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Justin Hu

United States

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July 12

Today I learned more about the importance of being intentional about maintaining the collective “warmth” of a group. After a relatively long break from doing Pretexts, the space of the workshop felt frosted over--it seemed to me like we were back to our first meeting when everyone was distracted, reluctant to participate or even to be present. What made things even more difficult was that Said and Isma, a co-coordinator with Said, were both unavailable, so it was just me and the highschool participants. I shakily tried to start off the workshop by inviting everyone to popcorn a) how their tutoring went (we had spent two hours tutoring elementary school students right before the workshop), and b) share “what did we do last week?.” This prompt was effective in refreshing ourselves with the text and with the overall framework of Pretexts. One thing I am noticing during our reflections that I feel like I should mention is that we are very literal about our responses: we will state the explicit facts about what we did, and add one short personal comment about it. It was not very enthusiastic. I wonder if this is something we (as a workshop) should be content with, or if there is any way to rethink this exercise that will allow us to dig deeper into what we do together.

A new student joined us today. I later learned that he has received mentorship from and worked closely with Said for a very long time. He felt very comfortable in the space and--I would like to explore this deeper with him and others--he did not treat my role as Pretexts facilitator “seriously,” almost as if my role was a challenge to his relationship to the space. 

We decided to re-introduce the text. Instead of doing it the tobacco factory way, the participants suggested we go around in a circle, with each participant reading one paragraph. I agreed. While we were reading I was distracted with thinking of an engaging Pretexts activity in case the students remained unsure or hesitant about filling in the empty space. 

We finished reading, applauded ourselves, and geared ourselves up to begin a Pretexts activity. Just when I thought the silence had run long enough and was about to introduce my own activity, the new student spoke up. He suggested we go around and share what makes us proud. He was pointing to this part of the text:

“Now, come you, O House of Xhosa,” he said, and slowly began to lower himself so that he was on one knee. “I give unto you the most important and transcendent star, the Morning Star, for you are a proud and powerful people. It is the star for counting the years — the years of manhood.” When he spoke this last word, he dropped his head to his chest. We rose to our feet, clapping and cheering. I did not want ever to stop applauding. I felt such intense pride at that point, not as an African, but as a Xhosa; I felt like one of the chosen people. 

I was galvanized, but also confused by Mqhayi’s performance. He had moved from a more nationalistic, all-encompassing theme of African unity to a more parochial one addressed to the Xhosa people, of whom he was one. As my time at Healdtown was coming to an end, I had many new and sometimes conflicting ideas floating in my head. I was beginning to see that Africans of all tribes had much in common, yet here was the great Mqhayi praising the Xhosa above all; I saw that an African might stand his ground with a white man, yet I was still eagerly seeking benefits from whites, which often required subservience. In a sense, Mqhayi’s shift in focus was a mirror of my own mind because I went back and forth between pride in myself as a Xhosa and a feeling of kinship with other Africans. But as I left Healdtown at the end of the year, I saw myself as a Xhosa first and an African second.”

Sticking with the Pretexts protocol, I invited him to be the facilitator. As a participant, I asked how we should share what we are proud of--whether we should write it down, or express it artistically, etc. Something interesting happened: he said to me, “your call, aren’t you supposed to be the leader? Lead us!” I believe he was also looking at his friends for attention/reactions. In any event, after clarifying the Pretexts protocol, the student facilitated a conversation about questions and recommendations. We agreed to just share what makes us proud by speaking.

I won’t try to capture the “vibe” of the entire activity in this blog. In short, even though the activity itself was rather brief, it was magical and eye-opening for many participants. Nearly every participant was proud of their Muslim identity and of their African, American, and Somali roots. Participants reflect that hearing this said out loud--by so many of their classmates, peer Mosque-goers, and siblings--was affirming for them beyond words.

After this activity, another student was interested in following up to learn about the stories that led to us being proud of what we shared. The student facilitated, and the group decided to once again call on each other to speak about our story. In my eyes, what the participants shared was very abstract--mine included--which I understand. I wonder if our workshop is trending away from the artistic foundation of Pretexts, as everyone preferred to share verbally for these two activities. I wonder if there is anything I can or should do to recenter art-making and highlight the infinite possibilities in the prompt, “use the text to make art.”

Finally, I have learned to let the mutability of the Pretexts workshop humble me--to be open to the uncertainty in the next step, and to be confident that my peers will draw inspiration from the text in ways that will take me beyond my experiential horizon. Without empty space or an empty protocol, there is no Pretexts.

July 14

The day before, many students received their second dose of the vaccine, and they called in sick because they all felt feverish. Two students still came, and one did not come in a while so we were able to catch him up and refresh him on the workshop text. I proposed an activity where I would re-read the text while they would browse the internet for music that is related to something in the text, or to how they experience the text. We would then spend time exploring the links we offered and go around sharing them/asking the music questions. One student shared two links--Nefertiti by Miles Davis and Black Excellence by Black-Ty, Rick Ross, Major, and J-Rell--the second shared Happy by Pharrell Williams. They reflected that they were less interested in the theory that Krune Mqhayi presented, or the colonial dynamic of Healdtown, and more invested in and moved by the joy in the mutual recognition between Mqhayi and Mandela; Mandela and his Xhosa identity; and Mandela and Africa. “We rose to our feet, clapping and cheering. I did not want ever to stop applauding. I felt such intense pride at that point, not as an African, but as a Xhosa; I felt like one of the chosen people.” 

July 19

Today was a holiday for the participants! (Eid)

Continued working with Professor Sampeck on outreach. Working with Professor at Brown to see if we can fit the Pretexts workshop into his schedule. We are looking at some time in early September. Professor Sampeck and I also made a connection with Tyler Howe, who worked in the THPO for about a decade and is now the State Historic Preservation Officer for Wisconsin. He is really interested in the workshop and has amazing contacts among the THPOs. We talked about broadening the scope a bit to include other interested tribal members (Ho-Chunk, etc.).

July 21

Today we introduced Pretexts to the younger children! 

  • USY high schoolers who had the most exposure to Pretexts (Liban, Nasra, Nuh, and Ismahan) introduced the workshop to USY youth (elementary schoolers, 4th - 6th grade)

  • Text: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

  • Volunteered to each facilitate a component of the Pretext protocol:

    • Icebreaker: Nasra

    • Introduction of Text (tobacco factory style): Nuh

    • Clothesline: Liban

    • Sharing + What did we do?: Liban and Ismahan

  • The highschoolers’ facilitatorship was firmly grounded in the Pretexts protocol (see video)

  • Highschoolers were leaders; sometimes, during the “conventional” tutoring, I would catch Nuh sneaking off to play video games on the library computers. As facilitator of the text introduction activity, he was a confident, articulate, and focused orator/leader. Nuh also offered tremendous support to the youth during the art-making activity (see video)

  • Teens supported each other during each part of the workshop (offering 1-on-1 attention to the children to support them and to ensure that they were not causing a distraction); Ismahan took charge of being both the “archivist” of this workshop and the facilitator of the final “what did we do” activity.

  • In the future, I will reinforce to the highschoolers why we are doing the workshop the way we do it: it’s relationship to tobacco factories, the importance of asking “what did we do?” instead of “what did we learn?,” etc. Currently, they personally understand it, but it is difficult for them to communicate it to the youth.

  • Difficult to convince youth that it is an outlet for them; each teen had their own leadership style

  • Tangents at the library


Youtube video:

Google drive link:

Week of July 26

As Yasser did not get the opportunity to facilitate an activity last week, he stepped up to facilitate today’s Pretexts workshop. The (amazing!) activity he proposed was to break up into “playwright” groups, where each group produces and performs its own version of the text. In each group, the children read the text out loud, and collaborated to write their own story that drew from the text. The other highschoolers (Adam, Nuh, Nasra, and Liban) micro-facilitated the playwright groups. What stood out to me most was how this process engaged the children. In my group, for example, there was a student who was not very interested in how the story was going. He expressed ambivalence and believed he needed help. Gradually, he grew more confident in contributing ideas: he helped bring our minds together to experiment with our visions for the play, and to embrace the silliness of our story (see video). Each group incorporated arts and crafts to create props. We then performed our versions of the text, which exemplified narratives that resonated with our experiences (see video!!)--these narratives ranged from tales of unexpected prosperity, to Minecraft, to emigration from Somalia to “rain land,” a water-filled land with lots of bananas and apples (which were harvested and sent back to Somalia). 

At the end, a USY youth asked, “can we do these plays every story we do?”

July 28

D’oh! Someone else booked the meeting space in the library that we use to run the Pretexts workshop. We were unable to run the workshop elsewhere in the library because it would have caused a distraction, so today we could not continue our Pretexts activities. However, I took an electric keyboard because I saw that the youth were very interested in the piano in the aforementioned meeting room. After letting them spend some time with it (see the video!!!!), Zainab, a USY 4th grader, volunteered to lead us in a music-making activity next week! I could tell she was a little nervous, which made her hesitant to fully embrace the facilitatorship duty, so I offered her an overview of the Pretexts workshop protocol, and stressed that participants would support each other in building the music-making Pretexts experience. Later, Zainab approached me, and she seemed much more inspired to run the workshop--she asked if I could bring some ukuleles! I am trying to figure something out with the Berklee Guitar Center to rent out some instruments for the activity.