Storytelling is a primal drive and fascination within the human race; there’s just something about listening to a person tell a story, especially when they have something at stake in it, that grabs attention. Friday, Jan. 13, six women storytellers played a part in that long history as part of a storytelling series titled The Bee: True Stories from the Hive at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.
Their focus? Women’s work.
The event was part of a series, one devoted to storytelling, usually without such a formalized theme. It’s an offshoot of Fish Needs a Bicycle, a fall/winter programming series at the museum which, as the website explains, is meant to “…[promote] the work of women artists and [highlight] gender inequality in a variety of ways…Fish Needs a Bicycle explores nuanced corners of equality and feminism and celebrates uplifting examples of women who have succeeded despite dominant cultural pressures.” This devotion to women was omnipresent at this event.
Attendees slowly took their seats that night, after filling up on delicious appetizers, provided by Middle Eastern catering company Olives and Thyme and African food company Mama Africa Grill, as well as drinks sold as part as a fundraiser for UMOCA, as the time slowly ticked toward 7 p.m. The room was filled, nearly every seat was taken and the atmosphere felt expectant as Giuliana Serena, the evening’s host and event founder, took the Main Gallery stage.
Serena began the evening by opening up the definition of women’s work. She did provide her own basic definition; for her, women’s work refers to anything a woman does — ”…which is pretty much everything,” she laughed. Serena then explained that the women who were going to share their stories weren’t storytellers by trade; that they instead had stories that deserved to be told, and that was what had brought them there.
After acknowledging that while this event was focused on women, “…gender is a spectrum. It’s not just about women,” she said, throwing in, “though women are pretty f—— awesome.”
She then transitioned to the evening’s first speaker. And the night of stories by a variety of strong women began.
Martha Castillo, Nubia Peña, Ann Pack, Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba, Samira Harnish and Dr. Kristen Ries each took a turn transforming their audience with tales of being a woman and doing women’s work. Their stories were touching, even while they contained elements of joy and laughter.
Castillo discussed her resistance to, and eventual drive toward, the field of nursing, where she could do the caregiving work she so loved. This path took years and a good deal of outside encouragement because for a long time, she didn’t feel that it was the right kind of work for her to be doing, while all those close to her knew, as she came to, that no match was more perfect.
Nubia Peña, no stranger to the University of Utah having just recently graduated from the S.J. Quinney College of Law this past May, told a story comprised of experiences from other women. She explained that these were women whose influence in her life she found to be particularly profound, and they included her mother and a survivor of domestic violence whom she helped as a crime victim advocate working with the police.
The first woman to transition from male to female while working at Zions Bank, Pack joked about how little she wanted to be the first and yet how determined she was to do it anyway. She talked about experiences of sexism, and painted a picture of “pioneering” — which she laughingly said she was not doing — in all its brutal reality.
Tshilombo-Lokemba was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to a wealthy family that could literally look at a map and send her wherever looked good to her. She explained that in her culture, women were supposed to be silent, and working was only left to the men. As someone who had an inner drive to work, and as she said, “a big mouth,” this never sat well with her. After coming to the U.S. to live with her brother in New York City, she found herself on a long path that comprised a lot of racism, significant workplace discrimination, and a resilience that refused to let her even consider giving up. In the end, she succeeded despite those who went out of their way to ensure she couldn’t. She is currently owner of Mama Africa, one of the night’s caterers, providing authentic African food.A young teen bride forced into the arrangement, Harnish’s harsh past marrying against her will and being brought to the U.S. where she had no friends, family or understanding of the culture was filled with pain and difficulty. Then her experiences dealing with Islamophobia on top of that, both in general society and while she was attending school to become a Civil Engineer seemed poised to crush her spirit. Somehow, someway, she instead broke barriers, founding the non-profit Women of the World, which aims to support refugee women from all nations to “achieve self-reliance” as their website says.
Ries had her audience laughing constantly throughout her story, which involved a love for infectious diseases, that is not easily found in the average person but existed in plentiful amounts within her doctoring spirit. That love served her patients well, as strange as it may have initially seemed, as she served as the first — and sometimes only —
physician treating underserved HIV and AIDs patients in Utah. Her work was hard, it was long and it eventually left her — and her PA partner, Maggie — with PTSD. Even so, she loved it. Retired now, she still looks back on her work with joy.
Every story told was filled with difficulty and struggle. Yet somehow, they all contained joy and laughter as well; and all the while they highlighted the strength of women.
Visit The Bee’s website for more information at thebeeslc.org.