…the idea of who and what belonged mean more than a chicken permit.
Humans thrive when they know the feeling of belonging. In this issue, the filmmaker Matthew Brown shares his story of getting to know members of the Hmong community where he lives. He knew only ” the lazy stories of us vs. them, unsolicited, unfounded stories of unbelonging.” He wanted to make a film that showed another perspective.
In this issue of On:
From the Director’s Desk
Looking back at the wonderfully rich array of projects that you helped the WHC support in 2012, I was struck by the number of community groups who asked us all to reflect on the efforts of different people to belong here — and the diverse reactions to their efforts. Matthew Brown’s essay about the experience of one Hmong immigrant, and the WHC-funded project Brown is helping to lead, is just one example of such an effort. Here are a few more I think you will enjoy knowing about:
• Arab and Muslim women who make their homes in Milwaukee came together a few years ago and began to collect oral life histories of Arab and Muslim women from very diverse backgrounds. That first WHC-supported effort helped their organization grow in experience and ambition. They are now collaborating with the Milwaukee Public Museum, with support from another WHC grant, to design an exhibition that will explore the many meanings of Arab and Muslim women’s traditional dress as worn by women in Milwaukee today.
• The historic exclusion of Jews from many institutions led the Jewish community to establish its own alternatives for everything from health care to recreation. The stories of how and why Jewish hospitals and social organizations were established is being shared by the Milwaukee Jewish Museum with thousands of visitors, many of whom have little experience with the Jewish community in Wisconsin or its history.
• To strengthen social bonds, a community organization in northwest Wisconsin created a Midsummer Day event that brought together area residents with an interest in Scandinavian traditions and culture. Present-day religious divides in the community were deftly addressed through education about the past meanings and practice of this non-Christian seasonal celebration.
• Southeast Wisconsin was – and is – home to many speakers of German. Residents of Kiel, Malone, Sheboygan Falls and surrounding communities came together with scholars of the Wisconsin German experience to learn about settlement history, community institutions, dialects and traditions that continue to contribute to the distinctive character of this region of the state.
• Hundreds of military veterans, their families, friends and neighbors from around the state gathered with historians and other scholars at a conference about the Iraq war. Sessions like “Our Shared Responsibility: Supporting and Reintegrating Our Newest Veterans” spoke to the particular challenge of veterans who are making the transition from living and belonging to a community of their fellow soldiers, to their communities back in Wisconsin.
All of these projects – and many more – did what the humanities do best: help us puzzle out what it means to be human, to be both like and unlike others, to share or differ in our histories, beliefs, and culture. The WHC’s work throughout the state is founded on our belief that the strength of Wisconsin communities depends upon community members who understand one another, and feel that they belong here. Thank you for joining the WHC in support of that belief through your participation in our programs and through your financial contributions.
–Dena Wortzel | Executive Director | firstname.lastname@example.org
Essay: Belonging by Matthew Brown
Chris Thompson asked the city of Stevens Point for permission in September 2011 to raise three to five egg-laying hens.
“I got signatures from the three immediate neighbors, if you guys would like to see a copy of their approval,” said Mr. Thompson to the city committee that regulates, among other things, the keeping of chickens. The committee didn’t ask to see the signatures and granted Mr. Thompson’s request without much discussion.
At the committee’s next meeting, Nyiaj Thong Vang asked for permission to raise six to eight chickens. The birds would be raised over the summer and slaughtered in the fall for meat for his family. Mr. Vang also had signatures from his neighbors.
“I don’t know if you need these or not,” he said.
“Yes, please.” The response was immediate and simultaneous from the committee’s chair and the city clerk.
The committee voted to postpone Mr. Vang’s request in order to verify signatures, check into slaughter regulations, and get proof of insurance from Mr. Vang as well as a drawing of where the chickens would be located on the property.
As a journalist who covers these types of meetings, I was confused by the difference in the committee’s approach to the two requests. The official explanation was due diligence, but there seemed to be something else going on. Eggs versus meat seemed to touch off something troubling in the local narrative of what’s strange and what isn’t, of who belongs and who doesn’t.
In a later conversation with Mr. Vang, he described the permitting experience as “unusual.” Mr. Vang was Hmong and Mr. Thompson was not, and the idea of who and what belonged meant more than a chicken permit. The official who gave me the due diligence explanation (“No, no, no. It has nothing to do with race,” he said) also told me, almost in the same breath and without any sense of irony, that if I wanted to hear some interesting stories about Hmong people, I should ask the city attorney about early Hmong refugees strangling ducks in the park.
I had plenty of other reasons to believe we hadn’t come that far as a community in our understanding of Hmong people, our largest minority group, a group that has been making their lives here for more than 30 years. I had grown up here concurrently with the first Hmong refugee families and I didn’t understand much about Hmong culture or history, much less the Hmong individuals and families in my community.
After moving back here a few years ago, I heard many stories about Hmong people. They were all told by people who weren’t Hmong and who told me the stories because I wasn’t Hmong either. They were the lazy stories of us vs. them, unsolicited, unfounded stories of unbelonging.
Those weren’t the stories I wanted to tell.
Two months later, after an unsuccessful search for a way to deny Mr. Vang’s request and after everything checked out with Mr. Vang’s neighbors, the committee granted the request. “I guess that I am going to move approval,” said a committee member in making the motion.
Mr. Vang’s unusual experience stuck with me, and that same month the Finding the Middle Way documentary project was formed as a collaborative effort to learn and share the history, complexity and value of the Hmong American community in our area. The project is currently in production and seeks to reach beyond narrow media portrayals of Hmong people that too often focus on cultural differences. The project hopes to share the story of the middle ground on which most people negotiate and share their day-to-day lives — stories like that of the Vangs, whose chicken permit was renewed in December 2012 with no complaints. Editor’s note: The film was completed in 2013.
Matthew Brown is the Director of the documentary film “Finding the Middle Way.”
Finding the Middle Way
In June 2012, the WHC was proud to award a major grant for Finding the Middle Way: A Story of the Hmong People in Portage County, WI, 1980 to the Present. The project is built on collaboration among Hmong and non-Hmong residents of the county, including UW -Stevens Point faculty and students. Together, they are researching and creating a video documentary that, in their words, will “go beyond previous portrayals of Hmong people in the media which too often focus on the struggle of assimilation and cultural difference while overlooking the middle ground on which most people negotiate and share their day-to-day lives.”
Guided by UW-SP anthropologist Tori Jennings, UW-SP School of Education faculty member Mayee Yang Her, and journalist Matthew Brown of the Portage County Gazette, a team is conducting ethnographic interviews with community members. Through their stories, the documentary will explore questions such as: What are intergenerational relations like between Hmong elders, their children, and grandchildren? How do Hmong people in Portage county work to maintain cultural traditions and connection with family and kin groups? How do Hmong and non-Hmong people in Portage county experience their relationships with each other?
The documentary, due to be completed in fall 2013, will be used as a catalyst for community discussions, helping participants reflect on “the middle way” through which people from diverse cultural backgrounds resolve differences, challenge stereotypes, and find their way in the world while at the same time maintaining the cultural traditions that are so critical to binding communities together. (for more information, visit www.hmongvideo.org)
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About the Photos
The photos are courtesy of the filmmakers of Finding the Middle Way, hmongvideo.org.
Cover Image: This still shot from the Finding the Middle Way shows Hmong veterans of the Vietnam War making their way through the receiving line of the Hmong American Association of Portage County’s September 2012 Pre-New Year celebration in Plover, Wisconsin.
Group photo: The Finding the Middle Way crew takes a break from filming to pose for a photo of area Hmong women during the Hmong American Association of Portage County’s September 2012 Pre-New Year celebration in Plover, Wisconsin.
Classroom photo: From left, project adviser Sue Clark Kubley and UW-Stevens Point student researchers, Julie Lee, Deng Vang, Maiker Lor, and Qeng Lee discuss the research phase of the Finding the Middle Way documentary project in the summer of 2012.
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