While attending Dr. Anderson’s Cultural Documentation class during the MACS residency in July and August 2013, I met Mary Briggs, a guest speaker who works with the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Pittsburgh and the Arlington County Cultural Affairs in Virginia. Ms. Briggs mentioned the Awesome Foundation, a straight-forward, no-strings-attached grant that is “devoted to forwarding the interest of awesomeness in the universe.” There’s a simple application and selection process, and the Awesome Foundation awards $1,000 grants monthly to organizations in a wide range of areas, including technology, arts, social good, and beyond. When I heard this, I immediately had a dream and vision of how I would use the money to help a group of resettled refugee women in my local community maintain their cultural identity and traditional weaving skills.
Four years earlier, while studying for my Bachelor of Arts degree in Cultural Anthropology at the University of North Florida, I began volunteering with refugees from Myanmar (Burma) who had been resettled to my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. I was amazed by the intricately-woven handmade clothing that they used in functional ways, such as blankets for sleeping, slings for carrying newborns and infants, ropes for lashing firewood together, etc. The items all looked like individual pieces of artwork that should be preserved and appreciated to share the stories of the people who created them. After graduation in 2010, my husband and I moved to the Thailand-Burma border, where we immersed ourselves in the refugee camps and day-to-day lifestyle of refugees from Burma for two years. On numerous occasions, I observed women happily weaving clothing and textiles by hand for their family on looms that were also handmade out of bamboo poles and leather straps.
After two years of living abroad along the Thailand-Burma border, I returned to Jacksonville and began organizing a group of resettled refugee women who were interested in maintaining their unique cultural heritage. The women are of different ethnic sub-groups from Burma, including Kachin, Karen, Chin, and Shan ethnicities, and these groups would not normally associate with one another. The women meet weekly to engage in their traditional handicrafts, such as weaving, knitting, crocheting, etc. While doing so, they discuss topics of interest to them, including women’s health, parenting and motherhood, financial concerns, etc. To advance the group, I applied for (and was fortunate enough to receive) a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation to support the group, which came to be known as “Hope Through Common Threads.” With the grant money, we have purchased sewing machines, supplies such as yarn and needles, and raw materials to build new looms, as well as to rent space at local arts and crafts markets for selling the final products.
Initiatives such as “Hope Through Common Threads” are not new to the US. Similar organizations exist in multiple cities around the country. However, I saw that such an organization did not exist in my local community of Jacksonville, Florida. My vision is that the organization can expand to resettled refugees from other countries and parts of the world, including the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Anyone who is interested in maintaining their traditional handicrafts and traditions is welcome to join in! Ultimately, I think that the organization can help resettled refugees preserve their cultural identity, raise awareness of themselves within the greater community, generate additional revenue, and reduce their dependence upon social services organizations and financial support.
I know that the MACS program at Goucher College will provide me with the knowledge and skills to work side-by-side and collaborate with the group to sustain their individual and community identities and foster their entrepreneurial spirit to create their own self-sustaining projects. As I learned during my first course, Introduction to Cultural Sustainability, William Westerman states in his article “Wild Grasses and New Arks: Transformative Potential in Applied and Public Folklore” that the practice of creating the art (weaving, for example) is just as important as the finished product itself. When the women of “Hope Through Common Threads” engage in their traditional handicrafts, they are preserving the skills that have been passed down to them from multiple generations of their ancestors. They are creating bridges to their own past, and they are creating cultural bridges between each other.
Amber Dodge is a first-year student in the MACS program. She currently works as an Orientation Specialist in the Youth Department of Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida, preparing recently-resettled families of refugees to send their children into America’s public school system. Amber earned a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. She and her husband, Steve, moved to the Thailand-Burma border to work with refugees in the refugee camps prior to their resettlement to the United States from 2010 until 2012. Amber is interested in Southeast Asian culture, learning Burmese language, and maintaining traditional weaving techniques. She currently has two young cats, a brother and sister named Theodore and Phoebe, who were rescued from the local Animal Care and Protective Services department.