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The sunset from our last day on the island.

This summer, I got the chance to participate on a travel study to the island of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. I was emerged in the culture for 18 days, participating in learning with the Woman’s Coalition of St. Croix. Through my work and my personal experiences on this island, I learned a lot about systematic injustices and a lot that correlates with race, class, and gender.

Our group participated in a meeting about uncovering and discovering wrecked enslaved ships on the first day. This  project is to discover artifacts from sunken slave ships around the shores. During the meeting, a woman brought up her concerns with using the words “slave” ship. She encouraged a renaming of the project to no longer including the word “slave” in their projects title. Another man, brought up an interesting point that “wealth, power, and destinies” were up to the people on the island of St. Croix to decide. The goal of the project is to bring in more history to the narratives of the island.

I learned about the different terminology of the word “slavery” verses the words “enslaved people”. A slave is an object or property, while an enslaved person is a person forced to be a slave. Language makes a big difference. They want people to use the correct terminology and have an open mine to understanding when learning about a new culture.

Our group took a small tour around the town of Frederiksted, one of the two towns on the island. We saw a statue of General Buddhoe, who helped create the emancipation for St. Croix. Buddhoe helped lead a revolt to freedom and he gave orders that no white person was to be killed. This statue shows the struggles that many went through in order to get emancipated. The statues are consciously placed around the pier to show how proud the people of St. Croix are of their history.

At our work site, we got to hear different perspectives about culture from Clema Louise, the director of Woman’s Coalition. Because the community is very small and everyone knows everyone, the issues of domestic violence and rape are hard to face. Every community approaches the problem of systematic injustices differently. She described how there is a need to include men around the conversation around the issues of battered women. She told us how the Woman’s Coalition of St. Croix’s power and control wheel of violence model, used to address issue of gender-based violence’s, is modeled around Duluth Minnesota’s. However, the model that St. Croix has is adjusted to be culturally sensitive to the communities.

Instead of working one day, my work group had the chance to observe court to see how St. Croix runs their judicial system. It was very nice to engage within court of a different culture. The judge was very open to hear both sides of the stories in small claims court. She was kind of like a counselor in a way while also being the judge.

The travel study group got a creative lesson about the history of St. Croix by going on a walking tour of the Whim Plantation. The actors were interesting to see. A woman sung songs about enslaved people. Her singing told the history of the island and about how the enslaved people got their freedom. She sang about the history of the three queens who led the uprising of St. Croix. In the book Divers Information on the Romantic History of St. Croix: From the time of Columbus until Today by Florence Lewisohn, it describes the story behind the singer’s song. The book says that the three queens (Queen Mary, Queen Agnes, and Queen Matilda) lead labor riots in revolts against injustices. At first, I thought it was going to be very uncomfortable to watch the locals reenact scenes of enslaved people working around the plantation. This was not the case.

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Here is a huge Boabab tree in front of one of the run down plantations.

On my seventh night, I had an amazing opportunity to spin fire with Kiki Mason from Kiki and the Flaming Gypsies came to visit me at Cottages by the Sea. That’s right, I am a fire dancer. I have been spinning fire poi for two years now! Kiki and I had a deep conversation about life and how you have to trust and believe in yourself. This was a very enlightening conversation to me, because when you are about to graduate, you tend to think about life a lot. Kiki told me that life would take you by the wind into the direction you are meant to go, and those words have followed me back to Winona.

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One of the fire dancers from Kiki and the Flaming Gypsies

While on our trip, students from another University was staying in St. Croix as well. The students from this school said something that bothered me. What they said reminded me of the “white savior complex”. They traveled with a male professor and he made a comment about how he thought that “with the help of his students” that they could truly make a difference on the island.” Their comments made me uncomfortable because I know that WSU came to St. Croix as humble people to experience a culture unlike our own. The students from the other university were there to “help” people, but not necessarily learn from the culture like we were.

The class got up at 4am, traveled across the whole island, and watched the sunrise at Point Udall. It was the last time this class would be soaking up the sun together like that. It was a very powerful experience and I am glad I got the privileged to go. I almost did not get on the plane to return to Minnesota! I had to though, so I could bring two Crucian dogs from St. Croix (which is a kill shelter) to a “no kill” foster care home in Minneapolis.

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The two dogs I was able to rescue. Aren’t they cute!

Now only one question remains – when do I go back?

–Kyler Steffe

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