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UWF Launches 'My Story Griot Project'

University of West Florida

The University of West Florida is working to create a space for the campus community to share and discuss their experiences with race and ethnicity. The new initiative is the “My Story Griot Project.”

“We’re still going and moving, and moving well and moving strong,” said Mamie Webb Hixon, assistant professor of English and director of the UWF Writing Lab, discussing the momentum of the CASSH workgroup on Race.

CASSH stands for the College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities. Hixon says their work began last summer at the request of the college’s Dean, Dr. Steven Brown.

“He thought it would be a great idea for us to come together and talk about ways to ensure that our students are feeling comfortable on campus with regard to race and reconciliation, with regard to race, ethnicity and belonging,” Hixon said. “Thus, the full title of our committee is the CASSH Workgroup on Race, Ethnicity and Belonging.”

Credit University of West Florida
University of West Florida
Assistant Professor and Director of the UWF Writing Lab, Mamie Webb Hixon in 2017.

As chair of the workgroup, Hixon initially proposed the idea of having “Can we talk” sessions, what she referred to as a “Griot Hour.” “A griot is a storyteller, specifically a West African storyteller, the one who bears the history of the village,” she explained. 

“And, in African American culture, we all have griots, a family griot. That person may not be known by that name, but it is the person who has that information. You can go to Aunt Maggie and say, “Now, where were you born? Where was grandmother born?”

Bringing together the tradition of oral stories with the more dominant written culture, they created the “My Story Griot Project.” Then, they reached out to students from all the disciplines in CASSH: Anthropology, Theatre, Art & Design, Communication, Philosophy, Music, History, Government, and English, asking them to share their stories based on race.

The stories could be written or recorded. Tionna Brackens chose the latter.

“Well, I decided I had to make a video today because this beautiful, beautiful lady here is basically who I want to share a story about,” begins Brackens, who is African-American. At this point, she shifts the camera to include a young Caucasian woman. The woman is identified as a co-worker who provided training her first day on the job here and immediately pulled her aside for a frank and refreshing conversation about the racism she might encounter.

“For the first time ever in my life or on any job that I’ve ever had, someone has come to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m acknowledging that there is an issue and that this is a factor of life and something you have to deal. But, I want you to know, you don’t have to deal with it here. We’re here to help you,’” Brackens explained. “It was just like one of the most important and (impactful) parts of my life. And, I’m trying not to get emotional because it was so important to me.”

“This is Kaitlyn Milsap reading for Catie Boswell. This is the most challenging and personal piece of writing I’ve ever been tasked with,” starts this essay.

Milsap, a theatre student, gives voice to the essay by UWF staff member Boswell, who writes about modern race relations and the volatile lives of minorities and police.

“Although I have a multiracial family and have a diverse group of friends, I’m a white woman married to a white police officer,” Boswell writes. “And, I know that stacks the cards against me for credibility right now, and the truth of that fact makes be both hopeless and irate.”

Boswell goes on to talk about the death of George Floyd, systemic racism and the abuse of power in law enforcement. Further, she explained how those with more “insidious intentions” took advantage of peaceful and meaningful protests to incite violence and destruction. Police were left in the tough spot of trying to keep the peace, while being told to dominate the streets with force.

“Law enforcement officers are literally caught in the crosshairs between political agendas, their own morals, the administration and the need to provide for their families,” Boswell concluded, in agreement with a report from New York Times.

“As you might expect, the stories are topically really broad. Everyone has had very different experiences with race and race relations,” said Carrie Fonder.

Fonder is an assistant professor of Art, who’s been working with Hixon and Anthropology instructor Roz Fisher to coordinate the “My Story Griot Project.”

“Some of the stories address forms of racism that students dealt with, some from within the broader community, some within their own families,” Fonder stated.

Credit University of West Florida
University of West Florida
Assistant Professor Carrie Fonder in 2019.

“Some address the intersection of race and other forms of discrimination. Then others are celebrations of people that are allies and supporters in challenging times. They’re very diverse stories, but I think what they have in common is they’re all really moving and they all give us a little snapshot of a member of our community.”

In terms of the timing of this “My Story” project, Fonder notes the foundation of previous efforts to highlight and discuss issues related to race and diversity on the UWF campus.

“But, I believe there’s also an urgency to the moment that felt like it required more concentrated attention and effort and care,” she added. “And, I believe that’s one of the reasons that the workgroup was formed this year, as well, so that we could bring our efforts together to perhaps act more quickly and establish more initiatives that would support our campus and our community.”

The “My Story Griot Project” is just getting started, with the CASSH workgroup on race now hashing out details of what’s to come, including occasional features on WUWF.

“Currently, theatre students are collaborating with some of the authors to develop theatrical readings of some of the stories and some of the stories will be featured in the UWF Student Scholars Symposium, which is happening on Thursday, April 15.

More information on the symposium is available on the website of the Office of Undergraduate Research at uwf.edu\our. Additional plans include creation of a space online, where the stories can be archived for the public.

“Writing really helps you to heal yourself,” said workgroup chairperson Mamie Hixon, quoting noted author Alice Walker.

“And, by sharing it with other people, that person gets to have a vicarious experience of living your story.”