Thursday, December 13, 2018

Marina Cummiskey: A Student Perspective

Marina grew her digital literacy skills after the film
workshop through a Public Radio internship
This is a guest post from a former student, Marina Cummiskey. I first met her when she had just finished 6th grade, and she blew me out of the water with her journalistic prowess. She is now done with high school and has been traveling the world and documenting it on her own blog that you can peruse here. I am grateful to have her amazing voice on this blog! 

I participated in the film intensive seven years ago, when I was going into seventh grade. Initially I joined because of a recommendation from a friend, as well as to snag the half credit it offered for high school social studies. This was the first year of the intensive, and Marie and her sisters met with about eight of us for two weeks to help us produce short documentaries revolving around Kodiak and its history. 

Marina interviews Senator
Mark Begich
Before the class began, Marie asked all of us to rank film topics based on what we were most interested in. Somehow I ended up with my last ranked topic (the J-1 Visa controversy) but, as it turns out, that was definitely the best fit for me, due to my direct connection with the theme. A few years prior to the workshop, my family hosted a Turkish J-1 visa worker when he showed up in Kodiak to work in the canneries. I ended up reconnecting with him over Skype to interview him for my film, as well a cannery manager and Senator Mark Begich. 

Marina holds ash on Kodiak from the
 1912 Katmai Eruption

To my surprise, after I had material from my interviews and other background footage, the script for my film flowed naturally and was fun and easy to stitch together. After the workshop ended I continued along the same path, and ended up volunteering at the Baranov Museum and creating another film, this time on the 1912 Katmai Eruption. This in turn lead to the start of two years of volunteering as well as a summer internship at Kodiak’s local public radio station, KMXT. The workshop only opened up more opportunities for me, and I’m considering studying a form of film or journalism in college. 

I encourage other students 
not to be intimidated by the work required or the skills necessary to make these films; as you engage with your topic and make connections around you the process only becomes more and more interesting and exciting! This program helps youth connect with Kodiak and our history, as well as start the process of becoming active members in community, country, and the world. It’s so important for young people to develop an opinion of their own and engage in the issues and debates that are a part of life for everyone. If you live in this world, you need to be a part of it too. 
Marina's film on the J-1 visa controversy

Monday, June 4, 2018

"Really We Are All Human..."

"I am making a movie on the Hijab because many people ask me why I wear the Hijab, and many people stereotype people wearing the Hijab. Some people think I am different than others, when really we are all human." -Hoda, 10th grade, producer of The Hijab

"I want people to know there is more to me... I want to explore the culture of tomboy." -L, 9th grade, producer of I Am Me

"I am making a movie about makeup to show that it is neither good nor bad, but can be a way to express yourself creatively, and it can be empowering." -Bai, 11th grade, producer of Makeup Is Art

"Since 9/11 the media has portrayed Muslims as terrible people like terrorists and untrustworthy. This makes me very sad. I want people to know that Muslims are all different. I want people to know more about Islam." -Najma, 12th grade, producer of The Meaning of Islam

Students perform peer interviews about Tatau (body art)
These are the voices of high schoolers from East. When my friend and co-teacher Kim and I asked immigrant and refugee students to share their cultures and identities through documentary film, we thought we might be asking too much. I was nervous about asking kids who already feel different and out of place because of their stories, dress, and English language abilities to highlight their differences so that the world could better understand them. I questioned the fairness of such a request; after all, shouldn't it be us, the adults, to stand up in protection of them? I was also nervous because my baby was only two months old. The project was designed to support social emotional learning, and I knew that I would be learning alongside the kids about how to emotionally nurture them, myself, and my newborn. Kim and I were grateful that the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the NOVO Foundation were supporting this project, and we wanted to use the opportunity to the fullest, but we were also aware of entering unknown territory with students we cared about a great deal.  

Teaching with baby! 
We weren't prepared for the fierceness of the student voices. Where we thought we might find reticence and shyness, we found students ready to speak their minds. A young Somali woman expressed annoyance that all the Muslim girls at school were lumped together, as if they came from the same culture when in fact they came from all over the world and practiced Islam in a thousand different ways. Other Somali young women expressed frustration at the questions they received questions regarding their Hijab (do you have hair? aren't you too hot? does that mean you are oppressed by men?). They expressed wanting people to feel comfortable to ask questions, but they also wanted people to be respectful. Another student had mixed feelings about her identity as a tomboy. She loved herself, but she was constantly fielding questions from people about her clothing and style. She decided to make a documentary about being a tomboy, and opened her movie with all of her classmates running and giving her a huge hug while she carried a sign that stated "I am a Tomboy." Each student chose a topic they deeply cared about, and their passion was reflected in the quality of their final films. 
Synclaire shares how art is critical for cultural transformation

They interviewed community members. One student wanted to educate the world about the importance of Samoan Body Art, and interviewed the owner of AK Fadez Barbershop, Alexander Von Dincklage Sr., about the story and symbolism of his tattoos (guys, you can get a killer cut at AK Fadez, by the way!). A group of Somali girls went to the 123 dollar store to interview the business owner who was also their aunty, and gathered stories amidst customers picking up samosas and spices. Local Aesthetician Sunshine Mebane teared up as she shared with the students the importance of accepting your body and face as it is, and to let makeup accentuate who you are rather than hide. 

Will was so loved!
An East graduate and Black Feminist Artist, Synclaire Butler, spoke about how art allows her to express herself and her cultural fabric, a privilege not afforded her ancestors. Students, community members, and us teachers were transformed. Baby Will, at this point 3 months old, went from arm to arm throughout class. Students would show up just to hold him, and I smiled thinking that I was worried about how class would go with a baby.

Students stood proud at the film screening
They shared their films at a public screening at the Loussac Library Wilda Marston Theater, and again for the Mayor's Office and a Delegation of 30 Germans participating in the Transatlantic Welcoming Exchange who came to Anchorage to learn about how we are a Welcoming City. Students giggled shyly hearing their voices, they cringed the way we all do when we see and hear ourselves on the big screen, and yet their eyes gleamed with pride as they watched their concepts come to life through their hard work. They learned from each other, the community learned from them, and Kim and I perhaps learned most of all. I learned that everyone's heart opens with a baby around, and that my heart opens when students are brave and bold.

Watch the student films right here on Vimeo. 

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.