I urgently have to express what I feel the moment I feel it. You have to hear and understand who I am and how I shine. The way I see it is correct. My voice is more important, my work richer. No one praises me so I will praise myself.

Let’s look at the sunflower, herself. Her stalk is thick and hairy, quintessentially exemplifying the world stalky. She sways in the wind, sensitive to the breeze, but exists in a firm way that doesn’t easily crush. She is unabashedly tall, and opens into a huge, meaty brown heart and surprisingly delicate, bright yellow petals. She is not ashamed or devoured by the hummingbirds that feast on her seeds; she knows it is an exchange. She just is, beautiful and authentic, comfortable as she mirrors the brightness of the sun. She lives in a field of other sunflowers; she has no need to be the only one, and the vast beauty of the collective enhances her shine.   

This month, these days, the sunflower is my compass. In a roomful of middle school students, exuberant, moody, questioning, I focus on keeping my center and my balance. When suggesting ideas to a group I remind myself not to start with an apologetic or minimizing clause. I’ve nearly eliminated the word “just” from my vocabulary.  While all ages have their virtues and shortcomings, the further I progress into my 30s the more grateful I am for the sense of comfort I have to simply shine. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Grant-Writing and the Underground Poet

The past two months I have been neck deep in the process of writing a series of grant proposals. When I imagine what kind of facebook posts could showcase how I spend my time I cringe with the thought of dry, technical memes that say things like “do your project goals match with your measurement tools?” or sweeping and possibly vague statements like “engage diverse communities in meaningful dialogue.” When one gets on a roll with grant writing, one wonders if the inner poet is forced into deep underground hiding. 

Tedious as it may be, proposal writing forces me to do one of my favorite things: talk to people.  I am working on several proposals that relate to cross-cultural dialogue in Anchorage, and yesterday I met with Dr. Chad Farrell, the demographer whose research revealed that Mountain View is the most diverse neighborhood in the country. I appreciated his humility as he watched his findings become household conversation throughout Anchorage and the world, and his interest in having his research be a starting point for deeper conversations rather than our community’s self-congratulatory ending point. The demographic fact of diversity simple is, but how are we as a community going to move with it? Our conversation had personal reverberations as I thought how one of the reasons I moved from Kodiak to Anchorage, and to Fairview, is so that my 6 year old son can see more faces that look like his own. I never shared that with him, but when he came home from school with a self-portrait with handsome brown skin and dark brown, curly hair, I felt my heart relax a little. It relaxed even more when he said, “I miss Kodiak, but I do like that Anchorage has people that look like me!” 

Conversations like that with Dr. Farrell free my imagination (and perhaps the underground poet trying to weather the grant-writing storm), and then I get to bring new insights to the grant-writing process. Tangibles like the fact that the stories of minority community members are under-documented, and that there is a gap in research on the immigrant experience in Anchorage become arguments for film workshops for youth to research and tell these stories through documentary film. The poet’s fire leaks through to the proposal, even though cloaked in technical language and flow-charts. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Stop Helping; Start Seeing

We are rightfully raised that it is good to be of service to others. As a woman, biology and culture together weave a story of volunteering time to help others, whether they are friends going through a difficult time, projects that need helping hands, children to tend to.

Volunteer Teaching in Uganda
In many ways I have dedicated my life to service and giving. My Masters is in Educational Development. I was going to live in Uganda with my now ex-husband and be helpful. At that time in my life, my idea of being helpful was inextricably linked to making changes that would positively affect people’s lives. I studied and pondered how girls could get a better chance at schooling, and how quality of education could improve in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was around this time that I developed a sense of guilt for my white privilege, for my upper-middle class upbringing, and a sense that I had to make up for it through giving what I had away, whether it be my time, my money, my skills, or my energy. My eyes were opened to the seemingly random power structures of the world, and how by chance of geography, race and class I had ended up somewhere on top.

Like all of us, I have stumbled along the way. The friends I kept helping and then ended up resenting. The family rift I couldn’t fix. Travelling across the world for service projects and realizing that it’s actually me that might be growing more than anyone I am working for. These experiences force me to ask what does it mean to be of service in a meaningful way? I see that giving until exhaustion doesn’t work, and that guilt-giving causes more harm than good.

I have started to play with the idea that I could replace giving with seeing and learning. I get to practice this every day with my son. Tchabo’s Dad visited, and Tchabo was naturally crying as they said goodbye. Every cell in my body wanted to take away his sad feelings, whether going back in time to create a different scenario, or saying something to cheer him up. Should I distract him with a treat? Should I tell him that everything will be okay? Instead I swallowed my need to fix and told him that it made sense to me that he was crying, and that he could cry until he was done. After 20 minutes of sadness and quiet, Tchabo exclaimed with delight “I cried for half an hour, and now I’m done!”

I think we can practice seeing or presence in lieu of giving, or as a deeper form of giving. We can do this with ourselves, with our immediate friends and family, and culturally and politically we can do this on a larger scale. This is not an argument against action. I’m making a case that we reframe our action. Instead of begrudgingly helping and hosting Syrian refugees, nations could look at how they could learn and grow from the refugee story. With this mindset it could be a privilege and a great stroke of luck to host these families, to learn about resilience, to be present to the results of wars that we are involved in, to gain perspective about what is essential.

Instead of starting NGOs to foster development in sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps we could just bear witness to the terrific stories of resilience, survival, and playfulness, and start to expand our own idea of what it means to be human. If I ever start another NGO it will be to save the broken values of the US with stories of inspiration from Africa. I am not making light of profound problems, but rather questioning our "fix-it" mentality that seems to bear an implicit superiority rather than the connection that shared stories bring.

This is why See Stories is the name for my youth education storytelling business. As we practice seeing, and being present to our own story and the stories of others, we grow in deep and profound ways. In my case, I learned that my helpfulness was often a way to experience myself as a good, lovable person, which actually I already am without doing anything at all. Ironically, I am helpful in a deeper and more lasting way now that I have realized this.

Monday, September 21, 2015

On Insecurity*

I woke up this morning with a small headcold and a case of insecurity. My body is telling me I need so slow down and stay home, but my energy level is up enough to support my mind wandering in what feels like 1,000 directions contemplating what exactly I am doing in Anchorage. There is so much potential in Anchorage for See Stories, but where should I start? Will it work out here for See Stories? Will I be able to materially support myself and my son in the way I want to?

I am aware that as a business owner I am supposed to project an image of confidence, and as an educator I work to support self-esteem in my students. I have never been good at trying to project an image, but my authentic self tends to be confident and enthusiastic. Yet here I am facing my insecurities, one of the most human experiences one can have. Everything has changed in the past two months, I’ve moved with Tchabo to Anchorage, my grandparents passed away, Tchabo started kindergarden, and I’m reframing my work model to emphasize local Anchorage projects so that I don’t have to take Tchabo continuously out of school. In a way it’s shocking that I’ve been doing as well as I have given all the change in my life, and yet that feels like little consolation in the face of today’s insecurity.

And yet this is a reality that business owners (and everyone!) has to face. It is an insecure world. Sometimes there are too many clients, other times too few. Sometimes payment comes on time, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I spend a week writing a grant to create a project for myself, and most often the grant doesn’t come through. Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder if there is something wrong with me that I choose this life. Why don’t you get a regular job, Marie?! Or even more insidious… stop with the entrepreneurial bit, get a consistent job, it’s the responsible thing to do… as a single mom you OUGHT to. 

And yet I trust in my continual calling to run See Stories and to be an entrepreneur. I’ve been like this since I was a teenager, and I’ve always cherished this about myself even when it’s hard. I don’t want to live in a compartmentalized way, work, personal, parenting… I want my life to be in a balance. With See Stories, Tchabo can travel with me to a village to be with me as I teach. I can make a family reunion into a film workshop in my own village in Nebraska, spending time with family and delving into community stories with the next generation. When I need personal time I can take it, and when I am ready to be in the world I can go. And yet inevitably, there are moments and days when it is hard.

Several days ago I picked up Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as if I unconsciously knew that I would struggle with insecurity today. As I nurse my cold and my emotions I read his instructions that seem directed precisely at me in this moment: “Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.” I know this in my bones, even as my mind spins with questions. I am responding to my own particular call in this particular moment in the best way I know how.

Sometimes the reminder about the “cause greater than oneself” is so tiny that it disappears next to the deafening noise of the mind’s chatter. As I respond to Frankl’s call, I realize that today a student from my last workshop just wrote me that she had an exciting interview with a woman who spoke Swedish. She is crafting a film on Swedish traditions in Wausa, the town of my late grandparents. A beloved student and friend from Uganda wrote me to say hi and check in, a young woman whose story and strength of spirit continually inspires me. Ultimately it’s my students, and the next generation, that inspire me to continue with See Stories. As a film educator, I get to support youth to share and engage in stories that are meaningful to them.  

While I sit with both my insecurities and my inspiration, I also realize there are limits to what one person, and to what I, can do. And that’s okay. I follow my bigger call as best I can, but that doesn’t always have to look momentous. It can be as simple as a student doing an interview that touched her. Or a conversation with a former student about how she sees her path forward in Uganda. If there is one thing I would like to go back in time and tell my 20 year old self, it’s that the difference you make doesn’t have to look huge to be meaningful. In a world obsessed with “scaling up” and “broadening impacts” I am content to “scale down” and focus on the little openings. I wonder where they lead…


*I would like to acknowledge my teacher, mentor, and friend Lydia Ossorgin for her conversation that helped me to refine this blog post.