As the mother of a 13-year-old girl, I am now learning, from the other side of the relationship, just how much adolescent girls both need and struggle against their mothers. The important part is keeping the vital lines of communication open, even if it’s just sitting in the car listening to the radio together as I drive her to school in the morning. I take being in the same space with my daughter for granted, the same way I took my mother’s presence for granted. But these are not givens.
Last Saturday, I witnessed the mother-daughter bond strung out over a distance that was both physical and emotional. The daughters – Chloe, a.k.a Coco (10), Alliyah (10) and Angel (20)– were here in the Museum; their mothers – Felicia, Neesha and Teresa respectively – were at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s Estrella Jail, where they are inmates.
As part of Gregory Sale’s project “It’s not just black and white,” both mothers and daughters had been working with Teniqua Broughton, director of programs at Free Arts, and ASU’s Coordinator for Public Practice Elizabeth Johnson, as well as with Gregory, to develop dances that they would perform with and for each other via Skype, in what we were all calling “The Mother-Daughter Distance Dance.”
This idea – of mothers and daughters dancing together but apart – seems to strike a chord with everyone who hears about it. Somehow even the idea of the dance suggests the core issue that Gregory is exploring in his project: The real and too-little discussed impact of our incarceration system on all of us, as individuals and as a community.
It took a while to get the connection between the Museum and the jail working – technical difficulties were to be expected, since the point of jail is to isolate the inmates. When the connection finally succeeded and we could see the three women, standing in their baggy striped uniforms in a bare concrete jail yard, it was a relief: Although most of us watching didn’t know the women, they weren’t just anonymous inmates. They were the mothers of the three girls we’d been watching, in the gallery with us, as they waited patiently for their mothers to appear onscreen.
And the connection, when it was finally established, wasn’t perfect. It was like watching people on the moon – that same sense of delay and distance, of words and actions not synched with each other, of the unbridgeable gap between our world and theirs. Elizabeth became the interpreter on our end, and Gregory, who was at Estrella, seemed to take on the role of interpreter at the jail. Most of the small group of people in the gallery couldn’t hear exactly what the mothers were saying as they read their daughters the letters they’d written them, on subjects like change and beauty, but the daughters, huddled around the laptop that also showed their mothers’ images, drank their mothers’ words in and understood.
It was intensely clear how linked these women and their children were, regardless of whether they were able to communicate directly with each other, as if Skype was just the tool that laid bare that connection for the rest of us to grasp. We were the ones seeing the connection and the distance between the mothers and the daughters – the mothers and daughters were already well aware – and it was heartbreaking, all the more so when the screen suddenly went black and the words “Connection lost” appeared. It felt like losing something precious and knowing you might not find it again.
Once Gregory and Elizabeth managed to reestablish the connection, the mothers performed the dances they’d developed for their daughters, first individually, then together. The dances grew out of gestures the mothers had worked out in a workshop with Elizabeth that prompted them to think about the values they wanted to pass on to their daughters. Their movements were eloquent, powerful, real. They said so much with such economy, expressing in gestures the things they couldn’t say in words.
Then the daughters received gifts and notes from the mothers, and the mothers, on their end, received gifts and notes from their daughters. These notes weren’t shared in detail, which seemed appropriate. But it was clear that Angel, the oldest of the three girls, had a more difficult relationship with her mother than did the two younger girls. I learned later that unlike the younger girls, Angel had not grown up with her mother and had mixed feelings about participating initially. But in the letter she wrote to her mother, she said that she believed, for the first time in her life, that she and her mother were ready to live at peace with each other and to put the past behind them.
Finally, the mothers and daughters performed together, the same dance, the same moves, in their separate locations. They performed to an upbeat, up-tempo song with the refrain “You and me, baby, we’re stuck like glue.” Elizabeth explained later that the seed from which the dance grew was one main choreographed phrase, based on gestures that described the group’s collective definition of beauty.
When the performance had ended and the event was drawing to a close, MCSO Deputy Chief MaryEllen Sheppard, who has been instrumental in making Gregory’s project happen, addressed the three women in jail directly via the laptop. She thanked them for sharing their daughters with her and with the program, and told them what wonderful children they had. And she concluded by telling them precisely what all of us had just witnessed: “Where you are is not who you are. And we know that.”
Additional Blog Posts
Angela Davis, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Youth in Detention = Social Practice
Reconnecting – It’s not just black and white
Dream like you mean it: The Mother-Daughter Distance Dance
Another Active Week and the Schedule for April
Waiting for Release, Sentencing Reform & Welcoming Home
Invitation to Join Us for Volunteer Event – GINA’s Team
Inside & Outside – It’s not just black and white
More Similar Than Different + Tent City Jail Tour Opportunity
You can’t move forward until you know where you are
Olympic Gold Medalist, Gina’s Team and PVCC Students!
IT’S NOT JUST BLACK AND WHITE: Gregory Sale – Social Studies Project 6