I am very excited to share with you that the culmination of years of writing and meetings and planning — the premiere of “Walking Together” — happened. Like nothing I had ever done before, Walking Together was born of a desire to make the world a better place. My plan was to have neighbor meet neighbor and to get to know each other's stories — stories about immigration, migration, race, and ethnicity. And all these stories were spoken by a diverse group of readers over music I composed.
My plan for “Walking Together," which was partially funded by a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council Community Arts Grant, was to give neighbors in my small suburb of Mahtomedi a chance to hear each other's stories. As a child I distinctly remember not understanding why people distanced themselves from people who were different from them. At four or five years old, I believed everyone was a potential new friend! As I look back, I realize now that a part of my cultural upbringing in a small town in Minnesota was actually learning how not to reach out and make friends so easily, especially with people who looked, or dressed, or talked differently than me. The teaching was subtle, but incredibly effective. Later, I began to take notice. I caught myself. Why did I step back? Did I worry about not fitting in? Did I worry about saying something wrong? Tribalism is a powerful teacher.
My small college in St. Paul, MN was somewhat more diverse than my hometown. But still we all, for the most part, hung out with people that looked like us. I also worked for Honeywell while in college. I dated a Japanese colleague of mine for a short time. I distinctly remember my mother telling me that a multicultural relationship might prove difficult. The relationship didn’t move forward for several reasons, but I know that my mother’s comment didn’t help.
After college, I travelled in Nepal, India, Tibet, and Thailand for a year with my now husband, Stuart. I thrived! We met a lot of new people. We tasted a ton of new foods. But we were always moving and so we made few lasting friendships with local people. Back in the States, I went back to my old ways, hanging out with people who looked and talked and dressed like me. Even in Boston, the people I worked with, for the most part, looked like me. I was insulated and I didn’t make the effort to change. I was too busy, I told myself. And then, years later, here we are in a suburb of St. Paul, which I love, but which is mostly white, and I’m struggling with the fact that I’m only making connections with people who are like me.
Last year, I just happened to be editing a piece called "Street Dance," which describes reaching out to a stranger, at the same time as protests at the 4th Precinct in Minneapolis were just beginning. The protests, led by Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, were in reaction to the shooting of Jamar Clark, a black man, by a police officer. I was watching some live feed when I suddenly stood up, frustrated with myself, and thought, What am I doing writing about extending a hand to a stranger and everyone dancing in the street, and not doing anything to make it so? I grabbed a warm coat, a little cash, my winter boots and a hat - and I headed out. People I knew said they were worried for me. But I couldn’t stay away. I extended my hand. I was there on the most violent night of the protest. I did a lot of stepping back, a lot of listening, a lot of watching. Over the next couple of weeks, I met many wonderful people and I listened to a lot of stories. Spending time there and keeping up to date on Facebook took over my life for a few weeks. I went to other meetings and trainings, and protests.
I’m getting back that sense I had as a young child where it was easy to reach out. Like the time when I was four and we went to a Native American Pow Wow in Colorado. One of the drummers, the one with the big drum, asked if any of the kids wanted to come up and drum with them. My hand shot up fast!
It’s through stories that we bond, that we see the humanness of each other. As I was composing music to accompany the texts I had selected for “Walking Together,” the immigrant and Native American stories worked their way deep into my body. They have now made a home there where they whistper to me, “Reach out. Take a chance.” And I could tell by the night of the program, the readers, some of them recent immigrants to Mahtomedi, had embodied the texts they were reading, as well. The audience was touched by the stories and the by music that accompanied them. They found me afterward to telling me with tears, the effect it had on them. One audience member wrote “What a great program. The music was amazing and the speakers were wonderful. I hope there are plans for more events like this. Great Job!” Another called it a “phenomenal, memorable production!” and was grateful for all the “love, creativity, and inclusion” that went into it.
Directly after the music, we shared food from local ethnic restaurants and a member of the local high school S.A.F.E. group (Students Advocating for Equality) lead us in some community building activities that they had designed. We got to know each other, neighbor to neighbor, new friend to new friend. As Naomi Shihab Nye says, “This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not all is lost.”
This was far beyond a one-person project, however and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my board members who worked tirelessly behind the scenes and to all the donors. Thank you.
I have two Twin Cities school districts and a church that are looking to bring “Walking Together” to their community. If you are interested in bringing it to your community, let me know. If you would like to make a tax deductible donation to help make make it possible for us to bring this to any community, please donate here. Thank you!