Alesandra Zsiba enjoys the bohemian haven of Takoma Park as her home base. As an artist and storyteller, the 30-year-old is inspired by modern dance and her Russian- Hungarian family of artists.
In 2011, she started the Identity Project to heal trauma through storytelling in communities in Southeast Washington and among Native Americans.
When not telling stories with her camera, she is teaching yoga and organizing spiritual yoga workshops at Adas Israel Congregation’s Mindfulness Center.
How would you describe your Jewish upbringing?
I grew up in an interfaith home with a mom who is Jewish and a dad who is unaffiliated. Both of my parents are artists, but I think I discovered how to be Jewish most from my grandfather, who was a Reform cantor. His Judaism was very accepting and inclusive. It was his tradition that guided me. His Judaism was based in artistry and inspired me in my Jewish journey.
How do you make yoga Jewish?
I tend to read Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s “The Sabbath” before I teach a class. My philosophy is to think of the yoga mat as a mini-Shabbat. As Heschel says, “Shabbat is a cathedral in time.” I consider my yoga an hourlong Sabbath, and even though our bodies are not resting at that time, we’re really engaging in a sort of hourlong Sabbath and reflective practice. I like to think of my yoga as a moving mediation.
You’re the founding artist of the Identity Project. What inspired you to start this initiative?
The Identity Project is an educational program, using documentary storytelling and reflective identity work. It’s about making creative outlets for youth, who struggle with trauma and poverty.
It’s about inviting them back home to themselves through avenues such as dance, spoken word and creating self-portraits. The programs take place after school, mostly in Southeast D.C. They’re in survival mode. So, the Identity Project uses creativity as a catalyst for healing. I’m actually taking the program out to New Mexico in the spring and partnering with the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe to bring this work to indigenous communities.
You also define yourself as a dance artist.
Dance is definitely my first love. I started dancing when I was 5 and continued all the way through attending Oberlin College.
What are some of the challenges you face as a woman in the field of documentary storytelling?
I’m trying to create change in the world as a woman, which requires emotional endurance and the simple will to go on. What I’ve learned from watching Hillary Clinton in the course of this election, and what I so deeply admire, is her emotional endurance. I think emotional endurance is definitely a challenge, but I believe good work is worth it and you just have to keep moving in the direction you believe in.
Tell us about the other work you are doing with Native American communities.
I just got back from working with the Huntsman Cancer Institute [in Salt Lake City], involving their Native American Outreach Division. I was recently on the Navajo Nation [in Utah] with the Native American Outreach Division, as the still photographer for a documentary film on cancer care. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to dip my foot in the water and see what it would be like to create the Identity Project as a behavioral health initiative for urban native youth in Santa Fe, struggling with high rates of suicide.