When Tolerance Isn’t Enough

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June 1, 2012
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Judith Sloan

I remember the first time I realized that I was living in a unique place: the crossroads of many lands with a varied mix of humanity in close proximity. I had been invited to work as a guest artist in a couple of high schools in Queens. My work is to create theater, radio, and art projects based on the stories of people who are often ignored by the mass media. In the schools, I asked the young people — many of whom had just arrived in the United States — to describe their arrivals, what they noticed, what languages they spoke, and to interview each other about why they came here and how they were managing. Many of the students had never shared their lives in this way and they were surprised to learn how their stories of immigration were both different from and similar to one another.

Before moving to Queens, I had traveled frequently and never thought of Queens as a destination. Then, I met and married a visual artist and thinker, Warren Lehrer, and we started interacting with each other’s art. After Warren and I co-wrote a play, I was brought into a series of workshops in jails and schools and alternative sentencing institutions in and around New York. We wanted to create art in Queens, so I began listening to the stories of teenagers around my neighborhood; I saw the explosion of new immigrants, when — during 1990 to 2000 — more than 1 million foreign-born people came to New York and most of them came through the airports in Queens. I discovered that Queens was the most diverse place in the United States.

We created an interactive multimedia project (crossingtheblvd.org) that documents and portrays the largely invisible lives, images, sounds, and stories of new immigrants and refugees who live in Queens, called Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, and Aliens in a New America. We were not  interested in restaurants or ethnic diversity, but rather in going beyond the veneer or wallpaper of diversity, beyond tolerance to a realm where we are not tolerating each other but coexisting in a way that takes time and conversation. Recording the stories and music of people who came from across the globe. I was looking to share the heart and soul that is found deep within the foreignness of language. The art took me to another place, and helped me to understand a perspective different from my own. I did not want to be a spectator or see the art as simply reaffirming my own experiences. And yet, as I heard the stories, I was reminded of my grandmother’s family. I also imagined all the people who arrived here with the hope of making life better, who migrated to transform themselves and to create a new story and future.

With the goal of creating dialogue, we aimed to simulate the experience of travel, but within our home borough. We listened to people, photographed them, and documented an array of complex stories. The world came to us. Now, almost ten years later, that project is still going strong and we have embarked on others that follow the same methodology and craft.

The project has been transformative. And now I’m working on a libretto, “1001 Voices: A Symphony for Queens,” in collaboration with composer Frank London and my husband, Warren Lehrer. The final movement of the symphony is inspired in part by Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” and by my experiences as an “artistic midwife” to many young immigrant teenagers. I feel as if I’m honoring the Jewish ethic of living a purposeful life and making choices to create better situations for myself and others.

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Judith Sloan is a writer, actor, audio artist, oral historian, and educator in Queens, New York. She and Warren Lehrer are co-authors/co-creators of Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America (W.W. Norton). Sloan is the author and performer of “YO MISS! Teaching Inside the Cultural Divide,” a work in progress, that was presented at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre in the winter of 2012. She is the librettist for “1001 Voices: A Symphony for Queens,” which was commissioned by the Queens Symphony Orchestra and premiered in April, 2012. With Warren Lehrer, Sloan is co-founder of EarSay (earsay.org), a nonprofit, artist-driven organization. She teaches part-time at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

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