Preparation

We stood speechless as we scrolled through the images that she had sent without captions. Utter misery inflicted on desperate people at our Southern border. How in God’s name are we allowing this?

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This afternoon I sat in a coffee shop preparing for work later this week with a group of medical fellows. We will be talking about the Latinx immigrant population in our community using an intervention called, “Yo Veo,” meaning “I See.” We will use a series of photographs by the photographer, Janet Jarman http://janetjarman.com to begin our conversation. The images from her story, Marisol and the American Dream, form a jumping off point to consider the ways in which migration experiences shape an individual’s experience with various systems, such as health care or education. As we go through Marisol’s story, we will also spend time with data collected from young people and their parents here in North Carolina. Some of that data comes from studies I’ve done with colleagues through the years and some comes from the good work of others.

Using visual images and the performing arts to promote nuanced and reflective conversation about race, ethnicity, culture, migration, difference, and professional practice is an approach I and others I work with have been refining since 2010. Although we use a particular method to structure these experiences, the conversations are open-ended and unpredictable. Sometimes the mood is tense. Other times the room floods with empathy. Usually, at least at first, there is a mixture of wariness and confusion as participants search for a “right” answer to the questions posed. Gradually, the group grows more comfortable with not knowing, a posture which overtime gives way to understanding, reconsideration, and respect. Although the structure is the same, no two Yo Veo conversations are alike. As a facilitator, comfort with ambiguity, trust in the process, and a willingness to let the images work is key. This flexibility and responsiveness is what gives the approach its power and differentiates it from more traditional “trainings” focused on diversity or difference. Our research indicates that what we do does influence professionals’ attitudes and motivation to engage with clients, students, or patients whose backgrounds leave them open to disparate health and educational outcomes. For those interested, links to some of our published research articles are at the end of this post.
Immigration questions appear to be evergreen in our society, a consistently hot topic. As such, whenever I prepare for a Yo Veo conversation, I end up tweaking the slide deck. Sometimes, I am tailoring for a particular type of audience or a particular timeframe. But usually, I am incorporating images and information that speak to the current moment. A month or so ago, Janet sent me images from her recent time in Tijuana covering “the caravan.” My son was in the kitchen when I opened the file. We stood speechless as we scrolled through the images that she had sent without captions. Utter misery inflicted on desperate people at our Southern border. How in God’s name are we allowing this?

Today was no different. I looked at more images taken by other photographers that document the separation, loss, atrocity, occasional resilience, and faith that characterize the current, shameful chapter in our national immigration story. As I look, I know our Yo Veo conversation this week will be meaningful. But it is hard to focus on the work through my tears…

 

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256198342_How_images_work_An_analysis_of_a_visual_intervention_used_to_facilitate_a_difficult_conversation_and_promote_understanding

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316751923_Making_a_difference_in_medical_trainees’_attitudes_toward_Latino_patients_A_pilot_study_of_an_intervention_to_modify_implicit_and_explicit_attitudes?_sg=S7zdUrG8227FpulXPLcUwk2i40_pBF7TXCnkRG1BQX3yJfFDdkACTP_U4HOG6_K3pFui-4hDRWzYKnLpB_Wrg666VffmqQS-1qxgGs4a.NU_7u7ToJ1VTc0TIDKXbtmKhf54TXaOZyl-7LxuODnrtyrHC_UGQCuLV-wYSyg9pND38LuYGQ-lj16rSoxHTpA

 

Photograph Credit: https://static01.nyt.com/images/2018/12/26/podcasts/27daily/26daily-superJumbo.jpg?quality=90&auto=webp

“Always listen to the Art.”

What we practice becomes part of who we are.

The whole culture tells you to hurry while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.        -Junot Diaz

Several weeks ago I was at UNC’s Ackland Art museum guest lecturing for a class. The photograph that accompanies this post is by Layla Essaydi and was the starting point for our conversation. It was shown to me by a museum educator colleague a number of years ago. I’ve back to it again and again. http://www.unc.edu/ackland/collection/?action=details&object_link_id=2006.14

When you see it in the museum, it is about 5 feet tall and draws your attention immediately no matter what else is in on display. My first reaction upon first viewing was a kind of alarm and discomfort. Without encouragement to keep looking, I might have frowned and looked away, eager to move on to something I could easily understand or find less threatening. Instead, I’ve been learning to wait. When students come with me to the museum, my goal is for them to begin learn to do the same.

As you can see in the photograph, veiling or covering is central. Each figure in the image is veiled to varying degrees. For many of us in the U.S., the age progression the photograph implies makes us uncomfortable. A child is carefree and uncovered. Covering engulfs the adult. We assume these women – somehow everyone assumes each figure here is female –are oppressed. Alternatively, maybe they represent a “veiled terrorist threat” that we do not understand and against which we are powerless to defend. We are nervous, we are frightened, we are angry. We are ready to either reject or rescue the picture’s inhabitants.

My museum colleagues are expert at slow looking, a practice that often translates to sitting with discomfort and noticing details. As I and my students practice staying engaged, our initial associations give way to curiosity. What is on all of their skin, their coverings, and the walls behind them? It looks like Arabic script. The Koran? Something else? Are they all women? Where are they? Who is taking their picture? Why did they agree to pose for it? Why are they looking directly at us with stares that give away so little?

When the curiosity begins, so does the learning. We learn that the artist created the photograph soon after 9-11 in response to the growing prejudice toward Muslims in the aftermath of that terrible day. We learn that she is Moroccan by birth and American too; that she splits her time between the U.S. and her homeland. We learn that those depicted in the image are her friends gathered for a party in a place where women, in days past, were sent when they “misbehaved.” The writing is Arabic script inscribed in henna, a celebratory material. It is used in this work to symbolize women claiming the skill of writing that was denied them in times past.

These bits and pieces generate more questions. What about that gaze? Why so direct? Why no smile? Why does the border look like part of a dark room photographer’s contact sheet? Why, when I ask what magazine this photograph might be in, does everyone say, almost without a breath, “National Geographic?” We are back to new layers of association to sort through. As we progress through them, we gradually learn what this photograph and its inhabitants, with their challenging gazes, are asking of us, even as we are asking questions of them.

They ask us to acknowledge our fears, confront our assumptions, move beyond them to learn more, and to revisit the image instead of walking past it. What we practice becomes part of who we are. Immediate outrage, speaking based on what we think we know versus what we’ve verified, considering the “other’s” point of view. Ideas that seem so basic, so urgent, and in such short supply.

Conversation and Curlew River

A river crossing is at the heart of Curlew River, Benjamin Britten’s opera now on-stage at Carolina Performing Arts. Some colleagues (Amy Weil and Aaron Shackelford) and I decided to create a river crossing of our own bringing medical students and social work students together to view and discuss this visually stunning yet perplexing work. We got together today after watching the performance last night. Over lunch, we began with one word responses to the performance: interesting, haunting, intense, dark, conflicted, provocative, and…confusing.
Yet, the story seems straight-forward enough. There is a madwoman who wanders from her home searching someone, although at first she does not tell others on stage for whom she is looking. There is a traveler who brings word of the mad woman’s ranting to a group of people waiting to cross Curlew River. There is a ferry-boat conductor who gate-keeps, choosing who and who not to let onto his boat. In time we learn that the madwoman is searching for a lost child, a child who is in fact dead and buried on the other side of the Curlew River. Although the group does not realize at first that the dead child and the person the madwoman searches for are one in the same, they take pity on her and advocate that she be allowed onto the ferry. The central question of Curlew River is how and to what degree the community represented on the stage embraces her thereby transforming her madness. The simple version is that they embrace her, a miracle occurs, and she is healed. The reality seems likely to be more complex.
Medical and social work students struggled through these questions together. Sorting through the libretto, speculating about gender roles, [note: All roles were sung by men in keeping with the Japanese Noh Theater tradition in which Curlew River was written.], wondering about the medieval Christian church’s role – helpful, superficial, callous?, talking about grief versus madness, ambiguous losses and the challenges they bring, and then…we talked about us. How do we understand the clients we see who struggle with grief and loss? How, over the course of a career, does a health care provider understand each person’s loss as unique? How do we not become callous to suffering? How do we understand each others’ professions? What are the stereotypes we carry about each other?
Quite a lot for two hours. But that’s what the arts can do. Paintings, performances, photographs, plays, symphonies, given a chance they all become, in Pastorzy’s words, “things to think with.” And perhaps as important, “things to talk with.” Even better, “things to cross rivers with,” a ferry-boat that takes us to a different shore where new journeys, not easier, but more bearable because we’re in it together, await.

Compagnie Käfig

Last week our family went to see Compagnie Käfig, a group of 11 dancers from Rio de Janeiro who combine hip hop and samba to create an a mesmerizing visual feast. The dancing was so absorbing that it was easy to become completely caught up in what you were seeing.  At first glance, there was nothing specifically in the performance that forced the audience to think much about what the dancing might be communicating beyond sheer spectacle.

Yet, if I have my facts straight, many if not all of these young men began their lives street dancing in the favelas of Brazil, huge impoverished living areas without basic city services and limited opportunities for those who live there. Favela inhabitants are forgotten members of Brazilian society, or if not forgotten, certainly ignored.  These are people to be controlled and hidden – not recognized in any concrete way as having inherent worth.  Compagnie Käfig’s performance , Correria Agwa, translates from the Portuguese to “running water. ” Part 1 is about running and Part 2 deals with water and perhaps thirst.  But the title is the two words put together, “running water,” a luxury in the favelas as it is in many places.  And while running can be graceful and freeing, in this performance the dancers appear to run in place, never getting anywhere.  It comes across as humorous, but is it, if no matter how fast, or which direction, or where you run there is no way out

And the water… this part of the performance contains plastic cups, maybe 75 or 100, lined up in such a way that the dancers must move with incredible precision to navigate them. It is a breathtaking, joyous feat of technique and athleticism.  Then, again with humor, the dancers quit navigating the obstacles and allow the cups to litter the stage: chaos which provokes one dancer to utter the only spoken words in the performance: Now we must do it all again.  The cups are reordered but the chaos returns.  And here is the most amazing part.  They dance in the chaos with visible joy.  Are they performing for us the resilience of their friends and neighbors in the favelas?  Surely, they are.   As we recognize these dancers’ talents perhaps we might be moved to consider many who are ignored in Brazil and in our own communities.  Perhaps, too, we recognize ourselves – our own need to dance joyfully and skillfully amidst the chaos that our lives become from time to time and, when necessary, to start anew and “do it all again.”

Arts@theCore

rite[1]Last semester, through a series of happy coincidences, I was invited to join a faculty planning group for a new UNC/Carolina Performing Arts initiative called Arts@theCore. When I was invited, the convener said, “Maybe you want to think about it. See if it fits in your schedule.” No way…I said yes immediately and have been looking forward to it ever since. Last week was the first activity, going to see a performance of ” A Meditation on the Rite of Spring, ” a new work commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts by the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane dance company and SITI Company that re-imagines the original Rite of Spring. Bill T. Jones, the choreographer, and Anne Bogart, the director as well as the dancers and actors spoke with the audience after the performance.

You should know that what I know about Stravinsky’s, Rite of Spring, consists of about three facts: Dissonant, started a riot, dance and music – yep, that about covers it. And as I was walking across campus last week to the performance I found myself thinking how great it was to have free tickets to this event and how I love to do things with faculty members in the humanities and… how I had not the slightest idea of how I would ever incorporate modern dance into my teaching or my research.

O me of little faith…The subject matter of “the rite” concerns a sacrifice for the community’s benefit. In the original, the sacrifice was a virgin girl/young woman. In the re-telling, the sacrifice is a soldier, a WWI soldier who becomes, through the course of the performance, all soldiers who are offered up to protect their communities. That alone is fodder enough for class discussions in multiple places in our MSW curriculum. But there was something equally compelling, a sort of meta-message, that really got me thinking.

This performance was unusual in that it incorporated a dance company and a theater company. The two groups have never before performed together. Part of their task in creating this “Rite” was to learn each other’s trade. Their goal became for the audience not to know which performers were “dancers” and which were “actors.” Instead, they called themselves “dactors” and set out from the beginning to take the point of view of the other discipline. The dancers used the actors warm up routines and vice versa. The actors had to learn to “speak” with their bodies while the dancers had to open their mouths. They reflected on this process during the audience “speak back” session. They talked about the vulnerability required to do something for which they had not been trained, the admiration they had for one another’s abilities, the fear that what each discipline brought to the table was not really needed by the other. If the text was good enough, do the actors really need the dancers? The choreography and the dancers are so powerful, don’t we cheapen it with our talk? Bill T. Jones nailed it. “There is a selfishness to it [that gets in the way of collaboration].” “What if they don’t need us?” The answer –and this is me, not Bill T. Jones — we have to prove they need us and next thing you know, exit collaboration stage left and conflict takes center stage.

Now those are issues at the heart of social work practice. We are a profession that works at intersections: between disciplines, between professionals and individuals, between generations, between person and environment. Collaboration is a topic on my syllabus every fall semester and my approach has generally been to ask my students, through some series of exercises, to take the perspective of one of the myriad professions, patients, and caregivers represented in a health care environment. Then they read the habits of highly effective collaborators – or something – and we all go home. The teaching evaluations aren’t bad- but surely there’s something more compelling. How much more powerful would it be to have them experience what I did last week? To have them listen to two groups of individuals that have worked for a sustained period to accomplish something challenging, draining, exhilarating, and difficult that cannot happen well in the absence of true collaboration. And, what if this conversation happened with other students in the professions with whom we most often collaborate? Wow!

Of course, all of this applies equally to research. Interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity – call it what you will – it’s where it’s at from a funding perspective. But boy can it be difficult and for all the same reasons. We allow our fear and our selfishness/ self-doubt to get the best of us. Maybe they can do this without me/my knowledge/expertise. They are so good at everything. What do I have to offer? And the reverse, I could probably make this work without their knowledge. I know enough to figure it out. Exit collaboration – enter conflict.

I’m not really sure how to end this post and perhaps I won’t. I’ll consider it a beginning, act one, of thinking about Arts@theCore and sharing those thoughts with you. See you at Memorial Hall.