Sarah Campen ’07: Welcome to Women's Voices Amplified, the podcast from the Brown Women's Network where we talk with Brunonian changemakers about making an impact in their communities and beyond. I'm Sarah Campen, and I graduated from Brown University in 2007 with a bachelor of arts. In this episode, I'll be speaking with Valerie Tutson, who received her undergraduate degree from Brown in 1987, with a self-designed major of storytelling as a communications art, and masters of art in theatre arts in 1990.
Valerie Tutson ’87 AM’90: When we truly look at our folk traditions, when we look at our deep history, when we look at the mythology that comes from our peoples, whoever our peoples are, then we’re going to have a greater understanding of ourselves and we’re also going to see our connected humanity.
Campen: Welcome to the podcast, Valerie.
Tutson: Thank you so much, Sarah, it is wonderful to spend this time with you.
Campen: Let's dive in. When taking stock of your work to date, I wonder, were you always a storyteller even as a young child? And where did that spark come from?
Tutson: My parents say that I was definitely always a storyteller. And certainly my earliest memories were of loving books and television shows and all kinds of things which I would then translate with all my neighborhood friends, I'd have to re-tell them every story I was reading and make sure that we were out in the woods, living the adventures of Pippi Longstocking and Nancy Drew and all those fun things. So, I think I was always a storyteller for sure.
Campen: A lot of your work includes stories and songs from your experiences in South and West Africa, as well as African-American history. Why is it important for you to highlight those cultures?
Tutson: One of the main reasons is because that's not what I experienced in the small town where I was growing up. We were one of a handful of Black and multiracial families in my town in Connecticut. So I didn't have other Black people around me, I didn't learn much about African-American history when I was in school, although my mother brought those books home for me. And that was so important because it gave me a completely different picture of the world, as did my traveling in Africa. I started traveling to Africa in the 1980s. And certainly, up until then, what I ever got in school didn't show the beauty and the diversity of the continent, it wasn't a part of my education.
It's been really important for me to share that particularly in schools where I go, where kids will still ask a question, "Do you speak African?" I mean, how is it that we are in 2021 and there are young people in our country who are still asking questions like that? So it becomes really important for me to share, not just the cultural traditions, but to give people some idea of what real life is like on the continent now.
Campen: I would love for you to talk a little bit about your work with the Rhode Island Black Storytellers. I know you host Funda Fest annually, which gathers storytellers from across the African diaspora to pass on stories and songs for the community. Could you talk a little bit about hosting that event and what you hope attendees gain from experiencing it?
Tutson: Absolutely. We've just had our 23rd annual Funda Festival this year, which is crazy to even think about. And it was born because I had just spent six months traveling in Africa, mostly in southern Africa, South Africa in particular. Because I've got a good friend there, her name is Gcina Mhlophe and she's also a storyteller. We met actually in my senior year at Brown. She was in the U.S. doing some work at Brandeis, and we had a mutual friend who knew that we both loved storytelling and theatre and who insisted we needed to get to know each other. So Gcina and I met in Boston.
So back and forth over the years, I've been going to South Africa. My first trip being in 1988, when there was still a state of emergency but 23 years ago, I had just spent some time there with Gcina and I came back to Rhode Island, and was meeting with some of my other Black storytellers here in Providence, Rhode Island, Ramona Bass Kolobe. Ramona's husband was one of the founders of Rites and Reason Theatre and one of my mentors. And said, "Hey, can we do a Black storytelling festival?" There was money through the Rhode Island Foundation, part of a program they were doing called “I'll Make Me a World,” which was to celebrate Black arts and Black artists working in community. And I said, "Let's create our own group, we'll call it the Rhode Island Black Storytellers."
And then we both laughed and said, RIBS, because we thought that was the perfect name. And we wanted to have a Black storytelling festival. And because of my back and forth to and from South Africa, I knew that “Funda” means to learn. And in Kiswahili, there's a word similar — that is “to teach.” So this notion of teaching and learning, which is our most ancient way of doing teaching and learning is through stories. So we decided to call our festival “The Funda Festival.” And we thought that this would be the most perfect way to introduce people and teach them about Black storytelling. And when I say that, it was also really important for us and for me, that we share the diversity of Black voices. Because a lot of times, people expect that Black folks are going to speak for all Black people.
Well, we can't do that. We know that we can't do that. And it's so vital to me and to us to have as many different voices at the table as possible. So that's always been part of our mission and our goal. And this year, we did it all online. We've always had people from the diaspora as part of our program. But if we were lucky, it's because somebody was nearby because they were touring and we’d kind of group them in. But this year, we had 45 storytellers from three different continents. And we had a storyteller here from South Africa via Zoom, from Uganda, from Sierra Leone. We had folks from the West Indies, who were living in Europe. I mean, it's just yummy. Not to mention Cape Verdean storytellers, and Afro-Latin storytellers. And people from the American South and the West Coast. So it was really rich, and that's what we hope for.
Campen: You have had such a varied and multifaceted career. If you had to choose one favorite project, what would it be, and why?
Tutson: Ohh. Besides Funda, which I totally love, one of the projects that I love is what we call our “Community Flavors.” And this is a potluck storytelling project that we do in community. People come together for two hours, we ask them to sit at tables with folks that they don't know. And they eat together. And then we have story guides at each table. And those story guides take them through a process of simple story prompts. And everybody gets to tell a story.
What I love about Community Flavors is that it just simply brings people together to share their memories. And every time we do it, people truly walk away feeling connected in ways that don't normally happen when you go to a community event. So, that is definitely one of my favorite projects at the moment.
Campen: I love that. We're seeing now with this new civil rights era that we're in currently, that there's still a lot of work to do educating the nation on Black history and Black life. Would you say that your experience as a Black woman in this country was a motivator for getting into this type of work? And how has that influenced your work?
Tutson: It was definitely a motivator for me to get into this work, particularly the work that I do in the schools. And again, it's because when I grew up, I didn't get Black history in schools. The only thing that was talked about in my education, especially in American history, we always started with slavery. It always showed pictures of Black people half dressed. And if they were coming from Africa, they were always enslaved and in chains and in these images that were so painful to me and my being.
And I knew there was something more but I didn't know what it was and certainly my teachers growing up didn't know it. But when I got to Brown at the time that I came, I was really blessed because I had three of my first four professors, my first semester at Brown were Black. And that was just amazing. My dad had wanted me to go to Howard University because that's where he went and he wanted me to have the experience of an all-Black school, but I got to Brown at a time when the Black community was very active and there was a lot of political stuff going on, it was the anniversary of the takeover of University Hall and the time of the student walkout. So there was a lot of politics happening.
And by the same token, my grounding place was Rites and Reason Theatre with George Houston Bass, who was teaching me how important it was and is for us to tell our own stories in our own way. So that most certainly has impacted the work that I chose to do.
I live in Providence, Rhode Island. I live in the zip code that has the highest concentration of Black folks in the state. And I recognize that I need to be able to share these stories in the schools. And certainly we know here in the city of Providence, just like all over the country, as we're looking at systems that need to be more just, more equitable, more diverse and inclusive. The schools are right in the middle of that. And we've always known how important it is to bring Black voices into the schools. If you don't have a lot of teachers, well, we're going to come on in here — we've got information, we've got faces, we've got expertise that you need more now than ever before. Well, always but again, here it is in the news, hot on the table again.
Campen: Can I just circle back or just dive a little deeper on this topic that's coming up around community healing and telling your own stories. Could you just talk a little bit more about the link between those two things because they seem really crucially connected.
Tutson: There's a word and an Adinkra symbol that comes from the Akan people of Ghana, which is “sankofa.” And sankofa is often depicted as a bird whose head is going back over its shoulder. So it's looking in the past and it's holding possibly an egg in its mouth or seed, it depends on how people interpret it. But the notion is that you need to go back to the past and get the seeds and the wisdom and the knowledge of the past and bring it to the present, so that you can fly forward into the future. And the reason that I think storytelling is so important, and when I say storytelling, I mean it in the big fat form. Yes, it's important for all of us to tell our own personal stories but our personal stories are located in a specific time and place, the here and the now.
Stories connect us to a past and if we go far enough back, particularly for Black people in this country right now, if we go far enough back, if we can keep going back, we are going to get to the place where, guess what? We were not enslaved. Where it was pre-colonial period. Where guess what? We were fully human on this planet. And if we can remember that, then that is part of what will heal us because we need to understand that people survived. And that's why we're here today. Which means that we're going to be gone one day, and there will be people who we can only imagine right now who those people are going to be. So when I think about the importance of storytelling and healing, personal stories and telling your personal stories can be healing in the moment, and that's very true.
And when we truly look at our folk traditions, when we look at our deep history, when we look at the mythology that comes from our peoples, whoever our peoples are, then we're going to have a greater understanding of ourselves and we're also going to see our connected humanity, if that makes sense. Right? Because the creators and the stories of creation and the tricksters, and the folktales and all of those things, maybe somewhat different but at core, they're similar. So they remind us of our humanity, and the more we can be reminded of our humanity, the more healing that is not just for each one of us because we are, therefore I am. We are, therefore I am.
Campen: That was so beautiful. And I'm getting so excited hearing you talk about this. I live in Alaska, in Southeast Alaska, and I grew up here. I'm just seeing a lot of truth in what you're saying. The communities that I live in, it's a combination of white communities, Tlingit and Haida indigenous communities, there's strong Filipino community here as well. There's a lot of competing stories here. I see a lot of reluctance among some community members to acknowledge some of the true stories of colonial history that are very, very recent in our region and very, very painful.
And there's people here doing such great work to tell not only individual stories, but collective stories that talk about this long thread of humanity for the purpose of healing. And I just am seeing a lot of truth in what you're saying that the stories we tell ourselves are so important. And being able to choose and craft those stories so that they are stories of healing and truth that lead us forward rather than getting us stuck, is really important.
Tutson: Yes. And I think what you said in terms of acknowledging, yes, we do need to acknowledge the painful stories together because unless or until we do, it's hard for us to imagine moving forward. As I'm saying that what is coming to mind is I was in South Africa at the time of those truth and reconciliation hearings that were happening. And it's painful, it's painful — but if we don't tell our painful history, we keep seeing how it repeats itself. I mean, it's going to repeat itself anyway, because we're human. And that's the other thing that storytelling reminds us, is that this is our now moment, this is not new. Nothing is new under the sun. So let's dig in, maybe there's a learning there, and let's imagine together some way forward.
Campen: I love that. Thank you. So if we could talk a little bit about Brown and your experience at Brown, are there any lessons that you learned at Brown, either through academics or socially or experience there that you still carry with you today?
Tutson: I would not be doing what I'm doing truly if I hadn't gone to Brown. Being an independent concentrator at Brown made it possible for me to find my own path. Even though it was frightening, and my parents were like, "What are you talking about? You're majoring in storytelling, that doesn't make any sense? How are you going to get a job?" But that independent concentration program was so vital to me because it encouraged me and it allowed me to figure out my path.
I mentioned that one of my mentors at Brown was George Houston Bass, the founding artistic director of Rites and Reason Theatre, who had been the personal secretary to Langston Hughes, by the way, and kept Langston's ashes in his office for a long time. Letting us know from the beginning that we are part of a continuum. So to take class with George and to be involved in Rites and Reason Theatre instilled in me this sense of ongoing legacy. The other thing that I learned early on with my work at Brown between George and Julie Strandberg, was the importance of bringing the art and the work into the community. George was, I think, very instrumental in making sure that we were connected with community but also, that community was connected with us, particularly through Rites and Reason Theatre.
I mean, part of the reason I stayed in Providence was because I was working with people in the community through my work at Rites and Reason Theatre.
Campen: So am I right that you came to Providence to go to Brown and then you've made that your community since being at Brown?
Tutson: Yes, that's right. So I came here in 1983, in the fall of '83, good God!
Campen: Well, it's so great, though. I mean, that you clearly have been invested in and built community there, what could be better?
Tutson: Yes. And because I've been here, I just see when we were talking about what's happening in Black Lives Matter and the growing disparities for black people in this country, I am seeing that in such big ways in the city of Providence right now. The Rhode Island Black Storytellers is just trying to bring Black stories to our kids in our community because we know they're not getting it. We're trying to bring positivity in places and spaces where there's a lot of negativity.
And we're trying to... bring Black Beauty. There's a lot of conversation around Black joy. And we've always been about bringing Black joy. I mean, Funda looks like fun and that's always been our thing. So it's nice that there's a consciousness around bringing Black joy. And to tell Black stories and to sing the songs that go with them and to bring the people together, that is what we are trying to do.
Campen: Thanks so much, Valerie, for your eloquent and wise words.
Tutson: Thank you, Sarah. Such a joy to chat with you.
Campen: Thanks for listening to the Women's Voices Amplified Podcast. For more episodes like this, be sure to listen and subscribe. The podcast is available on Apple podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon podcast, Stitcher and SoundCloud. The views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of Brown University.
The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent those of Brown University.