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Ten Transformative Ideas for Community-Building and Cross-Cultural Exchange

In this polarized time of boundary-drawing, mass migration, and environmental crisis, traditional policy approaches fail us. The artist’s task of bridge building feels more urgent than ever. Over the past year, I have been working alongside nine other international Fellows with the Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics to develop a creative approach for engaging with one another that is grounded in authenticity and awareness of our shared humanity. We strive to model the vision we hold for the world in the community we are building together.

The Lab was founded in 2012 by Co-Directors Derek Goldman and Ambassador Cynthia Schneider. Housed within Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, The Lab has since become a center for education, performance, and policy with the mission to humanize global politics through performance. In March of 2017, The Lab launched its Lab Fellows program. The eighteen-month residency convenes artists and activists from around the world for monthly virtual meetings and for two weeks in-person at the Edinburgh Festival. Fellows take turn leading the monthly meetings and selecting questions to initiate dialogue (past examples have included: “What does home mean to you and how does it effect your work?” and “How do you navigate performance in highly charged and oppositional political environments?”). The members of the inaugural class of Lab Fellows are: Faisal Abu Alhayjaa, Jumana Al-Yasiri, Reem Alsayyah, Chankethya Chey, Velani Dibba, Asif Majid, Devika Ranjan, Manuel Viveros, Gideon Jeph Wabvuta, and myself, Caitlin Cassidy. We are playwrights, actors, musicians, directors, dancers, devisers, poets, teachers, activists, arts administrators, and clowns. We hail from Zimbabwe, Palestine, Syria, Cambodia, England, India, Colombia, and the US. Some of us share the experience of being refugees; many of us have spent our childhoods (and adult lives) moving from place to place; all of us are preoccupied by questions of home, of borders, of belonging.

We strive to model the vision we hold for the world in the community we are building together.

What follows are ten principles and practices that we have found particularly transformative over the last year of growing together. My hope is that these will offer a window into our experience as fellows and provide some insight into how we can, as artists—as people—of diverse background and experience come together for inclusive, meaningful, and productive cross-cultural exchange.

1. Gathering Around Shared Purpose
A commitment to a shared cause is critical to our success as a collective. We were convened according to a shared commitment to art-making at the intersection of civic engagement and justice. Within the arts, I have found that we often come together because of shared role, practice, or place; we don’t come together nearly as often, nor for extended periods of time, because of a shared commitment to a movement or set of values. The primary reason that I feel so deeply a part of and in tune with this group—and to each of its individual members—is because I know that we are all after the same thing. Our commitment to arts for social change has laid a strong foundation for collective meaning and connection, one that transcends individual perspective and experience.

2. Meeting Artists Where They’re At
The program evolves in direct response to the vision of its Fellows. Earlier this year, Fellow Asif Majid shared his article “On Minority Artist Development Programs” on HowlRound, in which he writes, “What is needed for true artist development is the personalization of attention and resources, meeting artists where they are rather than where a program believes them to be.” The program is built on the conviction that its artists can and should play a lead role in shaping it. As Fellows, we are responsible for designing our experience in conversation with one another and with The Lab, which provides logistical parameters, resources, and mentorship specific to our needs. For us, decision-making occurs with everyone at the table. In response to our vision, the program has privileged process over product and committed to opening space for individual and collective evolution over the course of years. Through Asif, The Lab leadership, and the experience of collective visioning, I have come to appreciate the power of reactive resources and the responsibility that accompanies them.

At the center of our practice is a commitment to cognitive justice, or the belief in the right of many knowledges, cultures, narratives, artistic forms, and practices to co-exist.

three people sitting and listening
Lab Fellows Velani, Asif, and Manuel.

3. Building Shared Experience Early
In the third month of the program, The Lab convened the Fellows in person at the Edinburgh Institute for International Cultural Relations (IICR). We participated in programmed viewing of a diverse set of performances within the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The opportunity to witness and to respond to a wide spectrum of performance that was not our own allowed me to learn a great deal in a short period of time about the other Fellows. It removed the burden of personal worry about the work, freeing us to discover the individual languages and lenses we use to speak about art—and to begin to learn how to be in dialogue with one another. Programmed free time allowed us to process and question together. The power of a coffee/tea break should never be underestimated. The time and space we were given in which to reflect and simply be together proved imperative to deepening relationships.

4. Championing Diversity and Openness
At the center of our practice is a commitment to cognitive justice, or the belief in the right of many knowledges, cultures, narratives, artistic forms, and practices to co-exist. We are always asking: How do we honor, celebrate, and learn from our multiplicity? We have found that the impact of our dialogue deepens when it remains open and able to hold contradiction. An Edinburgh Fringe performance that I experienced as tender and moving, another fellow described as manipulative and violating. Our conversation following the performance was surprising and difficult; it challenged my emotional and intellectual response to the piece. And as we both resisted persuasion, it became clear that we could end the debate or pursue understanding. I was reminded that day in choosing the latter of the importance of disagreement. It is not something to avoid or to solve. It is vital to growth and critical to the cultivation of peace and justice.

a man looks to the side
Lab Fellow Faisal.

5. Challenging Ideas of Beauty
We acknowledge that art across a diverse spectrum of artistic and cultural expressions is valuable and is capable of beauty. Beauty, for us, is mutable. Excellence is local. Standards of goodness are not broadly applicable. Moreover, it has been important to us to recognize that the systems for valuing and interpreting cultural expressions often carry long histories of hierarchy, ethnocentrism, and colonialism. The Lab Fellows work between worlds. Geography informs the work we make, its context, and the standards by which it is evaluated. Our individual stories, contexts, collaborators, audiences—it all matters and is all worthy of time.

6. Stepping Up, Stepping Back
During our time in Edinburgh, at a moment when discussion was being dominated by a small group of native English speakers, Lab Fellow Devika Ranjan offered us this guideline to help bring more voices into conversation and to raise awareness of the space we each take up: If a person feels that he/she/they are generally quiet or don't usually contribute to the discussion, that person should "step up" and offer opinions to the group. Conversely, if a person tends to speak a lot and dominate conversation, that person should consciously "step back" and allow others to take the lead. We have found this practice supports the cultivation of a culture of deep listening.

man writes on large piece of paper
Lab Fellow Asif.

7. Working with Transparency
We value transparency. The Lab is highly transparent as an organization about the work it does behind the scenes to support the Fellowship. As Fellows, we are regularly informed and consulted about resources, grant applications, programming, and beyond. As Fellows, we are also learning to be transparent with one another about our individual journeys—in particular, the challenges we confront in our art-making and activism. When Gideon came to the group with frustrations about the casting of his new play, he initiated a conversation about representation that shifted how I approach casting in my own work. We are vulnerable with one another, because we recognize that transparency and vulnerability lead to growth.

8. Naming our Own World
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire writes, “to exist, humanly, is to name the world.” He believed, as we do, that how we code our world speaks volumes about it and about us. We recognize that establishing a common language around how art contributes to positive social change leads to deeper, more illuminating communication. However, we also work to diversify expression. We frequently find ourselves up against the challenge of privileging English and verbal or text-based expression. We strive to make space for translation and for wordless exchange. We are exploring alternative ways of engaging one another—for example, through the sharing of image and music.

How can we, as a community, demonstrate responsible social and environmental practice?

group standing in a circle with backs turned to woman in center
Lab Fellows and Reem.

9. Considering Resources
We ask: How can we practice mindful and imaginative use of resources? How can we, as a community, demonstrate responsible social and environmental practice? It is particularly important to us that growing our work and sharing it does not come at major environmental cost. The program seeks to maximize money, materials, and energy and to ensure equal accessibility for each of the Fellows. One way we have done this is to collaborate primarily through free, virtual platforms that allow for sustainable connection beyond border and which accommodate varying degrees of mobility within the Fellows group.

10. Thinking “Glocally”
We work with an awareness of both the global and the local and toward a balance between the two, striving to hold our individual pursuits and communities in balance with our collectives’ and with the state of our world at large. We call this “thinking glocally.” We bring what we gather from within our own practices and communities spread out across the globe to the Fellowship and vice versa, allowing the two to inform and enrich one another.

At our meeting last month, Velani Dibba and Manuel Viveros led a conversation about the theatre artist’s responsibility to the audience. During the conversation, Reem Alsayyah proposed that the theatre is a place of hope and learning. A place where relationships are paramount—where we can meet one another honestly and vulnerably, acknowledging that we are each learning and evolving as we go. This is also, it occurred to me, the place we are building together as Fellows. Velani added that the process of performance is the creation of language and that the job of the theatre artist (and artists in general) is to generate shared language with our collaborators and to then share that language with the audience. This is what we are doing—growing shared language and shared vision—in hopes, ultimately, of sharing it.

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