By Brenda Aguirre
October 12, 2021
Tell me a bit about your background and what you are currently working on in the area of community-engaged work (research, teaching or creative work)
Fernanda Iwasaki was born in Peru and raised in Spain, where she obtained a BFA in theater and a master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American literature. Her contact with community work started in Boulder, while she was conducting academic research and working as a graduate teaching assistant for the Spanish and Portuguese department at CU. Fernanda was eager to put the theory into practice, democratize knowledge and engage in meaningful conversation with a broader audience. She worked for two years with Motus Theater, collaborated with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival for their Shakespeare & Violence Prevention program during three years and developed and implemented a community-engaged project thanks to the support of the Office of Outreach and Engagement and its Engaged Arts and Humanities Graduate Students Scholars (EAH Scholars) program of 2018-2019.
You can learn more about her work by visiting her website www.mariafernandaiwasaki.com
What values do you try to uphold within your work?
To me, the most important value is to always regard the needs and wellbeing of the community as far more important than the project itself. This might sound obvious, but it is easy to lose perspective when the project is coming to an end and you find yourself wanting to show some polished results. The great challenge is to develop an ambitious project without rushing, burdening or putting any kind of unnecessary pressure on the community, more so when you are working with a non-dominant one. Apart from that, I make a great effort to take up as little time as possible when sharing information while being generous with my time when it comes to addressing questions or concerns. We should always listen more and speak less.
Have you ever run into conflicts in upholding your values? If so, what did you do?
Maybe not into conflicts but I definitely confronted difficulties. The more accommodating you are with the community members you are working with the easier it gets to move away from your initial timetable or the final result you first imagined. When that happened I tried to enjoy the creative task of improvisation and problem solving.
Also, I remember one particular time, while doing community theater. The participants in that project were sharing truly personal, even traumatic stories. Some of them hesitated about whether the recount of those stories was healing for them and were seriously considering backing out. Instead of trying to convince anyone to remain in the project, I shared my own personal traumatic story and the lesson I learned from it. Being honest and vulnerable was all it took to restore some of their faith in the process. You cannot ask for something you are not willing to give.
Relationships (building and holding)
How have you built relationships with community partners, from the beginning stages to holding relationships throughout a collaboration and beyond?
In the case of the EAH Scholars project, I had to create connections from scratch. I emailed the assistant principal of Columbine Elementary School to introduce myself and briefly share my idea. The goal was to spark their interest and meet in person to discuss the details. Three meetings followed, each of them with a larger group. During this process, I had the chance to see the school, meet its staff and talk to the families before starting the workshop.
In terms of holding, I wanted to create something tangible, long-lasting and reproducible in case the school wanted to offer the same workshop in the future. So I printed a set of booklets with all the illustrated stories of the children and included in it the methods of the workshop. Copies were distributed among the children and their families and some of them were reserved for the school library and the team of professionals that supported me.
Do you have any specific examples you can share? Or specific advice?
Building strong relationships, whether personal or professional, is something that takes time and conscious effort. Take time for yourself to reflect about your interactions with community partners. How was the atmosphere? What did you sense about their emotional states? What did they share with you and what can you do with that piece of information? How do you think that your tone came across? And, since there is always room for improvement, set yourself the goal to try new things in order to become more approachable, more flexible and more accessible. Those who work with you will notice and appreciate your effort.
What is your advice for building relationships where there could be conflicts of values or goals?
Create a set of simple rules to protect everyone in the group. For example, agree to disagree respectfully. Agree to listen to each other without judgement. Agree to share without the urge to convince. Agree to care about other people’s feelings despite differences. Agree that, while it is not possible to respect all ideas, every person deserves respect.
What initiatives / strategies / methods do you take to get feedback from community partners...and also participants in activities? And how often do you do so?
I like to try a mixture of things, not only because the quality and depth of the feedback can vary depending on the method used but because it is important to take into account that participants have different kinds of personalities and you want to give them options to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
In order to create an environment of transparency and a sense of teamwork, I like to meet as a group at least twice. I also create surveys that can be answered at home, either on paper or online. This way, people have time to think and elaborate on their answers and it relieves some of the pressure that comes from talking in public.
The frequency depends on different things: the length and intensity of the project, the size of the group you are working with, the level of complexity. My EAH Scholars workshop only lasted 8 weeks but I had undergraduate students from CU collaborating with me. Not all these students were fluent in Spanish or had previous experience working with children, so it was important for me to check in with them every week. As for the children and their families, they had the opportunity to share their feedback at the end of the project.
How have you worked with non-dominant communities (BIPOC, low income, rural etc)?
The kind of work that I have done so far has always been creative and deeply linked to storytelling.
My first experience with community work was through Motus Theater. I collaborated on their project SALSA Loteria, a performance featuring autobiographical monologues by Latina immigrants. My role evolved throughout the course of the project. During the writing process, I worked as a Spanish interpreter/translator and assistant dramaturg. Later, while putting together the performance, I assisted as acting coach.
Finally, when I had the opportunity to develop my own project as an EAH scholar, I decided to offer a creative workshop at a local elementary school and work exclusively with Latinx students. The main goal of the workshop was to celebrate the unique and powerful legacy that Latino families at Columbine are building for their children. Students were asked to reflect about the best qualities of their loved ones, think of these qualities as superpowers and create one illustrated story about the fantastic adventures of these exceptional family members.
In what ways have you been able to make community members from non-dominant groups or those most impacted by the issues you are addressing collaborative partners in the work (from planning, to implementing and reflecting)?
When I started working as an EAH scholar I knew I wanted to involve my community members in every stage of the project. During the planning process, I met with the principals of Columbine Elementary School and some of their staff and listened carefully to their needs and suggestions. They had a preference regarding the age of the students I should work with and it was also important for them to create a positive connection between their young students and the CU Boulder campus. This is why a campus visit was planned at the end of our workshop, during which students received the printed booklet featuring their stories.
During the implementation of the workshop, I tried to take into account the interests of my students and adapt the materials accordingly when possible. For example, one of the participants was not interested in creating a superhero and, instead, drew the imaginary landscapes where each epic story took place.
Finally, when the booklets were ready, the students that participated in the workshop and the family members they depicted in their stories met with me on campus. After a fun interactive activity at the Fiske Planetarium we sat for lunch and looked at the stories together. The conversation developed naturally. Students were happy to think back on the workshop and share their impressions on the printed booklet. As for the family members, they were also very open about how their particular story had touched them and why. I must say, it felt like an effortless and beautiful way to assess the project with the community.
How can community-engaged scholars work to build access and inclusion for nondominant communities?
First of all, I believe in the importance of having a genuine interest in the nondominant community you wish to work with. In order to answer the “how” you need to be able to answer the “why.” When the reasons that move you to work with a particular community are not general or vague, when they convey a unique insight, a concrete truth well understood, there is a greater chance for your project to restore visibility and agency.
I would also argue that, if we are doing our job right, we ultimately owe our best ideas to more than one person from the community we are serving. Community-engaged scholars should be generous listeners and hold dear other people’s truths. When we truly care about what others have to say, their stories remain with us and seed our imagination. So, even when there is no explicit team effort in the conceiving process of a community project, our aim should be to never think alone and honor the time and experience shared with us.
Hybrid Modalities / Pandemic and Post-pandemic
(How) has moving to a remote modality changed your project/practice? If you made changes, which do you hope to take with you moving forward?
How do you create an environment of inclusion in remote modes?
While there are many useful platforms for remote communication, not everyone has access to or experience with the same resources. In my opinion, being aware of such cases and willing to find alternative, maybe less sophisticated or “professional” modes of remote communication is the first step to create an environment of inclusion.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received about doing community engaged work?
Something that I have heard more than once and that has always stayed with me is the importance of being humble when doing community work. Community members have a lot to teach us, but we have to be open and keen to learn from them. They do not need leaders, for they already have them among themselves. They need allies and advocates. Be one.