A Q&A with Jess Eckerstorfer of SEAD Project
Founded in 2011, the SEAD Project (Southeast Asian Diaspora) is a community organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is “on a mission to be an accessible creative hub that provides streamlined workshops and tools to engage and share knowledge in Khmer, Hmong, Lao and Viet diaspora communities.” In the neighboring “twin” city of St. Paul, the Minnesota Humanities Center has been collaborating with individuals, organizations, and communities “to bring transformational programming to the lives of Minnesotans” since 1971.
In May 2022, the SEAD Project teamed up with the Minnesota Humanities Center to offer “The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture” workshop. This four-week interactive learning series explores the humanities—cultural food ways, heritage, histories, art, and storytelling—to help communities heal and transform.
We recently spoke with Jess Eckerstorfer, Co-Director of Programs & Communications at the SEAD Project and Facilitator of “The Art of Healing” workshop, to learn more about her work and the process of creating, facilitating, and reflecting on the workshop.
Federation: Please tell us about your work at the SEAD Project.
Jess Eckerstorfer: I started working at The SEAD Project in September of 2021. I was hired to be the Co-Director of Programs and Communications, and this means so many things. Together, with my co-director Kaysone Syonesa, we run the administrative and “big picture” side of SEAD, tending to the annual and day-to-day needs, and making sure we incorporate community and team input.
Within my work as Programs Director, I am in charge of the facilitation, creation, and collaboration that goes into SEAD’s programming. This includes our four main areas of programming: SEA Roots – Language and cultural workshops, Planting SEADS – Southeast Asian story collection, preservation, and sharing, SEA Change Lab – Our youth leadership and emerging artist program, and Cultural Organizing – to help our communities better understand advocate for themselves within this world.
Federation: What inspired the creation and implementation of “The Art of Healing and Resilience Through Permaculture” learning series?
Jess Eckerstorfer: During the pandemic, our former intern, Blue Htoo, reached out to us about the burnout she was feeling as a front line worker. She is currently an aid at an adult day facility for Kareni elders. She and other Kareni individuals were looking for a place to come together, have some quiet reflection time, and a supportive healing environment. Our founding director, Chanida Phaengdara Potter, worked with Hindolo Pokawa from the Midwest Farmers of Color Collective to form a series of workshops that would integrate healing through nature and agriculture. This process was created to provide culturally-specific space for these individuals, giving them time to heal with one another.
Federation: What are some of the cultural values and beliefs that were centered throughout the planning process?
Jess Eckerstorfer: The workshops centered a variety of cross-cultural frameworks, including minority permaculture practices, principles of transformative justice, and true inclusion, where cultural identity was centered and personal histories and experiences were always taken into consideration.
Federation: How do you define “resilience?”
Jess Eckerstorfer: Personally, I feel that resilience is an ability to take care of yourself and others. People often talk about thriving and success, and that’s a capitalist idea. Resilience and success means being content in your own life, with oneself and your own choices. Being able to move through traumatic experiences is different and difficult for everyone, but if you’re able to come back to what makes you happy, without harming others, then you have made it.
Federation: In your experience, what makes “healing” an art form?
Jess Eckerstorfer: Healing, like anything, takes practice. Again, returning to the idea of capitalism, we are told again and again to keep going, keep producing, keep ‘contributing to society’, whatever that means. In reality, though, we all need to stop and take serious breaks to heal, and that takes practice. It takes practice for us to say no to people, to say we need help, and that we need a break. The process can be beautiful, like practicing an art form. Finding what makes you happy, fulfilled, whole is beautiful.
Federation: How does permaculture philosophy and Southeast Asian practices support healing and resilience on personal, interpersonal, and collective levels?
Jess Eckerstorfer: Access to food is a human right. Immigrant communities in the United States, regardless of the decade, are often met with hardship, racism, and unfair opportunities within the societal structure. Cultural practices, like agriculture, allow for these communities to bring their heritage to the forefront of their self-care. Through agricultural practices, they’re able to create their own income, provide food for their families and neighbors, and grow plants native to their home countries. This level of growing may seem basic, but it’s these types of practices that allow communities to thrive, while also preserving cultural traditions.
Federation: Each session included a community meal time with food made by local and authentic Southeast Asian vendors. Why was this important to the overall workshop experience?
Jess Eckerstorfer: Food is care. It’s a love language and an entryway into other cultures. Having a meal together is crucial to each of our workshops. Not only does it allow for comradery and reflection, but allows us to experience new things. New foods, new people, new conversations – all of this is meant to heal us. We support local Southeast Asian and Central American restaurants, because these are our community members, bringing their cultural heritage to the artform of cooking, which then feeds and supports others. By purchasing from these restaurants, we are adding to the social ecosystem, ensuring their sustainability.
Federation: How are the practices of storytelling, connection, and community-building important to healing and growth?
Jess Eckerstorfer: This is like asking why a plant needs air, but I’ll try. Storytelling is a gateway for empathy. By listening to others’ stories and learning of their experiences, we can learn of perspectives and histories outside of our own. When someone describes a scene, the smells, the light, the sounds, of an experience, we can imagine the situation and start to empathize with another’s situation. This type of learning builds community, where we can understand that the system doesn’t support all of us, but that we can be allies and advocate for one another. This also allows us to put our traumas in perspective with others, and recognize struggles across identity barriers.
Federation: What was it like to partner with the Minnesota Humanities Center for this workshop series?
Jess Eckerstorfer: Amazing! Joy Nguyen is a former board member of The SEAD Project, a true friend, and an all around beautiful human. She has been doing contract work with the Humanities Center for some time, and while MHC was thinking of programs for Asian American, Pacific-Islander Heritage month, she recommended SEAD. Eden and MayKao were enthusiastic from the moment we talked. They provided support, and let us run our program.
Federation: What is something you learned, are looking forward to, or feeling hopeful about after facilitating this cohort?
Jess Eckerstorfer: There’s something ever important in bringing people together. The joy and smiles on all [the participants’] faces made my week. The fact that they bonded so hard makes my heart melt. I just thank them all for being open and wanting to share with one another.