Sunday, December 9, 2007

Storytelling Our Lives

"Home is where the heart is. My heart is at home." --from "Storytelling Our Lives" project

Last year, I had the pleasure of working on the Intercultural Centre of Victoria's "Storytelling Our Lives" project. It was a community-based program which sought to empower immigrant and refugee women, as well as women of colour, through a series of workshops appealing to a variety of modes of self-expression--theatre, music, dance, and like the name suggests, storytelling. Each of these workshops eventually culminated into a theatrical production of the same name put on by the Puente Theatre.

As you can imagine, participants came from all walks of life and represented various cultures. There were women from Ethiopia, Korea, the Philippines, China, Sweden, Chile, Bangladesh, Mexico, Iran, India, the UK, and of course Aboriginal women from Canada. Even though these women started off as strangers at the beginning of each workshop, they came out as sisters, mothers, and daughters by the end.

The essence of each event could be summed up in one word: powerful. Since I was piecing together a story about the project, I was originally going to sit on the sidelines and watch from afar. But I soon realized that was not an option as I got roped into every single activity--and absolutely loved it! Not only did you get to hear the diverse voices of women often silenced by racism, sexism, and language, cultural, or religious barriers, I had the privilege of listening to their individual songs, while learning to dance their dances.

Most notable of all the activities would have to be both the storytelling and voice workshops. As each woman was encouraged to share a special story from either her family or culture, this lovely First Nations women brought all of us to tears as she candidly took us all along on her spiritual journey. From her tortured childhood within the confines of the residential school system to her current work in building a cultural revitalization program for her band, this amazing women shared how she eventually found her own peace in her nation's special spiritual relationship with the land. It was truly moving.

During the voice workshop, an exuberant vocal coach led the group through a series of exercises that helped the women ease into the idea of singing their lungs out to a bunch of strangers. In the beginning, one would get the sense that most of the group was extremely uncomfortable with the prospect of singing...well...anything. Some participants even decided to sit-out during the first few activities. However, this all changed once the women realized how great they sounded together. Since the first language of most of the women was one other than English, the coach designed an activity to showcase their diversity. As the women were broken into various "language groups," each section was to sing "Home is where the heart is/My heart is at home" in their designated language. Working like dominoes, the first group would start, then subsequent sections would layer each of their songs until the group formed one harmonized voice. As I looked around the room, I realized that we were all sharing a very special moment with one another. And at that melodic climax, I couldn't help but think how strong and beautiful our voices sounded as they resonated together as one.

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