Moving Words: A Refugee & Immigrant Narrative Project (Post no. 1)

Saturday December 20, 2014

Jonathan and I met at a Starbucks at 8:00AM on Saturday to prepare for our first workshop and work on our morale. I had arrived in Houston at 11PM the night before, and didn’t get home until 12PM. In the midst of a full academic schedule, being an RA, being an MCSG rep, applying for grants, facilitating the mixed people’s identity collective, while still attempting to maintain a social life, I’m surprised I pulled off planning a Live It! Project with Jon for the three weeks we would be in Houston.

What drove us was our excitement for the project. Even during midterms and finals, we would say “but it’s going to be amazing,” because this is our community, and this project is about people like us. We did the same thing that morning. When any doubt begin to fill the air, we would say to each other “this is going to go well, we’ll make it go well.” After hundreds of emails, phone calls, skype meetings, and google docs, we established a free location for our workshops and a free venue for our gallery at the Neighborhood Centers Inc.,  and we got friends and friends of friends to come to our workshops.

Our first workshop was a lot of trial and error. Six people (mostly our families and friends) came to the first workshop. We learned a lot about how to keep people engaged in the presentation and changed our questions to guide better discussion. People told us they enjoyed the discussion. By the end of it, I was proud, and even more excited to do better on the second.



December 21, 2014


British philosopher Alan Watts once said “There is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.” As our workshops progressed, we began to realize that perhaps the real substance of the project was not about the end product of the stories themselves. Placing so much emphasis on creating photos and written narratives to present at the end would serve to limit the experience to the tangible, while overlooking something greater within the narrative process.

Anthropologist Catherine Bolten writes about how memory is an act, one that is more about the present than the past. In the way a narrative is told, the storyteller repositions and re-situates himself or herself in the present moment.

There was a familiar uneasiness at the opening of the second workshop.

After the photography portion of our workshop we brought the group together, pulling the chairs into a tighter circle. Within the space of this circle we began a group dialogue. Individuals here started to open up, speaking to the group about their experiences of movement, the meanings they attach to home, and conversations they have had with their parents.

What began to emerge was a discovery process as individuals revisited and re-lived past memories.

— Jonathan

Group Picture - Discussion - Day 1 The Circle Group - Day 1

Diálogos Intergeneracionales en Chile (Rachel Swanson’s project in Chile)

In a few hours, I am going back. For someone who enthusiastically loves community work, this phrase is a dream; leaving communities that you feel a part of, with no promise of coming back, is excruciating. In a few hours, I will be journeying back to Temuco, Chile. I studied abroad in Temuco in the spring of 2014, direct enrolling in Universidad de la Frontera, living with an incredible host family, volunteering at an elementary and high school, and making life-long friendships.

I will be returning to Temuco and Southern Chile to collaborate with some of these friends in order to facilitate intergenerational dialogues. Here’s a very abbreviated history lesson: From 1973-1990, Chile had a military government (most would say dictatorship) that brought both effective neoliberal economic reforms and atrocious human rights violations. A 1988 referendum ended Agosto Pinochet’s presidency (55.9% of Chileans voted against renewing his term and 44% voted to renew his term). Throughout and after the dictatorship/military government, the Chilean people remained divided on if economic progress must have a human cost (40,018 victims of repression, including Chileans disappeared and killed) or if censorship and repression was unacceptable, even in the face of economic progress.

Because of these continued divisions and the immunity from prosecution that Pinochet and many of his military officials gained due to laws that they changed while they were in office, this period in Chilean history remains tense and divided. And I observed this when I lived in Chile: people don’t talk about the coup d’état, the fifteen years of Pinochet’s power, or the transition to democracy. Children do not know what happened, history books do not approach the subject (I know this because I studied history at my university), and parents and grandparents do not discuss this important historical period in their families.

Our project, Intergenerational dialogues in post-dictatorship Chile, will attempt to close these gaps. We are facilitating conversations between grandparents and their grandchildren about how Chile has changed in the past forty years. Our team will work with the grandchildren (college and high school-aged students) to develop questions that they will ask their grandparents in an oral history. After the oral history, our team will then record an interview with the student, asking them about the process, what they learned, and how they plan on sustaining dialogue.

I plan on spending new year with my Chilean friends and family and then jumping right in to the work, with five interviews scheduled and confirmed for our first week of the project. I’m posting this blog post ahead of time because it is sure to be a very busy few weeks, with some of the most incredible people in the world.