Who are you? Where are you from? In a melting pot like New York City, knowing who you are is often connected with where you're from. Cultural identities become important to us as we mix and mingle with people from all around the world on a daily basis.
Melinda Martino, director of public affairs and communications at the Honorary Consulate of Sweden in New York, and Martina Högberg, a communication officer at the Swedish Media Council in Stockholm, thought about these questions, and a year and a half ago they began planning a project for young people with Scandinavian roots in New York. The idea was to help the youngsters explore and document their heritage by making digital stories, and in the process learn more about themselves.
The result is Scandinavian Stories, a digital storytelling summer program consisting of a week of workshops that recently took place at University Settlement at Houston Street Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“It’s a topic which is dear to me,” Högberg said. “I used to live here (in New York) so I have moved back and forth. I also have relatives here. So it’s interesting with cultural identities. What was important to us, was to help give a voice to these young people and to help them be creative, and to teach them how to use a camera, music and how to edit on a computer.”
Högberg and Martino enlisted the help of Christoffer Næss as their workshop leader. Experienced in teaching digital storytelling to children and youngsters, Næss has worked in both film and photography.
There were 11 youth, ages 8 to 16, with ancestors from Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. Said Högberg: “I was impressed by their creativity!”
Nordstjernan spoke to two of the participants―Emily Gold, 13, and Signe Swanson, 12.
“My mom found out about it (the workshop) from the Finland Center Foundation and it looked interesting. I also like making movies at home and editing,” said Gold. “My mother came from Finland twenty years ago, from a little place in the north called Kuusamo. Being half Finnish has shaped who I am because it’s special. Not many come from there. I go there every summer and it’s a different life there, the nature, the climate.…”
Gold, whose mother always spoke Finnish to her, is fluent in Finnish and said that her dual identities (her father comes from a Jewish family on Long Island) make her feel as if she has two lives.
“In the summer in Finland we go berry picking, canoeing, fishing and swimming in the lakes and we ride our bikes.”
She explained that the week of Scandinavian Storytelling helped her put her memories together, showing her connection with Finland.
“In my video it shows how my mom came here, and how I visit Finland and how we keep a sauna in our house here. We also have lots of Finnish household items in our house, like Marimekko, and I do a lot of video chatting with my cousins in Finland. My cousins have taught me a lot. They’re excited to come and visit here, too.”
Signe Swanson said a cousin of hers told her mother about the Scandinavian Storytelling.
“I was named after my Swedish great grandmother. My mom is 75 percent Swedish and 25 percent Norwegian and my dad is 50 percent Norwegian, but we don’t speak any of the languages. My mom has been there a few times,” Signe said, explaining that being of Swedish and Norwegian heritage means a lot to her, and makes her feel very special.
“Where I live on Staten Island, everybody’s Italian, but being Swedish is cooler because not many people are from there. I call my grandmother Mormor and I like it when she makes Swedish pancakes. I don’t like regular pancakes―they’re too thick―but I like Swedish pancakes. I use to call my grandfather Mösse, because he always told me ‘Go get your mösse.'"
Signe, who knows a lot about her family background, wears a necklace with Thor’s hammer and says she is proud of being Scandinavian. Christmas at her house means a real tree decorated with the Swedish and Norwegian flags and the little heart-shaped paper baskets. They also listen to Scandinavian Christmas music.
“We had a Lutheran church where we live, and I think a bunch of Norwegians founded it. It is still open but eventually it’ll close because nobody wants to go there anymore. I like meatballs, and I like lingon and I like a lot of dairy, especially Nøkkelost, which is a cheese with caraway seeds in it. They can’t import that here, so it’s hard to find, but once I had a cheese similar to Nøkkelost.”
When asked if she would like to go and visit Scandinavia, Signe’s face lit up:
“Oh my God, yes! I’d like to live there and learn the language, because it sounds so pretty to me. My mother lived in France and that’s how she learned French. If you stay for a while in a new place, you’ll learn the language.”
Signe also said she learned to use a PC during the workshops, and that she has learned to make a movie.
The children’s parents and caretakers were invited to watch the movies they had made, and Högberg and Martino served popcorn and cider. The next step will be to cut the individual films into a longer highlight reel with materials and interviews from the workshops and spread this through their website. Högberg and Martino would also like the project to continue and even broaden the concept. Whether they will be able to do so depends entirely on financial backing.
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