Welcome to the conversation!

Welcome to the conversation!

Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), made her the most famous American woman of the 19th century and galvanized the abolition movement before the Civil War.

The Stowe Center is a 21st-century museum and program center using Stowe's story to inspire social justice and positive change.

The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on a robust level of audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Recent topics included: Teaching Acceptance; Is Prison the New Slavery; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; Creativity and Change; Race, Gender and Politics Today; How to be an Advocate

This blog will expand the reach of these community conversations to the online audience. Add your posts and comments to keep the conversation going! Commit to action by clicking HERE to stay up to date on Salon and social justice news.

For updates on Stowe Center programs and events, sign up for our enews at http://harrietbeecherstowe.org/email.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Event Recap: Liberating the Spirit

Featured Guest Opening Remarks: 

Beth Burgess, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

  • Connections between Harriet Beecher Stowe's life and modern emancipation
  • Stowe lived from 1811 until 1896. She had limited lifestyle options. She lived in the confines of women of her time. 
  • As a Beecher she had a great upbringing 
  • Her emancipation, or liberation of the spirit came through her writing.
  • She used her writing to encourage others to create positive change. 
  • We know that Abraham Lincoln checked out A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin during the time that he prepared the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • She was inspired not only by what she lived through, she was inspired by slavery, anti-slavery movements, education, women's suffrage, the Reconstruction. 
  • Gardening was a hobby of Stowe's. This was a lifelong hobby. She wrote that it was a "healing place for the soul". It brought her into a place of calm, to remove her from her career. 
  • The international impact of what she did was vast. The women of Great Britain invited her after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. She was like a "rock star" there. A 26 volume petition of half a million women's signatures lives at the Stowe Center and shows her life's work. 
  • Stowe promoted Southern economic recovery and encouraged Northerners to go down to Florida as a rustic getaway. She lived there during the winter and promoted and encouraged educational development. 
  • She painted and was inspired by what she wrote, where she travelled, what she thought of. 
  • The gardens here show what she wrote about gardens. 
  • Stowe had a spirit that could not be brought down and gave her causes some weight. 

Judy Dworin, Judy Dworin Performance Project
  • The creative act is an act of affirmation of self, of one's place in the world. That is empowering and liberating.
  • We say these expressions to ourselves and other people. That dialogue is powerful.
  • An inmate at York Correctional Institution. "I am not a wasted life, I am talented...art has allowed me to transend these walls, with or without permission." 
  • The act of creating allows us to push beyond boundaries, it offers us possibilities.
  • Creativity is within all of us. 
  • Ask my students to write about their own inner prison, it makes us look within. When we look at that we start a process of emancipation we didn't know we had to do. 
  • There are pressures of achievement that hold us back. 
  • Finding the beauty in the muck, that is what creativity allows. Digging down deep, something says "yes". 
  • Art transforms us and hopefully it moves others.
  • Meditations from a Garden Seat: My husband and I saw a button with a Stowe quote that "gardens are a place of healing for the soul" when we took a tour at the Stowe Center and then we saw all of her paintings. I worked with the women at York on gardens and this added to our work. 
  • The garden is a place of meaning for both Stowe and the women of York. 
  • It was a challenging connection to make. 
  • Joan Hedrick (Pulitzer Prize winner biographer of Stowe) is the voice of Stowe in the performance. 
  • *Comparison between Stowe's writing and the writing of women at York Correctional Institute*
  • You might discover out of us weeds there are pretty little flowers inside. 
  • The creative spirit lives within the walls of York and calls for us to reconsider justice. 
  • "You may restrict my movement but my mind runs free."

Group Discussion: 
How do you get from a creative spark to something that you can put to action or bring out?

  • Listen to the most urgent ideas, thats the one you need to listen to. Write about it, draw it, find the medium that allows you to express and communicate. Play is the feeding ground of creation. We learn so much as children from play. We forget about that as we grow older. 
  • Refining it and working on it until it is where it needs to be is important. 
Is it important to have a quiet place to create? How do we shut things out? 
  • The Stowe Center garden 
  • Sometimes the more we try to get it, the further away it gets
  • One of the hardest balances to find it carving out time with yourself.
  • Carving out space whether physical or metaphorical and leaving that open no matter what. 
  • We don't make enough appointments with ourselves. 
  • Creating the space and then having the spontaneous energy is a difficult balance. 
  • Our society does not value this time enough because it is not concrete enough, though innovation is critical. 
  • It's a practice
How many women participated in Meditations, how did they come to be chosen.
  • Each year 25-35 women. 
  • 2/3 of the women continue and 1/3 are new. 
  • The selection process is by application, they write in a writing sample and we select based on the staff and the application. There are 1,000 women at York and 32 women participate, but 500 women are in the audience.
  • The work is honest, raw, and impactful. It is very hopeful. 
  • The more time they are in the process, the deeper they go. 
  • Some have started to write about their crimes now and that is probably one of the hardest places for them to go. 
Is there an outlet for women without you there?
  • It is organized and supervised. 
  • There are other arts activities, but they could not just go paint in the art room, there is not any kind of freedom in that way. 
This makes me think about people that are living in shelters or a tent in Haiti. There is that garden that we all need to create. I hope that the women at York are encouraged that they are not the only ones that are imprisoned. 
  • They get that 
  • They also see a reality to prison, but none the less they see that internal sense. 
Play is not part of the expectation for adults. Things that I did when I was young come back now when I play with my child. How do we find our own time?
  • Taking time for ourselves, even taking a walk and feeling present in that walk is important. 
  • We are conditioned to try and make everything work
  • Our lives are so busy. We try to make things happen, rather than letting things happen
  • Finding likeminded people to work with is important. 
  • Being inspired by others
  • Sharing with others and interacting with others that are inspired by what you are doing. 
  • Being inspired by those you work with feeds your own sense of where you're going.
  • Self preservation is important: Taking time to do things for nothing but ourselves, living in that moment. Finding things we like to do with people that feed all of our interests. This makes us feel whole again and makes us feel positive. 
In visual arts, decorating the physical space that we are in with inspirational pieces can give us positive, self liberation. 

If you look at where Stowe would have placed her art in her house you see that she would have been inspired by that work. 

The colors of Stowe's garden were meant to create a feeling. Writing and gardening were a sense of calm for her. 

Poetry and writing are an outlet for people to get their thoughts out. 

How do you handle when some of the women say that they are not artistic? 
  • Anyone who comes into the group knows that they are coming into art. 
  • We work in narrative, song or dance. We also cross fertilize. Singers and invited to write, writers are invited to dance. Trying is important
  • There is a community of support. Generally prison does not provide them with a community of support, but within the program there is a community of support that provides a safe place to take those risks. 
  • Listening to what is possible and knowing how to open up.
  • The fact that we are there listening is important. 
  • In prison you are identified by your number or your last name, your voice is not important in many ways. 
  • Some many of us think that our stories are unimportant, but when you dig in there are stories that are bigger than ourselves.
Do you collect data about the women or evaluated the healing afterwards?
  • We try to keep in touch with the women who leave and if possible include them in the works. 
  • It is not 100%. There are so many complexities. 
  • It is hard when you get out of prison. There is a high rate of incarceration.

How ofter do you meet?
  • We meet once a month and then more frequently leading up to the performance.
  • It is a big commitment on their part.

Where is the lack of respect in prison coming from?
  • There is a lot that can be positive, but the overall idea of prison is something that we need to think about.
  • 95% of these people will leave and reenter the community. How do we want them to come back? 
  • We have to think about what it means afterwards too. 
  • There are a lot of irretrievable things that happen in prison.  
  • It's the idea of what prison is supposed to be that we have to think about. 
  • When you set up a system where they are known by a number or last name, that is making a statement. 
  • Changing things and rehabilitating is difficult when there are budget cuts as well. 
  • We are not going to change this in a day, but we need to think about what we provide to people in prison and what should be given to them before they reenter society. 
  • Prison is an industry now. 
  • It is not just the prison, it is also about what we are providing when people leave prison. 
  • Reentry should start the day they arrive in prison. How do we assist in job finding? How do we support these people who reenter? 
  • The number of years that people are asked to serve are different throughout the world. 
  • There are so many changes that can be made and we need to look at it in a bigger way.
Being an educator, the way we are handling education now, using data to control rather than the human being. We have the same attitude towards children, this "out of sight, out of mind" when we send children to school. There are a lot of things that we don't want to look at, but these are human beings that we don't necessarily interact with. 
  • One of the greatest things about art is that it is a life-changing experience. 
  • Artists take risks to say things that people aren't saying. 
  • Society does not celebrate artists that much right now. 
  • We have been very fearful since 9/11 and we are trying to take too much control, art doesn't fit into that. 
Who is noticing what JDPP is doing and what the women at York are doing? Stowe changed systems, the change of JDPP is happening to individuals within a system. Is there anything that will change to systemic change?
  • The Commissioner came to see the performance of the women. The Governor's wife came as well. They were all amazed. This kind of work could not spread to other prisons. 
  • The fact that the arts are there indicates change. 
  • Talking in situations like this, writing articles, and bringing performance work out gets ideas going
  • It is beginning to be recognized. 
  • It is very different from when we started.
  • There are parameters that we agree with when we work with the women at York. One always walks a fine line. We have to agree with things that we wouldn't always agree with. 
  • You can work within the prison to create change within or you can be outside making it public and vocal. You cannot do both.
Was there resistance in starting?
  • Everyone starts with a skeptical sense. 
  • First there was no video, then there was video taping allowed. 
  • There has been a lot of change that has occurred over time. 
  • There is a balance.
How has the experience changed the women of your team that are going into the prison to work with the incarcerated women? 
  • It has changed all of us. It has changed our perception of freedom and justice.
  • Prisons are a microcosm for so many things
  • When we started we had no idea of how it would affect me. One huge strand of what we do is working with the incarcerated or those impacted by incarceration.
  • It is a processing time to travel to the prison and home from the prison. 
  • The whole notion of freedom has become wider. 
  • The first time I met someone my age it was the most impactful (statement from a JDPP staff member). Seeing them perform is amazing, they could have been my best friend. That was the moment, that is what changes you. 
The words of the women provide this liberation for all of us. The arts have a wonderful power and they make us realize that we are just as capable of making a bad decision, but that the seeds of transformation are spreading. There are bright opportunities to make this type of change.
  • A lot of the change we are making isn't measurable by data. 
  • There are a lot of great people doing great things that cannot be measured that way. 
  • Beware of the gloom and doom picture. There is more than meets the eyes.

Change comes one person at a time. 

The discipline that comes with the performance. The rest of the day for the women at York is regimented with no choice. With this outlet they have choices. Through discipline they are able to make work that is good and make that work better. This has been liberating for them. 

We can be skeptical of art, but there is a lot of risk and there was a lot of work that came. 

The value of showing up and practicing our craft is important. 

There is some real healing that is happening here. Art, music and movement are very healing. If we could do that with younger people that might be a outlet away from the pipeline to incarceration. 
Cutting off the arts are cutting off a lifeline. 

Have you considered mentoring people that would like to work with other groups such as immigrants or young people?
JDPP has a mentoring program with young people who have parents who are incarcerated. 
JDPP would like to teach other teaching artists. Training people that want to do this type of work is in our plans. 

Art is a courageous thing, it is exposing, especially if it is an emotional place. When you go there, how do you handle that emotion?
  • In the last year a counselor from mental health follows up with the women. 
  • A group every other week with the women helps them get to the emotions that come up that have never been tapped before. 
  • All of the teachers that go in know that the arts are therapeutic, but we are not therapists. The counselor allows them some follow up. 
Inspiration to Action:
  • Go see Meditation from a Garden Seat
  • The use of self expression to inspire action through writing and art. 
  • Creativity is empowering and liberating. 
  • Art transforms us
  • Take time to yourself, be present
  • Feed your spirit
  • Find likeminded people to work with
  • Challenge cultural assumptions
  • contribute to efforts of systemic change
  • support a culture of creativity and innovation
  • Challenge your own notion of freedom.