Tea Rozman Clark on the Power of Storytelling in Activist Work

Interview by
Lara Smith-Sitton


Tea Rozman Clark, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Green Card Voices, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The mission of the organization sets forth an aspiration “to build a bridge between immigrants, non-immigrants, and advocates from across the country by sharing the first-hand immigration stories of foreign-born Americans, by helping us to see ‘the wave of immigrants’ as individuals, with interesting stories of family, hard work, and cultural diversity.”

Considering the recent community writing project with Kennesaw State University, Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from an Atlanta High School, which is the fourth iteration of immigrant refugee narratives available in digital and narrative formats, this interview will explore how literacy, writing, and storytelling can be a powerful means for social justice and advocacy work. This discussion explores activist strategies and practices of organizations performing immigration-related advocacy work during this time of hostility and uncertainty in the era of Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency and the White House’s administrative agenda.

This interview was conducted in October 2018 and has been edited for clarity and length.


Lara Smith-Sitton (LSS): To help others understand the priorities and scope of the work of Green Card Voices, will you share the history of the organization, particularly your vision for the nonprofit and its mission?

Tea Rozman Clark (TRZ): Green Card Voices (GCV) was founded in September 2013 in Minneapolis. A group of us came together with a goal to create a platform where immigrants and refugees feel empowered to share their own stories. The initial goal was to record life stories, edit them down to five minutes, and create a library or repository of digital narratives of immigrants. They could then be viewed by people who don’t have direct or close contact with immigrants and refugees to learn more about them. In the Midwest, we had a growing immigrant population, and there were just a lot of stereotypes—oftentimes negative—and we felt it was important to empower immigrants and refugees to feel proud of their stories and share them. The mission was really to create a bridge between the immigrant community and the so-called “receiving” community. We felt that the only way for them to create a joint, inclusive, happy, flourishing community was for them to get to know each other better. So, that’s how it all started.

LSS: The vision statement on the GCV website reads in part, “Green Card Voices was born from an idea that the broad narrative of current immigrants should be communicated in a way true to each immigrant’s story. Green Card Voices seeks to be a new lens for those in the immigration dialogue.” Considering this, what are some of the challenges and triumphs in connection with the publication of narratives in the authentic voices of the immigrants and refugees? How do you navigate the challenges of English language learners as the stories are recorded orally and in writing?

TRC: The whole reason we went the digital narrative route was precisely because it was oftentimes too difficult for immigrants to share their stories in writing. For the first couple of years, we just recorded and shared the stories. Then, we created traveling exhibits featuring photographs of the young immigrants and refugees with QR codes for access to the digital narratives. Later, in fall 2015, while documenting the digital stories of thirty high school students in an all-immigrant public high school in Minneapolis, we realized, “Gosh, we could transcribe these recordings, and then work with them to write their own stories based off the transcripts.”

Everybody involved was really, really excited about this idea. The future authors were very excited about the prospect of having a book published with their stories. Because oftentimes they grew up in environments where education was really hard to get and they didn’t have many books, for them to come to the United States and in a short period of time have access to incredible education and be authors of a book was just really powerful—they felt like they didn’t just make a step but a leap. It has been really incredible to watch this.

LSS: What an interesting expansion of the digital component of the GCV’s work. Could you talk about the pieces of the narrative projects generally, as well as your approach and thoughts about dissemination of the stories within communities?

TRC: We view this as a really authentic resource for schools and universities to use when teaching about present-day immigration. It is important to take into account the local context. For example, schools and universities in North Dakota use the Fargo book, and, similarly, schools in St. Paul use the St. Paul book. We truly believe that advocacy is built through authentic story sharing and also helping people know that these young immigrants are their neighbors. They are not just “foreign” to them because they’re far away, but they are their neighbors living in the same community.

It really was a two-fold thing, a perfect resource in a way: one that both fulfills our mission to share the stories of immigrants as well as impacts communities for the better. We really wanted to do good work beyond just collecting the stories; we wanted to empower them too, so we take the authors to conferences and book festivals to give book readings where they share their stories publicly and answer questions from the audience. And the exhibits based off of each of the books can travel to libraries, high schools, and universities along with the books and authors for readings.

LSS: Could you talk a little bit about storytelling as the medium for your advocacy work in this area?

TRC: So from the very, very beginning, given that the organization was co-founded by immigrants, we knew that we would want to do things differently. We were really determined, if we were to create something, it would really have to have the storyteller in the center of the project, so that they would be empowered and really one hundred percent behind the project. We felt that was the only way we could really authentically be champions for a platform like this. And still to this day the organizations that are doing somewhat similar work will often say, “Oh my gosh, how did you get the immigrants to even share these stories?” We see it as really a long process—we don’t just interview and leave. We stay engaged for years to come.

LSS: How did you envision the expansion to Atlanta, and why the inclusion of “Dreamers”? How did you envision implementing the project from 1,200 miles away?   

TRC: We really feel that we have created a resource that can have a deep impact, and we were eager to share it with other communities who have similar challenges. After we finished the Minneapolis book, a teacher from a neighboring state, North Dakota, reached out and said, “Oh my gosh, we would love to have something like that.” She talked about the backlash that immigrants were experiencing and how the state had the largest per capita increase of immigration in the whole nation, so we took some time and decided that if we really want to do this, we needed to be very thoughtful and intentional about our process and how we scale so that it’s sustainable. We don’t want to compromise any of the values and things that we really hold dear about the project, so we developed a plan when we went to Fargo. Then, we were really open to doing it in other states as well. We received many requests from many different states, but it’s oftentimes difficult to find all the right partners for a project like this, meaning a high school partner, local nonprofit partner, university partner, the funding, and a local champion. We were able to find these pieces with our Atlanta project. We felt pretty strongly that we wanted at least to try because we trusted that our partners were really great and that they’d be able to help us.

LSS: How do you see including college students alongside of your work fosters dialogue and education about immigration while providing access to advocacy and activism opportunities?  

TRC: It was extremely rewarding for them, and that’s why we decided to keep on doing it every time we do a book. You see, it’s often the case that when students study at the college or graduate levels that they have a lot of readings about people or groups of people or the policies affecting people. But with this project, they were really engaged and learning a lot; they felt they were part of something bigger and greater. It is kind of like having a job and going to work for eight hours and getting a salary. It’s a job, so you do it day-in and day-out. But, you can also have a job that you really love, and you don’t even think about what time you put in because it’s really fulfilling for you personally and also for the community where you live. It also proved very helpful for the professors that we were able to partner with and offer them the opportunity to enhance the learning experience of the students they were teaching.

LSS: As we collaborated on the Atlanta project, Congress elected not to move forward to establish protection for DACA-impacted individuals, and Attorney Jeff Sessions issued the zero-tolerance memorandum. How did this shape or inform this particular project?

TRC: Atlanta was different because of the timing of the project. We understand that unless you have a green card or are a naturalized citizen, it can be difficult to share your story. But some of the DACA recipients really wanted to be included in the book, so we used safety precautions that we felt would still allow them to share their stories. We provided enough anonymity so that if their status changed, then they weren’t exposed because they at one point shared their story. Obviously, the government has all of their information and whatnot, but we also wanted to protect them and illustrate how the realities have changed for quite a large and significant portion of the high school population that we are working with. That was also one of the main reasons why we really felt strongly about adding this dedication to the Green Card Youth Voices Atlanta book: “We dedicate this book to all people whose voices have been silenced, and we hope the time will come when all human beings will be able to share their stories without fear.”

LSS: I certainly saw where this project prompted new interest from my students about immigration topics. What do you think are effective practices for immigration-related social justice and advocacy work? What kinds of things can individuals do within their communities that are impactful?

TRC: Especially in the aftermath of the presidential election, I got so many emails from people asking me what they could do to help. My recommendation has always been to seek out authentic relationships with immigrants and refugees. Be their neighbor; be their friend. I do that with other immigrants and refugees myself, even though I too am an immigrant. Because people come from 195 countries with different cultures and backgrounds, we need to better understand what people from other places are going through and dealing with. Invite them to your home; invite them to events. Be there for them.

I’ll give you an example. When Malala was in Minneapolis giving a talk, the tickets were very expensive, but I bought three and invited two young refugee girls that I thought would really benefit from hearing her speak. Something like that can be life-changing. Experience things together because it’s first about really creating a community. By having these interactions you will find out what kind of issues are affecting those individuals. Sometimes on a friendly and neighborly level, you will be able to do a lot because I truly believe that sometimes you can help someone so much more as a friend than if you go and protest. Obviously, everyone should find their way, but for me at least, relationship-building with people has always been my preferred way. Oh, my gosh, I could talk about this forever and ever.


The Green Card Voices organization, through the vision of Tea Rozman Clark and her team, is providing unique opportunities for community writing and public engagement benefitting students, faculty, and community members. By creating a digital repository of video narratives, helping young immigrants write, edit, and publish personal essays, and facilitating a series of public readings and speaking events, GCV is embracing the traditions inherent in the field of rhetoric and composition as well as literacy studies. Focusing on educating the public about the US immigrant experience, this initiative affirms the reciprocal nature of civic- and democratic-focused work described by David Coogan and John Ackerman (2010) in The Public Work of Rhetoric: “communities can benefit from the increased attention of rhetoricians in pursuit of democratic ideal, but rhetoric can benefit from community partnerships premised on a negotiated search for the common good—form a collective labor to shape the future through rhetoric in ways that are mutually empowering and socially responsible” (p. 12).

However, scholars who pursue engaged scholarship and pedagogies need strong community partners and viable projects in order to present opportunities for student learning and participation. In Democracy and Education, John Dewey (2011) argues, “As formal teaching and training grow in extent, there is a danger of creating an undesirable split between the experience gained in more direct association and what is acquired in school” (p. 9). It can be challenging to craft and implement these types of experiences in courses and other academic settings, let alone determine the shape and extent of a project and the related activities. In her interview, Rozman Clark describes a model for community engagement that not only recognizes the significance of university and community partnerships but also the pedagogical value to students and the public through the collection, publication, and dissemination of immigrant stories. Strong relationships and confidence in the power of the spoken and written word provides the foundation supporting GCV’s mission. This work is focused on social justice shaped by “local opportunities and limitations, local people and priorities,” which is at the heart of community writing practices (Thomas Deans, Barbara Roswell & Adrian Wurr, 2010, p. 5).

In coming to Atlanta, the project brought together scholars from a range of disciplines and maximized the scholars academic and community resources to publish Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from an Atlanta High School. As expansion continues to other states, the university-community partnerships formed will generate new insights and support, which will allow for broader impact in communities across the US. Rozman Clark’s commitment to social action work through literacy programming provides a sustainable framework for scholars committed to teaching and activism in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies—one that offers rich considerations for future work and project development in the field of community writing and engagement.

References

Ackerman, John M. & Coogan, David J. (2010). Introduction. In J. Ackerman & D. Coogan (Eds.), The public work of rhetoric: Citizen-scholars and civic engagement (pp. 116). Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P.

Deans, Thomas, Roswell, Barbara & Wurr, Adrian J. (2010). Introduction. In T. Deans, B. Roswell & A.J. Wurr (Eds.), Writing and community engagement: A critical sourcebook (pp. 112). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Dewey, John. (2011). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. NY, NY: Simon & Brown.

Author Bio

Lara Smith-Sitton (she/her/hers) is the Director of Community Engagement and Assistant Professor of English at Kennesaw State University. She teaches writing and rhetoric courses as well as oversees the graduate and undergraduate internship program. Her publications and research areas include community writing, engaged scholarship, internship program design, and 18th- and 19th-Century rhetoric.