Minneapolis Mayor Hodges includes transgender courage in state of the city address

In the state of the city address on Thursday, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges brought attention to issues facing the city’s transgender community and called on all citizens of the city to practice “love and celebration” in interactions with their transgender neighbors. She also called for the city to continue to adopt policies that make the city safer for transgender residents and visitors.Celebrating the courage of transgender individuals and the community was one of six themes in the mayor’s speech. Also included was increased mentoring of high school students, lowering city waste, addressing the city’s role in climate change, and making city-business interactions simpler. Hodges also included increasing police-community engagement.Here are Hodges remarks about moving the city forward on transgender inclusion:Recently, a person very dear to me let me know she was a transgender woman. My first response? Continue Reading

Theater Review: There are other worlds

This past weekend, Free Black Dirt presented There Are Other Worlds a play written and directed by Junauda Petrus and produced by Erin Sharkey (these two form the core artistic team of Free Black Dirt). The work premiered as a work in progress at Open Eye Figure Theatre in 2013 and returns in 2015 as a fully realized play at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, MN.I have been carrying around this quote by Toni Morrison.  “So Ralph Ellison writes ‘Invisible Man’ and as good as that book is, I have to ask, invisible to whom?  Certainly not to me.”  She is talking so succinctly about gaze, the white gaze, the male gaze and what it means to make art and for whose gaze. Junauda Petrus’s play There Are Other Worlds is the flip side to this question.  The play is clearly written with a black female gaze in mind.  The entire cast are women of color and the power and beauty present in this play comes from that root and love of Black Women. That the rest of us are invited to witness and imbibe is a gift and we are all stronger for it.I saw the play on the closing night after six sold out, standing room only performances. Such a response speaks to the fact that there is an audience eager and willing for this kind of work.  On the political face of it we might merely say how important it is to support an emerging black woman playwright but this is art and what really matters is the actual work.  There are Other Worlds is good theater. The play uses movement, aerial arts, more traditional scenes of dialogue and a vast soundtrack that both grounds the play in the late 1990’s with hip-hop of the time and spans time with music from other eras as the two young women, Dreamah and Sarya explore current music and also discover Sun Ra, Ornette Colman and other jazz greats.  The original soundtrack created by Sarah White along with the use of aerial arts takes the play outside the day to day and into the universe/spirit realms. Joy Spika and Jordan Hamilton designed the set which is beautiful and layered.  Tree branches, paper lanterns and mask like wire sculptures hang from the ceiling.  One side of the stage is the bedroom of the teenage daughter Dreamah and is overflowing with rich color and vibrancy.  The other side of the stage is stark with a yoga mat and pile of books and serves as the jail cell for Ameri.  The stage also holds four location for the long white silks on which the women swing, climb, float, cocoon and spin doing aerial work.  The rest of the set design is beautiful, evoking stars and cosmos and quilts and mathematical calculations but was wisely abstract enough to open up the worlds that were being created.  The play centers on the frayed relationship between Ameri Akenyemi who has been in prison nine years and her two young daughters, the teenage Dreamah and the young adult Gospel.  It also revolves around the transformative relationship between Dreamah and the wildly openhearted, Sarya Rice.   Also present are ancestors, a group of talented dancers dressed in purple who appear and disappear; never speaking but evoking, dancing and at times literally holding up characters.  Although never on stage fathers are also a strong presence with Ameri’s husband who is trying to hold and protect his daughters and Sarya’s father who she is painfully separated from as he deals with mental illness.The cast is universally strong. Nisreen Dawan as the incarcerated mother Ameri Akenyemi was effortless as both a young revolutionary falling in love with a caring man in college and as a 45 year old woman in prison, taken from her husband and daughters and trying to stay whole as one can in those circumstances. ShaVunda Horsley as Dreamah Akenyemi carried a good deal of the play forward.  Her skill was apparent at being able to play Dreamah as young and innocent but not a caricature of youth.  The arc of her characters transformation and path back to her mother and new found strength was both believable and moving.Felicia Perry played Gospel Akenyemi the slightly older and angrier sister and had some of the most challenging scenes both in terms of aerial work and drama.  She is a riveting presence on stage and held the sense of anger and suffering without over acting it. Alissa Paris played Dreamah’s new found best friend Sarya Rice and had several scene stealing moments.  Her kinetic energy and joyfulness were an important part of the play both soothing some of the pain and leading Dreamah forward. All of these strong performances are in service to a beautiful script by Junuada Petrus that is multilayered and complex full of humor and a natural ear for dialogue especially between the two young women Dreamah and Sarya.  Without being preachy the script touches on a variety of intense issues around revolution and social change, white supremacy, living in a predominately white place, prison, rape, forgiveness, strength and love.  So much love.  The love of this mother for her children, the love of these young women for each other, family love, love of and love from ancestors, love of Blackness: as a people, as a source of beauty, creation and resistance. The use of aerial work was a perfect sister to the writing; the long silks were utilized by various characters and served as trees, wombs, and facilitated various journeys both physical and spiritual the characters embark on.   Junuada Petrus wrote in the program about wanting to see more women of color involved in aerial performance and also her inspiration to use aerial as a reclaiming of Black and Brown bodies suspended in space from the horror of lynching.  All but one of the actors were new to aerial work and the confidence and trust they had in their own bodies to climb essentially a long piece of cloth and wrap themselves in it and then unfurl often to the ground was beautiful to watch.There were two interconnected things I wanted that were not present.  More breath and silence and to see Ameri engaged in her yoga practice. 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Happy 30th anniversary, Minnesota Women’s Press!

“What if women were in charge of public words and the news? What if our voices were being heard?” These questions became the impetus for a women’s newspaper when it was just a dream in the head of Mollie Hoben in 1983. At the time, she was on leave from her job as a teacher of vision-impaired students. She was working as editor of the Park Bugle, a community newspaper in St. Paul, and was taking classes in feminist studies in literature at the University of Minnesota. Continue Reading

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: Why images and words matter

Hannah Davis is an athlete – a tennis champion and a volleyball player. But that’s not why she is on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine’s March issue. It’s the annual swimsuit edition, and she’s the model. For years, women and some men have complained about the skimpy bikinis on the cover of the March Sports Illustrated. This year, many people are in an uproar about the scarcity of the bikini – there’s not much there. But it’s also about the pose. Continue Reading

COMMUNITY VOICES | A joint response to Chue Feng Vang’s tragic death: Let’s find better solutions to end family violence

No community is shielded from family violence. The most recent tragedy in Maplewood where Pang Vang killed his son Chue Feng Vang, affirms this. The Vang family fell through the cracks of the Hmong and American systems meant to serve them. We can’t afford to wait for the next tragedy.We believe one necessary ingredient to developing better solutions is for leaders, service providers, and systems to better understand the problem and the context of the people who are impacted.The media coverage and responses thus far to the tragedy of Chue Feng Vang’s death magnifies the misunderstanding of what contributes to family violence and how it is experienced in Hmong American families.The over simplification of a father who kills his son over a cable bill, and the quick finger pointing often silences the many Hmong families who are suffering. It also perpetuates a culture that New American communities are not and will not be understood by the larger society. Continue Reading

COMMUNITY VOICES | Fifty Shades of Gender begins to go into production

Fifty Shades of Gender is a project that I have been personally coordinating since around April of 2013. It’s been started as a documentary project focused on telling the stories and experiences of the transgender struggle from the perspectives of transgender individuals directed by a transgender identified person. The goals of this project include “looking at the fine points of the gender binary and questioning if these gender definitions are too rigid for us to all be living in. We aim to identify other gender identities, the struggles that we go through trying to fit into these binaries or beyond them, and what we can do to break down the boxes of simply male and female” “I really just want people to be educated about gender and trans* issues and learn how to treat us with respect and human dignity.  Raising awareness is the first step to changing things.” Says gender-queer identified participant, Ollie Schminkey.There will be discussions throughout the project on how our society currently defines gender from the day that we are born, the role of patriarchy, and the intersection of various other identities that are affected in relation to our assigned gender and personal gender identities. Continue Reading

COMMUNITY VOICES | Hmong culture: A questioning of values

We are entering into a cultural reformation in our community, where our values today don’t quite align with our culture. For quite some time now, our values and our culture have clashed, which has created social upheaval and alienation in the Hmong community. “What does it mean to be Hmong?” seems to be the the question that every Hmong American goes through; it’s a rite of passage for those growing up in two seemingly opposing cultures. With the majority of the Hmong population now made up of youth, this questioning of the Hmong culture is inevitable. Why are things the way they are? Why has it always been done this way? Continue Reading

COMMUNITY VOICES | Hmong 18 Clan Council Conference: Hmong bridal price policy

From October 18-20th, the Hmong 18 Council 1st Annual National Conference was held at the Hmong American Partnership (HAP) building. This effort was organized by the Minnesota Hmong 18 Council (H18C), which consists of Hmong leaders who represent one of the eighteen last names, and was sponsored by a variety of groups and organizations such as Hmong Village and Hmong American Partnership (HAP). The purpose of the conference was to bring “all community members throughout the nation to discuss many topics, including preventing and stopping poverty in the Hmong community by making decisions to standardize two important economic impacts in the Hmong community: Hmong funerals and bridal dowry.”  Although the idea of this conference was to include different leaders in making these important decisions, when it came to the content of the conference, it was nothing but confusing and contradicting.Bo Thao-Urabe, who has extensive experience in community engagement which includes serving as the Executive Director for the Women’s Association of Hmong and Lao in Minnesota and Hmong National Development in Washington, delivered an informative and inspiring presentation about inclusion and the state of the Hmong population in the United States. As a young Hmong American woman myself, it was a relief to see that women were able to present views and perspectives that challenged that old structure that governed entities like the H18C at the conference.But the next session, right after Thao Urabe had spoken, would provide testimony to the sexism and inequality that stills exists in the Hmong 18 Council and in the Hmong community.In the Hmong Bridal Price Policy session, which was chaired by H18C’s Culture Chair of Minnesota, Cha Yeng Cha, a 20 page document of the bylaws of the bridal dowry was passed out with the council saying that they would take suggestions; 20 minutes later, the Culture Chair announced that they would be voting on it that very day. With the majority of the conference participants relatives, friends, and supporters of H18C, it was no surprise that the initial vote for the first dowry price was approved 94 to 5, with many abstaining to even raise their hand to vote. Continue Reading