Travis Mockler '11 Advances Burmese Refugees' Culture Through Weaving Project

Travis Mockler '11
Travis Mockler '11
Although Travis Mockler '11 has never taken a women's studies course at Hamilton, he has found himself at the epicenter of a project started in the fall of 2008 by Visiting Assistant Professor of Women's Studies Marla Jaksch's global feminism class. He is continuing work on a Burmese weaving project at Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees through the Levitt Community Service Fellowship, one of two this summer. The emphasis on culture and identity is what attracted Mockler, who is an English major.

Students in the global feminism course planned to host health and wellness forums for Burmese immigrant women, but upon talking more with the women, they found that the search for employment was more important to them. They were worried about the risk of not finding a job in a country where even registered citizens are fraught with financial concerns.

During the spring, AmeriCorps Project SHINE Coordinator at Hamilton Stephanie Wolter fabricated a weaving project with the women, who are members of the Utica's Karen presence. The Karen are an ethnic group that makes up about seven percent of the total Burmese population. They have dealt with much persecution and have fought for their independence from Burma since 1949. Karen women make beautiful shawls, bags, and other accessories, so the weaving project will help integrate them into their new homes in Utica while stressing to local residents the importance of Karen practices and beliefs.

In late 2008, Bonner Leader Emily Powell '09 obtained a grant from the Case Foundation that launched the project. It also provided a foundation for the Refugee Center to submit a larger grant that they hope they will receive. The grant would go to forming a Weaver's Guild, that would bolster the efforts to order thread from Thailand and build traditional looms.

Mockler's role is to lay the groundwork. He is organizing weavers and spreading publicity in Utica, Clinton and even Rome. He wants to inform local businesses of Karen craftsmanship and encourage them to support the cause. On Monday, July 13, he'll take part in the Karen Heritage Celebration Nite, where Karen women will demonstrate weaving techniques and show off their artwork.

The motivation behind the event is to raise awareness and advocate cultural adjustment. The immigrants are able to adapt to a different economy through this custom, and at the same time, they can hold on to a piece of their past.

"This practice has been around for centuries, and it's what they really rely on in Burma for clothing," said Mockler. "Usually refugees get minimum wage jobs that don't allow them to preserve much of who they are. So it's astonishing that in an increasingly globalized world, they can still build a business around a traditional practice. They take a lot of pride in the work they do, and it's great that they can use it to assimilate and contribute to the community."

The collaboration also highlights the essence of Utica.

"Utica has historically been a city of immigrants," Mockler noted. "The celebration is about emphasizing how Utica is a sum of its parts."

The Karen Heritage Celebration Nite will take place on Monday, July 13, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Chancellor Park. Attendees will not only catch a glimpse of the weavers' products, but they can also make something of their own.
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