Storytelling as (R)evolutionary with Robin Suhyung Park

What drew me to this workshop was its focus on the role of storytelling in creating channels for personal transformation and social change through its emphasis on “forgiveness of self/community.”

Robin is a 2nd generation Korean American woman who graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Ethnic Studies. Her work focuses in large part on youth programming, and she has worked as a teaching artist and a grass roots organizer with community college and LGBT students to help retain them in higher education and foster their successful completion of college. Robin also grew up in a household where arts were part of the daily fabric of her family with storytelling recognized as a crucial part of keeping and passing forward family history.

The phrase “the personal is political” is one she works to break down. This is a large phrase that often gets thrown around. Robin asks, how far do we go in putting the phrase into practice and developing the capacity as a community to hold everyone’s stories as a truth?

The seeds for some of her thinking towards this work began forming in Oakland, 2010, when Robin went to a Youth Town Hall. At this meeting, she consciously held back in sharing comments because she was an adult presence; she saw her role as one there to listen and learn. Present at the Town Hall were Youth Speaks, along with several other organizations. In the back of the hall were adults also there to listen to the youth. This meeting took place during the time of the Oscar Grant verdicts. Many of the youth engaged in heated discussions about community issues with a lot of creative responses and an expressed need for arts programming. A man jumped in and said, “This poetry and art is great, but what about the real activism?” The youth clearly wanted art as a vehicle for their work and an uncensored way to circulate their voices. As an active listener, Robin felt that for the youth art was their cause.

From this experience, Robin discerned that when we tell our stories, it is important to also name our values. A revolution is value based, and storytelling plays a significant role in breaking us out of mechanizations. It helps us to develop the capacity to evolve.

For Robin, storytelling is cultural presentation. It is cultural work that leads to healing. It’s a way to affirm, “I value myself enough to heal from trauma.” It is also about who has access to the microphone. There’s also the reaction to our stories; how people react to the stories being told shows where people are at. Are they accepting, defensive, or understanding?

What happens when injustice strikes? Robin outlined some of the stages. You can name the injustice. There is the evaluation of the situation. You can go through a transformative process. It can also be ineffecitvely addressed with the behavior continuing. Or you can remain silent. Robin offered a case study of a radical local organizing community in which a male member punched his girlfriend. That’s an injustice that has occurrred. If we ignore it, we say the behavior is okay. There a range of impact: the man can leave, the woman can leave, the community gets rattled. Over time, things settle down with the history forgotten, the tension building back up, the cycle repeating.

How we interact with our organizing communities can be very abusive. Robin pressed us to ask: How does the contradiction occur between an organization’s declared commitment to speaking out against social injustice and its allowing acts of injustice to occur within the organization? How do the principles contradict one another? How does a community fall short of the required work and not allow itself to move forward? She cites the example of a woman in an organizing community who began dating someone else in the organizing community. The woman was raped and violated by this male member. Notably, this was not the first time such an event had happened within the organizing community. So the question was, how could this be a cycle within the culture of the group? This forced the woman to engage in some deep soul searching because the organizing community had become part of the fabric of her life.  Principles must be put into practice legitimately and honestly. Robin theorizes that people in organizations where such events occur can’t move forward because they can’t forgive themselves for having participated in social injustice. Forgiveness is crucial for the ultimate transformation of trauma and necessary to moving on.

WORKSHOP EXERCISE: Participants were given paper and pen and asked to think about a situation when they saw an act of injustice and did not make an intervention. This doesn’t make us a bad person; rather, it shows how we become inculcated in focusing on individual survival. The goal with this exercise is to examine instances when we have seen an injustice occur and not taken action.

In my own reflection, I think about the times I have seen mothers hit their children in public. I’ve wondered how this will impact their sense of self worth. For boy children, I’ve wondered what impact this will have on how they will feel about women when they grow up. For girl children, I’ve wondered what the impact will be on their own sense of mothering in the private and public spheres. For any child, what is the impact of being publicly violated, shamed, and forsaken by a parent? My impulse has been to speak out and ask the parent to remember their child is a small human being who needs their loving guidance. I’ve wanted to let the children know that what their parent has done is not right and does not mean the parent doesn’t love them. Why have I not made these interventions? Fear of further agitating the situation with the parent feeling judged and turning their violence against me or my further traumatizing the child.

Robin’s point is for us to see how violence effects everyone, including those who witness it. A workshop participate shared example of how in her organizing work with a group there was a complaint made about the playing of sexist music that she did not join because of racism she also saw charging the exchange and didn’t have the wherewithall to speak out because of the complexity of the situation. Another participant mentioned how the issue of shame can also limit our speaking out.

Robin pointed out the need for visionaries who focus on envisioning what we want more so than what we do not want. How then can we forgive ourselves? Our own forgiveness of ourselves shapes how we then can forgive others. In her own life, Robin has had issues with the police, but has worked to develop a sense of compassion for the police because they must participate in a system of oppression. If we want to fully realize the world the way we want it to be, free of social injustice, we then have to actively paint the world the way we want it to be; we must act in the world according to the way we want to be treated by others.

WORKSHOP EXERCISE: Think about a time in which we have spoken out. How have we charted the next steps needed to move past a situation of injustice, shame, guilt, and resentment?

In reflections about the workshop exercises, a participant spoke about the importance of recognizing presence. Remaining present in the scenario is crucial to coming into awareness. How can we develop the capacity to better others’ taking on the responsibilty for speaking out? Another participant asked, How do you think this concept can infiltrate more mainstream structures, in schools, etc? How do we institutionalize oral traditions? Robin’s response was that this work is becoming part of institutions, but what comes with institutions is all the trauma you inherit with those institutions. Robin’s high school programming emphasized the skill set of delivering knowledge through presentations. This made it easier for her to have the confidence to stand in front of a crowd and share her stories but to then also speak out about what those stories mean for her personally and as a mode of social transformation and countering injustice. The culture of protest is now becoming more accepted. It’s her hope that in art classes, as everyone sits as a table and draws they can talk about what they are drawing and why what they are drawing is significant to them.

A workshop participant asked Robin how her filmmaking practice intersects with this work. In school, Robin was cultivated as a playwright. She saw theater as a great medium, noting that in other cultures and societies, theater is part of the entire social fabric. In fillmmaking, the medium is now accessible. If the film doesn’t have a story, the film is not there. She is always looking for the narrative about what the filmmaker is working to say not just in words or in themes, but in the entire aesthetics of it. A lot of spoken word artists are now transitioning to making spoken word videos. She is noticing how easy it now is to pick up a camera and accessibly circulate the work. (Robin mentioned white house video program called What Is Your Story? for API communities.)

An audience participant then asked, How do you address matters of injustice among people who have good intentions and do not think they are engaging in oppressive and unjust behavior? Robins response begin with the example of Jeremy Lin as a case that illustrates intensions versus impact are two different things. She urged us to be clear that racism is not evil looking but deeply coded and ingrained. When she’s had such situations come up, she’s observed that people seldom have bad intentions; they just lack the tools to examine the impact. A participant added that there is a privilege in claiming the position of the well intended that only leads to defensiveness. Robin’s concluding remarks: We have to be able to name our itentions about our boundaries as well as our goals for the conversations according to where we are at with a situation.

I found this workshop to be incredibly important and enlightening. I highly recommend considering Robin for presentation at your university, businesses, or other organization. Typically institutionalized forms of oppression go unaddressed because the culture lacks a  vocabulary for frankly, clearly, and honestly recognizing social injustice and moving forward. There might be policy in place, but the language for personalized engagement is lacking. Here, Robin’s point that we have to forgive one another for how we have all been inculcated into institutionalized forms of oppression seems key. What changes might result if we can get past the hurt and defensiveness and frankly identify the wrongs that have taken place and the rights that have to be put into practice in order to move forward and create an organization that engages with social justice in theory not just in practice?

Robin Suhyung Park can be contacted at: rsp@robinisalive.com; booking@robinisalive.com; and robinisalive.com.

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