Rupal Soni is a multi-disciplinary artist and community organizer based in Chicago. Rupal is Program Director of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance (www.jot.org), and co-editor of the Journal of Ordinary Thought (a quarterly literary magazine published by the Neighborhood Writing Alliance).
Previously, through an 18-month Indicorps fellowship, Rupal lived and worked in India to start a Rural Design School on the India-Pakistan border.
Rupal writes and performs sketch comedy and is an improvisor who has studied at The Second City Training Center (Chicago). She has worked in artistic capacities with various Asian American and multiethnic organizations, including Apna Ghar (a domestic violence shelter primarily serving women of Asian descent). Rupal is also a visual artist and an avid runner who recently ran her first marathon.
She graduated with honors in 2002 from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, with a B.S. in Advertising, with concentrations in Speech Communications and Italian.
I know that you worked a corporate job for a while. How did you decide to transition into a life in community organizing and art?
I was working in corporate sales and I was really good at it. I had a retirement account and health insurance, and it was great to have a big regular paycheck. I found the job relatively easy, I was paying off my college loans quickly, and I felt complacent.
But in conversations at work, some older co-workers would tell me how they had really wanted to be teachers, musicians, writers, etc. They weren’t happy at their jobs, yet 10 years later, they were still there.
Then, when my extended family started teasing me about how “The only thing left for you to do now is get married,” I stopped in my tracks. My life flashed forward before my eyes and I didn’t like the direction in which I was headed. I wasn’t living my life for me, and I felt as if I were careening toward the same place these older co-workers were at now. I wanted to do something I could get really excited about, and this was not it. I felt so far from where I wanted to be.
So, two years into the job, I left.
Now suddenly I was unemployed and living in the city, paying city rent, and living off savings.
On the one hand, leaving seemed very illogical and it was hard to explain to people. People kept telling me I’d made a big mistake. And that was tough. But I also knew that in my heart, I didn’t want to go back.
I started trying to follow the things that felt right. I started re-connecting with the artistic pursuits that I’d neglected during my two years in the corporate world.
I started doing improvisation again, and wrote and painted a lot, and got involved with the Asian American Artists Collective.
Around this same time I heard about Indicorps.
Tell me about your work with Indicorps.
When I first applied for the Indicorps fellowship, I didn’t get it and was put onto a waiting list. But I am a very persistent person. If I believe that something is really right for me, I will fight for it relentlessly. So I kept in close contact with them and kept reminding them how much I would do with the opportunity. Fortunately, it worked out and they did invite me. Knowing that I had stayed persistent made me value the opportunity even more.
My project was to help start a sustainable Rural Design School in Kachchh, Gujarat. The project was in the village of Ludiya, just south of the India-Pakistan border, and had started as part of Manav Sadhna’s relief and rehabilitation efforts after the 2001 earthquakes hit the region.
At the time, there was a growing and harmful trend in the region: International designers were coming in and giving the women pre-stamped designs on pre-picked colors of cloth and threads. Over time, the women were losing creative control of their art and slowly losing their confidence in their traditional art. The aim of this school was to empower the artisan women to reclaim creative control of their traditional embroidery craft.
What was your living situation?
I lived in a small village in the desert, in a round mud hut. It was two kilometers to the closest markets for fruits and vegetables, and a two-hour bus ride to the closest internet and hospital; the temperature would reach 120 degrees. It was so hard, but really beautiful. The village took me in like family. And the full moon was so bright it would leave shadows; I’d never seen anything like it. I learned so much.
Tell me one thing you learned.
The most important thing I learned, reinforced time and time again by the amazingly supportive community that Indicorps creates, is that when there’s no space for the things that you want to see happen in the world, you’ve got to take some ownership and create that space.
Can you give me an example of this?
All of the women in the area, whether Hindu or Muslim, follow a culture of purdah (hiding your face from men not in your family, not leaving your home without a male relative escort, etc.). Though it took a lot of convincing, and persuading, and work, we convinced the village elders to allow 20 women—who had never so much as gone to the village 2 kilometers away alone to buy their own vegetables at the market—to travel to a weekend exhibition of their work in a major city—Ahmedabad—that was an overnight bus-ride away.
We traveled to the city and took advantage of every opportunity. We went to textile museums, took city tours, and connected with important women in marketing, the arts, the import/export business, textiles, etc. The influence that this exposure had on the quality and subjects of their work was dramatic and moving.
Being near the border, were you concerned for your safety?
Before I went there, the proximity to the border was a concern. But after I’d lived there for a few weeks, it became apparent that my fears were unfounded. The people in the area were amazing; I felt safer there than in the cities. One of the villagers explained it to me by saying that because “we live in the desert, in harsh living conditions, for so many generations, we aren’t afforded the luxury of animosity, racial/religious/cultural or otherwise. If my neighbor’s mom is sick and he’s working in the field, I take her to the doctor, whether the family is Muslim, Hindu, or Christian. And he does the same for me. Here we need one another to survive.”
You probably had to virtually start over when you returned to Chicago after your Indicorps work.
Yes, and that time didn’t start off very well.
Soon after completing Indicorps, I applied for Teach for America, and I didn’t get it. And even my persistent follow-up didn’t change anything. I was surprised and it’s no exaggeration to say that I was devastated.
So what did you do?
I started by being completely honest with myself about what I wanted to do: I wanted to use the arts to help empower people in underserved communities.
And then I started communicating that to people. When I started connecting with people and being honest with them about what I wanted to do, I began to find out about “events [I] should go to” and “groups [I] should check out,” and opportunities gradually started opening up. I’ve found that when you are honest about the things that excite you, that excitement attracts people who also get excited by those things.
So through people I met at various events, I started working with Young Asians with Power! and the Chinese Mutual Aid Association. With CMAA I was teaching creative writing to kids from 1st through 6th grades, and with YAWP! I was working on writing and performance with high school and college kids.
So between YAWP! and CMA, I got to work on creative writing and performance with the entire range of young people from 1st grade to college seniors! And I only got to do this work because I hadn’t been accepted by Teach For America. (If I’d done Teach for America, I would have probably worked with a single age group for the whole two years.) This wide range of experience, as well as the performance that I was doing again, prepared me really well for the work I do now with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.
How did you get involved with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance?
I was looking for a full-time job—savings can’t last forever—and one day on www.idealist.org [a kind of Craigslist for do-gooders], I stumbled upon an NWA job posting for program director, and what they were looking for seemed to match me exactly.
What does the Neighborhood Writing Alliance do?
Our mission is to provoke dialogue and promote change by creating opportunities for adults in Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods to write, publish, and perform works about their lives.
So at our core are three things: writing workshops, the Journal of Ordinary Thought, and performances.
We run free creative writing workshops in neighborhoods throughout Chicago—mostly low-income, under-served neighborhoods. We aim to create a safe place where people can come and express their voices and be supported.
Our workshops focus on writing about personal experience. What we find is that writing about personal experiences is a powerful way to bring members of the community together, because people get to really understand that other people are facing the same issues and struggles. This helps people understand that they are not alone in facing these problems, and therefore that they need not be alone in doing something about these problems.
We are committed to publishing the work of every one of our workshop participants at least once per year in JOT. In having their work published, the writers gain an additional sense of validation—the words gain a sense of permanence and power. Other people can read the writer’s work, and the writer can also read the work of the other writers from other neighborhoods. So the writing groups help people to gain an appreciation of the issues they share with people in their own neighborhoods, and the journal takes it a step further to the issues shared with people in other neighborhoods.
In terms of form, JOT contains the stories of everyday people, told in narrative prose, poetry, and photographs. 100% of the writing in JOT comes from our workshops.
Our subscription list includes Chicago city council members, state representatives, state and national senators, and members of the media. Through JOT, policymakers have a unique form of access to the voices of the communities they serve and represent.
And then we take things a step further still with our performances.
Where do your performances take place?
The smaller ones take place in libraries, church basements, under outdoor tents—wherever we can get space.
But we also produce bigger events for our performances. We have one coming up at Roosevelt University, in conjunction with the Chicago Humanities Festival. It’s great to see our writers perform their material. Performing it in front of an audience really takes its power to another level.
Does your background in improvisation play into the work you do now with NWA?
Yes, on a couple of levels.
Public speaking terrifies me. Nobody ever believes that I do improv until they see it. Just the act of doing improv and knowing that I can do it gives me confidence that stays with me in my work, from facilitating writing workshops to producing events and everything in between.
Also, in improvisation, as with my work, anything can happen and I have to deal with it. So this teaches me to be flexible and deal with situations where I’m not completely in control. That is so important in this work. It helps me deal with obstacles effectively and think on my feet.
And—I’ve never even thought about this one before—the idea of “yes and,” which is one of the basic tenets of improvisation, is really exactly what community building boils down to. In this work, you are saying to the community member, yes, I’m going to hear what you have to say, and then I’m going to help you build on it. So empowering people is simply “yes-and”-ing them.
And it’s creating an atmosphere where everybody is “yes-and”-ing one another. Whether it be writing groups, performance, design, or even deciding on what my next step will be—improvisation is always fundamental.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|