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Sharing the Same Space - Speaking with a Common Voice: A Case Study

By Laura Eberhardt, B.M.E., B.A., University of New Mexico, Littleglobe Affiliate Artist

In the fall of 2010 at the University of New Mexico, I enrolled in Valerie Martínez and Molly Sturges’s class, “Sharing the Same Space: Creative Collaboration and Racial Healing.” I took the class primarily because of my interest in learning new skills for facilitating art making in the classroom. I had taught music lessons at several underserved schools in Albuquerque and witnessed the power of creativity and the arts in empowering these youth. From this experience, I began to see that social justice and liberatory teaching were inseparably linked. I needed to gain techniques of facilitation beyond the pedagogical methods I learned in my music education courses: how could I help my students feel empowered as individuals and as a community? In “Sharing the Same Space” I honed my skills as a teacher-facilitator and further expanded my role as a social-justice advocate by confronting inequities across racial boundaries confounded by gender and class.

Valerie and Molly’s teaching model differed from a traditional seminar. We did have assigned readings on race, class, gender and community engagement, and we engaged in discussion, but much of the class was devoted to actually practicing collaborative art. More than half of the class sessions featured guest artists who came in and showed us their techniques for community engagement using a variety of media, from documentary to comics to expressive movement. A portion of this time was dedicated to mini-projects similar to those that Littleglobe artists enact in the communities where they work. Valerie, Molly and these other artists treated us as a diverse community with artistic potential. For instance, Molly facilitated an exercise called “conduction” in which we each composed short sound passages on the spot and she conducted us through an improvised piece. Rulan Tangen engaged us in a poignant activity that used movement and space to confront racial boundaries. Most of the skills I learned as a facilitator came from my firsthand observations of Valerie, Molly and the other artists who came in: how they initially engaged us, facilitated our growth and used artistic media to bridge divides.

We often started activities not knowing what the result would be. We learned firsthand that this way of relating elicits insecurities—as a group we wanted to be told what to do and how to do it, as we would in a traditionally structured class. However, empowering a community to engage artistically rather working on a product the artist has in mind is an important aspect of Littleglobe’s work, and our teachers held to their values and refused to name the product we should be seeking. The “product” was the beauty of our working together and coming together as a community.

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On the first day of the course, Valerie began to cultivate a safe space for members of the class to push themselves artistically as well as encouraging important discussions about race, class and other sensitive topics. The class was a diverse group, including Native American, African-American/Black, Mixed Blood, White and Latino students. This was especially important because the process-driven environment was unfamiliar to most students, which made much of the class uncomfortable and insecure. More than once she told the class that it was all right to refuse to do something, but that we should also feel safe to make mistakes. Our teachers were the first to take artistic risks. For example, when we were too shy to improvise during the conduction exercise, Molly led by making silly sounds. It also was common procedure in many of the class periods to go around the circle and share our feelings about an exercise or conversation. The space in which we sat—in a circle, with our teachers seated with us in this circle for much of the time—cultivated a feeling of safety and acceptance. However, much of the safety grew from the honesty with which Valerie and Molly spoke and acted. They demonstrated bravery by sharing stories from their lives. For instance, Valerie talked about her inability to mend a friendship with her neighbor after a rollerblading accident while with their daughter. Our teachers had the courage to appear imperfect, which eased my insecurities both about taking risks in class and the journey toward becoming a facilitator.

Still, throughout the semester I struggled with whether to come out to the class as a lesbian. Even though I came out to individual members of the class, I did not reveal my identity either in class discussions about the readings or in artistic and storytelling projects. I was afraid of being stereotyped, my contributions to discussions being misinterpreted, and my stance on gender being seen as skewed and extreme. It was difficult to discuss my experience of race, class and gender without incorporating my sexual identity, and oftentimes I simply did not speak in class. Because the class-community was built upon sharing personal stories, I also struggled with finding a place for my story, to which being a lesbian was integral. Where did my story fit into our communal tale? Feeling like my experiences of disempowerment were alien to those around me; I put up a wall and omitted my experiences as a minority.

However, our artistic explorations as a community and the cultivation of a safe space had a powerful effect on me. Eventually, I felt compelled and willing to share my story for the final class project. We began work on our final project the last few weeks of the semester. Because we were our own classroom “community,” we were given the responsibility of deciding what to do and how to complete the different parts of the project. Valerie and Molly guided us in crafting our goals and the main components of the project, while making sure everyone’s voices were heard. At times, our community had high tensions and doubted that by trusting the process we could create something coherent. However, our teachers carefully guided large group discussion, broke us up into small groups, helped flesh out ideas, and helped narrow down our decisions. They encouraged us to separate into teams to work on different aspects of the project, from public relations and advertising to compiling the spoken-word piece, to the visual effect and arc of the event. As a class we came up with the title for the project, “Burning Down the Boundaries: Creating a Path for the Future,” which gave us direction in our planning.

We agreed that the most important aspect of the project would be for everyone to have the freedom to tell his/her story. Throughout the semester we had emotional moments where someone would share a story when they felt particularly discriminated against or silenced, or that they were upholding boundaries. These were the times our community came together. We were taking our pasts and speaking them out, empowering ourselves and our community. Some of the course readings helped, emphasizing how individual stories could come together to create a whole. A project emerged where the central component was sharing stories of discrimination with the end product being a spoken-word piece comprising all of our tales.

I felt compelled to submit my story as a lesbian. I believe that my decision was made easier the storytelling nature of the project and by Valerie and Molly’s facilitation of a safe space. Because we decided statements were supposed to be about discrimination of any sort, the space opened up for me to come out. It also would be part of the larger spoken-word piece, and I felt more comfortable dispersing the focus from myself to how my story was part of our community. I finally could acknowledge my passion and true self; I felt empowered. I wrote:

I am from the lying and silence of the closet.

I am a woman and I am engaged to a woman. I cannot legally get married in the city where I have lived all my life, not to mention in most of the country. When I see my grandparents and father I take my ring off or change which finger it is on because they don't even know this relationship exists. I fear losing them. I took me a long while to find my identity as a lesbian and now I am confident and proud of who I am. Yet I am still not strong enough to step out from the closet entirely. I have been with Joelle for over two-and-a-half years and she is invisible to this half of my family.

But what affects me even more poignantly is how my teaching career could be affected by my identity—by my love for another human being. Teaching, primarily music education, is my guiding force. But the jobs of public school teachers who are gay are in danger. In late September a student teacher in Oregon was fired for telling students he was not married because he would rather marry a man and it is not legal. I want my love of teaching and the love for my partner to be able to coexist—which will I have to lose?

And yet, this discrimination is small compared to the bullying in schools of LGBTQ youth that has forced them to suicide. I am alive. I am alive. I survived the times I thought there was something disgusting wrong with me. I am alive and my problems are small compared to young people who are taunted, belittled, exploited and harmed every day for being gay. These are the young people I want us to remember today.

Part of the significance of “Burning Down the Boundaries” was that someone’s statement would not necessarily be read by the person who wrote it. That is, we decided to share parts of the script by “claiming” passages that we wanted to speak, regardless if we had written them. The power was in having someone else speak our words, which was directly the opposite of my fears of stereotyping in which others define us with their words.

I knew from discussions in class that one of my peers was obviously religious. She had been one of the reasons I convinced myself not come out to the class as a whole. But when our groups met to work on the project, she told me how much she appreciated me submitting my honest statement. She insisted on being the one to speak my passage in the performance, which has struck me deeply as one of the greatest moments of acceptance in my life. She not only appreciated my story and saw me as an individual, but she wanted to in some way understand and feel my pain. She also did not fear speaking this story out in public where the lines between storyteller and identity would be blurred. She internalized a part of me and my story, and I felt closer to her for her being willing to do so. They became our words.

I felt this most poignantly during the dress rehearsal, which took place in our normal circle in the classroom space we had occupied for the entire semester. When we performed the script—our stories—in this intimate setting, I felt all of the community we had built up come forth on the table. The aesthetic experience of the spoken-word piece was augmented by being in our normal intimate space and by each of our stories being read by each other, as an oral history of our community. When my classmate read my story for all of us, my breath caught: I had finally come out in this space. Even while I felt a strong sense of community, I also felt strength as an individual.

“Sharing the Same Space” was an immensely important experience for me. I will apply the lessons I learned about crafting a safe space and facilitating artistic projects in my teaching. My own journey toward finding the strength to tell my story as a lesbian showed me the valuable role facilitators play in creating space for minorities and others to speak out. The work of individual artists and organizations like Littleglobe opens the space to tell stories and begins a process of racial and social healing. When we speak of our past and future with truth we are empowered. When others speak the stories we tell, we become closer to each other, and a cycle of sharing is opened up. A common history is vital for true community. We each have an unwritten story, and community is cultivated when we expand our common voice.