Monday, January 16, 2012

Working With Family: Educators Respond to the Family Literacy Project

Jess Underwood Varma and Raj Varma are a married team of Tenement Museum Educators who recently facilitated our Family Literacy project. Here, they reflect on the project and draw parallels between their work and their personal experiences as a couple.

As Educators at the museum, we see school groups and visitors from all over the world pour through 97 Orchard Street. We believe that the shared experience of simply being human can enable anyone to make a personal connection to the stories we tell. It's always rewarding to see someone's heart broken open or world-view expanded at the museum.

There's something about the Shared Journeys program, though, that transcends even the everyday rewards of being a Tenement Educator. Connecting the past to the present with immigrants who are living the experience NOW is a vital, immediate, and often moving experience. Shared Journeys participants often speak about the challenges of raising a family in a country different from the one they were born in. This is why Raj and I were so excited when Pedro presented his vision of the Family Literacy Program, which would bring immigrant parents and their children together to share in the Tenement experience. It was such an honor to participate in piloting the new program.

Raj grew up in New Zealand, the son of Indian immigrants, and his childhood was shaped by that dual identity. When our relationship and our marriage brought him to New York City, he became an immigrant himself. I am a composite of many generations of immigrant forebears: when we have children, they will be New Zealand-Indian-German-Hungarian-French-Irish-Jewish-Hindu Americans. As a couple, we often wonder which components of their heritage will be most important our children, and what, as parents, will be most vital to us to pass along to them. How do you pass on all the nuances, and foster your children's sense of pride in who they are? How do you balance all of that identity stuff with the immediate and pressing demands of everyday life?

Jess Underwood Varma and Raj Varma at their 2008 Wedding

During our Family Literacy pilot, we met families from several countries: Pakistan, Yemen, Mexico, and Peru, just to name a few. The program took place over a couple of nights. These families are typical and also remarkable; parents who hold down jobs that require them to work long hours, who also engage in the balancing act of raising a family in New York City. That's challenging enough for anyone, and on top of it all, they are committed to learning English at the same time. The fact that they had taken a few nights out of their busy lives to come to the museum was humbling.

The first night included a visit to the Rogarshevsky apartment to talk about preserving tradition, and the creation of a collage that represented various aspects of the family identity; things they like to do together, foods they eat, and so much more. The best part was seeing the families share things with each other, parents explaining traditions, children making connections, many moments of laughter, and some teary moments as well. A favorite moment was when little Luz Maria, or Lucy, said, "I'm proud to be Mexican, because we have such good dancing and food." She then proceeded to pull a homemade tamale out of her backpack, and offered to share it with us. We had no choice but to accept.

Jess and Raj with Coworkers and Family Literacy Participants

By the second night, the kids greeted us like old friends, and we all braided challah bread together in the demonstration kitchen. Everyone giggled a lot, including those busy parents. We wonder what Fanny Rogarshevsky would have made of that scene; she would probably be a little bemused, but we like to think she would also be pleased. Perhaps it would fascinate her to know that just like in her family one hundred years ago, immigrant families are still balancing the need to make a living with the desire to preserve tradition, and still navigating the desires of the immigrant generation with the desires of their American-raised kids. They are still weaving together their complicated identities just like a loaf of fresh-baked challah bread.

--Posted by Tenement Museum Educators Jess Underwood-Varma and Raj Varma


  1. Sounds like a great project! Beautiful writing, too. I remember Jess as my tour guide over two years ago now - my how time flies. Is this piloted project going to be an ongoing program at the museum?

  2. Touching, brilliantly written! A heartfelt look at the immigrant experience...

  3. The Tenement Museum is one of New York City's genuine treasures.


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