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Marshall Scholarship Essay Example 1 - Personal Statement

Personal Statement

I grew up in Oakland County, a predominantly white suburb of Detroit, Michigan. It and a handful other counties circling Detroit are largely the result of the white flight spurred by the city’s 1960s race riots. Whenever my father and I visited the city, he casually pressed the automatic lock button as we crossed Eight Mile Road, the dividing line between the suburbs and the city. He grew up in Detroit and remembered a vibrant, diverse city—drastically different from the dilapidated, primarily African American city I saw. My mother worked as an advocate for urban teens in the city for years, and my father drew up building proposals in an attempt to rebuild the city. The daughter of a community-minded architect and teacher, I was raised to think of myself as a catalyst for social improvement through creativity.

While studying at [my college], I focused on performance art, a discipline in which the human body becomes the artistic medium. Some of my best classes involved collaborations with a female juvenile facility, local farmers, and the Humane Society. In each of these classes, we used art to reach out to different members of our community. During my senior year, I performed a monologue in front of large-scale paintings I created about my city’s namesake. Upon graduating from college in 2006, I was awarded a fellowship with Artrain USA, an art museum in a locomotive that travels the country, bringing world-class exhibitions to impoverished, art-starved communities. I created puppet shows and paintings about the towns we visited and staged re-enactments of significant local events. After my fellowship with the Artrain USA, I was awarded an artist residency with a community arts organization with two galleries, a stage, classrooms, and seven resident artist studios. [The city], historically a working-class port town, offered a host of historical events, figures, and rituals for me to explore. Its modern day culture also fascinated me—its rich cultural diversity, its proximity to the Mason Dixon Line, and the ways in which blue collar [citizens] who had lived on the same street for 40 years bumped up against recent Latin American immigrants.

[The city] seemed, in some ways, to echo my father’s stories about Detroit. But while in Detroit much of the white population now lives north of the city, [my new city’s] racial divide consists of block and neighborhood divisions. It struggles with high crime, drugs, and gang-related violence. When I moved into the Creative Alliance, there had been a spike in drug-related theft on our block. Every day I heard a different racial or ethnic slur uttered on the street. I wanted to change the hostility somehow, but couldn’t figure out how to break through the tension of my new city. Then, I saw a photograph that changed everything.

In the old newspaper photo, “Washday,” a row of pristine marble steps leading to the city’s row houses are meticulously scrubbed by housewives in the midday sun. The residents were unbelievably unified, as though the women had decided to scrub their steps at precisely the same hour. I had never noticed anyone in my neighborhood scrubbing steps and began to suspect that the absence of this performance was a symptom of something greater than a lapse in marble maintenance. Beginning in the late 19th century, this ritual was performed each Saturday by the female heads of household all first-generation Americans and recent immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Germany. The performance of the weekly chore, once unifying them in their fresh homeowners’ pride, fell off gradually as the 20th century progressed, renters moved in, and a generation moved on. I decided to use this aspect of [my city’s] history as a point of entry into the complexities of its current social structure by performing the once-communal chore.

Though great in theory, this was not an easy task. Almost immediately I realized that I was afraid of my audience, afraid they might not remember or care about the part of their history I was trying to resurrect. Would they slam the door in my face? Some did. But many more said “yes.” Every Saturday for the past six months, I have worn a 1940s housedress and apron. I go door to door with a bucket of water, scrub brush and a can of Bon Ami Polishing Cleanser, knock on my neighbors’ doors, and ask “Do Your Steps?” Their reactions range from delighted glee as they recount their days scrubbing steps to confusion if they are strangers to the ritual. Most often, we end up in a lively discussion about the history of their block, the ritual of step scrubbing, and their theories on why the tradition ended.

This is just one example of my belief that it is critical that people engage with the history of the place they live to understand its present social, cultural, and economic dynamics. Just as I’ve seen in [cities across the country], historically based performance art could do wonders to shed light on international affairs in an engaging, thought-provoking way. It performs the double purpose of drawing historians and politicians to art, and drawing art appreciators to politics and history. Sometimes it takes an outsider to look at a country’s history and politics to re-ignite an interest in or reframe that piece of history.

Many other performance artists have taken their inspiration from global and cultural politics. Guillermo Gomez-Pena, for example, is a Mexican-born performance artist, creating work about the politics of the U.S./Mexican border. NaoKo TakaHashi is another performance artist whose work highlights the ambiguities of national and individual identities, focusing on re-location in London. I would like to become just such an ambassador, learning about a new place while connecting with its people through history.

Original Source: University of Michigan Provost



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