Initiatives Urban Humanities and Their Publics Student Organizers Blog

Arts & Democracy Workshops: Cultural Organizing for Community Change

Group doing exercise

On Saturday, November 12th, I went to an event sponsored by Arts & Democracy on Cultural Organizing for Community Change. I attended most of the day, and will share the experience of the three workshops I participated in. We all picked one workshop in each session after a brief pitch from facilitators, and every workshop used creative activities to help build a sense of community around NYC. Activists, artists, and community leaders of all sorts joined and expressed their passion and ideas for making the world a better place.

First I attended Freeing Our Voices, Sounding Our Stories, led by Ron Ragin, a composer, vocalist and writer. He asked us to create a large circle with our chairs and reflect on a moment when our courage overpowered our fear. After a few minutes he asked us to create a sound for that moment of transformation. Going around the circle, each person expressed their sound loud and clear through embarrassed giggles or bold cacophony. Later, we were asked to create a harmony together using our sounds. He pointed to a few people to keep the beat going, and added different melodies with the rest of the participants. After a few rounds solidifying our song, he asked us all to stop and write a brief poem. We had very little time for this, just enough to state what we heard, felt, saw, smelled, and tasted in that moment between fear and courage. Then, we began our song again, as a group, and volunteers, one by one, got up from their seats and performed their poem. It was a beautiful experience where a sense of intimacy and trust was fostered by musicality and vulnerability.

The second session I attended was led by Moon Lowery and Becca Lynch from the Theater of the Oppressed. The Theater of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC) “partners with social service organizations and city agencies, forming theatre troupes with community members who face pressing social, economic, health, and human rights issues. These troupes devise plays based on their real-life struggles, and perform them before diverse audiences. After each performance, actors and audiences engage in theatrical brainstorming – called Forum Theatre – with the aim of catalyzing creative change on the individual, community and political levels.”

Again, we started by sitting in a circle. Moon and Becca placed three chairs at the center of the circle and asked, “How can you create a power dynamic between these three chairs where one is more powerful than the other two?” And so we began. I got up and rearranged the chairs. Every time a participant made a new formation of the chairs, we studied them, attributing relationships between them. In the chairs we began to see real-life played out, from phenomena that can seem abstract — gentrification, exclusion, advocacy, and more. In the next activity, using no words, only gestures, we took turns trying to shake Becca’s hand, who would reject the handshake. We each imagined that the handshake was extremely important to us, and then used the best of our abilities to get Becca to collaborate. Each participant tried new techniques: begging, befriending, enticing, tricking, and more, all used in creative and silent ways. It became a fascinating study on body language and critical thinking about how we approach what we desire. Later on, we were divided into small groups and shared stories of being othered. In my group, all of the accounts were related to past work or school experiences. These included feeling neglected during internships, to the physical separations in an office space. We were asked to chose one of our shared stories and reenact it for the rest of the group. After reenacting it, a member of a different group was asked to change the scene by performing a new character. Here we evaluated the repercussions of different behaviors and considered how to redirect moments of oppression.

The last workshop I attended was with Samantha Speis and Tendayi Kuumba, from the Urban Bush Women (UBW). The UBW “seeks to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance. [They] do this from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community in order to create a more equitable balance of power in the dance world and beyond.” By using dance and a series of movement based activities we were pushed to get in touch with ourselves and share our expression with others. For example, Sam asked us to enact what “home” meant to us through movement. Then we were asked to tell partners things about ourselves without using words. Later we did the same using words, and compared which felt more authentic and expressive. Then, as a big group we got in a circle and tapped a balloon around, making each tap a letter of the alphabet and trying to get from a to z. Another activity we concluded with was by declaring an “I am” statement while walking towards the center of a circle and having those who agreed join the speaker in the circle. For example, someone said, “I am stronger than I give myself credit for.” Those who agreed stepped in the circle for a few seconds and later disassembled, allowing another statement to come forth. This workshop helped us get acquainted with our bodies by letting them move freely. Experimenting with talking through the body versus talking through words is valuable when it comes to self-knowledge and communication with others.

Overall, these workshops were extremely interesting and complemented each other. Each approach is different, however all of these techniques bring out the power of the individual within the collective, as well as the promise of originality and vulnerability in community building and social change. I highly recommend readers research further the people and workshops mentioned above, and consider these creative ways to empower the self and create community.