When the Typhoon left the East side of my country with nothing, I was in a conference of Filipino Americans in the middle of Illinois. In the Midwest, a lot of Fil-Am or Asian American folks in general, build Asian American student organizations in college, in order to see faces that look like them.
This is the 21st year of the Filipino Americans Coming Together Conference (FACT) and it gives me grief and even anxiety that the conversations about identity and the layers of what it means to be Filipino American are still surface level; bubblegum almost. I took into account that I come from the Bay Area, which is notorious for a lot of diverse grassroots organization that teach ethnic studies and plights of people of color at a young age, and kept in mind that the people in this conference are happy enough with just seeing brown faces. I took these things into account but still got frustrated because I expected so much more.
It made me question if I was being too pushy, or militant, or cared too much, but when did anyone care this much about Filipino(a)-Americans or Filipino(a)s? Only when a tragedy hits does a public eye focus in. Only when there is severe lack of structure does the community come together.
When the Typhoon left the East side of my country with nothing, I was in a conference of Filipino Americans in the middle of Illinois. When the conference housed people who looked like me, but who didn’t want to push themselves enough to analyze or question their identity, I spoke up in a meeting of the Midwest Fil-Am Organization Executive Board members and told them that I expect more of our community.
There have been too many people who have fought, spoke, and died for us to only be satisfied to see physical similarities. We as brown bodies have pushed, jumped, and broken too many hurdles for us to only be complacent with scratching the surface of what it means to be living in-between the Third World and the United States. Filipino Americans have witnessed our motherland experience too much loss, corruption, and colonization not to repay our homeland’s struggles by being present and active in our knowledge of self, and knowing our trajectory as a people.
I’m slowly working with these organizations to try and put Filipino American and Ethnic Studies curriculum in General Body and Midwest Conference formats. We can’t keep losing ourselves. Haiyan has taken so much of our people, that we cannot control, but activism is a choice, responsibility, and legacy we must always uphold.
- Gretchen Carvajal is a poet, writer, and speaker currently attending the University of Wisconsin’s First Wave program. She is also the managing editor of the Off/Page Project’s official blog. For more information on Gretchen, visit her blog here.
Layout by Gretchen Carvajal
I was introduced to Josh Healey in 2004 at UC Berkeley’s CalSlam as “That dope poet from Wisconsin.” At the time, he was creating the now flourishing First Wave program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But Josh’s roots are from the nation’s capital, and his writing/performance lens has always challenged either side of America’s ideological divide. Since his move to Oakland a few years ago, Josh’s impact on the Bay Area arts and activist communities are more than palpable, producing work in multiple forms including stand-up comedy, live storytelling, and short films. I’ve never been to a Josh Healey reading I didn’t like, so it’s a pleasure to have him join the Off/Page for the following interview. - José Vadi (Project Director, Off/Page Project)
José Vadi: In your opinion, how is storytelling a tool for social change?
Josh Healey: You know that old African proverb, “Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter?” That shit is real. So many of the social divisions we have here in America are divisions of whose stories we choose to tell and validate. Look at the George Zimmerman verdict. One story is that Zimmerman racially profiled a kid named Trayvon Martin and unnecessarily shot and killed him. Zimmerman’s story, of course, is that he was protecting public safety and only acted in self-defence. And that was the story that was heard by the judge and jury, all of which reinforced the larger structures of racism and government-sanctioned violence.
Creative storytelling - whether it’s spoken word, music, or even your crazy little blog - is so powerful because it flips that paradigm. By telling your own personal truth, you’re able to to break out of the boxes and stereotypes and show us, “Hey, this is who I really am. Take a good, hard look.” So in terms of social change, storytelling can get us beyond the talking points of this or that “issue” to connect with people’s deeper feelings and emotions. People don’t want to hear about “health care,” but they do want to hear about your aunt Stacy who had to sell her mom’s wedding ring to pay for her cancer treatments.
Use your story to change THE story. Boom.
JV: In the passed few years you’ve done everything from spoken word and stand up comedy to receiving the Mario Savio award for your work with the Occupy movement — how do all these different mediums inform your art and your activism?
JH: What I’ve learned is that whatever piece or issue I’m working on, I can’t force it into a certain form. I wrote an article a couple months on the connections between NAFTA and immigration. That piece is super serious, and even with a couple personal stories thrown in…that could never be a comedy skit. Or maybe it could, but sometimes I don’t want to be funny, you know? Sometimes I just want to be like, “This shit is fucked up. Here’s the facts. Now let’s go do something about it.”
And then sometimes I want to write jokes and stories about rolling joints with my grandma-in-law, or growing up as a white boy in black DC, or my favorite new social category: hip-hop hippie hipsters. (It’s a real thing. Check out Dolores Park on a Saturday.)
I think we all have these different sides of us — sometimes we’re more political, sometimes we’re ridiculous and goofy — but we always have this desire for human connection and compassion. And that’s what I try to get at, no matter what the medium.
JH: I got the idea for Moses and Jesús at my family’s Passover table in Chicago. The day before, I was at this rally in San Francisco trying to stop ICE from deporting a sweet, awesome woman named Rosa. Her whole family was there, and hundreds of people, trying to keep this woman from being separated from her two sons. And then the next day I was at my own family’s table in Chicago, and we’re telling the story of Passover (Moses, the ten plagues, parting the Red Sea… come on, I know you saw the Charleton Heston movie). I realized, this is an immigration story! The Exodus is about people leaving their homeland in search of a better life.
So I started wondering, what would happen if Moses made it to the promised land…but didn’t have his immigration papers? And if Moses needed a miracle…who would he turn to? There was really only one answer for that. Forget blonde Jesus, though. We needed the Chicano rock star Jesús. I brought it to Culture Strike, and they were down from the get. Their whole thing is making art around immigration and migrant rights, so it was right up their alley. We wanted to get beyond the choir, to speak to old Jews and young immigrants and anyone who likes the Daily Show. To help push for real, humane reform, because these deportations really are at a crisis level.
JV: Does there need to be more humor within the arts to articulate larger issues like immigration reform?
JH: No doubt. That was the whole point of the video. The immigration debate is so nasty, so hateful in this country…we thought that maybe if people enjoy a couple jokes about a crazy immigrant named Moses and a Chicano carpenter named Jesús, maybe they can see the human side of this broken system. Use comedy to show the tragedy, you know? But also to show the possibilities for justice. That’s what I think humor does, for any issue. When you can get someone to laugh, you’ve lowered their defenses a little bit. And that’s when you slip the medicine in.
JV: You’ve encountered some pushback from your art/activism, particularly with J Street a few years ago. What responsibility do you feel artists have towards supporting social change movements? Are these discords necessary?
JH: If you’re not making anyone mad, you’re not doing your job as an artist. Definitely not as an activist. It’s our responsibility to always push and write and fight for the cause of human dignity. Even if only for selfish reasons, because hey, we’re human too, right?
But ideally what we do is the opposite of selfish. We try to make connections, build community and movements, all in the hope of creating a world that is better for all of us. Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” I try to rock like my man Brecht.
JV: What’s next for you, Josh?
JH: I think it’s going to be a fun year. I’m about to start a cultural fellowship with this group Movement Generation. They’re really at the cutting edge of ecological justice issues in the Bay Area and beyond. So I’m going to be creating videos and comedic stories to raise awareness about environmental justice struggles, like what’s going on with the Chevron refinery in Richmond. And I’ll be teaching a creative storytelling series for grassroots activists, so they can tell their own stories more powerfully. Sounds kinda like what you’re doing with Off/Page! That’s why I’m such a big fan of this project.
Other than that, I’ve got a new story coming out soon on NPR’s Snap Judgment, a bunch of shows this fall, and I’m working on a new book. But mostly I’ll just be playing ball at Mosswood. My three-pointer has been extra nice lately. I’m not saying I’m Steph Curry or anything, but I could probably be his back-up.
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