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Signing Stories

Mayra Castrejón-Hernandez performs at Milwaukee Public Library’s first Deaf StorySlam event in September 2019. Photo: Pat A. Robinson Photos/Milwaukee Public Library
Mayra Castrejón-Hernandez performs at Milwaukee Public Library’s first Deaf StorySlam event in September 2019. Photo: Pat A. Robinson Photos/Milwaukee Public Library

In September 2019, Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) hosted its first Deaf StorySlam, a storytelling event intended to highlight Deaf voices of color and their lived experiences and bring together the city’s Deaf and hearing communities. Out of 112 applications, the project was selected to receive the inaugural Libraries Transform Communities Engagement Grant, a $2,000 prize funded by American Library Association (ALA) donors and matching funds from former ALA President Nancy Kranich. The award supports a new iteration of the program, which MPL hopes other libraries will replicate.

I saw Mayra Castrejón-Hernandez’s story before I heard it, as her hands jumped from word to phrase to feeling. A mentor, mother, community activist, tutor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, and member of Deaf Women of Color, she was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and lost most of her hearing during childhood. She introduced herself with a combination of American Sign Language (ASL), regional hand slang, and facial expressions, as a local interpreter skillfully kept pace.

Castrejón-Hernandez’s was the first of many personal stories presented as part of Deaf StorySlam, a new live storytelling project in our city. A partnership between Milwaukee Public Library (MPL), local storytelling nonprofit Ex Fabula, and Milwaukee’s Deaf community, the initiative centers Deaf experiences in a space where our Deaf and hearing communities can connect.

MPL’s collaboration with the Deaf community began as part of an Our Town placemaking grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. One of our library’s goals as a grantee was to provide opportunities for cross-cultural connection among residents of the Historic Mitchell Street district, a predominately Latinx neighborhood on Milwaukee’s South Side. Mitchell Street is also home to the Greater Milwaukee Association of the Deaf, and it was in conversations with residents that we learned our Deaf community felt underserved by arts organizations—especially when it came to being recognized as creators.

How could the library support Deaf individuals as artists while facilitating connections between neighbors? A past collaboration between MPL and Ex Fabula showed us that personal stories can create powerful opportunities for people to listen, feel heard, and grow in empathy and understanding. With Ex Fabula’s storytelling expertise, MPL’s connections and resources, and the Deaf community’s narratives and guidance, we set to work planning our first event for Deaf Awareness Week 2019.

Castrejón-Hernandez, along with Deaf community members Jose Barraza, Jonathan Petermon, and Erin Wiggins, co-led the Deaf StorySlam planning team and helped focus the project’s purpose. They made it clear that the program should prioritize Deaf voices of color and support the development of Deaf individuals as performers. Participants were given instruction in identifying, crafting, and telling their narratives over the course of three workshops. The small-group exercises were led by Castrejón-Hernandez and Barraza, who were trained as coaches for the project.

How could the library support Deaf individuals as artists while facilitating connections between neighbors?

In planning the event, we learned that Milwaukee’s Latinx Deaf community often faces multiple barriers to event participation. For instance, Mexican Sign Language, rather than ASL, may be their primary form of communication. Some in our Latinx Deaf community have friends and relatives whose primary language is Spanish. To ensure the Deaf StorySlam was inclusive and welcoming, we decided that including Spanish translation was essential. The event became trilingual: ASL, English, and Spanish.

As MPL’s programming librarian, I collaborated with the planning team’s Deaf members to make logistical and facilities decisions. I developed a relationship with Milwaukee’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator, and we worked together to identify ASL interpreters with performance skills, schedule interpreters for planning meetings and media interviews, and make sure the event space complied with ADA requirements. Considerations such as stage height, audience seating, sight lines, and interpreter placement required close attention. Many of the lessons learned from this project will affect MPL programs and services in the future.

The initial Deaf StorySlam at our Mitchell Street branch focused on the theme of “labels,” including the many misconceptions and stigmas the Deaf community faces. The event, emceed by Castrejón-Hernandez and Barraza, was well attended—more than 150 community members showed up—and positively received, with many attendees asking when the next slam would be. One of our storytellers commented: “This is what the Deaf community needs the most. Raw experiences need to be expressed. Countless people have untold stories that need to be found and shared.”

Even before that first Deaf StorySlam was over, we knew we wanted to continue its momentum. MPL and Ex Fabula began to identify funding sources for the costs of interpreter fees and community advisor stipends. Our award from ALA’s Libraries Transform Communities Engagement Grant, along with money from local donors, will support the project’s next phases.

During this year’s storytelling workshops, Deaf community members began developing stories around Black Lives Matter, police encounters, workplace challenges, and survival during COVID-19. Our planning team renamed the project ReImagining Stories in ASL, and we partnered with a local Deaf artist to develop a logo. We were faced with new opportunities and unexpected challenges when the pandemic moved our workshops and second annual event online, but we are ready to continue re-envisioning the program’s possibilities.

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