THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Tapping the power of women's stories

Roberta Walcott, 81, is among the 45 area women from varied backgrounds who are featured in a HERvoices multimedia presentation to be shown Wednesday at the main Framingham Public Library branch. Roberta Walcott, 81, is among the 45 area women from varied backgrounds who are featured in a HERvoices multimedia presentation to be shown Wednesday at the main Framingham Public Library branch. (David Kamerman/Globe Staff)
By Tanya Pérez-Brennan
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2008
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It was the early 1960s and Roberta Walcott, a Framingham resident, had called a nursery school in Ashland to see if her 3-year-old son could attend. The woman on the other end of the line told her that yes, they had an opening. Then Walcott told the woman that she is a person of color.

"And she said that was fine, but there was that pause, and then you know," Walcott, now 81, said.

A few days went by and the woman from the nursery school hadn't called back. So Walcott called the school and was told that, unfortunately, there was no opening after all.

Walcott immediately filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, a move that led to a surprise visit from Framingham selectmen about two weeks later. Walcott told it to them straight, and the next day the school called back to say that her son could attend.

"These little things do stick in your mind," Walcott said. "At the time they're not little things because they make you angry."

Walcott shares her story in a multimedia presentation, called "HERvoices: Framingham, Massachusetts," which will be presented at 7 p.m. next Wednesday at the main branch of the Framingham Public Library. Walcott, four other women featured in the presentation, and HERvoices Inc. founder Emma Reinhardt gathered at the library recently for an interview.

Reinhardt said the presentation seeks to foster cross-cultural understanding and empower female experience. The presentations created by HERvoices, a nonprofit organization based in Newton Centre, includes photographs on a screen, audio, music, and live readings of women's stories, as well as a question-and-answer session afterward, said Reinhardt. She said she also hopes to conduct workshops and in-house diversity training at area organizations. The Framingham project was meant initially to examine underlying tensions between longtime residents and the Brazilian community.

"It's far from a sociological study and it's incomplete, but it's the beginning of a dialogue," Reinhardt said. "Through these presentations you actually experience the lives of people who may seem very different from you but at the end you feel closer to."

The Framingham project features the voices of 45 area women and girls from diverse backgrounds. It is supported in part by a $12,500 grant from the Sudbury Foundation and a $5,000 grant from the Crossroads Community Foundation. The goal is to find 20 venues in Framingham in which to present the project.

Some town officials caught a preliminary version of the presentation in August and gave feedback to Reinhardt.

"I thought it was very interesting and well thought through," said Lieutenant Paul Shastany, spokesman for Framingham's Police Department.

Reinhardt founded HERvoices in 2004. As someone who had worked in the human rights field for years, Reinhardt said, she had noticed that there was no outlet for people to express their experiences.

"So often the people being advocated for were asked to speak some truncated or tailored version of their story," she said.

During the recent discussion at the library, as Walcott's story fell from her lips, the women sat at a long table in a downstairs arts and crafts room and listened. Mary Murphy, 81, a retired English professor from Framingham State College, stared at Walcott and shook her head.

"People haven't told these stories," Murphy said. "And they should be in the history books."

Walcott and Murphy did not know each other, but the story got them talking about other things, such as motherhood and family, and religion.

Dalia Abrego, 35, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in the bilingual program at Walsh Middle School, looked around the table and said to the women, "I found something to connect with all of you."

These are exactly the sorts of exchanges that Reinhardt says she hopes to inspire.

But some of the participants acknowledged that having diverse communities can cause challenges.

"It seems in some cases history is repeating itself with tensions between immigrant communities and those prejudiced against them," said state Representative Pam Richardson, a Framingham Democrat, who was also interviewed for the project.

For Clara Spain, 49, originally from Colombia, the project was a chance to highlight some of the positive contributions immigrants make that might help dispel stereotypes.

"Every opportunity I have to give a positive image about Latinos, you can change the perception that people have about us," she said.

Many women agree.

Christine Taylor Tibor, director of Framingham Adult ESL Plus, who is in the presentation but was not at the interview, said she grew up in town and remembers seeing how different waves of immigrants transformed it.

"There's a lot of similarities across stories," she said. "I think the tough thing is to help those of us who may be second or third generation remember."

One thing that Walcott said she wants people to remember is that in the end, we're all the same.

"People are people," she said. "All of our blood is red . . . I've never seen any other color."

'Through these presentations you actually experience the lives of people who may seem very different from you but at the end you feel closer to.'

Emma Reinhardt, HERvoices founder

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