Jennifer McKenzie '08
Chasing the 'Wild Collective Song' Across the Globe
Jennifer McKenzie '08 will spend the next year meeting women on four continents, courtesy of the prestigious and unconventional Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Each year, 50 students receive the fellowship for a wanderjahr anywhere in the world. One of the only stipulations: Recipients can't step back over the U.S. border for 12 months.
McKenzie's project will take her to Mexico, India, Spain and South Africa, where she will work with theater companies and community and college groups who are producing The Vagina Monologues and explore the ways individual cultures have adapted the play to speak to universal women's issues. She'll document interviews -- in Spanish and English -- with performers and audience members, using film and still photography. The play, based on interviews with more than 200 women, has been shown in 80 countries and translated into more than 45 languages. It has also raised more than $50 million to support women and girls who have survived sexual violence.
Women's issues are nothing new to McKenzie, who volunteers on an almost full-time basis with campus groups such as S.H.E. (Strength, Health, Equality). The student organization coordinates numerous campus events that promote empowerment and gender equality, such as International Women's Day, Take Back the Night, Love Your Body Days, the Sexual Assault Forum, Breast Play and The Vagina Monologues. McKenzie also co-founded a hotline, S.A.R.A. (Sexual Aggression Response Allies), which trains campus peers to listen, support and educate survivors and their families about local and state resources.
"Events like the annual Take Back the Night open mic, where survivors are invited to tell their stories, teach me the deep power in breaking silence," McKenzie says. "In the last three years as I watched friends bravely speak their hearts, I realized how personal change is possible and how perspectives can be broadened. These programs open the minds of those listening, and healing becomes possible."
McKenzie shares part of a personal statement below:
When I produced The Vagina Monologues my second year in college, I gained perspective on the audience members' experience. I watched their apprehension dissolve into laughter and at times, tears. This hour and a half changed lives, and not just those of the cast. I had so many people thank me and tell me how the play had touched their lives, and every one of them identified with a different issue. The Vagina Monologues touch upon the commonalities that unite people across cultures and generations, such as birth, sexuality and romantic love.
I have found my learning curve is strongest in new environments, and I have dreamed of what it would be like to see the process, performance and reaction to the play in vastly different cultures, countries and even languages. Is the same community fostered among international actresses and audiences? How do they personalize their experiences? What is the response to an undeniably radical performance in countries with different levels of equality or inequality between the sexes?
In our world violence against women is a fact, and one in three women will experience rape or sexual assault in their lifetime. How might communities react differently to a play that delves into these facts and explores some of the darkest and also the most brilliant aspects of our humanity and womanhood?
The Monologues playwright, Eve Ensler, describes how her interviews took on a life of their own, "A choral thing began to occur, a kind of wild collective song. Women echoed each other." I want to hear this collective song. My anthropology and Spanish majors have taught me a great deal about cultural sensitivity, and I relish immersing myself in other cultures and languages. I am also an art studio minor, and look forward to documenting by film and photography the way the Monologues empowers women around the world.
For more information on this scholarship and others, contact Monique Bourque in the Student Academic Grants and Awards office on the second floor of Putnam University Center, or visit www.willamette.edu/dept/saga.