Common Threads and Compassion: Ana Laurel on Houston's Voices Breaking Boundaries

Ana Laurel is a writer who has been working as Voices Breaking Boundaries’ managing director since January 2013. She graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English from the University of Houston-Downtown in 2012. During her time at UH-D, she served as general editor of the Bayou Review, the school's literary and visual arts magazine, president of Sigma Tau Delta (International English Honor Society), and was a regular presenter at UH-D's annual Gender Conference. Upon graduation, she was awarded the 2012 Senior Portfolio Prize, the school's highest honor for English majors.

Ana LaurelWhat makes your organization and its programs unique?
Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) is a special organization for many reasons, but what makes us most unique is the subject matter we tackle and the structure through which we tackle it. Since 2009, VBB has been producing the thematic-based living room art series which aims to find common threads between two seemingly disparate regions (focusing around Houston, Texas and South Asian cities such as Karachi, Pakistan), in order to foster a greater sense of compassion, understanding, and awareness. With additional support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and The National Endowment for the Arts, and with support from Poets & Writers, we have been able to expand this structure into a multi-year series called Borderlines that explores North American (Mexico-US-Canada) and South Asian (Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh) border regions through art. Within each year of our three-year Borderlines series, VBB produces two large living room art productions in residential Houston homes showcasing art created by local and international artists including: two film screenings tackling social issues faced by those in the two border regions we’re exploring, community arts workshops introducing Houston community members to self-expression and healing through the arts, and an interactive website, art catalogue, and documentary granting global access to the content and art covered during the year.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
I am particularly proud of our very first community arts workshop with the Mamas del Northside from Houston’s historic Near Northside district. As VBB began to work deeper and more closely with different Houston communities, we knew that in addition to bringing high-quality, international art into underserved communities, we would also need to work with them to develop their own artistic talents for self-expression. Then, they would be able to enjoy and appreciate art from a critical perspective. For our inaugural community arts workshop, we teamed up with our community partner, Avenue CDC, and created a workshop based around Mamas del Northside, an amazing group of women who had just begun to meet and discuss what they could do to improve their homes, families, and community. Most of the women were stay-at-home mothers who spoke very little English and had never written creatively before. As we quickly found out, since becoming wives and mothers, they had not even had an opportunity to speak about their own experiences. Though the workshops only lasted a few weeks, and some women only came sporadically due to obligations at home, those who did attend changed dramatically in their time with our experienced facilitator, Stalina Villarreal. The workshops were full of laughter, tears, anger, and poetry. Every woman that came left with her own journal to keep, and it is my genuine hope that they use them to continue writing and discovering themselves as women, mothers, and human beings—and that they continue letting me hang around to witness it.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
The most memorable thing that happens (though working in this line of work, there are many!) for me during our season is always the evaluation dinner that takes place at the end of our Writing for Self-Discovery (WSD) teacher workshops. The WSD teacher workshops are free and open to teachers in the Houston area who are interested in sharpening their teaching skills, strengthening their writing skills, and exploring themselves through writing. At our most recent evaluation dinner in May, the two facilitators and I all sat down to eat with the workshop participants. We discussed their progress since beginning the workshops in February. One of the teachers began to cry, explaining that this year was the hardest for her in thirteen years of teaching because the stress (from testing, the school district, etc.) had culminated to a very fine edge that semester, and she found herself truly struggling in the classroom. Then she explained how our workshops came into her life at the exact right moment to fill her with the hope she needed to continue to help children attain the education they deserve. Her words are better than mine, but she told me that the workshops allow her the time and space to think about and forgive who she was and who she is, and help her siphon off and tackle the stresses from everyday life so that she has space in her heart and mind for the needs of her students. That moved me because that’s what we want in our teachers—that kind of dedication, compassion, and commitment to their students and their education, and someone to whom the needs of children will always take precedence. I was just so grateful she let me share in that moment.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
I’m very fortunate because I came into VBB as a writer with a deep passion and respect for language, and now, as the managing director (and only full-time employee), I get to attend all of our arts writing workshops that take place in the community and in schools. While I don’t attend every single session, I usually join them for the first, the last, and one or two in the middle. I get to be around beginning writers (like Mamas del Northside), seasoned writers (from teacher workshops), and young, unfiltered writers (in youth workshops).  In addition, I get to take in the expertise our facilitators bring to the table. Not only do the workshops expand my own capacity to imagine and feel in both my life and writing, but they also inspire me to actively pick up my pen and journal at the end of the day when I’ve worked over nine hours and am completely drained. Because no matter what, I don’t deal with a peer group full of hormones and cliques, a classroom full of students who need constant attention and compassion, or a home full of children and a husband whose needs always come before my own.  If all the participants in our workshops can pick up their pens and journals after all of that, so can I.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Language and literacy are important because they help us express ourselves to each other and through that shared expression, we are able to build communities. Without it, we lose touch with each other, and the ties that bind our communities fall apart. In 2000, Sehba Sarwar decided that she didn’t like what was happening in her home country and wrote a poem to express her distaste. Writing became her form of protest and through that poem, she drew together four other women writers and artists who banded to form Voices Breaking Boundaries, an organization I am now a part of today, almost fifteen years later. These five women created a legacy and lineage of women who continue working and fighting to ensure that language and literacy are not lost, and that all of our stories will continue to be told. After all the trends and gadgets come and go, our stories, told to each other or on paper, will continue on and carry our histories and lessons to the generations that follow. Every community deserves the chance to take part in such a timeless legacy.

Photo: Ana Laurel   Credit: Ana Laurel

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.