La Mama Theatre, New York City, 2008: a production of the play Sejny Chronicles. A large, unfinished, hand-built table, that speaks of farmers rather than craftsmen, sits center stage. Atop this foundation of rough hewn wood is a tiny magical-looking village of clay-fired buildings—houses large and small, streets that mark the pathways of those who might call this maquette home, several grander structures suggesting local government, a church at one end of the town, a synagogue at the other. A dim, soft darkness envelops this Lilliputian universe suggesting evening and residents long lost in the deep sleep of exhaustion in preparation for another dawn. But there are other, more restless stories hinted at in tiny dwellings sharing light with the world through neat little windows that challenge a narrative of rural harmony dictated by the natural cycles of night and day.
The narrative is taken up by young teenagers whose skills belie their age. It is a deeply moving tale that unfolds around the maquette in the form of authentic prayers, pagan legends, Slavic solstice customs, the joyful ritual of a traditional Lithuanian wedding, songs, folk dances as well as tales in Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian, and other languages spoken along the shifting borders of Eastern Europe where the actual village, Sejny, has existed for centuries.
I was touched by the production, so when it ended, I sought out what appeared to be the leader of the troupe, a man who I was to get to know much better in years to come—the director of the Borderland Foundation, Krzysztof Czyżewski. He explained that he and his young charges were in New York for several weeks, presenting a number of events that displayed different aspects of the foundation's work. He invited me to be part of them. I subsequently went to a screening of films about the Borderland, the most striking of which, for me, were those showing how the organization collects oral histories of the region where they live—something that played no small part in creating the Sejny Chronicles.
I also attended an event at the Bowery Poetry Club, where local authors, musicians, and intellectuals living in New York who are familiar with Eastern Europe and the Borderland's work presented an evening of poetry and book readings, traditional East European and Jewish music, people singing and sharing ideas. I soon learned that this evening was modeled on one of the Borderland's conflict resolution programs, the Café Europa, which combines the dialogue strategies of their workshops and conferences with creative expression.
After this brief introduction, intrigued, I subsequently visited the center in Sejny several times. I garnered a deeper understanding of what Łukasz Galusek and Dorota Sieroń-Galusek, in their article in this issue of Public, term the "culture of remembering." Most importantly, I gained an insight into what this "culture" means in terms of the foundation's practice.
In summer 2013, Dr. Nancy Cantor was announced as the next Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N), where I am on the faculty. Given Chancellor Cantor's renown for supporting public scholarship and the unique role of the arts in that endeavor, I saw an opportunity to pursue a longtime ambition, a community-based arts initiative that is part of the curriculum in my academic home, the multidisciplinary Department of Arts, Culture and Media (ACM). The Borderland Center offered a model of how the arts might engage a social agenda that moves beyond the rhetoric of aesthetics to engaged practice.
The Borderland Center, based in and committed to the largely rural, isolated northwest corner of Poland, does not at first glance seem to have much in common with Newark, New Jersey. The latter is, after all, the largest city in its state, only some twenty-five miles from midtown Manhattan, known as much as a prime example of the many social ills associated with inner-city America as for hosting companies such as Prudential Financial and Panasonic and major higher education institutions, including RU-N and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. However, I felt there were at least two fundamental similarities. Both are based in regions of social conflict that they wish to address. For the Borderland, this is the ethno-cultural tensions rooted in a history of distrust and violence; in ACM's case, it was a desire to use our educational resources and creative training to address issues of inner-city violence, drugs, and the destruction of the social fabric stemming from them. Likewise, the Borderland has a deep interest in working with youth as the future leaders of the community, while ACM had ambitions of working with young people in order to affect sustainable social change over the long term. I also learned of the foundation's relationship to Warsaw University and the formal role it had played in providing practice-based workshops to students in the Cultural Animation Program in the university's Institute of Polish Culture.
From a past failed attempt to introduce a community component to ACM's curriculum, as well as from what I had witnessed in the Borderland model, I knew it was important that we establish a long-term meaningful relationship with a local Newark community partner. I was fortunate to be introduced to YouthBuild Newark and, most fortuitously, the organization's Program Manager, Ms. Wendy Cubano.
YouthBuild Newark is the local chapter of the national YouthBuild USA, an education-focused, youth and community development agency working primarily with inner-city youth who are academically challenged, under-employed, often socially disconnected and/or have been involved with the criminal justice system. One of YouthBuild Newark's major initiatives is an alternative education project that allows students to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma while teaching them basic job skills. Upon graduation students are placed in colleges, jobs, or both.
Three factors drew me to YouthBuild Newark. The first was its education-driven rehabilitation model that offered what appeared to be a natural link with the curricular ambitions I had for ACM's community-engagement initiative. The second was Ms. Cubano, who functions somewhere between a high school principal, a social worker, a therapist, an advocate who is passionate about her students, and a tough love Mama who adores her "children" but who accepts excuses or nonsense from no one. I could see her as a committed partner for my ambitions, provided they served her needs as well as my own; she would ensure I was on the right track with her students. The third was a series of workshops (aptly entitled Mental Toughness) Ms. Cubano invited me to that are part of the YouthBuild Newark's admissions process. (Sadly, there are far more applicants to get into the YouthBuild program than can be accommodated.) These workshops, which combine physical exercise with a range of interpersonal workshops, social counseling, and an introduction to the unusual academic teaching models the organization uses, gave me some understanding of the techniques YouthBuild employs to realize its graduates' success. Large parts of what I saw in the workshops had a familiar ring to me, as they would have to anyone knowledgeable of workshop-based theater training, and would inevitably be a part of whatever I did going forward.
To formalize my thinking and ambitions for community-engaged scholarship in ACM, I put together a brief document that became the framework for what I call the Urban Civic Initiative (UCI). The UCI is predicated upon the argument that RU-N has a dual service-based responsibility. The first responsibility is, as one might expect of a university, to educate its students. However, RU-N bears a particular responsibility in this regard because its demographics reflect the American immigrant narrative of opportunity, with a student body that is the most diverse in the nation, consisting largely of immigrants and the children of immigrants, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college. The second responsibility is to take up the challenge of the modern urban university, which is to invest its knowledge capital in the city and region in which it is based, for the benefit of all. In light of these responsibilities, the UCI identified two long-term goals. The first goal was to realize a culture of publically engaged arts and media scholarship at RU-N, and the second was to internationalize the curriculum and research profile of the university's students by partnering with European organizations such as the Borderland Foundation and the Cultural Animation Program at Warsaw University.
Krzysztof visited our campus, meeting with pertinent faculty in ACM and other departments, administrators, students and staff of YouthBuild, and several one-on-one generalized discussions between he and I about next steps. Though no plans were formulated, it was clear that Krzysztof and I could collaborate together in this inner-city environment and that Krzysztof felt he had something to offer, whatever form the collaboration between ACM and YouthBuild would eventually take.
I began developing the first UCI initiative, the "My Story" Project, a community-engaged workshop offered as a semester-long university studio class, shaped by the personal stories of participating Rutgers and YouthBuild students.
The development of the studio class was shaped by a combination of factors. One was my theater experience and interest in training. Other factors, pertinent to the particular circumstances, included a seminar I attended at RU-N focused on youth and education that included staff and students from YouthBuild as panelists; discussions with Professor Bonnie Veysey from RU-N's School of Criminal Justice, who was familiar with YouthBuild through her research on incarceration and recidivism; observing the Mental Toughness workshops; and discussions with YouthBuild staff, particularly Ms. Cubano, and students.
I had observed in the Mental Toughness workshops something that later discussions with Ms. Cubano confirmed: a major factor shaping the lives of YouthBuild's young people is their low level of self-esteem. Much of this underestimation of their self-worth is the product of poverty and social rejection by family members, schools, the judicial system, and so-called "respectable" society. Many are angry and alienated from a world that refuses to embrace them as its citizens. As a result, they make bad choices that are detrimental to both themselves and society at large. In response, the UCI's general ambition in its work with YouthBuild is to offer ways in which the arts and media can play an ameliorating role in a cycle of choices and behaviors that all too often include gangs, violence, and becoming embroiled in the criminal justice system.
One small way that the arts and media can help address these issues is by highlighting the value of everyone's story. At the level of personal narrative, we are all equal. We each have a story that is unique to us, while at the same time shares a great deal with those close to us as well as with the grander narrative of humankind. In addition, the "my story" thematic is flexible enough to allow for different versions to be developed and taught by faculty from any one of the five programs in ACM. A class based on the "my story" theme developed by a graphic designer is likely to be very different from one taught by a photographer or a member of the journalism program, for instance.
In keeping with my training in theater and performance studies, the "My Story" studio class I developed drew heavily upon theatrical training, though it was in no way focused on learning technique. The class engaged these techniques in order to delve into the personal stories of both the YouthBuild and Rutgers students, who were taught how to construct and share their lives through personal stories that are equally unique and valuable, no matter if the story is told by a senior at Rutgers or a GED student from YouthBuild.
Chancellor Cantor supported the introductory phase of the project that included Krzysztof coming to ACM from Poland for three to four semesters, in order to team teach part of the class with me, and an assessment component. I also received a grant from Rutgers Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs (GAIA) to support an international dimension of research in the project. This research includes two experts with extensive experience in both mounting and evaluating programming that engages the arts as tools of social change: the Head of the Cultural Animation Program at Warsaw University, Dr. Zofia Dworakowska, and Dr. Kedmon Mapana, the Director of the Music Program in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The "My Story" studio class was made up of three blocks of meetings during the spring 2015 semester and culminated in a group presentation for invited guests. The first block consisted of examining models of personal stories in both literature and performed monologues. The second involved exploring and developing one's own personal stories and learning the basic presentational means to relate them to an audience of their peers. The third, developed by Krzysztof, focused on what he terms "bridge building," by which he means engaging students in an active investigation of the points of contact between their individual stories and the stories of others in the group. The presentation was an ambulatory performance designed as a metaphor of the journey participants had taken during the studio class. The invited guests followed participants through various locations in the building housing ACM, including the studio where classes are held, and culminated on the stage of the department's theater.
I could have simply modeled our project on some of the Borderland Center's initiatives, such as mounting a play in the vein of the Sejny Chronicles with the YouthBuild and Rutgers students working together. However, I felt that the differences between a remote, rural Poland that is a microcosm of an entire country's struggles to be a nation and the circumstances that have generated and perpetuate the socio-economic blight of inner-city America, at both the macro/social and micro/personal levels, are different enough to call for responses specific to each of them.
This is not to say that the project owes little to the Borderland Center's work other than an inspiration to engage the arts and media as social tools rather than as a means of shaping aesthetics. Simply put, rather than facsimiles to be reproduced elsewhere in very different circumstances, the Borderland Center's methods offer paradigms of social engagement that are the foundation of their practice. Some of these paradigms influenced the development of the "My Story" Project; though this influence was not conscious as I planned and then lead the studio. Only upon consideration after it was over did I realize the synergies between the Borderland Center's work and the "My Story" Project.
In an earlier article, I discuss several of Borderland Center's foundational paradigms (Watson, 2014). At least two were subconscious influences on "My Story": the way in which Borderland exploits the education-training binary, and the role of inductive empathy in its work. The accompanying article, "The Culture of Remembering: Or the Experience of the Borderland Center in Sejny, Poland," touches on a third Borderland paradigm that also helped shape the "My Story" Project without me realizing it: using memory as a means of creating community.
The Borderland Center is predicated upon an education-training binary. Education tends to a holistic dimension, with echoes of the Ancient Greek concept of offering the young (men only in ancient Greece) a broad experience of various disciplines, over time, in order to become well-rounded citizens able to participate fully in the life of the polis. Training, meanwhile, is generally regarded as a subset of education, concerning the acquisition of a limited, related set of skills. It is no accident that in modern times we talk of training actors and educating philosophers.
This binary is not as simple as I'm suggesting. We may in common usage appreciate a difference between a practice that bears the hallmarks of a specific craft and another that suggests an expansive inculcation, but identifying exactly what marks the borders between them is hardly easy. Is actor training, for instance, solely concerned with craft, or is it at its most successful an art that reaches beyond the skills it calls for? What is the difference between a trained, competent actor and an equally accomplished performer who is able to become the agent of "something more" than simply an embodied competence as her stage presence and seemingly genuine lived experience on stage engenders a shared empathy among its audience that moves beyond training to a wider world of the accultured global?
The Borderland Center exploits the slippage that blurs the binary between training and education in realizing its mission of socio-ethnic pluralism. It trains local citizens (particularly the young) to perform, to make short animation films, and/or to play music; but this skill-based training has the larger purpose of educating participants to embrace the "other" as an equal, no matter their ethnic, national, or religious affiliation.
On one level the "My Story" Project shared much with a typical training workshop concerned with personal storytelling. It taught students how to discover, develop, structure, and perform personal stories. However, I was attempting to eradicate the suspicions and societal differences between the two groups in the studio, with the hope that it would have implications beyond the simple acquisition of a new skill. "My Story" shared the Borderland's education-centered agenda, appealing to the underlying common denominator of being human rather than the socio-ethnic identity laid over its participants. At the level of personal story we are all equals. One's own story concerns the subjectively human rather than the stratification of society in which presidents, the "respectable" middle class, and the poor are each valued according to hierarchical norms.
Most of the Borderland Center's initiatives (particularly with youth) appear to focus on learning skills in a workshop setting. But these skills are secondary to its principle, unspoken, goal: appreciating the common humanity of one's diverse communities, and ceasing to objectify those socially or culturally different from oneself in order to realize a society in which each ethno-social group respects its neighbors. This unspoken goal is shaped by inductive logic.
The Borderland Center's work with its youth theater wing offers a clear example of this strategy. The transparent goal in the creation of the Sejny Chronicles, for instance, involves realizing a theater production based on various training methods and rehearsal models. The unstated goal is for participants to learn about and realize the common humanity of their neighbors, both the living (Poles, Lithuanians, Old Believers, etc.) and the dead (Jews and Roma), who make/made up the community but who rarely interact(ed) with each other in a meaningful way. The latter ambition, shaped in large part by the group exploring the history of the village collectively and by members from communities still living in the region working together, is realized by a process of what might be termed empathetic induction.
Borderland engages a three-pronged approach to eliciting empathy. First, members of the different ethno-cultural groups from the region work together on a common aesthetic assignment; second, the assignment includes an aspect of engaged learning about the communities involved; and third, the evolution of the assignment calls for collective problem-solving over its duration.
The unspoken premise in this approach is the relationship between duration and the inductive process. Participants are engaged in a training-based and task-oriented workshop that requires weeks or months to realize. The undertaking involves all participants working together over an extended period of time learning new skills, solving problems as they arise collectively, and developing creative products in a group setting. The crucial factors in this process, that are pertinent to Borderland's larger goal, are the time invested by participants in the workshops and the collective nature of what takes place in them. It is these, apparently incidental, aspects of the workshops that transform what group members are learning about nearby communities into personal experiences as they get to know individuals from these communities as human beings rather than as objectified representatives of particular national or ethnic groups.
Inductive empathy could be expressed colloquially in the first person as "we worked together well; X (substitute whatever estranged ethnic or national group one is unfamiliar with) isn't so different from me; maybe he and his community aren't so bad after all."
The "My Story" Project was, unwittingly on my part, predicated upon a similar inductive empathy strategy.
The Rutgers studio class involved the Rutgers and YouthBuild students working together as equals in a semester-long class in which the focus was learning techniques to construct and present one's personal story. This design mirrors the Borderland's empathetic strategy of having local youth from different ethno-national groups training and working together on project-based work, with the covert goal of getting to know each other as human beings rather than as objectified representatives of the other.
The "My Story" Project's covert agenda, which much as in the Borderland's work, was never shared with either group during or after the studio class, was shaped by several hoped for outcomes including:
|To develop a single community of learners out of two groups, which appear on paper to have little in common beyond belonging to the same generation;|
|For the Rutgers students to develop an empathetic understanding, through working together, of near neighbors with fewer material resources than themselves;|
|To go some way toward addressing the low self-esteem of YouthBuild students, through working as equals in a college classroom with university students;|
|To support YouthBuild's efforts to instill in their students an understanding that they can realize their individual potential through a combination of hard work and persistent effort over time.|
Were these ambitions realized? It is too early to tell, since a single class hardly offers sufficient data to address the question. With this in mind, the studio class has become part of ACM's curriculum and one of the ways Rutgers students can fulfill their interdisciplinary graduation requirement, while it is offered to YouthBuild students selected by the organization's staff as a part of their curriculum.
Reading the article "The Culture of Remembering" (see this issue of Public) some months after completing the first "My Story" Project, I realized that memory is a foundational premise for both the Borderland's work and my Newark workshop. That said, even though memory is an important factor in creating community (if not communitas) in both, the dynamics involved are somewhat different in the two settings.
As Galusek and Sieroń-Galusek write in this issue, memory goes to the heart of the Borderland Center's raison d'être. It shapes much of its work, which is largely predicated upon a "culture of remembering." Borderlanders are technicians of memory whose challenge is "neutralizing the demons of the past" by both "analyzing the mechanisms of forgetting" and engaging arts-based strategies to reassert the collective reading of history that has been suppressed by selective forgetting (Abstract). Crucial to this work is what the authors identify as "unforgetting."
Forgetting suggests the loss of something; putting aside linguistic concerns, the onomatopoeic valence of unforgetting, which is clearly not the same for Borderland as remembering, infers a process of rediscovery. To unforget one must first have the memory of something that has been forgotten but remains salvageable. The lost memory in the Polish northeast, where Borderland is located, is the shared, collective experience of suffering and injustice that impacted everyone, regardless of their ethnic or national origins. This perspective on history has been usurped over the years by various ethno-national readings of major historical events, such as the purge of the Jews, the legacy of various wars between Lithuania and Poland, WWII, etc. These readings, which all too often ignore culpability on the part of one's own ethno-national group or cast one's identity group as victim and others as aggressors, are the foundational source of the alienation, distrust, and prejudice each ethno-national group harbors towards those from groups other than one's own.
Borderland's mission in response to this situation has been to retrieve the forgotten, to ameliorate conflict by inculcating the collective over the fractured through the process of unforgetting, which privileges unity over division.
Memory in the "My Story" Project, on the other hand, is less concerned with the capital H history of nation states and politics than it is with lowercase h of personal histories. It is predicated upon using personal, individual memories to realize the collective. The common experience that generates this collective is the creating and sharing of stories from one's past. This is not a process of salvaging an underlying shared collectivity of equals that predates the workshop; the workshop IS the collective, generated by sharing different personal stories shaped by individual experiences that have little to do with anyone else in that workshop.
It is hardly surprising that Krzysztof, as quoted here, characterizes his work as the "cultural archaeology of memory" (Galusek and Sieron-Galusek in this issue, Abstract) given that the process of unforgetting has the ring of the salvaged archival about it. The "My Story" Project, on the other hand, is less concerned with an archaeological process that reaffirms a pre-existing subterranean unity than it is with the sociology of a present shaped by memories rooted in the acculturated human, rather than particular, shared experiences.
Of course, things are never so simple. Despite the fact that the Sejny Chronicles' maquette village spread out upon its rustic table centerpiece is the product of what Krzysztof terms an archeological process, the production's findings, which consisted of examining old photographs, collecting oral histories from village elders, and exploring various myths linked to ethnic and/or national identity, are contained in dramatized scenes, dances, and songs rooted in the near forgotten of a fraught, yet more unified past; while the "My Story" Project is hardly free of the Borderland's metaphor of archaeology in a process that is founded upon "digging up" personal memories linked to identity that are shared with others in a workshop setting based on a theatrical model.
This tangle of strategies might well hint at ways in which an international exemplar can help shape applied public scholarship in one's own country. The immediate circumstances may, as in the cases of Sejny and Newark, be so closely bound to the social geography of place as to make facsimiles problematic. But inspiration drawn from work elsewhere, linked to underlying principles filtered through the dual lenses of committed community partners and one's own professional experience, could well be the very combination to work raw timber into tables that defy borders.
Galusek, Łukasz and Dorota Sieroń-Galusek, 2016. "The Culture of Remembering: Or the Experience of the Borderland Center in Sejny, Poland," Public, Vol 3, Issue 2. http://public.imaginingamerica.org/current/.
Polish Cultural Institute New York. 2015. "The Borderland Foundation" Polish Cultural Institute New York. Accessed November 2, 2015. http://www.polishculture-nyc.org/?itemId=139&eventId=1313.
Watson, Ian. 2014. "The Weave of Cultural Production, Education, and Training in the Work of the Borderland Organization (Pogranicze Organizacja)," Theatre, Dance and Performance Training. 5 (3): 304–320.