Community Projects: Culture & Conflict

Sponsored by YMCA of Metropolitan Minneapolis

The Project
In response to an intergenerational conflict in the Minnesota Hmong community, the Southeast Asian Support Group initiated a collaboration between Wendy Morris, YMCA outreach workers, and My Yang, a traditional Hmong dance artist.

This collaboration used dance as a cultural metaphor to resolve tension around conflicting values between Hmong teenage girls, their families, and clan elders.

The Conflict
When Hmong teenage girls inserted jazz dance moves into traditional dances at the Minnesota Hmong New Year celebration, clan elders became outraged. The elders were upset that the girls were becoming too Americanized too fast. The traditional remedy for girls whose behavior was outside acceptable cultural norms was marriage. Although the girls were underage and this solution was illegal in Minnesota, this practice was still being carried out. "If a girl was seen leaving the high school with a boy, she might find herself married at fourteen with children at fifteen" (YMCA Detached Worker.)

The girls felt trapped: abide by the roles and boundaries enforced by community elders, or be ostracized by the community including extended family relationships. The Southeast Asian Support Group, which existed to ease the transition to life in the United States for new immigrants, decided to address the issue through dance, since that is how the conflict showed itself.

How to help Hmong girls, their families and community build understanding and acceptance in the midst of conflicting cultural norms?

How can an abstract metaphor (dance) be a catalyst for productive conversations around contentious and emotionally charged issues?

Phase I: The Learning Approach
For six weeks our team helped the girls explore cultural differences using the abstract metaphor of dance. The girls attended classes (in modern dance and traditional Hmong dance), attended performances (of jazz and modern dance) and analyzed how differences in dance styles reflected fundamental differences between Hmong and American culture. This was a non-threatening way for the girls to surface conflicting values not only with their elders, but within their own hearts and minds.

The girls constructed a chart outlining distinctions they saw in the dance forms. Once they could speak to how those distinctions showed up in their everyday lives, they began to identify their biculturalism as an asset instead of a liability.

When I initially invited the girls to describe the differences they saw between contemporary American dance and traditional Hmong dance their response was, "Everything is different!" But gradually they identified specific contrasts in the dance styles that were a mirror of their everyday lives.

For example, the girls' descriptions of their behaviors at home with their families corresponded closely to their descriptions of traditional Hmong dance: energy levels were subdued, the movement range was contained, and girls associated primarily with other women and girls.

Likewise, the way the girls described American modern and jazz dance corresponded to how they behave in the school lunchroom. For example, in modern dance "there are sudden changes in energy; dancers uses lots of space and their whole bodies; men and women dance together, as well as women with women and men with men." The girls talked about how, in the lunchroom, their energy levels ranged high to low, they gestured a lot, used their whole bodies and talked with both boys and girls.

Phase II: Sharing the learning with the community
In an informal program for families and the community, the girls demonstrated their ability to preserve their traditional heritage while expressing themselves as contemporary American teenagers.

We used our costume budget to print tee shirts with a chart contrasting Hmong and American dance styles. Whenever we wore these shirts in public, strangers asked us about them, and the shirts became an invitation to bring new voices into the conversation.

The community program was 1) a demonstration of a modern dance class, 2) a traditional Hmong dance presentation, 3) a presentation on what the girls had learned, and 4) a dialogue.

In the modern dance class the girls, dressed in t-shirts and shorts, transformed slow, elegant Hmong dance movements by speeding them up, or whipping across the room with full-bodied abandon. The girls immediately followed this demonstration by performing the same classical Hmong movements in traditional manner, dressed in traditional clothing. The performance was an embodied message that the girls are capable and willing to sustain traditional forms and explore new ways of being.

The girls unveiled a chart they constructed contrasting American and Hmong dance styles (see below) and they led a discussion about their insights into their emerging bicultural heritage. Dance provided a language to open up a conversation that had previously been blocked by an intensity of emotion on both sides.

By the end of the project the families and community were proud of their girls. This was especially valuable because, at that time, there were few other culturally appropriate ways to showcase the strengths of Hmong youth. As participants in this project, the girls contributed to the collective thinking around complex social issues, for their own benefit and the benefit of their community. Relationships between the girls, their families and the community improved significantly.

Project team: This project was planned from an ongoing dialogue with participants from the Southeast Asian Support Group, YMCA outreach workers, and community members. The support group, which included 15 Hmong and Laotian teenage females, was designed to help with the transition of cultures. Project Artists were My Yang and Wendy Morris. YMCA staff for the project were Kher Yang, Kristin Johnson, and Janet Madzey.

When one party in a system shifts position, the entire system is thrown off its balance. This moment of disorientation is an opportunity to establish a new dynamic, which is potentially (but not necessarily) healthier than the old balance. How any party responds to the moment of disorientation can influence how the system re-balances itself. Once the girls reframed their biculturalism as an asset, they reported significant improvement in their relational dynamics with family and community. "In hindsight, it would have been intriguing for the families to be involved in a parallel track as the girls" (YMCA Detached Worker). Yet even without that direct family/community involvement, the system changed in positive ways.

By using movement as an abstract metaphor, the girls went beyond a particular conflict situation and addressed underlying issues with creativity and clarity. The girls shifted their own thinking and the whole system shifted.

Form follows intention
The form of this project flowed from our intention to ease community tension by generating a productive dialogue about biculturalism and what it means to be a Hmong girl living in the United States. We designed the community presentation as an open class rather than a performance because the form of a class better suited our intention than the form of a dance performance.

When I work with communities, my creative process starts by consciously aiming at a shared intention, and the form of our actions evolve from the clarity of that aim.

In contrast, as a studio artist, I was trained to begin with an open exploration of form, and to let the subject/content/meaning gradually reveal itself, the way a classical sculptor might begin chipping away at a solid block of stone until a figure begins to reveal itself. Both approaches have value. They are just different.

Process as product
Although I was initially brought into this project to choreograph a show, I believed our time would be better spent by focusing on process, not product. As often happens in community arts, the process became the product.

A question and a resolution
How do I evaluate success in community-engaged art? As the end of a community project I often crave more information about the short-term and long-term impact of our work. I resolved to learn about program evaluation so I could better assess arts-based community development projects, like this one, which aspire to meet community needs.

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Copyright © 2009, Wendy Morris