I’ve worked at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) with Barbara Lau, folklorist and the director of community programs, for the past three years. Over time, I’ve grown incredibly fond of her and frankly, sometimes have found her infuriating. She’s a dynamo who asks complicated questions of the people and projects that inhabit her world, including her work with CDS, the North Carolina Folklore Society, the Historic Preservation Society of Durham, TROSA (Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers), and the Cambodian community in Greensboro.
As I interviewed people about Lau, I wasn’t surprised by the themes that emerged from our conversations.
“She’s brilliant and generous in sharing her insight,” says Nancy Kalow, a community folklorist who also teaches at CDS. “She improves the quality of your documentary work just by drawing you out.”
“She has helped the staff and residents at TROSA really look at ourselves,” says Kevin McDonald, president and CEO of TROSA. “She really listens to people and she’s not afraid to state an opinion. The work she’s done at TROSA is just fantastic.”
Perry Pike, education coordinator at the Historic Preservation Society of Durham (HPSD) has felt the force of Lau’s insight and critique. “She made it her job to complicate my every question and assumption as much as possible,” says Pike, “and the result is a marvelous set of walking tours that I could never had conceived of without her.”
“Barbara is incredibly headstrong and tenacious, and unusually frank–which can make her challenging to work with at times,” says Alexa Dilworth, a co-worker at CDS. “Through the sheer force of her personality and iron will, she’s been able to accomplish wonderful things for communities in Durham.”
After the initial compliments and observations about her work, another element emerges. The people I interview feel protective of Lau. They call and send e-mails and even stop by my office to make sure I’ve interpreted their comments correctly, ensuring that I’ve captured her intensity and heart, her (sometimes maddening) persistence and generous spirit.
Present Lau with an Indie Arts Award, and you’ll find yourself with a challenge. “I don’t really see myself as an artist,” says Lau. But, she concedes, “there is artistry to everyday life … folklorists look at the artful ways in which people live. So how people construct a life, and identity, there’s aesthetics to all of that.”
She acknowledges the complicated relationships involved with folklore and documentary work: “We have to ask, why are we documenting people, who are we documenting, and what are those relationships about. Historically, you have primarily educated, middle-class people documenting people who are not educated and middle-class, primarily white people documenting people of color or people who are much lower on the economic class scale than they are. I think those are the kinds of questions that we are beginning to ask in the whole field.”
Colleagues recognize Lau’s impact on broadening the outlook and audience of the North Carolina Folklore Society. “This year’s theme was ‘Claiming A Seat at the Table: Folklore and Cultural Politics,’” explains Kirsten Mullen, director of literature for the state arts council. “The Society attracts folklore enthusiasts, professional and amateur folklorists, and community researchers alike; Barbara is one of the reasons why we all come together.”
What draws together much of Lau’s work is a deep commitment to the importance of storytelling. Lau passionately believes in “validating, recognizing, and celebrating the fact that there are many stories here [in Durham], and that one of the most incredible gifts that you can give anyone is listening to them. I think that is an incredibly powerful experience, to really try to hear and understand their experience.” Through the CDS initiative, “Document Durham,” Lau organized Homemade Visible, an exhibition of traditional art and craft from the communities “forming and transforming Durham.”
Under Lau’s direction, CDS has become nationally known for its youth programs; Youth Document Durham (YDD) was recently awarded a “Coming Up Taller” award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. A youth advisory board works with the community programs staff to develop themes for the summer program, including “Color Coded: Race Matters,” “Breaking News: Media Misunderstandings” and “Let’s Talk About It: Sex Education and Health.”
“From the beginning, Barbara recognized the need in Durham County for projects that reach across geographic, race and class boundaries,” says Hong-An Truong, who has worked with the center’s youth programs for four years as an arts educator. “She understands the importance of building leadership among multiracial groups of young people.”
This past year, Lau was commissioned by the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, in partnership with the Ford Foundation, to do a study of TROSA, a remarkably successful residential drug treatment program, as part of their research on the concept of leadership and social change. Her work involved over 30 interviews with residents, staff and board members, as well as countless hours “hanging out” and learning about the TROSA culture. Lau recognizes the implications of substance abuse on local communities, and the importance of TROSA as a model to cope with a national epidemic. Each One Teach One: Learning Leadership at TROSA, the exhibition that came out of Lau’s research and Chatterley’s photographs, is on display at CDS through July 12.
Lau’s most enduring commitment as a folklorist has been to the Cambodian community in Greensboro. Lau has been a presence within the Cambodian community for 10 years. As a graduate student in the UNC Folklore Program, she conducted interviews, learned about Khmer culture and history, and wrote grants to bring traditional dancers to Greensboro to perform and teach classes. Along with photographer Cedric Chatterley, Lau is now focused on a substantial project with the Greensboro Historical Museum.
Lau’s long involvement in the community means that young people she met when they were 11 or 12 are now recent college graduates. She speaks with real pride about Vandy Chhum and Ran Kong, young women who now are able to document their own community: “They have a sophisticated enough vocabulary in both English and Khmer,” she says. “In fact, they’ve conducted many of those interviews where I’ve become just the tape recordist, because they are conducted completely in Khmer.”
Ran Kong says: “I’ve learned from her that even though I have been part of this community all of my life, there’s always something else to discover, and as long as I was patient and open enough to listen, like she always is, then I would discover it.”
Considering the importance Lau places on storytelling, it seems right to end with a story she tells that captures her experiences in Greensboro and in the many communities she moves in.
“There is this incredible monk that I’ve worked with for more than 10 years, Phramaha Somsak Sambimb, and one of the things I’ve figured out about his relationship to the community is that he is a conduit for good. People make donations and honor him and he then redistributes those goods, whether that be praise or money or food or attention. So in some sense I feel like I’ve been very lucky to be a person that has been in a position to accept and listen to, and begin to try and understand the experience of others.
“But it is then my responsibility to give back–both to the people who have shared their lives with me, and also to the greater community–what I’ve learned. I feel like as a folklorist, as a documentarian, as an arts presenter, part of the responsibility is to give those gifts back.”
Barbara Lau, 2003 Indie Arts Award winner, and conduit for good.