Monday, June 25, 2012

Roman Summer

I adore Rome.

Maybe it's the way the bricks glow from the warm light of the city streets in Trastevere, or all the green expanses behind the ancient Catacombs,  or the way women's laughter flutters up as the evening air rustles through white table cloths. In Rome, we are collectively on holiday; whether we live here or are traveling through, the Roman summer is full of light and outdoor performance, and this city's art seems imminent to everyone.

Rome and I are definitely in a limerence period. But whatever,  I'm gonna ride this wave out while it lasts.

My roommate is incredibly kind; a 35 year old filmmaker, Leonardo grew up in Rome and knows the places to go. My other roommate, Stefano, is also wonderful. He is 21 years old and works security for an Afghan refugee camp in the city. Stefano cooks delicious pasta dishes, and we eat lunch and dinner out on the terrace or as a group in the kitchen. The apartment is spacious with white walls that let in the light; we have no AC but keep the doors open during the day, and the place remains surprisingly cool. I have my own balcony and I think that I will be very happy here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In the U.N.

I came to Geneva with one purpose in mind: to see the Palais des Nations. My Walker Fellowship is focused on cultural approaches to development, but I also wanted to get the perspective of “top down” development practitioners on accounting for culture in their work.  After pouring over U.N. affairs in Dr. Whelan’s international relations courses, and serving on Hendrix College’s Model U.N. team, coming to the U.N. conference center felt like one of those rare moments when life is really starting to happen.

The U.N. has three different entrances, and I visited all three trying to get in to the tour in time. The tour itself brought us through wide chambers and past a Human Rights Council meeting currently in session. There were many more young people walking about in suits and heels than I expected (interns, perhaps?), and the high vaulted marble walls and large windows gazing over Lake Geneva were absolutely beautiful. However, the meeting rooms were disappointingly droll, with the exception of one meeting room for “Las Alliances de Civilaciones” from Spain, which featured a fecund forest of hanging moss on the ceiling created by a famous Spanish designer whose name has escaped me completely. Art, through painting and photography, played a large role in defining U.N. projects and goals throughout the building. Yet cultural development seemed to take a backseat in favor of economic and political focus. I wish I had had more time to explore the U.N. Hardly anyone on our tour asked questions, and I felt irritatingly American every time I piped up with a new inquiry.

The entire Palais feels quiet and subdued, yet this tranquility is hardly limited to the U.N. The whole of Geneva has a peaceful constitution, perhaps inherited from ambitions of idealistic statesman decades before. There are wild flowers growing by the side of the road, the kind that you’d see only far out in the country back home, that makes the city feel safe and rural.

Still, Geneva balances its quiet beauty with a cosmopolitan air.  Men in suits with badges speaking Mandarin Chinese pass two girls in sundresses clipping to each other in German, who in turn catch the eyes of a group of teenage boys, dressed in school uniforms and giggling to one another in French. The Lake is perhaps the best part of the city. An enormous spout of water shooting out of the lake, the Jet d’Eau, takes you by surprise. It is one of the largest fountains in the world, sprouting 459 feet, and it sits on the lake like an elegant feather perched in a Victorian lady’s hunting cap.

I stayed the night in a rundown hotel by the train station that made me feel adult and a little lonesome. Late at night, after the Italians won the Euro Cup game against Ireland, people took to the streets on motorbikes and in cars, horns blaring, flags waving, and shouting at the top of their lungs. The cacophony continued for about two hours. So much for placid Geneva. I can’t wait to see what game day is like in Italy. 

Four Hours of Light

To the farmer’s daughter fluttering through, Paris caught time in a snapshot. I marveled at the Saints’ benevolent watch from the walls of Notre Dame, awkwardly held the Eiffel Tower in my palm while snapping a self-portrait (on my parents’ insistence), fought my way through ranks of foreigners to catch the Mona Lisa’s eye, and stared at Winged Victory in the Louvre, wondering if headless defiance is even stronger than a face. Beggars and salesmen accosted me on the streets, and although they wanted my money, when they called out “Mademoiselle!”, it was hard not to smile. Elderly tourists in blue-stripped shirts leaned on their husband’s arm as they goggled left and right and trudged up the streets, desperately seeking some ideal of the Parisian past. These sights fit neatly into four morning hours, as my train left for Geneva in the afternoon. It was just a taste of Paris, but those hours were lovely and I wanted more.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Last Looks

I walked into St. Augustine Secondary School as the sun dipped below Mt. St. Benedict. It was my favorite kind of Trinidadian evening, when the air is gentle and the sky retains its lusty blush long after the sun is gone. But today was different. Walking through the school yard and the classrooms, I felt a sense of urgency to take in the white washed walls, the echoes of children in the corridor, and the lingering smell of sweat and food. This was my last day with DMAD, and I wanted to remember every part of it.

DMAD practices in the drama room. The actors grew up in these walls; most went to school here and still help out with community activities. They shouted my name as I walked through the door and I was back in the fold. They knew I was leaving sometime this week (some thought I had already left), but they didn't know I was leaving today. I was slow to tell them, maintaining every sense of normalcy for as long as possible.

I'd be kidding myself if I thought I'd made a big impact in this little space. Sure, I made them a nice little documentary film and busted some American stereotypes, but in the end, how much weight does that carry? They gave me so much more: the gift of open hospitality, welcoming me into their daily rhythms. For an instant, I was a part of the collective greatness of DMAD Company, that energy created when we think outside our own little worlds and see into another's. DMAD brings these vibes wherever it goes, performing for schools, teachers, orphanages, raising funds for local causes. People like this keep my faith alive, and pull me outside my own shallow shell. DMAD kept me alive and awake. I don't know how to thank them.

The Company was building their set for the upcoming show, hauling planks and screwing them together, an all-hands-on-deck affair. With the performance only four days away,  everyone was in a hurry to begin rehearsal. Our goodbyes were faster than I expected.

As I was walking out the door,  Ziggy, the director, turned to me.

"You know you're a real punk for leaving us, eh?" he said. "Oh gowsh, Jayce, I feel you just plopped into our lives and now you're plopping right back out."

"I kind of feel like a punk for leaving" I admitted.

This is the reality of our world; we plop in and we plop out, sometimes of our own free will and sometimes not. Regardless, someone is changed or impacted from the encounter. And the altered ones will always remember.

The Potential of Hotspot Theatre

While skeptics such as Dairius Figueira, Professor of Criminology at the University of the West Indies, correctly asses that theatre is currently unpopular in Trinidad’s ‘at risk’ communities, theatre for development projects are not entirely unfeasible in these regions. There are multiple instances of impoverished communities, gang members, and even former paramilitary combatants engaging in theatrical exercises as a means of community development; Iqui Balam in Guatemala,  “We Carried Your Secrets” in Northern Ireland, and Sistren Theatre in Jamaica are all relevant examples of this phenomenon, and I will briefly describe them here.

Trapped in a cycle of violence, young members of rival gangs in Villa Nueva, Guatemala decided to initiate a bipartisan theatre troupe called Iqui Balam that regularly performs TIE for both gang communities on issues of HIV/AIDS and racism. The troupe provides a safe haven for creative expression, positive socialization, and an alternative to illicit activity. “Iqui Balam has kept me off drugs” attests 13-year-old member Jorge. Halfway across the world in Derry, Northern Ireland, former rivals and paramilitary combatants came together in 2009 to share their stories in an interactive performance called “We Carried Your Secrets”. The amateur actors told their accounts of violence, loss, and pain surrounding the Northern Irish troubles; although the first rehearsals were exceptionally tense, by the final production, the actors were friends. Their play, in turn, stirred audiences to realize the grim realities of perpetuating violence (evident in the written feedback in audience surveys),

As a wave of popular theatre (informal, community-organized theatre projects) spread across Latin American and the Caribbean throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, a group of working class Jamaican women formed Sistren Theatre, dedicated to exploring “the social, political, and legal condition and status of Jamaican women” (with particular emphasis on the impoverished African community). These women used theatre to analyze and critique the inherent discrimination of the Jamaican social system, and continue employing these techniques today as they operate a “multi-faceted popular education program”. Although there is no internationally recognized troupe of rival gang members or impoverished youth initiating theatre projects in Trinidad, such projects are not unfeasible. With leadership and minimal resources, much can be accomplished, especially if participants can be engaged and mentored from a young age.

In addition, the mentality of TfD is not so far from that of the alternate social order. In fact, theatrical expression can appeal directly to those involved in criminal activities. According to British prison theatre practitioner John Beesham:

There is a natural affinity between crime and art…Certain kinds of criminal activity involve skills and experiences which parallel those of artists In a way, criminals live in a kind of parallel universe, a fictional world of their own making. That’s why criminal subculture is so intense, because it’s fashioned. It’s always had a natural affinity with showbiz. To live outside the law means you’re engaged in a very questioning relationship with conventional morality. To invent your own codes you need imagination, wit, bravado, and courage. And the experience of law-breaking itself is often a serious buzz, perhaps the only thing worth getting out of bed for. It’s a heightened experience, there’s a kind of ecstasy involved not unlike what the performer or musician experiences. There are sharp comparisons between the profound experience of the artist or the performer, and the transformative excitement which some criminal behavior involves. You can hardly argue that more than a small proportion of crime is about personal gain.

The rush of performing a crime is similar to the rush of theatrical performance. As morbid as it sounds, there is an element of theatre in crime, public demonstration in physical assertion, creativity in violent expression. But there is more than one way to show assertion, and theatre offers an alternative channel to violence. The key is making this alternative available to the communities that would most benefit from it. Scores of TfD projects around the world prove that theatre can appeal to the ‘bad boys’ and the alternate social order. Indeed, many Trinidadian TfD groups have already initiated this work.  Now it is time for hotspot communities to develop their own projects.

For this ideal to become a reality, leaders must step up (and be encouraged to step up) as initiators for these grassroots theatre projects, and funding must be redirected to support arts education and training. A sustained lobbying initiative providing documented evidence of successful TfD projects may influence both the government and the private sector to contribute to hotspot TfD (UNICEF and other international organizations are also potential donors for these projects).

Perhaps the greatest challenge is finding leaders to initiate these efforts, yet the answer is simpler than it seems. A successful TfD project would build upon the work of established community-development organizations, using existing space, funds and membership to support new projects. There is bound to be at least one person with a little training or interest in theatre in many of these communities who could head a TfD initiative, especially if there is need for this work and local organizations willing to offer a space and financial or symbolic support. This individual could receive training from established TfD practitioners in Trinidad, and then take their expertise and individual vision back to their own community. As drama scholar Errol Hill writes: “Theatre is copy and outgrowth of a people.” For TfD to reach its full potential in Trinidad, it must certainly spring from within the community employing it. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Unmasking the Bacchanal

Although Carnival is not traditional Theatre for Development (the subject of this research project), it is certainly a type of performance and theatre, and can act as an agent of social change and cohesion. Today, Carnival serves as a tool of cultural preservation, through the Old Mas events displaying original Jamette characters, and as a national rallying point. Carnival exhibits both East Indian, Asian, and African elements, and brings these diverse populations together for a common celebration. Carnival lecturer at the University of the West Indies Kenwyn Murray strongly believes in the positive power of Carnival:

"You’re outside, exposed to sunlight and open air… You go out into the road and you see faces smiling…and they are cordial to strangers…you make friends as well. You meet people who don’t like you [generally] but like you on that day…and that has a lift to your psyche."

This liberation effect only lasts, at most, throughout the pre-Lenten season, and then it’s back to the daily routine. The effect of Carnival is powerful, but it is also transient. According to Trinidadian drama scholar Errol Hill:

"Carnival has given birth to new music and song, to language and dance, to costumes and masks, but it has made no lasting mark on the emotional experience of mankind…It is transitory; a momentary escape from order and reason. Its death on Ash Wednesday morning brings a sigh of satisfaction from everyone."

Carnival is also an excuse for more crime. While the majority of police are concentrated in the tourist and media centered festivities in Port of Spain, violence only increases in under-policed areas with their own Carnivals, such as Arima, Tunapuna, and San Fernando. Hospitals are overrun with victims of stabbings, shootings, and drunk-driving accidents.  Dairius Figuiera,  Professor of Criminology at the University of the West Indies, states that since the days of the jamette yards, Carnival was a time to get even with your enemies through violent means:

"Just take away the police. Every single problem…two days of Carnival [make] the greatest conflict resolution mechanism ever invented. All during the year, people [do things you don’t like]. And you just say to yourself ‘I will get you J’ouvert morning[on Carnival Monday]…I will settle with you then."

Carnival is a fleeting moment of liberation and collective goodwill, but even this burst of celebration has its darker side. While Carnival will continue serving as the main cultural event of Trinidad, it is hardly the most effective conduit of community development. Other artistic channels must fill in where Carnival falls short. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Human Challenge

I had a scary moment today when I realized how much I pride myself on my interest in development. There is something strangely reassuring in rattling off Human Development Index statistics for various countries, and then applying microeconomic policies to address them. There is something stylish about following a foreign sport, or conversing in another language, or obtaining an obtuse cultural factoid after having lived in a developing country for a year. Eventually, our work in international development can become our identity, one that we use to reassure ourselves of the fact that, yes, we are global citizens, and even more importantly, that our lives have been of use. If I didn’t say I was describing myself, I’d be lying.

There is nothing wrong with participating in another culture and relishing that experience; the danger comes when we lose sight of reality. When I first studied international development, I did it because it felt like the right thing to do, the necessary thing to do. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Gracias, Spiderman. Or in the words of Jesus as quoted by Luke: “To those whom much is given, much will be required.” I internalized these teachings like mantras, swooned over The Motorcycle Diaries and delighted in the legacy of Paul Farmer. I felt that through studying development, I too was part of a powerful process that is essentially good, healthy, and selfless. I entered each service encounter with the desire to reshape the world, to make a tangible impact, to help others. Yet in the end, I was really engaging in a form of cultural self-therapy, missing out on the more important lessons lying just below the surface.

Living in Trinidad has granted new perspective. I realize now that I know very little; still, my limited perceptions have changed drastically. Looking back on this year, and all my years of study and service, I recognize that the foreign communities I’ve tried to ‘serve’ have ultimately been much more generous, open, and of service to me than I ever could be to them. My presence abroad is transient, yet the impact that the foreign environment, the hospitality and the culture has upon me remains long after I fly home.  Government exchange and volunteer programs like Fulbright are essential components of the American legacy, and serve as informal channels of  cross-cultural education, and catalysts for projects that may ultimately benefit the host community. But let’s not kid ourselves; these programs also benefit U.S. interests; they are tools of foreign policy, scholarship incentives, and/or opportunities for  U.S. citizens to develop themselves as much or more as they ‘develop’ communities.

That’s not to say that we cannot make a positive impact. We can, but only after better understanding the cultural environment in which we are working. A robust understanding cannot be accrued within a year or two (maybe ten years would be sufficient, but there would still be much to learn). Unfortunately, many development contracts do not allow for such a lengthy tenure; therefore it is essential that we approach our work with the dedication and the mentality of an eager student. The people we are ‘serving’ know much more about their development issues than we do. Certainly, we may possess technical knowledge and expertise gained through years of education, and should offer these skills if there is an evident need for them. Yet the most purposeful projects are conceived and directed by the community, and as development practitioners, we need to learn how to listen, to observe, and to lead from behind.

We must not engage in development processes simply to reassure ourselves or stroke our egos, but because development is a ubiquitous human challenge, one that we are all seeking to solve on different levels. Perhaps a good measure of our intent is asking ourselves how we will talk about our work when we return home. Will this be an opportunity to strut our worldly knowledge and experience, or can we take some of the learning we acquired and plug it back into our own communities? In fact, development work should never be dependent upon foreign location; someone who is genuinely interested in these processes should be willing and eager to work domestically, in rural Alabama, or in Detroit. I suspect that there are aspects of everyone’s hometowns that could use some development expertise, and in these instances, we are the locals who know best.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of an effective development practitioner is self-development, reassessing our motives and our means, and learning how to be of service without self-consciously serving. This only begins with an honest self-assessment and dogged awareness. It’s easy enough to spout out these qualities, but actually embodying them is an entirely different task. I can recognize this ideal, but am ridiculously far from it. Still, development work is never clean and easy; it’s a messy struggle, often without clear resolution or reward. It’s impossible to know our own development potential unless we work at it.