Interview With We Got Issues! (November 2006)

We Got Issues! isn’t your average spoken-word tour. It’s rather a “performance and civic participation project” conceived and undertaken by several women artists and activists – including Rha Goddess, Jennifer Calderon aka J-Love, and Phakiso “Kiki” Collins. It not only showcases the talents of its artists, which have included Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai and yvonne fly onakeme etaghene, but works to engage and empower the voices of its participants as well. We Got Issues! follows an “artists in residence” model, where the performers spend between one and four weeks in a city, conducting workshops, community dialogue sessions and performances. This year WGI has visited Denver, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Oakland, and has stops in Amherst, MA, planned for December, and in Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami for 2007. We Got Issues! A Young Woman’s Guide to a Bold, Courageous, and Empowered Life, a book based on conversations with more than 1,000 young women, was published this fall. Let’s Do It on the Road caught up with J-Love and some of the other participants via email midway through the tour. Photo by Jason Lew.

How is the tour going so far? How do you choose the cities you go to?

Jennifer Armas: The tour is going well thus far. Each city’s organizers have faced different challenges depending on the lay of the land and the usual glitches: making sure the word is out for community events, trying not to stretch ourselves too thin, holding space for the participants that roll through.

Cities are first targeted around who has contacts. For example, J Love is from Denver so it was a given that we would be heading there. From there, the seeds are planted and folks reach out to community organizations, performance venues, funders, local artists, etc. and see if and how we can support each other.

Please tell us about the Red Tent and what kind of environment you create in each city in order to facilitate these workshops.

Adeeba Rana and Marla Teyolia: The Red Tent is a sacred storytelling and healing place for women to gather, share personal herstories, release emotions, laugh, cry, and be in circles with other women. In ancient times, the Red Tent was the menstrual tent or the womb tent. It was a place where women gathered during their moon cycles to share stories, eat, release emotional pain, transmit culture, and essentially be reborn. In this spirit, when we create a Red Tent in a host city, the facilitators work diligently to transform the environment into a symbolic womb-tent. Red tapestries are hung on the walls. A red net is hung from the ceiling, candles are lit, a water element is brought in that can take the form of a bowl filled with floating flowers or a soothing fountain. Soft music and incense greet the women as they enter. And it is amazing to witness how something ancient, ancestral is activated in each participant as all of her senses are reminded of this sacred journey.

What is your most memorable moment of the previous tour or the present one?

Kibbi Dillon and Monica Pineda: The most memorable aspect of touring with WGI! has been the personal connections I’ve made with the local women. In every city I’ve been approached by women who thank us and appreciate the work that we are doing, recognizing the need to speak up and act up. As soon as I ask them about their lives, I often hear that they wear many different hats in their community as well. They are organizers, educators, activists, mothers, artists, social workers, and writers who juggle these roles because it is what a lot of us do. It has been an empowering and inspiring exchange and a beautiful reminder of the collective work and awakening that is happening across the country.

Who are some of the women who have inspired you in your life, art and activism?

Jennifer “J-Love” Calderon and Jennifer Armas: Definitely my mother and grandmother. They each had three children, worked their asses off to provide for their family and always instilled the need to give to your peoples- whether it’s your friend down the block or to a local church. I come from a very matriarchal household; Mom also drilled it into my skull to always remember her name and her family’s story, not just those of my father. And seeing my grandmother get older I learn more and more each day about letting go of needless things, forgiving, and telling and showing the people in your life how much you love them- as cheesy as that may sound. There are a myriad of other sisters who inspire me- from my students who I’ve seen grow up into young men and women (and are sharper and more intelligent than 99.9% of the people I went to college with) to more well known figures like Audre Lorde or Iris Morales.

What have you learned through the course of these tours? Does anything still surprise you?

Chelsea Gregory: What I have learned first and foremost is how necessary this work is. I have learned how universal our struggles are as women, as young people, as low-income folks, folks of color, folks of alternative ways of life, etc. I have learned that no matter where we are or what we look like, the experiences and aspirations that we share far outweigh the ones we don’t. I now see that we are doing the world a disservice if we don’t continue to build community on that common ground, and continue to strengthen and expand this network.

As an individual, I have learned an incredible amount about my own capacity to connect with people and create and hold space for beautiful, powerful work to be done. I have discovered and re-discovered my own voice through the voices of the women we have been blessed to connect with through this work.

What still surprises me at this point is the amount of love and openness we experience in each and every place that we go. It never ceases to amaze me the ways that women in each city come together and use our project as a catalyst for their work on the local level. Women everywhere are waiting with dreams in our hearts and blueprints in our hands, and sometimes all it takes is a project like WGI! to remind us just how powerful and capable we are. That realization is at the core of We Got Issues’ commitment to building feminine-centered leadership.

To find out more about WGI, visit: www.wegotissues.org.

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Author: schenelle

High school teacher of English and journalism. Co-author of Using Informational Text to Teach literature series.

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