Relay of Voices project will be running through southeast Louisiana next week in search of stories

BY ROBIN MILLER | STAFF WRITER – OCT 8, 2019 – 7:30 PM | The Advocate

Tom Styrbicki and VIctoria Bradford Styrbicki are running a relay marathon from Minnesota to Louisiana to collect stories from people who live in communities along the Mississippi River.

The Relay of Voices project wants to add your story to its collection.

A project of Lake Charles-based nonprofit organization A House Unbuilt, the project is a marathon run on the last leg of its four-month research expedition along the Mississippi River Trail. Its goal is to gather “voices” from the landscape and residents of the river region.

The relay will make its first south Louisiana stop in Morganza on Oct. 15. Then it’s on to New Roads on Oct. 16; St. Francisville, Oct. 17; Southern University, Oct. 18; LSU, Oct. 19; St. Gabriel, Oct. 21; Convent, Oct. 22; Reserve, Oct. 23; Norco, Oct. 24; Kenner, Oct. 25; New Orleans, Oct. 27-28; Violet, Oct. 29; and Belle Chase, Oct. 30.

The run will end at the mouth of the Mississippi River in Venice on Nov. 5.

“We’ll have to take a boat to the mouth of the Mississippi, so we’ll be running in place until we get there,” said artist, athlete and Lake Charles native Victoria Bradford Styrbicki, who organized the run with husband Tom Styrbicki. “We cover between 20 and 40 miles a day, and when I’m not running, Tom is running. We always have a van that follows us.”

As a performance artist, Styrbicki spearheaded Relay for Voices, using the theory of “movement research” to shape the project. She said she uses the body as “the empathetic center for listening and understanding, seeking to learn about how people live with water and the natural resources that surround it.”

Along the 2,400-mile trek from where the river begins at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to where it ends in Venice, Styrbicki is working to connect the voices of river communities with a team that includes her husband, certified triathlon coach Nic King-Ruley, project manager Dinah Bradford and volunteers from river communities.

The Mississippi River region was chosen for the project because of its dichotomy of the rural and urban communities, many of them still making a living off the water and land. It is home to a collection of communities ranging between 200 and 60,000 in population anchored by seven cities with populations of more than 100,000.

“These are communities that are often overlooked by the dialogues of the bigger populations on the east and west coasts,” said Styrbicki, who now lives in Minnesota. “We want to learn about how their lives are shaped by the water.”

Those wanting to participate can simply show up and share their stories. Natalie Thompson, vice president of the Morganza Cultural District, said village representatives will meet the team in the Bridgewater area outside of Batchelor at 2 p.m.

“We’ll be running with them into Morganza,” Thompson said. “We’ll take them on a boat ride on Old River, and they’ll be collecting stories at the Old River Landing in Batchelor between 5 and 8 p.m.”

The team’s Baton Rouge plans include meeting with the Southern University Board of Supervisors and spending an extra day in the city to tour the Water Institute of the Gulf, a partner in the project.

“They’ll also be meeting with people at Elsie’s Plate and Pie on Government Street Friday (Oct. 18) evening,” said Renee Chatelain, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge. “I told them that they could get stories from a good cross-section of people there, and the food is great. Just stop by and talk to them.”

Styrbicki usually breaks the ice by asking a few questions.

“The questions are simple, like ‘Are you from here?'” she said. “And ‘What is life like here?’ And ‘What does it mean for this to be home?’ After that, they start telling us their stories, and we just listen. Listening is an art, and it’s something we don’t do as much anymore in a time where we’re always looking at our cellphones.”

When temperatures become unbearable, Victoria Bradford Styrbicki trades running for her bicycle to cover the mileage in the Relay of Voices.

Styrbicki emphasized that though team members carry GPS enabled body cameras, they are not documentary filmmakers. Collected stories will be processed by the Water Institute for future use in studies and fieldwork.

“We’re also looking to publish a book, but there are no promises on that,” Styrbicki said. “And we’re seeing opportunities to come back to many of these communities for other projects.”

The project also has partnered with 29 convention and visitors bureaus; 19 chambers of commerce; 30 arts, cultural and educational organizations; and 45 city and county governments.

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