November 2, 2015

Critical Connections and Validating Voices

The Power in Sharing Stories, Art, and Meals
by Sarah Day Dayon '15 MAT '16
Sarah Day is interested in how scholar-researcher-activists can interrogate their positionality when conducting research or engaging in community outreach. She's currently completing her Masters of Arts in Teaching for History and Social Studies and working as the Assistant for the Engaged Scholars Program
“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it's never a question of 'critical mass.' It's always about critical connections.” - Grace Lee Boggs

Conferences can be really stifling: people dressed impeccably, business cards being exchanged, and bodies shuffling from one session to the next without much time to breathe. As a student attendee, I often feel awkward and uncomfortable navigating these spaces, but my experience at the Imagining America (IA) Conference in Baltimore gave me an unexpected alternative perspective on how conferences can operate.

With the support of a mentor and former professor, Alexandrina Agloro ’05, and the Swearer Center for Public Service, I was given the opportunity to attend the IA conference as a representative of the Engaged Scholars Program. The annual IA conference brings together artists, scholars, and activists to share ideas and practices related to topics of engagement. More broadly, IA’s mission is to “create democratic spaces to foster and advance publicly engaged scholarship that draws on arts, humanities, and design.” This year’s theme, The Art and Power of “Weaving Our We,” stressed the importance of community and collaboration.

What sets this conference apart was the ability to directly interact with and learn from community organizations in Baltimore. The first workshop I attended, When Good Things End: Collectively and Reflectively Dreaming a Future for (Un)Finished Programs was located at The Dream House, Baltimore’s only youth-run youth center. We convened in a meeting room where we learned about the students who imagined this project in a middle school classroom and implemented it over the course of more than a decade. Due to a lack of funding, the Dream House is no longer able to operate at its intended capacity. 

When we transitioned to the next portion of the workshop, we split off into small groups and were given a menu item to prepare. My group easily fell into a conversation about connecting what we had heard to our own experiences. There’s something really intimate about co-creating a meal. It seemed to foster a sense of community that felt incredibly genuine despite our limited time together. To conclude the session, we paired off with one other person. I was paired with a professor who directs a teaching program, similar to the one I’m currently in, but at a university in Maryland. We both discussed our past experiences and future visions for teaching and engagement.

As an aspiring educator, I’m constantly aware of the notion that students will not always remember the content of what you taught but will more than likely remember how you made them feel. While I may not remember what was said outside of my haphazardly scrawled notes, I can easily recall my emotions from that weekend. I will remember furrowing my brow in frustration when non-native voices co-opted and attempted to redefine the term indigeneity without recognizing the implications of their actions. I will remember the satisfaction of cutting apples, crumbling goat cheese over a salad, and eating a home cooked meal prepared collectively by my fellow workshop participants. I will remember the cathartic feeling of coloring a quilt square to contribute to The Monument Quilt, a national art project that seeks to honor the survivors of abuse and sexual assault. I will remember the initial hesitance of being vulnerable in a storytelling circle, and the ultimate warmth of good conversation.

On the other hand, I was also interested in what was missing. As someone who is interested in community and relationship building, I often take a mental survey of who isn’t speaking in a conversation and who isn’t in the room and question why that might be. I wondered about how we have unintentionally created barriers and how can we intentionally create opportunities for the bodies and voices that may not find the space as accessible to enter. Ultimately, the two things I’m carrying with me and will continue to process are the importance of critical connections and the validation of marginalized voices. I believe it’s important to value the knowledge produced by students and the community - not just as tangential, but critical to practice of engaged scholarship.

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