An example of traditional Karen Burmese weavings. Each one of these textiles is a skirt, woven on a backstrap loom while one of the Sewing Circle participants and her family were still living in a refugee camp in Thailand. Photo by Molly Bolick.
We’re excited about this first post from Molly Bolick, a second year Folk Studies graduate student at Western Kentucky University. Here she discusses her summer internship with the PA Folklife Archives, the role of textiles in diverse refugee communities, and how this experience is helping her contemplate concepts of her own ““Home” — a place of family, comfort and love, but equally a harsh reality that offers few prospects and few promises. “
As a second year graduate student in the Public Track (non-thesis) in Folk Studies at Western Kentucky University, I recently had the opportunity to work with the Pennsylvania Folklife Archives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and with folklorist Amy Skillman. It was an incredible experience and I found myself at an intersection of ideas and work crucial to my personal and professional life.
My main project was assisting with a sewing, textile, and fabric arts circle for refugee and immigrant folk artists in the Harrisburg area, created by a grant successfully secured from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The idea was in part based on a previous project Amy ran with the director and founder of the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Network, Ho-Than Nguyen, in which women came together for “Story Circles,” in which stories were recorded during group meetings and then put together in an exhibit to educate the community about the lives of refugee and immigrant women in their own city.
Though the project was intended for refugee and immigrant populations, we also worked with American-born women who were not members of newcomer communities or long-time immigrants. We did not want to ignore these traditions, yet the aim of the project was more than merely a craft workshop space. Yes, the project worked to bring women together to work on their craft, but the aim was also multilayered: the project was provided a space for women share ideas among their ethnic crafting traditions, and most importantly, build community among traditional craft artists in the area. This was the driving force behind the project, and the inclusion of non-immigrant and refugee women proved to be a beautiful way to facilitate this.
To put together the circle, I conducted interviews with women who would possibly be interested from a list of community contacts. I truly loved listening to the women’s stories. Each woman was so interesting and talented! The project, at the time I left, included Pakistani, Chinese, Karen Burmese, Native American, and American-born women. It was a wonderful mixture of ethnic traditions and people. I regret that I will not be there for the project’s next round of interviews and gatherings.
The project also allowed me to work in areas that are extremely important to me—with women and women’s traditions and with refugee and immigrant populations. I have a background in labor activism and women’s reproductive and social justice. And, since moving to Bowling Green, Kentucky, for graduate school, I have started working with immigrants and refugees. I initially began volunteer teaching ESL classes for adults, and now work through the Folk Studies department as a Teaching Associate for an undergraduate class, which has a special service-learning component, where students work in the refugee and immigrant community.
Finally, but crucially, Harrisburg is a little over an hour’s commute from my home town of Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, one of the southernmost points in the mountains of Anthracite Coal Region. “Home” is an idea I have been struggling with recently— a place of family, comfort and love, but equally a harsh reality that offers few prospects and few promises. So, to say the very least, after years away, being able to return home for a summer and to do this kind of work with only an hour’s commute was deeply personal and rewarding.
Heading into my final year in the master’s program, I feel my summer work fit the department’s idealized goal of an internship—to work and get experience in an aspect of the field that I feel passionately about and would love to work with in the future.
~ Molly Bolick
Want to keep up with the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Network mentioned here? You can follow them on facebook here.
Molly is from Northeastern Pennsylvania, in the mountains of the Anthracite coal region. She has a BA in Anthropology from Penn State University and has a background in labor activism, reproductive justice and rights, and most recently working with refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky.