Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sharing and connecting through poetry

By Esther Mngodo

Ten years ago, a revolutionary idea marked an era of social networking that has affected human interaction, marketing strategies and human behavior in ways that are still being realised.

Over the past 10 years, lovers reunited, high school friends reconnected, businesses were upgraded. The idea that brought all this to culmination has a name – Facebook.

Ms. Caits Meissner-Chiriga, a New Yorker says she is fond of telling the story about meeting high school students in a New York City classroom some years ago. “It was the first week of art elective, and I was ready to learn who these fresh-faced young people were, looking for clues to their passions in order to engage them more deeply. What I found was overwhelmingly disappointing, and perhaps a bit shocking. When asked what their hobbies were, the majority replied, ‘Facebook’”

Ms. Meissner, a poet and educator says, when she was a teenager Facebook was not a hobby. Some twenty years ago, the answer to her question could have been: drawing or singing. She was puzzled, how could a website be a hobby?

This intrigued her and she began to think of ways to use the platform as a tool to address the very things she disliked. “There are two ways to respond to something dangerous: remove it from your life, or co-opt evil for good. I chose the latter” she says.

What was born from her interaction with the youth is a 30-days virtual workshop space housed, in part, on Facebook. In July 2013, ‘Digging Deep, Facing Self’ came to light. It is an intensive online writing course designed to heal, uplift and transform women into their boldest selves. It is constructed on a website that only course members have access to, where daily content is delivered.

“I spend a few weeks advertising about it online, of course there is a course fee. The course costs 327 USD, and I usually offer scholarships each round. Additionally, I offer free in person workshops, teleclasses and other accessible ways to work with me often. Giving and receiving is a balance I strive for in this work,” she says.

“What was striking for me the first day of class was the fact that I didn’t know any of the women. The writing prompts were provocative – provoking me to leave myself bare in front of strangers. It was a healing process that I needed, even the fact that I had to real to strangers” says Mboni Mhina, a participant from Tanzania who was part of the course in January this year. She recalls some of the writing prompts that led her to write about shame, about being judgmental, and about her self-image.

“That is exactly what the course is meant to do” says Ms. Meissner. She explains that the writing prompts and action steps are transformative, asking participants to dive into old memories and wounds, celebrate parts of themselves they might have long ago abandoned. “It is a tough journey solo, but the real juicy part comes in the shared Facebook group, a private space for the participants who hail from around the world to interact, unseen by the rest of their virtual friends.

Through her course, Ms. Meissner-Chiriga has been able to connect women from all over the planet. Participants have come from Tanzania, Australia, Colombia, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Romania, Denmark, and various states in the U.S. Aside from the palpable power of women interacting across colour, nationality, ethnic lines, smaller triumphs occurred in the Facebook space that only a platform like Facebook could provide, says Ms. Meissner.

Posting a poem about deconstructing your body, or unveiling a deep secret is an act that a Facebook ‘like’ doesn’t have a large enough thumb to validate. The bravery it takes to reveal and open to vulnerability is in direct opposition to Facebook’s very nature.

‘Digging Deep, Facing Self’ hasn’t only been beneficial to the participants only, Ms. Meissner-Chiriga says that the platform has made her grow as well. “It has made me more patient, more open and more loving. It has grown my heart and pushed me to create a larger platform for more experiences like this to exist and be shared. I have now partnered with a friend, mark Gonzales and in April 2014 we will launch The Institute of Narrative Growth. It has gifted me with a community of beautiful women to know and grow alongside. It has offered me true purpose, and at times, wild enlightenment” says Ms. Meissner.

Email: ekmngodo@tz.nationmedia.com

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