Grace: Nebraska immigrants sew hopes, dreams into quilt in film -
Published Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:54 pm
Grace: Nebraska immigrants sew hopes, dreams into quilt in film

Video: Watch a preview of the film "The Quilted Conscience."

* * *

What do a pair of dead sisters from Grand Island, Neb., some local quilters and 16 girls from Sudan have in common?

The answer is New York-based filmmaker John Sorensen.

A Grand Island native, Sorensen launched a quilting project in his hometown, bringing together sewing experts and some of the city's most recent newcomers to see what would happen.

The result is “The Quilted Conscience,” an hourlong documentary being shown tonight at Aksarben Cinema, where Sorensen and some of the participants will appear to speak and answer questions.

The film is also being aired at various times this summer on NET.

Viewing times for "The Quilted Conscience" on NET
07/12/2013 — 8:00 p.m.
07/13/2013 — 2:00 p.m.
07/13/2013 — Midnight
07/19/2013 — Midnight
07/22/2013 — 8:00 p.m.
07/25/2013 — Midnight
07/27/2013 — 2:00 p.m.
For more information, log onto

Here's what you will see: Sudanese girls who look, in trendy jeans, and sound, in near accent-less speech, a lot like their American-born counterparts. They are sewing African memories and American hopes onto 12-by-12-inch quilt squares. One sews herself as a judge. One sews herself as a football player, since that is what she is doing at the time — playing on a boys football team.

Here's what you will hear: Sudanese parents who describe their country's brutal war that has ended in a fragile peace and the creation of the independent Republic of South Sudan. A Grand Island quilter who says she can relate somewhat to a childhood having to haul water to her Appalachian home where there was no indoor plumbing or electricity. A renowned African-American quilter who lives in New York City and came to Grand Island to lead the project.

Here's what you will read: A quotation from Grace Abbott, one of two Grand Island sisters who went onto national prominence for their roles as social reformers in the early 1900s.

The Abbotts are why John Sorensen made this film at all.

The 54-year-old is, shall we say, a bit obsessed with the Abbotts.

Edith, the elder sister, became the first woman dean of a graduate school — leading a newly created social work program at the University of Chicago. She wrote more than 100 books and articles about social welfare. She died in 1957.

Grace went on to become the first woman nominated to a Cabinet post. She didn't get it. But her role monitoring child labor within the U.S. Department of Labor led to reforms in laws governing when and how children could work. She also led the Immigrants' Protective League and unofficially represented the United States on the League of Nations Advisory Committee on Traffic in Women and Children. She testified in Congress against a literacy requirement for incoming immigrants. Grace died in 1939.

Both sisters helped craft the Social Security Act. Both sisters were immigration experts, advocating for better treatment.

Sorensen spent nearly 20 years trying to promote the women whose names adorn a Millard School (Grace Abbott), a Grand Island park (Grace) and the Grand Island library (Edith). He got the park's memorial refurbished and more prominently displayed. He got an annual day and an award named for them.

Here's why.

Growing up in Grand Island, Sorensen felt he never fit in. He left for good in his 20s, moving first to California for film school, later settling in New York, where he launched a creative career as a filmmaker, theater director and writer of books.

Along the way, he ran into that familiar Abbott name. Grace Abbott appeared in a book by John F. Kennedy called “A Nation of Immigrants.”

Thus began a research project that hasn't really ended.

Sorensen read everything he could about the two sisters and spent a year wholly immersed in their papers for what would become a curated memoir that Edith Abbott wrote about her sister. Sorensen is still shopping it around to be published.

He wrote a 178-page booklet on Grace Abbott published by the University of Nebraska Press. He produced two public radio shows on the sisters that have run on Nebraska Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio. And he produced this film.

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Sorensen's dream was to produce a film about Grace Abbott, the sister more in the public eye. And he tried pitching the idea.

But producers told him historical subjects were a hard sell. Could he make their story more timely? More relevant?

Sorensen reflected on how his hometown had changed. A meatpacking plant and immigrant labor were changing the demographics of a city of about 50,000 people.

Grand Island is a lot less white (68 percent compared with the state's 80 percent) than it was. There are three times more Hispanic people in Grand Island (27 percent) than there are statewide. More Africans are landing in the city.

Refugees had been fleeing from Sudan for years, with many landing in Omaha starting in the mid-1990s. The low-skill meatpacking jobs, long a draw for immigrant labor, brought Sudanese people to Grand Island.

“So many of us think (Grand Island) is this little German town. It ain't, baby,” Sorensen said.

He wanted to present this change, but how?

Enter Peggie Hartwell. A renowned African-American quilter, whose works have hung in the Smithsonian and the Museum of American Art and Design, among others. Hartwell was a personal friend and a fellow New Yorker. She offered her help.

The rest happened quickly. This idea — stitching together the past and future, bringing together two seemingly different groups — caught fire. The Grand Island Public Schools eagerly loaned teachers. A local artist who runs a quilting guild called the Flatwater Floozies said she'd love to participate.

Sorensen gathered them all at a refurbished pioneer home behind the Stuhr Museum and staged his film there.

“Here are the children of the newest immigrants in town sitting on the porches of the earliest immigrants in town doing exactly what those earliest immigrants did — sewing away!” Sorensen said.

The project is being replicated in the Grand Island school district with its newcomer immigrant students and in schools across the country. The film is getting a national release.

Sorensen said the Abbott sisters' fight for better treatment of immigrants is very relevant today.

“I wanted this film to focus so much on how intelligent, able and creative these immigrant children are,” he said. “So much of what is publicized is, 'Oh, poor them,' as if they're here to take things. They are hugely gifted and helping drive the economy.”

A preview of the film "The Quilted Conscience."


Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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