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MINNEAPOLIS — While conducting research for her project documenting immigrant narratives, Tea Rozman Clark remembers Googling the terms “immigrant,” “pocket” and “success.”
Sure enough, hundreds of rags-to-riches stories popped up about people who came to America with a few bucks in their pockets, worked hard, and became millionaires.
The center of this well-worn tale is what Rozman Clark calls “the super immigrant” — and she says the narrative is overplayed.
“It’s not really true for 99 percent of us, which then in turn creates this, ‘Well, if you’re not a millionaire, or an entrepreneur, then you’re not really contributing to this country,” she said.
Frustrated by the dichotomy of stories about model minorities on one hand and cold-hearted criminals on the other, Rozman Clark set out to create Green Card Voices.
Her nonprofit invites individuals to tell their own stories of what it’s like to be an immigrant in the United States. What started in 2013 as a single website has evolved into a full-fledged operation that has produced videos, books, multiple traveling exhibits, school curriculum guides, and a conversation card game. All told, Green Card Voices has documented the stories of more than 400 immigrants spanning Minnesota and three other states.
“We share stories of people from all walks of life,” Clark said. “Yes, some are financially successful, some have very fulfilling jobs and give back as teachers, and some are making ends meet working in meat-packing factories.”
The current political climate brought a new kind of necessity for immigrant stories. Rozman Clark said after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump was when things really took off.
“People would write to us or email us and say, ‘Before, your work was important, but now your work is essential,’” she said.
And this spring, sales of her conversation card game, known as Story Stitch, got a boost after U.S. Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave it a shoutout on Instagram to her roughly 4 million followers. After the endorsement, the nonprofit was selling one card game per second. Orders poured in from every state in the nation, and as far away as Australia and Indonesia. Now she’ll start hosting Story Stitch facilitator trainings for organizations that are interested in learning.
Rozman Clark has been passionate about hearing the stories of immigrants since she was a 15-year-old girl growing up in Slovenia. When the war began in 1991, Slovenia became a place for many refugees to call home. She worked in the refugee camps and found herself advocating for the people she met.
Starting in September of 2013, Rozman Clark began Green Card voices with recording the stories of immigrants in an interview format. Eventually, the storytelling would take on different forms. Two years later, Clark began publishing anthologies, taking the individual interviews and turning them into personal essays.
“Once you’re done reading a book like that, with 30 diverse stories, almost every story tells you something very unique,” she said. “By the time you’re done, your entire stereotype or generalization you’ve had about a certain group or even immigrants as a whole is done with.”
Rozman Clark got her Ph.D. in cultural history with a speciality in oral history and studied digital humanities. She received a Bush Fellowship in 2015 that allowed her to study social entrepreneurship. That led to a change in how she ran the organization.
She knew that the nonprofit had to sustain itself rather than rely solely on funders. Green Card voices began creating products and services that made that possible, while still holding true to its values.
With her oral history background, and being an immigrant herself, she created a process that allowed her subjects to feel comfortable sharing their stories. She asks each participant six open-ended prompts a month in advance to prepare: Tell me about the day you found out you would be moving. Tell me about your childhood. Their responses are then woven into their own personal stories told by them, not about them.
The process is what made Bo Thao-Urabe comfortable to share her story. Urabe is Hmong and was born in Laos. Her family came to the United States in 1979 from a refugee camp in Thailand after the Vietnam war. She is now the co-founder Red Green Rivers, which works with artisan makers in Southeast Asia. Her story was featured in the Green Card Entrepreneur Voices edition.
“Tea and I met, and she explained to me what she was trying to do and told me a little bit about the process,” Thao-Urabe said. “That just helped me to understand that my job was really just to tell my story,” Urabe said.
Rozman Clark also realized that schools, libraries and places of learning needed resources to change the conversation.
“Teachers for example, they would tell us, ‘We see who is in our classroom, but the curriculum, or the way we’ve been teaching about immigration is through a historic perspective about Ellis Island,’” she said. “We’re not connecting we’re not having the right types of dialogue that we should be having.”
One educator who brought Green Card Voices to her community was Kathryn Mackin, who teaches sixth grade at Mahtomedi Middle School.
“It was to add exposure to a very white Mahtomedi,” she said.
Mackin brought one of the traveling exhibits to her school while facilitating a program for staff called SEED, or Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. The faces and stories of immigrants were displayed in the hallways of her school for staff and students to engage with. She facilitated conversations with the SEED group, and some teachers took the conversations to their classrooms. After she saw the impact it had at her school with staff and students, she brought the exhibit to her church.
“It was very impactful in terms of providing the window and the mirror — the window into the bigger world outside of Mahtomedi, and the mirror to the small population of students of color who don’t see many others like them in the community,” she said.
Clark wants to continue to expand the mirror. This means more stories, and different ways to tell those stories.
“We have to innovate and come up with new things so that we don’t just make a step ahead, but ideally a leap forward,” she said.