Reflections on: "I Want to Do This All Day: Redefining Learning and Reinventing Education" documentary performance tour by amina
I wrote this all down from my head and notes to put together some thoughts, so it may feel a little scattered. But Paulo Friere, the dude who coined the term "popular education," said that reflection+action=praxis. So here are some little pieces of that, separated into sections cus there is so much to learn about:
T H E P E R F O R M A N C E
The visuals were beautiful. As lauren pointed out they were extremely easy to create. Overhead projections--just drawn or photocopied on a transparency--and direct animation film--drawn on or erased and then projected as a loop. Either of these methods could, in a future performance, easily be a means for audience participation either before or during the performance. It was awesome working with people who were approaching the performance from an artistic perspective, seeing what they paid attention to, what visual ideas they had and how they talked about them. Different eyes.
The dance was created by me and Amber. The motions and groupings of people tried to reflect the feelings of the audio. In the first dance we were hella isolated, mechanical, stagnant, and muted. We looked like soldiers. In the last dance our bodies were exploring new options of participating with the space surrounding us and interacting with each-other. Balancing together, connecting, supporting and trusting. In a future performance I would be really interested in a collaborative choreography process where movements came more from the dancers' individual experiences and less as a representation of the audio. This would require alot more time to choreograph. And would maybe be facilitated along with talking and writing about ideas, as well as listening more thoroughly and brainstorming with the audio. In general, with more time and intention, we coulda made the performance alot more collaboratively. From visuals, to story-line, to dance, to set.
An audience member brought up a good question about the performance at the event in Providence. He was like, "If you are interested in popular education, why did you keep with a conventional setup of performer and audience? What about applying these ideas to your presentation, something along the lines of theatre of the oppressed?" Good question that I hadn't even considered. Time was the obstacle. Taking this feedback into consideration, we added a part to the performance where we passed out balloons, pens and slips of paper into the audience asking them, "What would you like to teach? What would you like to learn." They wrote the answers on the balloons and threw them into the set during the final piece where we were decorating our space on stage. This felt like a step in the right direction but it would have been way cooler if people had communicated with EACH-OTHER, not just us about these ideas.
At the show in Detroit , a 6th grader stood up in the discussion and did a cheer for the group, inspired to share her own shit. In denver, two people brake danced in the middle of the discussion. One of them was Tom, a long time native community leader, b-boy and ally to young people, using hip hop and dance as a form of empowerment. He said, in the panel of native people talking about the effect of compulsory schooling on indigenous communities, that music is what brings people together. That the beat of a drum is a heart beat. He told everyone to go out and create music together.
In what ways could this sense of participatory art/performance/creativity be integrated into a performance conveying a certain message? How can a presentation get a clear idea (based on research, articulated through interviews) across AND create a space where experiences are shared and built on?
T H E D I S C U S S I O N S
After the show was over we asked the questions:
-what questions or comments do you have about the performance and the documentary?
-what issues are people organizing around in education in your community? what projects exist that address education, learning or youth empowerment in you community? (see the movement)
-what is your vision for learning and education in your community?
Here's some of what people said:
-This performance feels really alienating to me as a public school teacher who is working really hard to give my students tools that they need to survive in the world. And who is cultivating real and important relationships with my students.
Why is your group all women?
-The issue of working "inside" the system to change it vs. creating alternatives outside it. locking change-making into that binary of better-worse. see above.
-Emphasizing tryna create a sense of FAMILY in an empowering learning environment
-What role should i take as an adult in young peoples learning? Mentor? Support? How much do i need to MANAGE young people's behavior and how much can young people be left to their own capacity and leadership?
-The problem with schools is that its all about numbers and never about individuals. No ONE person, not teachers not administrators, not school board, are taking responsibility for doing what's right for young peoples education. If every single person would be accountable, that would be a revolution.
-In detroit, we are making our OWN statistics about the state of public education today. We are doing the research in our neighborhood and then we are going to make music videos to convey the information. holy shit!
-An important issue for immigrant communities is the DREAM Act-- a law that would say immigrants can get legal status if they go to college or join the military for two years. The problem is that you CAN"T go to college without papers and you have to join the military for 8 years. People said this law is a smokescreen for discrimination against their community.
-Another issue, also brought up in Denver, is the "poverty draft," or a trend in public schools, boosted by NCLB that schools with high populations of low income students are being heavily targeted by military recruiters and an increasing militarization of schools (especially through certain charter schools like Kipp and Seed).
-A teacher asked, "How can I get my students thinking and talking critically about recruitment without forcing the idea that the military and the poverty draft are just plain "wrong."
-Old people and young people need to get together and start sharing their experiences in order to create community movement.
-The charter school movement is a big issue. On one hand, it is allowing for alot of creative FREE alternatives. However these schools are mostly (in Denver) being accessed by middle class and white folks. On the other hand, many charters are foisting the militarization of public school, these mostly being populated by low income students.
-In DC and Chicago we heard that charter schools and the closings and reorganization of public schools is detrimental to public community space, and public participation in decision-making. BUT ALSO that right now, given the underfunding etc. of PS, charters are often the best option for under-resourced communities.
-Tests are created to benefit the test-makers. They are purposefully written for white people.
-At the panel on the effect of compulsory schooling on native communities in Denver people also expressed. (There is going to be a video available of this panel through the Indigenous Youth Sovereignty Project www.iysp.org for much more specific information):
Here are some big common things that came up:
"How do you address the issue of alternatives taking funding away from public school, the only surefire way for kids to get a free and equal education?"
The idea of a public school system where the public, that is, individuals in community, decide what free education for young people should look like, is obviously something worth fighting for, worth funding.
But what we are looking at today is a government run school system where every dollar towards books or facilities has strings attached. To get funding, many teachers must teach the script, teach to the test, often perpetuate the values of the institution. Values that locate themselves in capitalism, classism, institutional racism, sexism, ableism, etc. (think: tracking, militarization, standardized testing...)
So when we think about the question of funding and the concept of a "free and equal education" that is part of what we are looking at.
BUT we are also looking at amazing teachers and administrators who are doing incredible things in the face of that system despite their underfunding, despite all the the strings attached to that funding.
And we are looking at the reality that each community CAN decide for itself what learning and education should look like. Can see past the myth of scarcity and recognize their collective power to determine their needs and meet them in a way that is empowering for everyone. You know?
Which relates to the question: "Which is more effective, working inside or outside the system?"
Something really smart that several people say in the documentary is, "What we need is not a mass answer but a mass (map) of answers." Forreal, though. There isn't going to be a model or a formula for the best way to make change. its gonna depend on the person, the family, the neighborhood, the community the school. And with these infinite strategies (inside AND outside the system) we can create coalitions, we can intersect and overlap with other communities, create networks. a map.
"How can free schools be affordable and open to people without white/class/whiteliberal privilege?"
The issue of accessibility comes up alot and often is framed as just a money issue, which is a very relevant discussion in and of itself, but it can be useful to break it down further: In any structure or space we can look at the inherent culture. The norms of communication and expression, peoples' focus and interests, their needs and strategies for meeting those needs are going to reflect the people that use the space and the people who hold leadership and decision-making power there. So a free school can take the first step of finding ways to lower tuition costs, providing interpretation and redirecting outreach. But to truly create a space that is used by and meets the needs of communities that aren't white/class/whiteliberal privileged, we've found that the organizing and leadership needs to come from peoples own communities.
One big challenge that came up: What do you do when white people say that thing. Labeling kids or neighborhoods as "bad" or "hard" who obviously aren't part of that those communities. How can we validate peoples positive experiences without perpetuating fucked up colonizer myths like dangerous minds or freedom writers--the romantic white people saving poor black children in schools bullshit?
Some strategies in facilitation:
-starting off with agreements. Briefly: "So there are a couple of requests we have for people throughout this discussion things we can agree on in order to create as safe and accountable a space as possible."
1. the request that people speak from their own experiences and try not to make assumptions about other peoples experiences
2. oops ouch snap, so that people can think about what they are saying and have conversations later emphasizing the work people are doing in their own communities, addressing their own needs. giving examples of existing projects created by and for the same people.
-contextualizing the "bad kids" label in the system of oppression against people of color, low income people that systematically stacks up obstacles and inequity in certain communities. looking at the institutions values and impact, not the individuals "characteristics." (access to resources. being given opportunities to succeed or fail. abilities to navigate a system)
-when something comes up that doesn't feel ok, identifying certain ways of thinking as prevalent (reinforced by media, institutions etc) so that people can think about where they are coming from AND trying to meet it with an alternate way of thinking/talking about it in a way that focuses on people having good intentions with what they are saying, and this being a group learning process.
T H E E V E N T S
Part of the above challenge stemmed from many of the spaces we performed and discussed in being predominantly white spaces with predominantly white people in attendance. In these situations, it seemed like white folks felt more comfortable airing their assumptions and stereotypes to the group. AND those spaces could be alienating, isolating, silencing, other-ing or invisible-izing to people of color, or people who identify with the communities being generalized about.
After booking and publicizing the event in Baltimore, I got an email from an organizer in there who told me the place we were performing at was rarely frequented by African American folks in the community and recommended several other spaces. This and other concerns brought up by people inside and outside our group were good learning experiences for thinking about how to plan such a tour in the future.
At each space, Jenny would ask if it was wheelchair accessible. Overwhelmingly the answer was no. One woman asked, "Why? Are you expecting someone." Jenny replied that she is always expecting someone and to me later was like, see how institutional able-ism is literally built into our culture?
What are ways we could bring intention into booking a tour?
-Planning with A LOT more time for people to set up events
-Requesting wheel-chair accessibility as a priority to people booking events
-Having an example piece of work to present to people we are asking to book. I think this is a good idea because if the only people who are gonna be psyched to set something up completely based on our verbal or written description of a project are gonna be people who know us personally or are friends of friends. Which in my case is predominantly sub-culturey white people who don't necessarily have connections to community/education organizing in their town.
-Doing alot more research. Seeking out existing networks in different towns and finding out from people what spaces are often used.
-thinking about important needs: interpretation? sign language? child care? someone to address trauma?
(also considering the ways in which our world is SET UP so that its really fucking hard to meet all these needs and that sometimes the only organizations that CAN have a shitload of money/power)
T H E M O V E M E N T
So people are doing all different stuff which is cool. For a more in depth look at things that are going on , look at the resources link on the website. But so here are some interesting examples:
Baltimore- The Baltimore Algebra Project is an after school program and youth led direct action movement in which, just in the last 2 months, young people form Baltimore's "failing" public schools held a sleep in and hunger strike, demanding their school system be paid thousands of dollars in funding that the government owes.
Providence-- New Urban Arts is an after school program where young people hang out and make art. There are youth mentors and big art shows and workshops for the community and they make a zine.
Detroit--the Catherine Ferguson Academy is a small school for pregnant teenagers on a farm; Detroit Summer/L.A.M.P. conducted interviews all over town about peoples' experience in school and dropping out of school. then compiled them, holding open workshops to discuss the content. That grew into some song writing workshops and young people recording songs to mix in with the interviews on their amazing CD, "Rising Up From the Ashes: Chronicles of a Drop-out."
New York-- Teachers for social change created lesson plans for teachers to teach about topics like the jena 6 and hurricane katrina in classrooms.
Denver-- Escuela and the Cleo Parker Robinson after school program
San Francisco--the weird bus tour thing and the reader
P L A C E
Tennessee green thick deciduous trees like mulberries and beech and chestnut. Cows and hay fields and thick buggy creeks. The appalachian mountains and the sky. Oklahoma grass like the ocean. The crazy shit at arches in utah were formed by giant salt deposits in the rock formations disintegrating. And i saw a prairie dog colony in denver and little cottonwood glades and a meadowlark nest under a yucca plant.
G R O U P D Y NA M I C S
There were some really intense power dynamics on tour that were set up before we even left. Both in the process and in peoples own life experiences and where we were each at.
Here's how it panned out in my perspective:
The documentary itself was me and Amber's baby. We set an unrealistic deadline for ourselves to finish it by and an unrealistic deadline for when we would leave for tour. But we were committed to making those deadlines. Because we had spent 2+ years creating the documentary, we had more ideas and alot of control over the content and the message of the performance. In fact, one of the performers had never listened to it in its entirety. We also were the ones to plan the route and the tour. So in many ways we had alot more control over how things went than any one else. This meant that once we were on tour, we held much of the information and power, even in a seemingly collaborative decision-making process. ALSO, the ways that any tour-members communicated, dealt with stress, made decisions etc. were not necessarily the same ways that other tour-members did. By assuming a certain norms, we were potentially alienating others in the process. At worst, it left certain tour-members feeling invisible and voiceless, OR like they were voicing their opinions and being met only with opposition. (This was hella tough because larger societal dynamics started playing out. Shit based on peoples pasts of being listened to or not listened to, having or not having control etc. Talkin bout trauma, race, class, gender shit you know.) At best, everyone communicated (verbally or non-verbally) what they needed and people made a conscious effort to reach real consensus on decisions, where every person felt they were heard and validated.
How i would do it differently in the future:
-WAAAY more time to plan the tour, where everyone picked places they wanted to go, who they wanted to see, and how long people felt comfortable driving in one go. Planning out (as much as possible) where we would stay, so that last-minute late-night decisions wouldn't go down.
-WAAAY more time to create the performance in a truly collaborative way, with everyones ideas incorporated.
-Having more conversations about the ultimate goals and visions for the tour and the performance, and each individuals interests and involvement.
-WAAAY more time to practice together and spend time together, to get used to each-others patterns, needs, ways of communicating etc. And so on the road we could focus more on the tour and our relationships going smoothly instead of logistics and the nuts and bolts of performance. I guess just more group formation. You know?
-I would have wanted to be more conscious, from the very beginning, about ways that my power and privilege and my control and voice in the project could effect others. Be more attentive to peoples needs and listen better to verbal and non verbal information.
O T H E R P E O P L E ' S F E E D B A C K A N D R E S P O N S E S
Lemme know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and if you feel like you might want your ideas to be posted here, tell me that too.