Carlyn’s Thoughts

February 20, 2012

When I arrived in Talca, Chile, two weeks ago, I was dropped off on the side of the highway to be greeted by Nell, a close friend I met working in Guatemala, waving her arms and jumping in excitement.  She led me to the house where we are staying, which is owned by a family that rents out rooms to university students.  Right now the students are on summer vacation, so we have most of the second floor to ourselves to cook dinner, unwind and reflect on the day’s work.

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of building relationships with these inspiring women, and finding my place within the workshops they started a month before.  Telling My Story has been a refreshing and powerful experience.  I have been attempting to take in as much as possible from Pati, Nell, and Katie, appreciating their different strengths and methods.  This has been a blessing in many ways, as I know so clearly my own method of teaching and leading workshops from my work in Guatemala, but have not really had the opportunity to observe the work of other’s who share my passion and vision of the power of artistic self-expression.

One of the strongest characteristics I have noticed working with Telling My Story in the women’s prison in Talca is that we have time.  The pace within the prison is quite relaxed.  The women have chores throughout the day that they must complete, but generally they are available to participate in the workshops for multiple hours a day.  This time allows for the work to be very organic and move at the pace of the women.  Generally, the women wander into the space around 10 in the morning, and sip mate (a loose leaf tea) as we wait to get started.  We start with a short warm up, and then run through the dance the women have choreographed before working on their skits.  We break at noon, when the women disperse to eat lunch.  We eat our lunch in a small room with the guards.  The meals are prepared by inmates who have been given jobs in the kitchen for having good behavior.  They are paid for their work and it helps them gain special privileges like short visits to the outside.  We go back in the afternoon for art classes where Nell has been leading the women through several self-portrait projects.  The results so far are stunning.  The women seem to really appreciate the art space because it is calm and relaxed and one of the few moments where they can concentrate.  Outside are the sounds of people yelling and reggaeton; inside they choose between jazz or soft meditation music.  They often wander in and out when they feel the need or when something or someone else grabs their attention.  Depending on the moment, the art space can bring peace or anxiety to the participants as they look inside and reflect on themselves as individuals.

With the theater and dance workshops, there is not the chaos or hectic anxiety I have experienced in other moments to complete a project or rush something to meet a deadline.  The chaos is a different sort, as the women navigate their relationships with each other and the space.  Pati shrugs her shoulders when we have low attendance or when the group is distracted, “If we don’t have a show we don’t have a show.”  It is what it is.  She stands strongly to the position that Telling My Story and the final skits and artwork created by the women must come from a place of them working together and motivating themselves as a group, not by her leading or pulling the women towards completion.  She is firm and does give them a push and encouragement when needed, but the focus is on the process not the product.  The show, however, is an important culmination for them to present their work on stage in front of an audience.

The process I have witnessed so far has been remarkable.  Prison, as I can imagine it, is not an easy place to collaborate, make friends, or share your opinions.  And yet the women have come together to discuss and debate things like patience, commitment, tolerance and freedom – both why these qualities are necessary to survive in the prison, and why they need these in return from the outside to succeed when they are released.  Using these themes and their ideas, they have begun to create skits and dialogue that portray their own personal and collective experiences.  This is a long way from where they started, considering that as Pati told me, the women froze in fear simply saying their name in front of their peers on the first day.  The first couple times we ran through the dance, every woman looked as though they had learned different steps.  They ran into each other, some stopped in confusion, and others kept going at their own pace.  Those doing percussion, using wooden sticks on empty paint buckets, pounded on them whenever they felt like it.  After a few days, they organized themselves, found their places (taught me when I messed up!) and everything slowly fell into place to the unified beat of the drums.

I have been moved by the creativity the women have shown, and how open they have been towards sharing and talking about their experiences, and open to me joining them at this mid point of the workshops.  In many ways I feel re-inspired by the power of expression as I witness the women confronting daunting challenges both external and internal,  and revitalized as I experience alongside them the joy of collaborating and creating!

A warm hug from Chile,

Carlyn

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Pati’s Thoughts

I have always experienced challenging surprises in every program I have run and in this respect this program is no different from the others.  When we arrived it felt like an ideal situation: the “Mayor” and the “Capitán” were solidly behind the project, the guards seemed very reasonable and the women were so enthusiastic and engaged, so Nell, Katie and myself were energized and motivated by such a positive picture.  But the challenge was there from the beginning because Telling My Story was introducing new elements to the work, which would make changes and changes are never easy.    Clearly the change had to do with the inclusion of the students’ making activities that would run parallel to TMS as part of the whole TMS program to be offered.  Nell and her wonderful project of self-portrait has been working beautifully and it has provided a little sanctuary for the women to express themselves through visual arts with a variety of different project activities that go deeper and deeper into the work Nell is proposing.  Working with small groups in a small library the facility has, it has provided space and time for the women to breathe quietness and tranquility while digging into their beings.  On the other hand Katie has been listening and finding her own space to collaborate, by bringing theater exercises that challenge the women while working together, laughing and having fun together, and working on specific improvs as well; a very useful warm up for the stage that provides basic tools for the final goal of developing the skits.

 

We have been going into the facility 4 days a week with a schedule that includes dance, drumming, theater, visual arts and theater exercises.  It looks and sounds good and I believe it is important to keep trying, but the “listening” word that has been in my mind for a while has resonated big time during this experience.  Today I am assessing if the amount of time we spend inside the facility is the right one, or if it brings an element of “too much” to the project.  Trying to be a better listener I need to challenge the project so it can truly be beneficial to all the parts involved, which includes also the rest of the inmates who live there in such a small place with a 140% of overcrowdedness.  It is to me a question of the right balance between Telling My Story and the students’ project.  These days I feel that TMS needs to step back to give way and space to the students’ projects so the energy stays and grows.  But I also need to keep some space for TMS.  Dance is the most accessible activity of TMS but it doesn’t challenge the person with vulnerability, responsibility and a presence that depends completely on the individual and group presence; it only provides something concrete that can be learned and executed.  I believe it is a beautiful language to celebrate our small community we aspire to build, but it is not enough to dig deeper into the more complex aspect of the program, which is the building of a platform to listen to what people really have to say.  Theater provides that and it challenges us all to embrace those not-so-easy aspects of the work.  So what do we present, and how do we go about it is the ultimate challenge.  I am excited, and even though I don’t have the answer, and I believe I never will, I have found that to keep trying and walking that fine line of looking for balance is the answer; it humbles me and keeps me on my toes.  What is important is that movement is always there, and even though sometimes I wonder if it is forward, there is always a surprise that shows me that it is moving forward at its own rhythm and with its own characteristics.  It feels like molding a piece of clay that is always showing something striking that needs to be encouraged and respected, so at the end, it something that really comes from the participants.  I am learning so much, and I am thankful to the students for the healthy challenge they present and the motivation they give me.  I am thankful to the women for their courage to stay working with us regardless of the pressure and challenges they face daily in such an unhealthy environment.  It is a fight for humanization in the middle of a very dehumanized atmosphere.  Last Sunday there was a long article in the local newspaper about the work.  When I brought it to the women, they were happily laughing and feeling good- a true celebration; someone said: ”I can’t stop reading it again and again; I feel so proud of our work”.  That Monday was also a very good working day.  It was a privilege to have witnessed the power of visibility.  Yes definitely something to celebrate!

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week 6: Article about Telling My Story

A reporter from Talca’s daily newspaper wrote this article about Telling My Story. Check it out!

 

ArticleDiarioElCentro

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Week 5: Katie

I haven’t written as much as I would like to about the experience I am having here, because every day is so different depending on the environment in the prison. My feelings about our work, about the women, and my confidence level are also constantly in flux. Some days the women show up ready to concentrate and we have a fantastically productive day. Other days, some dynamic is happening behind the scenes that I can barely grasp a hold of, and it feels like we are more in the way than helpful. Some days I feel like I can communicate what I want to say, and some days I feel so impatient with my progress in Spanish it drives me crazy. I also feel that our work is so complex, and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to articulate. I want to be careful not to speak for the women and their experiences. Yet witnessing their world and listening to their stories every day is a huge part of my experience here. It’s a difficult line to walk, but I’ll just try to remind myself that I am writing from my perspective and not theirs.

On Monday of this week, a very intense day led to a thoughtful reflection on collaboration between me, Nell and Pati. We started the workshop with 40 women, but on Monday morning four people showed up. We started the dance but there was so little energy in the room because everyone was disappointed about the attendance. Pati asked the women why they thought this was happening, and the small group offered numerous reasons. One woman whispered to me and Nell that visitors bring in drugs so many of the inmates get high on the weekends, and therefore are sick on MondaysOne woman who has been showing up expressed that she was really “disilucionada,” which means discouraged. Around noon, Pati went to go speak with the Major, Vivian, the head of the prison and one of our biggest advocates. While Nell and I were trying to make the time productive for the two women who were left, all of the absent women came into the room. It was kind of amazing to see every single woman we have worked with all in the same room again- that hadn’t happened since the very beginning. Soon after, Vivian walked in with Pati, and the guards motioned for the women to stand up. After gesturing that they could sit, Vivian asked why there were only four women that morning when we had started out with so many. Many of the women had dropped out without saying anything to Pati, while others had spoken to her to tell her they weren’t interested. Pati always emphasizes communication; she doesn’t care what decision it is as long as they communicate about it and take ownership over what they want. Some women who have been attending spoke up to say that they love the workshop and only couldn’t come that morning for various reasons as usual; they are sick, they were washing their clothes and can’t leave them otherwise they will get stolen; they had to do their chores later than usual; any number of things. I don’t say this to be dismissive. The environment of the prison is always up in the air, and often the women have so little control for when they can get things done that they have to take advantage of the opportunity when it comes.

Finally, one woman spoke up. She had been a solid participant for the first three weeks, then hadn’t come for the last two. She said that she appreciated what we were doing, but she didn’t want to talk about her life. The questions we asked to get them thinking caused her to think about why her life is bad. A few weeks ago, she volunteered to do a skit about her family and a decision they had to make together. It was a beautifully powerful skit, and at the time it seemed to be therapeutic. Turns out she didn’t come back because she didn’t feel up for going through that again. I was really impressed that she spoke up about this in front of the whole group. Some women went to defend the workshop, mentioning that Pati always emphasizes that the women should take inspiration from their lives but not specific details unless they really want to. At the same time, I did see how that woman could have felt pressure to talk about her experiences in prison, because that is the main difference between her and us. It’s very human to identify ourselves by contrast. In the States, I wouldn’t consider my Americanness a huge part of my identity, but in Chile it’s the most prominent part, to others and to myself. Despite Pati’s efforts to insist that the women’s identities extend way beyond the prison walls, our simple presence highlights the contrast of our liberty and their imprisonment.

I thought it was a really productive discussion, but over lunch I expressed frustration by how the morning was handled. I felt like we had wasted the time and let down the women who did show up by talking about the women who didn’t. Pati, on the other hand, expressed that she was very happy with how the morning went. Since then, the women have been more actively attending rehearsals and being more clear about the parts they do and do not want to participate in. They seem to understand a greater sense of group responsibility, which is one of Pati’s main goals with Telling My Story. Someone at the meeting also suggested using a script, and Pati adamantly defended her position. She wants these stories to come from the women, not from some random irrelevant playwright. She doesn’t feel it’s her place to tell the women what to say and how to act.  That afternoon, away from the major and the whole group, many women expressed their support for this method, of devising skits from their lives. One woman said she would feel totally lost if it was someone else’s script, but because it’s her life, she has full ownership and understanding of what we are doing. That afternoon we developed one of the skits, about solitude, by doing a huge improvisation that took up the entire room. Pati just let the women go with it, not stopping to question the relevance of any parts or the wording. We had a long discussion afterwards about what parts of the improv to keep, which were most relevant to what the women were trying to say and how to say it.

On Tuesday the three of us had a meeting to check in about how the work is going. It was a really productive discussion about each of our strengths and differences, and what it means to collaborate together. It’s really important to strike a balance, because each of us brings our strengths to the situation and adds immensely to the work. That’s the beauty of collaboration!

Pati began by saying that she sees herself as more of a social worker than anything else. She always keeps one ear to what is happening outside of rehearsal amongst the women, the dynamics with various guards, and even among the higher-ups. She is so incredibly adept at navigating the complex society that exists within the prison walls. The challenge Pati brings is providing the opportunity for the women to take ownership of their experience and take responsibility for their presence both for themselves and for the group.  She often uses a phrase, “putting the arts to the services of the situation.” The project, the play, the improvisations are all an artificial platform for the women to develop their voices and have them heard. She creates individual relationships with each woman, and knows when and how to push them. She believes in each of the women to rise to this challenge, helping them to believe in themselves as well.

It was incredibly helpful to hear her say this, because then I was able to articulate my interest in this work. The challenge for me has always been within theater, within certain improvisation exercises, and growth happens within the struggle for creative expression. Viola Spolin talks about creative problem solving as the basis of theater. Exercises set up problems, and everyone in the room has to accept the rules of the problem. This is a risk. It’s scary to think that you might take the game seriously, accept the rules then not be able to find a solution. But when you invest in the situation and can solve the problem, it’s exhilarating. For example: The Human Knot. Everyone stands in a circle and grabs two hands of two different people. Without letting go, the group must untangle itself until it is back to a circle. When the women did this exercise for the first time, they worked together and tried many different ways to untangle themselves. When they succeeded, they were so happy and excited, they insisted on playing the game three more times! The creative problem solving and risk-taking can be applied to any situation in life- the risk is accepting the rules and trying, because of the possibility of failure, but once you do you try many different ways to solve the problem at hand.

I also realized that my Spanish is going to be a barrier for the entire time that I am here. While I have gotten a lot better, I will never fully understand what the women are saying, or be able to articulate myself as much as I want to. As an opinionated person who takes pride in her ability to observe, I have found it challenging to not be able to understand what is going on right in front of me. Pati and Nell have been so helpful by filling me in about conversations or skits that I didn’t understand. Sometimes I have not wanted to accept what they tell me about a conversation I have witnessed, simply because I want to be able to form my own opinion about it. But I can’t always do that! It was really helpful to realize this, because I am being more patient with myself and with the work. When I get frustrated, I ask myself how much my ego is playing into that frustration, and remind myself to be patient and contribute in the ways I can. The reality is that I can’t contribute like I would in English, and that’s okay. I am so thrilled that I have this opportunity to improve my Spanish. It’s an important exercise in listening.

This week finally helped me make sense of a lot of this experience so far. The “Lindsay” side of me- anal perfectionist planner- has had trouble with the fact that most days we end earlier than we could, we start late, and we take extra long breaks. But Pati makes purposeful decisions about how we spend the time, constantly trying to listen to the group dynamics. If we go in with a fixed schedule immune to any changes in the environment, we impose our need to feel productive instead of responding to the needs of the situation. I’m learning to let go of a strict definition of work as only including the second we begin a scheduled activity. The work is every interaction we have, our long conversations over our hour-long lunch break, having both silly and profound conversations with the women in the downtime- all of this is a part of our collaboration and serves to build a community and connections.

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Week 4: Nell’s Update

I’ve been waiting to find clarity on what is most important to highlight in this next update to lay it out in a neat and processed way, though it doesn’t seem to work like that. So here’s to scattered thoughts! Actually, I feel like embracing the chaos of what I don’t know or understand has opened up a lot of doors recently, because it’s allowed me to focus on and take ownership over what I know I am capable of contributing. It would be naïve to declare that art is the only or best way to change these women’s lives – or that it’s going to at all – but it does create a platform for reflection and self-exploration that might not happen otherwise. If I tried to be a psychologist, best friend, art teacher, and whatever other roles would seemingly cover their needs (which I’ve been tempted to do in the past), then I would be flat out lying – cultivating a totally self-serving dynamic out of a supposedly altruistic intention. Let’s stick to art and see what can happen from there.

I look forward to the self-portrait workshops each week because I crave the peaceful environment and yet have no idea what kind of creativity or conversation that peace is going to foster. Per the women’s request, we’ve been working to the backdrop of meditative rhythms, Miles Davis, and some random Phish instrumentals I’ve thrown on the disc. Every group has a two-hour time slot on Wednesday or Thursday, depending on when they have visits (split between those who are sentenced and those awaiting their sentence), but many come for the full four hours on their day or sneak in on their off-day. I’m sure some of them initially come for the relative quiet and hope they can bypass the art, but the creative bug catches quickly. The best part is watching them encourage one another and set the standard of participation. In the small society that is the jail, attitudes are dangerously contagious; within the small art room that tendency has worked in our favor.

Our process began with a discussion about what self-portraiture means to them and how we can represent ourselves in different ways. The first step was a simple exercise using colors, shapes, and designs in an abstract way to communicate something about our personalities – understanding that how we feel about ourselves changes from day to day (moment to moment?). This warmed us up to the idea that art is an interpretation, not a fixed reality. A few classes later, a woman came up to me after having worked on a more realistic self-portrait the previous day; “Nellie,” she said, “I went to my bed after class and cried for hours because I didn’t like what I saw.” When I asked her how she was doing and if she felt ok to come back to class, she laughed at me. “Of course! It’s a good thing to work through, I need to get past it.” Another woman was frustrated with the collage portion of her portrait, and when I asked if she needed to give it a break, she exclaimed, “NO no no! This is NOT going to win me over. If this wins me over, I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life!” Well put. I’m so happy to see that while the women are giving their full effort, they aren’t taking themselves too seriously. Speaking from experience, it’s easy to drown in our own doubts and perfectionism.

After the abstract portraits, we attempted with a mirror and pencil in hand. Class opened with a short meditation that led our inner eyes down to our bellies – home of creative, sexual, (re)productive energy – where we walked through a forest and sat on the bank of a deep pool to study the reflections of our faces (inspiration from Professor James Rice). The moment we reached the pond and I said “…and you see the reflection of your face,” all of the women – from age 20 to 60 – jumped in their chairs with their eyes closed, startled by whatever they saw. It was beautiful. We studied the imaginary reflections with curiosity rather than judgment, and to my delight, the real mirror portraits were met with no resistance. One woman even pointed to the little piece of glass and looked to me – “it’s the pond!”

To ease the self-focus and introduce materials, we created collaborative pieces based on famous works of art. Each woman received a numbered 2”x2” square with unidentifiable shapes printed in black and white (when put together, they formed a print of a famous piece) and was asked to replicate what they saw on a white square using any colors and materials available. The puzzle pieces were arranged based on their numbering and the women’s intuition, and when a full print of the famous piece was revealed the consensus was that their versions were WAY more exciting (sorry, Picasso). This led into the next self-portraiture step, as each woman used a puzzle of her photographed face split into four, trying four materials of her choice. Once they’ve discovered a medium that speaks to them, they move onto a final portrait of their own design (examples of the four-square and final pieces attached). Before traveling to Chile, I was given a comprehensive art book of Latin American portraiture over 2,000 years, and it’s great to see each woman land on a different page to weave in fellow artists’ ideas with their own (sometimes new-found) creativity.

As I alluded to above, I’m finding it increasingly essential to be humbled by reality and to honor what I can’t fully understand or control. Many women bring their full presence and energy on one day and the next day are in the Hole for acting out or hospital for violent wrist cutting.  It’s not that I don’t believe in them or in the power of the arts, but there are so many forces at play. If I found out that I was given a 15-year sentence or that my child was taken from my custody I would be out of commission for a while too. It’s also a reality that many of them will leave prison and there WON’T be any jobs for them. Here we are building up their confidence for society to shut it down again, right? Maybe. I’m not sure. But I have to trust in the power of little shifts and also trust in other humans to do their little parts too. A dear person in my life told me yesterday that if we think about what the world needs most and what we personally need most, we should seek to fulfill something in the middle. Which could look like many things! The world needs creativity, scientific curiosity, loving families…

This brings me to my last thought…basic needs. I’m realizing how important it is to tend to them and how easy it is to dismiss them. Katie and I have been spending our time outside of work inventing silly voices, seeing theater, practicing yoga, attempting to follow absurd aerobic classes, reading ten-minute plays aloud, and cooking comforting food. Alone time is taken, though I have to admit I’ve missed her from my downstairs room and we often end up writing, reading, and meditating alongside each other. Talca’s social scene is…not hopping. Though we embrace the mellow post-work pace and meet great characters while traveling on weekends or through Pati’s extensive network of friends. I’m now writing on the bank of Talca’s river while Reggeaton and salsa vibe to my left; an 8-year old kid just walked by with an ice cream in hand and a t-shirt that read: “I’m a complex and multi-layered person.” Oh, life.

Sending lots of love to everyone – it’s been wonderful to hear from you and keep up on what’s been filling your hearts and minds…grateful we can stay connected in so many ways.

Love,

Nell

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Week 2: Katie’s First Impressions

January 12, 2012

Buenas tardes! It’s 7:30pm and the sun is still shining, and I am still sweating. I am grateful that the days here are longer, so that when we return from an exhausting day of work I still have a few hours to sit out in the shaded patio to read or write.

I sometimes forget we are working in a prison, primarily because the environment is so different from all of the images I have of American prisons. The security where we work is incredibly light. We have to go through one gate secured by a magnet to get to the administrative area, where we give a guard our passports and purses. The guard gives a quick look through the material that we are bringing in, although by now they barely even do that. We go through two more magnetic gates to get to the prison area. Upon first meeting the women, they seemed like any other Chileans I have met so far. They greeted us with a kiss on the check, wearing their own clothes, laughing and chatting away. As Nell wrote, the prison can feel a bit like a summer camp. The different buildings are connected by outdoor hallways. We have actually had some trouble solidifying our group, because people keep going in and out of the room we are working in. They seem to have more individual freedom to move around within the prison.

It takes something very small to snap me back to reality, like seeing one of our particularly articulate women polishing a guard’s shoe. A different woman said to me, “It has been four years without walking the streets.” That image has really stayed with me. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to stay inside those walls for four years, let alone longer, as I’m sure many of them are. My freedom has never been restricted in that way. Even something as simple as running out to the car to grab something is a luxury these women do not have. They have no privacy, and the cliques can be socially and physically brutal. One of the women we are working with had all of her things stolen on her first night. I can’t imagine trying to stay sane in that environment.

The guards are complicated figures as well. My first instinct, I have to admit, is to ally with the women and demonize the guards. However, because we eat lunch in their cafeteria, we have had the chance to form relationships with them as well. The two women in charge are very excited about our project, and have done everything they can to make our work possible. They really want what’s best for the prisoners. Another female guard sat down to lunch with us one day and told us how she just fell into this career. I have found myself wondering what it must be like to be in their shoes, and the weird power dynamic they confront every day. Where is the line between doing your job and harassing the prisoners unnecessarily?

At the end of our second week here we are settling into a more solidified routine. Tuesdays through Fridays we work at the prison. Every morning Pati leads us in a warm up with African dance. Yesterday she began teaching us drumming. At the final performance half of the women will be drumming while the other half dances. It’s such a fun warm up, because it really wakes us up. I can’t help but smile while I do it. We break for lunch at noon, and Nell and Pati and I eat for free with the guards. On Tuesdays and Fridays we continue with Telling My Story workshops, which involve writing, discussion and improvisation. Nell and I are actually participating in the final piece, which is a part of Pati’s methodology.  I find these days incredibly exhausting because of my Spanish. I struggle to follow along the intense discussions brought up by the writing exercises, although I do understand the general sentiments- personal versus society’s accountability, treatment within the prison, and individual power. I know that my Spanish will get better as time goes on, and it already has improved significantly.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I am going to do an hour of improv workshops with immense help from Nell. Today was my first go at it, and I was incredibly nervous- both about my ability to communicate and how the women would react to the exercises. We had a smaller group, and they jumped right in. The things I had planned were all over the place- some very physical, some more meditative, and some just plain silly.  All of them were about focus and imagination. Many of the women were confused about the purpose of the exercises at first, but after doing each exercise they totally got the purpose. I felt so much more confident about my Spanish and I’m really excited to do more in the future.

On Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, Nell leads art workshops and I assist her. We split the group of about 35 women into four smaller groups, which is a great opportunity to get to know them better. We are focusing on self-portraits, both abstract and more realistic. They expressed to us that they have really been enjoying these sessions, because it provides a quiet reflection time away from the constant presence of others. I am also enjoying watching Nell facilitate, because she has such wonderful ideas about how to encourage self-expression through art. I have never been really strong at visual art, but I have been doing the projects along with the women to learn it too. I am discovering a newfound patience and excitement for making this kind of art that I never had before.

I have been really happy learning from watching and listening. Between Spanish, African Dance, self-portraits, drumming, and the Telling My Story methodology there is a lot to be inspired by! I am also so happy to have this time to deepen my friendship with Nell. I am really excited about our potential collaborations in the future. For now, we have both resolved to take good care of ourselves by eating well, going to the gym, and taking time to write and reflect. In this quieter environment I feel like I have finally found the space I need to relax and calm down my anxiety of post-graduation/what am I doing/what’s in the future. In many ways I feel more open to inspiration and creativity than I have in a very long time.

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Week One: Nell

Along with discrimination, injustice, and the other wrongs that have been flashing in my face, I really don’t care for blinds on my windows. Like my mom, I secretly love waking up with the sun and sneaking this time of peace. Quiet except for birds and the hum of cars. People dreaming around me. My mind is less active, sipping in my surroundings like my tea, and less guarded, so whatever’s been building up can flow without judgment.

We started our work at the prison last Tuesday, and I was startled to walk in to what looked like a summer camp. High yellow walls with open-air walkways, reggeatón blasting from the cafeteria, a few women selling cheap sweets at a little table, many of them running around like pre-teens in flip flops and multicolored sun dresses – several of them came up to greet us with a kiss. I easily grinned while taking in our work environment for the next two months, but it gnawed at me how easy it would be to settle for this environment for much longer. It’s a sick illusion of freedom. I don’t agree with locking people in dark cells and cutting off communication, but what this place offers is eerily satisfying for people who’ve been told they can’t do better on the outside.

Similarly dualistic, the women we’re ecstatic to file into the workshop. Forty to fifty of them on the first day. Pati, the founder of Telling My Story and my mentor/collaborator in this project, cranked up a contagious beat of African drumming music and led us in two hours of dance and movement – our daily warm-up. Throughout the week we facilitated theater and writing exercises with between 15 and 40 participants (soon to be a more solidified group), interspersed with long dialogues with the women about the work. I’m most struck by how immediately the women switch gears from fooling around and gossiping to profoundly articulating their needs and their reasons for taking part in the workshops. Childish and manipulative behavior is a clever survival mechanism they’ve developed in the midst of serious pain. When Pati acknowledges that and insists that they deserve better, silence falls over the room and they nod – not out of obedience, but in agreement. I’m realizing how much responsibility I’ve been given in my life – little things like being able to speak for myself in a classroom – because my social position earns me trust and the people around me have told me that what I have to say matters. The first day one woman stood up and thanked us for treating them like human beings. If people treat you like a child (or non-human) because they don’t expect anything else of you, that can be deeply internalized and your sense of self-worth plummets. The more I see the more I realize how little I know about the whole situation, but I do know from my short life that we generally do bad things when we don’t feel good about ourselves. I say their enthusiasm is dualistic because while they bring great energy to channel into the work, their urgency comes from deprivation of something basic.

For eight hours a week, Katie and I will run four two-hour self-portraiture workshops with smaller groups. Our one-hour introduction sessions this week promise lots of engagement. We experienced laughter and tears – discussing as a group the difficulty and importance of sitting down and confronting the tangle of what’s going on inside, how its not always a peaceful process but hopefully it leads to a greater peace of mind. I had to remind myself of the times I’ve stood before a canvas and literally wanted to rip it apart with my brush (better than ripping up other things). Art is beautiful, not pretty!

Katie and I have been talking a lot about the power of creation over resistance. There are so many things to be upset about in this world, and last night when we were invited to a fancy wine tasting event not far from the facility, I felt the temptation to get worked up about the appalling contrast of the two environments within a mile of each other (while enjoying my own glass of carbonere). But is starting a riot in the middle of this luxurious event the answer? Eh, probably not. First of all, I’m a shrimp when it comes to understanding the whole picture. Secondly, blaming and wronging entitled people makes them defensive and aggressive and me feel entitled. Where does that leave us? It feels so much better to focus on creating a space for what we need (self-expression, dialogue) rather than nitpicking all the things we don’t need.

It’s been so wonderful to live with Katie (a Dartmouth grad and dear friend) – I couldn’t ask for a more fun and thoughtful…I want to say partner in crime. We keep each other accountable to taking good care of ourselves – relying on the healing powers of laughter and chocolate. I’m realizing how important it is for me to share these experiences with others – to bounce ideas off of them and get outside of my own head. Despite the distance, I feel very connected to all of you. Of course we’ll never be able to totally recreate for one another the parallel experiences we are having during these months, but I trust that we’ll embody them in some way, shape, or form the next time we meet in person. That said, please write whenever inspired! Thank you for listening to all of these unfinished thoughts, sending lots of love your way.

Love, Nell

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