#PSOTU2016 in Ithaca: Reflections by Anne Rhodes

Note: Anne Rhodes is a theater artist, activist, and organizer who took part in a People's State of the Union Story Circle in January 2016. Below, her reflections on the experience are interspersed with excerpts from Ithaca stories uploaded to the Story Portal

When do we ever get to talk deeply with strangers about things that trouble us, things that inspire us, things that we wonder about?

Last Thursday at our People’s State of the Union event, 35 Ithacans came together to pause, listen, share, and grapple with issues of belonging, difference, damage and healing, despair and hope. 

Our two story circle prompts were:

  1. Share a story you think the next President absolutely needs to hear.
  2. Share a story about a moment you felt true belonging—or the opposite—to this nation.

What does it mean to belong to this country? For an African American “belonging to” conjured up slavery. Who “belongs in” this country when we are dealing with so much anti-immigrant ­­­­­­sentiment?  We are all so different, and there is so much history or pain; can we belong with each other? How could we get there?

The story I want to tell is what happened to me when I looked at those prompts. First thing that happened was that I had a very strong reaction to the idea of belonging “to” this country. Because this country has a very interesting perspective about what it means to be a black man, and who belongs to whom. So I had lots of reactions to just that language, and thoughts about the language I would have preferred, about the idea of belonging “in” this country.
People's State of the Union Story Circle in Detroit. Photo by Erin Shawgo. 

People's State of the Union Story Circle in Detroit. Photo by Erin Shawgo. 

The stories we told each other were about uncertainty about the future, seeking solace when something horrible happens, feeling connected to and hugging strangers when something wonderful happens, despair from seeing how children are damaged in their families and cannot trust, recoiling from belonging to or with or in this country, finding connection in unexpected places.

I remember when gay marriage was recognized federally....on that day, there was just this amazement, that starting that day we could freely travel anywhere in this country and say “This is my wife” and there was something backing us up. Whether we felt safe to do that was another question, and still is. But being able to call my spouse “my wife” is amazing still. That word: wife. It means I can’t hide, and I don’t want to. The joy of it, and the ownership of it. My heart was home.

And through it all, the theme of belonging, the loss of belonging, the pervasiveness of the glorification of independence and autonomy. The historical ways of belonging in community—extended family, tribe, village, congregation—are often broken or disappearing.  And we are left wondering what can take their place.  There is so much diversity in our country – of ethnicity, gender, class, political affiliation, sexual orientation, religion.  How can we belong to each other? 

Then one of the women who had been quiet, she spoke up. She said, “I have hard time listening to the news right now. My children are Muslim. They are seven and nine years old. And they listen, they hear when the news is on, they hear what people are saying.” She said that her daughter who is seven asked her the other day, if “that man”—and she was talking about Trump—“if he becomes President, do I have to leave America? Do we have to move away?”

When do we ever get to talk with strangers like this?

The evening opened and closed with music.  As we came in, shared food, and greeted each other, Uncle Joe and the Rosebud Ramblers created a welcoming, friendly atmosphere with fiddle, guitars, and stand-up bass.  And at the end of the evening an improvisational singing group, Ephemera, created an on-the-spot vocal offering that reflected back to us what they had heard in the three story circles.  You can hear it here.

I remember coming to Ithaca to go school; it was about a year and a half ago. We found an apartment built in the 1800s and not updated. It’s downtown, and we can walk to the Commons. We can walk to the park. Sarah and I were walking in this community and the streets were packed. There’s people everywhere—friends, and friends of friends. There was life and people and activity. It was different and it had that sense of belonging. I’m grateful to the people in this community for making that happen in a country where that’s not necessarily the norm.

Ephemera’s offering ended with the question: “What if we all sang the same song?” And we all joined in with them, all kinds of voices.  It was fitting to end with a question.  And a question that contains so many other questions:  What would it take? How will we get there? How can we trust? What can I do?  But in the end it was hopeful, singing together, bringing a vision of possibilities: What if we all sang the same song?