Over, Under and Through the Hump

By Njoli Brown

So here we are.  It’s February and all of the emotions that the school year brings feel like they are compressed somehow by the cold.  I think it’s commonly understood that self-care plays directly into the kind of care that we, as educators are able to give our students.  But one of the built-in lessons we can give during this time is a capacity to self-reflect and to recognize when our equilibrium is askew. From here we can determine to take actions both in and out of the classroom to right our sails.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that, very often, we’re only associating the phrase “prep time” as an indicator of the time we put aside to prepare the room, our materials, our resources.  But are we allocating 5 or 10 minutes to psychologically and emotionally prepare for the day?  Did we walk away for 5 minutes in the afternoon to hit the “reset” button? Some deep breaths, some music that brings you joy, some stretches to address the parts of your body that need it, all of these things remind you that you are loved, by you.

The prep that I’m talking about isn’t an anticipation for things we imagine will go wrong.  Instead it’s taking the time to observe yourself when you feel at peace so that you can recognize that feeling as you try to return to it at various points in the day.

Perhaps, as this becomes part of your practice, it becomes a part of your class’s practice as well.

 

5 Questions: A Stage for Love, Sex and Identity

I was fortunate enough, this past year, to begin both a working relationship and friendship with educator, poet, director, joker and generally fascinating person, Bobby Gordon.  I count myself tremendously lucky to be able to tap you into some of the profound work he has in the making.  Enjoy, as he gets back at my 5 Questions.

—–

When I think about the directorial projects that I am most proud of, and why I feel that way, I remember this moment sitting at lunch with my friend Amy Burtaine in Carrboro, North Carolina. We are both arts-activist directors and theater of the oppressed practitioners, and were reflecting on the work that we do. She called what we do “creative midwife-ing” and I absolutely love that. Like midwives, we are helping someone else give birth to something creative that was living inside of them, be it a scene, a poem, or a song. What they create is certainly theirs, not ours, but there is something tangible and beautiful about being in the room and assisting them bring this new art into the world. There is something magical about asking the right question, giving the needed challenge or encouragement, and witnessing them seeing themselves as artists in perhaps a way that they hadn’t before. 

All of the directorial projects I am most proud of, had a big element of this sensation. Of being a creative midwife in the trenches, with an individual or a group, pushing them past where they thought they could go, to create a piece of art to try and change the world around them, changing themselves dramatically in the process.

The first project that comes to mind that falls into this category is actually the project that Amy and I collaborated on together, the Sex Squad. The Sex Squad is group of university students working together in a class to learn about sexual health and arts-activism, and then create their own funny, moving, and interactive performances to take on tour to local high school students to supplement their health education. Sparked by a collaboration with the incredible South African activist, actor, and creative midwife Pieter-Dirk Uys, I founded the UCLA Sex Squad through my work at the UCLA Art & Global Health Center, and the project has since grown with groups in action in North Carolina and Georgia (where the groups are known as Sex-Ed Squads), and high school Sex Squads in Los Angeles and Mexico City.

Displaying DSC_0155.jpgThe Sex Squad is a powerful thing to witness in action, because students dive into their own complex and challenging stories, and offer them to the audience through poetry, music, and interactive theater. The performances don’t involve professional actors with scripts about what might be important to high school students. Instead, the performances involve college students creatively grappling with their own real, ongoing issues. The college student actors are incredibly bold and vulnerable, offering themselves to the audience, and they create a space where high school students are invited to be bold as well, entering into the college student stories (using the technique of forum theater from Theater of the Oppressed) to rehearse these real life situations.

In the past students have created powerful works on a number of topics, including scenes that challenge gender inequity, stand up to homophobia, and explore trying to use a condom with a partner that doesn’t want to (and also has more structural power.) That last part is important. These sexual health situations don’t happen in a vacuum, but inside systems and structures of power, so for a young student to really be an advocate for their own sexual health, they have to challenge the systems that get in the way of that (sexism, homophobia, ageism, and the list goes on…) In the best of scenarios, the college students become creative midwives themselves to the high school students creative social change.

—–

Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.) found me, rather than the other way around. I happened to be at work on a random Tuesday and ended up volunteering at a convening of Imagining America members. I met Brent Blair. The amazing Brent Blair. Brent is a Theater of the Oppressed joker (facilitator/practitioner) and the director of the Applied Theater Arts MA at USC. He told me about his summer intensive, a week of T.O. training. I was in the midst of a million things at work, and preparing to take a new theater piece to a festival, it was not the moment to do an intensive. But something told me I had to. After meeting Brent and hearing about the program, I felt compelled that I had to see what T.O. was all about.

That week of early mornings, late nights, and intensive T.O. workshops told me what I needed to know. T.O. opened a space for play, for wildly and collectively using art to reimagine the world and imagine social change. I wanted more, so I enrolled in the M.A. program which I completed in 2012 and T.O. has been a part of my life ever since.

In my own life, T.O. has been a place to ask questions, to unpack my own privilege (as a heterosexual white American male) and attempt to stand in solidarity with others battling a variety of oppressions without attempting to ride in on any white horses. I’m reminded of the words of Lilla Watson the Indigenous Australian activist, who said, “if you’re here to save me, then you are wasting your time. But if you’re here because your liberation is inextricably linked with mine, then let’s work together.” T.O. is the place in my life for letting go of any savoir complexes I might have and showing up to work together with others. At this moment, in the wake of all of the deaths of young black men at the hands of police, and in the midst of protests and marches, learning to do this work in solidarity is crucial.

—–

Theater of the Oppressed is all about finding the next question, and because of that it requires constant curiosity. A joker has to be genuinely curious about things, about people, ideas, and opportunities. Ultimately, this curiosity is more important than a desire to draw conclusions. Because there is no finish line for social justice work, or arts-activism, in the real world, finding conclusions is not really so useful. A conclusion means the work is done. But this work is never done. What is useful, is fining a way to celebrate the victories that come, in order to refuel for tomorrow.

I do two things to keep refreshing myself and the groups I work with. 1) We make time to celebrate, either with meals, parties, or events where we are together for no purpose other than to be together and honor what we’ve accomplished. And 2) reflection is a part of the ongoing process. We often look at reflection as something that happens after a project. It is like an epilogue, and because of that, when non-profits are strapped for time and money it is often the first thing that people let go of. However, if you look at arts-activism as an ongoing cycle, then reflection becomes a crucial step in the middle of a cycle where you learn the lessons from the past and prepare to make the next cycle as successful as possible. Reflection becomes the crucial first step in a program happening again, and being even better the next time around. If there isn’t time for this, then a group is limiting it’s potential for creativity and growth.

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Again, things find you. I was working at the UCLA Art & Global Health Center when my amazing boss David Gere told me that he was bringing South African artist/activist/satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys to lead a theater workshop on humor and HIV, and would I like to be his assistant. What followed was two weeks of sponging. Pieter’s use of humor to break apart taboo and create spaces to have conversations about the things that frighten us blew my mind open. It was Pieter’s inspiration and methodology that led to the founding of the UCLA Sex Squad.Displaying IMG_2139.jpg

I’ve found that the issues in sexual health are so deeply intersectional, that you end up talking about a wide variety of issues. To have a full conversation about sexual health, you have to talk about gender, sexism, homophobia, race and racism, ageism, and much more because the situations where these issues come up are not in a vacuum. All of these issues are at present and at play, and it is more a matter of trying to be aware of how.

In my own life, as an artist and educator, I’ve been really interested in masculinity because of the strange way I was raised. My parents raised me in an environment where, as a young boy, I had to talk about my feelings. I knew how to share, how to cry, and when I was in social situations with other boys and issues came up, I’d talk about my feelings. This last part didn’t make much sense to the boys around me who’d internalized that boys don’t do that. Their reactions taught me that something was wrong with me.

And then I found slam poetry. I found Youth Speaks, a fantastic youth literary organization, and not too long after that I found myself on a stage sharing poetry. People weren’t making fun of me for sharing my feelings. They were applauding. In art I found a space to challenge the gender norm and it felt like fully being myself in public in a way I hadn’t in a long time. It felt like being seen. And heard. For who I really was.

My art and activism is in large part about queering masculinity, about opening up a space where men can be different. Where men can feel, and express, question, and not need to subscribe to a system that gives them (us) power, but at the expense of everyone else, and through a hegemonic limiting of what it can mean to be a man.

I should probably say now that I was born into a house where the taboo of sex was not so taboo. My dad was a retired adult film star and my mom (a marriage and family therapist) used to do therapy with pre-orgasmic women, talking them through exploring their bodies. I was taught that sex can be a good thing. I was taught to have a “normal” and healthy relationship with sex, and this made my sisters and I very fucked up in the world.

In 2010 I began working on a one-man show called Debbie Does My Dad, which explored my experiences of growing up with a porn star dad, and coming into my own sexual identity. I knew my dad to be sweet and sensitive. Was he that? Or was he really the stereotype our society has of male porn stars? And if he was sweet, and knew what people thought of porn stars, why would he choose that? And what did all of this say about who I was?

Ultimately in my own sexual experiences, I’ve found that it was a rich and valuable gift to able to talk openly. You have better sex, for one. If you can say what you want, then you just might get it. And if you can ask what the other(s) want, then you’ve got a much better shot at providing it. Silence benefits no one. All it does is reinforce this status quo where men are supposed to know what to do, and women are supposed to go along with things, and the heteronormativity of society makes it so that’s it’s only men with women in this example. If there’s anything I’ve learned about the status quo, is that it sucks and needs changing. For me, gender, sex, and sexual health is a crucial arena for this change. I’ve found it in my art, and in my life, and it keeps getting better because of it.

—–

In doing work on the topic of sex, I find that international boundaries are of less importance than cultural ones. Even within one city there are a wide range of communities with vastly different cultural norms around sex and taboos. What can you say? What can’t you say? What can you do? What can’t you? And why?
As a cultural field worker, I find the question mark to be my most important tool in navigating this challenge. I mentioned privilege earlier. In many instances, it is my privilege as a white male American with the right business card to be able to travel somewhere and do a workshop. And then it’s my internalized privilege that would have me believe that I know what the workshop participants need, even though their lives are vastly different from mine in so many ways.

It would be really easy for me to go into community unaware of all of this and knock things off the shelves with my unpacked privilege. And I have to admit that I probably have done this on numerous occasions. Ultimately, all this does is reinforce a system that privileges white American men, and does nothing to challenge that or seek equality and liberation.

However, if I can come in with questions, the relationship shifts. Privilege is still very much in the room, but there is least space for something different to take place. I am able to be full of care, but not careful. I’m not walking on egg shells, trying not to offend or to pretend like I know things I don’t. I am trying to own my not knowing with grace and playfulness. I am an outsider in a community, state, or country, and I have to own that fact, and be real about why I’m there. Who invited me? And I have to be transparent if I don’t know anything about what it is like for the people who live there. What I do have to offer, are my skills as a T.O. practitioner, an artist, and everything in my tool kit as a human being.

I have to give up the reigns of where things are going, and be open to helping the group discover where it wants to go. If and when I can do that successfully, the what takes place in the room is a fuller collaboration between the workshop participants as the artists and myself as a creative midwife.


 

Bobby Gordon

Displaying 1965040_10103131762744176_1286777273_n.jpgBobby Gordon is an arts-based activist working with theater of the oppressed, devised theater, spoken word poetry, and an enduring belief in the power of laughter. Earning his B.A. from UCLA in World Arts & Cultures and an M.A. from USC in Applied Theater Arts, Gordon is the founder of the UCLA Sex Squad, an activist sexual health theater troupe, and co-founder of the Melrose Poetry Bureau, a collective that creates live, interactive poetry installations. Currently, Gordon is researching arts-activism in various forms throughout Brazil, while remaining active as the Director of Special Programs for the UCLA Art & Global Health Center.

Current Projects:

Bobby is currently building a study abroad program for UCLA students to study Theater of the Oppressed in Rio.  Also he is actively developing the Melrose Poetry Bureau, a collective he co-founded with Nayeli Adorador, manifesting live and interactive poetry writing.

Why Train in Winter? Bodyweight Training for the Uninitiated

By Njoli Brown

I had a couple of moments this Christmas morning and, yes, here I am doing a little writing.  Maybe it’s because I know I’m about to go out and eat all kinds of delicious foods and spend some wonderful quality time with friends.  All that being said, I know this day will pass and I will be back to my process of building and developing my martial practice.

Now, none of this is to say I’ve been taking a break from my regular training, but my thought has been that a little extra diligence always has to happen during the winter months if I really want to take things to another level.  It’s the season where rich foods, nog drinks and all the rest bring us comfort.  I speak all this from a place of familiarity because I’m not one of those who was born with the natural gladiator genetics.  I have to work hard and consistently to put myself at high gear.

At the same time as winter draws us psychologically into a state of comforted hibernation, it is also the prime opportunity to make huge leaps and bounds.  As a general rule, spring ends up being a time of recovery and so, by end of summer, we hopefully reach our prime again.  Imagine if we built all the way through winter, and spring and summer were just continuing parts of the evolutionary process.


It may not be the time for your long outdoor runs (depending on where you’re living) but it’s definitely a great time for exploring the wonderful world of body weight training.  I’m not going to pretend to be a personal trainer or to be the go to source for advice but I did want to include some resources that I’ve found.

All of this being said, though, do your own research and know that your goals are out in front of you.  Winter can be a time for steps back or steps forward.  You choose.

Men’s Fitness article on bodyweight exercises

Just a little starter to remind you that the exercises you need in order to start your practice are well within your grasp and don’t require much, if any, equipment or space.

http://www.mensfitness.com/training/build-muscle/back-to-basics-the-best-bodyweight-exercises

The Complete Book of Abs by Kurt Brungardt

This book, along with The Complete Book of Shoulders and Arms, is a veritable bible of exercises.  But alongside that, it sets up a huge glossary of routines for you to scroll through, progressing week by week, month by month.  I know most of us don’t have the coin for our own personal trainer but having someone help you to establish a routine and then bouncing it off your doctor or a fitness professional might just be the first steps towards finding your own discipline.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Complete-Book-Abs-Expanded/dp/0375751432

Youtube:  44 Best (Beginner) Bodyweight Exercises Ever!

44 tremendously unpretentious bodyweight exercises.  Maybe you just feel like your exercise vocabulary is lacking or you just know that you’re more of a visual learner.  I found this video online and really enjoyed the fact that there was nothing in this that felt out of reach for the absolute beginner and, at the same time, relevant for adaptation as someone progresses.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEMcHVwzHPA

Fertile Soil For Seeds To Grow

By Njoli Brown

I’ve recently returned from another visit to Seattle.  Pastinha Weekend, an event that the International Capoeira Angola Foundation hosts annually in order to acknowledge our lineage, to reflect on the roles of revolution figures of African descent and to reconnect with our family and friends.  The weekend was beautifully put together and had all the richness and love that I’ve come to expect from these gatherings.  As an educator though, I wanted to reflect a bit on Mestre Silvinho’s standout capacity to create a nurturing environment within which his group seems to have truly flourished.

Mestre Silvinho @ FICA NY, 2013
Mestre Silvinho @ FICA NY, 2013

Holding space as a mestre of Capoeira Angola, as a teacher and as a mentor presents a wide array of challenges and rewards. Profoundly, this person is both, responsible for the maintenance of a centuries old tradition and, simultaneously, must assert the viability of traditional culture in contemporary society.  It isn’t enough for them to deny the existence of the word in which they live but they must also have a critical and evolving vision of how to reconcile the humanity of their community with the society wherein they function.

What make Silvinho’s model so particularly distinct is the feeling of mutual respect that he propagates within his collective.  Not only does he humbly distinguish himself as a remarkably knowledgeable and responsible patriarch, but he so clearly and openly recognizes the strengths and hopes of the members within his group.

That being said, while he provides the trajectory, his group drives its own forward motion.  As a teacher the best example we can often set is in our capacity to allow leadership to disseminate throughout.  True, there is no one else who has the capacity to teach capoeira at the same measure, but their functioning grant writing commission? The healthy foods project? Their regularly organized occasions for fraternization?  The youth projects? All of these are student inspired and driven.

Fertile soil for seeds to grow.  Inspiring to see things come to fruit Northwest.

Snowpocalypse

An activity for… well, whomever.

I do this initiative in some of my classes called “Snowpocalypse.”  It starts with everyone in the class taking scraps of paper and writing things they do for themselves and things they do for others, one item on each piece of paper.  The collection of things they do for themselves focused particularly on things that they enjoy, whether at home, in school or out in the world, and the things they do for others should be focused on things they do by choice, not because they are mandated.  Perhaps these are things they do because they bring them personal joy or because they are needs that they see should  be met and they recognize their distinct capacity to do so. Next we ball all of these scraps up into “snowballs” and have a 4-5min snowball fight.  Afterwards we all go about the task of picking them up (yes, this activity cleans itself up) and sticking them in their appropriate places on a Vinn diagram divided into:

  • Things I do for myself
  • Things I do for others
  • Things I do for my community (in the intermediary position)

We take time to look at what we’ve constructed and give space for anyone to move the position of an action to some new category.  We find that a thing which so often one person thought of as completely selfish endeavor, from the perspective of another, was a action of tremendous generosity.  We process this by delving into a discussion around how we can make simple, every day things into opportunities for transformation and building. All this is to explain a process wherein we guide students to understand their capacity to affect change and growth in their communities.  We come to recognize that service and personal fulfillment can be interwoven when each is approached with the proper perspective.  We start realizing that “labors of love” don’t have to seem so laborious. I’m always curious about ways in which facilitators, instructors, educators guide their students on this empowering journey of self-realization and I hope to continue sharing inspiring activities as I encounter them.  And I hope to keep encountering them… so feel free to send some my way.

Teaching Without Teachers

Sometimes I think the only way to be a teacher is to have no personal need for students, not the financial need, the egotistical need.  There only needs to be a desire for learning in order for teaching to occur.

…having the capacity to speak plainly and to be… plainly.

…teaching without teaching

…a dialogue between mutually respected peers in humanity

without dilution or fear

without the intention to incite

…letting go of the floors and ceilings

Spring Into Summer, Summer to Fall: The Bridge Between Camp and School

By Njoli Brown

I first started teaching out in Seattle about, I’d say, 14 years ago.  I worked in a small independent elementary school (Happy Medium Craig-SeasholesElementary aka The Giddens School) and, over the course of a few years, worked in almost every possible capacity, co- teaching, after school programming, special programs, 4th grade, 5th grade, kindergarten.  It was a wonderful place to learn the craft of teaching.  I was surrounded by amazingly dedicated and inspired teachers, most of whom, seamlessly integrated their own creative, artistic selves into the task of designing curriculum.

Now, I’ve never been much of a non-worker so, during our summer breaks I’d search out gigs where I could simultaneously work and still feed my desire to explore and to spend time in beautiful places.  The idea of working camp just dropped into my lap. It was all of those things at once, existing in places all over the world and with a direct developmental relationship to the kind of capacity I wanted to build, inspiring young people to discovery.

Again, I’ve done the range of camp gigs.  I’ve been a backpacking lead, athletics director, youth development director, program developer, etc. and in all of those things it’s occurred to me this special potential, this bridge where learning can happen in the midst of a time where young people feel liberated to truly be themselves.  Camp experiments with creating the illusion of boundlessness while maintaining the boundaries that keep spaces safe.  At the same time they often miss the teachable moments because they are blinded by the lessons they imagine their charges should be learning.  high ropes course

Perhaps it’s because of the majority number of inexperienced, although tremendously energetic, staff.  Maybe it is because of the precarious balancing act the administration has to play in order to protect its revenue stream, by sustaining the “care-free” ideal.  It could be a discomfort with or lack of capacity to train staff to recognize teachable moments and not to shy away from them.  Whatever the case may be, when I see camp really working, it is a marvelous thing.

I spent a couple of years working with a summer program called Morry’s Camp.  The interesting thing about this project is it’s integrative goal of providing an exciting outdoor experience while recognizing the importance of making space for a social justice component, an academic tutorial piece and career internship opportunities.  During the school year they arrange for meet-ups, field trips, etc. and, by doing this, they recognize the student as a fully rounded being and introduce a new perspective on “year ’round” education,” making recreation and emotional development an equivocal part of the process.  There is a true sense of dedication to the youth as a “camper,” a scholar and a part of society at large.

There are other programs which do this successfully (i.e. Outward Bound, SIT: World Learning) and as many which view summer programs as a chance for kids to “get away from it all.”  I’m not one to say which of these perspectives is wrong or right but solely to draw attention to the possibilities.

School, as well, has been an experimental process highed-nodewith as many  iterations as there are students to teach.  I think it’s become fairly recognized
that, nationally (and I speak in general terms), schools model themselves as much in relationship to  the evolution of student thinking as they do in relationship to the type of thinking that is required for the era, whether this speaks to market or social requirements.
This being said its been quite a while since the production line model of education has been an appropriate metaphor for real world success.  Alternative classrooms are not the end all and be all.  In fact, at times they can be as exclusive as they are inclusive but a holistic perspective on teaching engages the array of different “intelligences” which are required to share an educational space.

The bridge between camp and school.  Historically they have been seen as a relief, one from the other.  But many of the things that make each wonderful, individually, could be a welcome addition to the toolbox of the other.


 

Be on the lookout for my article later this season…

Who Camps?  The racial, social, economic divide in the summer camp experience. who camps

 

Handing the Reigns to Your Students

By Njoli Brown

Are you setting your students up to take the reigns?

I know there’s still a couple of months left before the school year officially comes to a close but for those of us who facilitate co-curricular programs that time is rolling quickly toward us.  It’s a wonderful gift, the opportunity to bring arts, athletic and social education into schools, but the true gift is seeing your students find the inspiration to motivate their own explorations beyond that.

Often this time of year has us extremely focused on seeing final projects come to fruition, finalizing paperwork and providing a sense of closure for our students, many of whom we are unsure if we will be seeing again since our presence in their school is contingent on the receipt and renewal of grant monies or direct sales.  With all of this said, one of the most empowering things we can do is provide resources and suggestions for means through which students can pursue new found passions.  By doing this we really meet out the goal of generating an environment which acts as a wellspring for ingenuitive young people.

youth activism

Drawing attention to some of the free and low cost opportunities available in your area can often be a first step…

Activism:

(TAP) Teen Activist Project

“TAP is an exciting youth program that engages New York City teens as organizers and peer educators on civil rights and civil liberties.”     http://www.nyclu.org/issues/youth-and-student-rights/teen-activist-project

 

Amnesty International – Youth In Action

“From New York City to San Francisco, from Detroit to San Antonio, young people across the US are standing up and making noise for human rights! No matter how big or small, there is no better way of becoming involved in the global community than by taking a stance on human rights. With over 1,000 student and youth groups across the nation and growing, Amnesty International is leading this charge. The time is now. Lend your voice.” http://www.amnestyusa.org/resources/students-and-youth 

Visual Arts:

Free Photoshop Alternatives              http://gizmodo.com/5974500/10-photoshop-alternatives-that-are-totally-free

Free Arts NYC

“The Teen Arts Program (TAP) provides teens with regular access to NYC cultural institutions and opportunities to explore the arts as a potential academic or professional goal.” http://www.freeartsnyc.org/programs/teen-arts-program/

Literary Arts:

NY Writers Coalition

“NYWC’s workshop method is designed to reduce competition amongst writers and allows writers of all backgrounds, ages, experience levels and genres to work together to grow as writers. Workshop size is limited to ensure that each member receives enough time and attention.

Workshop participants write during the workshop and receive positive, supportive feedback. We do not critique brand new writing, because the writer has not yet had a chance to read or revise it. In addition, it is assumed that all writing done in the workshop is fictional. Workshop leaders also write as part of the group, providing a model for taking risks and showing vulnerability in a group setting. These guidelines ensure that participants feel safe to write and read aloud even the riskiest material.

Writers are given the freedom to find and strengthen their individual and unique voices as well as to experiment with form, style and new genres. In addition, the workshop provides a structure for writers to produce new work on a regular basis. Workshop members become part of a community of writers, easing some of the isolation that writers and those in marginalized groups often encounter.” http://nywriterscoalition.org/programs/programs-for-youth/

Meu Lepo Lepo: Reflections of a White Capoeirista Returning from Latin America

By Marian Dalke

It is a freezing cold night in Brooklyn. Disoriented after a 12-hour flight from Salvador, Brazil I seek refuge in a warm bowl of soup at a smoothie bar on 5th Ave. My lentils pale in comparison to the exotic foods advertised on the menu. Açai: superfood Brazilian berry and Pitaya: the newest anti-oxidant cure-all. I smile to myself. For the past four months I’ve been eating açai, pitaya, cupuaçu, abiu, jambu and other “exotic” fruits grown by my friends. Now all I want are some good old lentils.

I am reading a book in Portuguese, the men at the table next to me are speaking Spanish, and talking to me in English.

What world am I in?

What world have I been in?

Traveling through Mexico, Central America and Brazil for the past four months has kept my mind spinning in a mix of languages, foods, cultures and questions– about globalization, appropriation, race and humanity: who we are, what we are made of, and how we try to be different. I’d like to use this article as a space to explore some of the experiences and questions that came up for me, about how to preserve – and yet ethically exchange — traditional cultures in a globalized & commodified world.

I had been dreaming of this trip for 7 years. When I was eighteen, working and traveling in Central America for seven months, I had promised to return, to re-visit the people and places I had come to know. I told myself I wasn’t going to be another “irresponsible” tourist, showing up in someone else’s country, in someone else’s life, having an “experience” and then peacing out. As I fleshed out my plans, the trip adopted other purposes. Studying tropical plants and food traditions, improving my Spanish and Portuguese, and training Capoeira Angola (an Afro-Brazilian martial art) would all strengthen my work as a food justice organizer and ally in Philadelphia’s Latino communities.

While traveling, I inevitably crossed paths with many others like myself: people from the global north wintering or living in Latin America, claiming temporary residence there. I asked them, as I kept asking myself, “Why did you come to Guatemala? What are you looking for in Nicaragua?” “Why are you in Brazil?”

The sense I got from the answers to my questions was that we had come to the global south in search of a culture and life style we found lacking in our home countries. We had left corporate, isolated, stressful lives to learn and live a whole variety of alternative practices: permaculture, yoga, capoeira, tai chi. Some of us came for spiritual clarity by finding our Mayan astrological signs, or having our cards read by a bruja in Nicaraguan town of Diribá, or to speaking to the Pai Santo to grant us our Orixá. Some of us were looking to buy land, to start intentional communities, development projects or cooperatives – because land is too expensive in the US. I felt most challenged by foreigners who had bought land abroad. Do new ageists make up the next wave of manifest destiny, I wondered, with Latin America as ‘virgin’ territory? I mentioned this to a friend of mine back the states. “Why didn’t you stay there,” he joked, “Weren’t in the colonial mindset?”

There is also deep irony here. While people from the global north are flocking south to “find themselves,” many people living in these host countries continue to strive for the dominant u.s. culture that is constantly imported into their communities. I met many Latin Americans eager to practice their English, proud of buying their own cars, flat-screen TVs and Xboxs. I can’t tell you how many people were excited to bake pizza with me. Many prefer shopping at the supermarkets and shopping malls than the outdoor markets that I was eager to get lost in. Many were looking to leave behind the same cultural practices that folks from the u.s. were so desperate to adopt.

And of course there are those who are familiar with both sides of the border and both kinds of life. Enrique is a friend of mine from a tiny town outside Veracruz, Mexico who lived and worked in Northeastern Ohio for several years. I asked him how he thought the quality of life compared in the united states and Mexico. Enrique replied that it’s different. In the u.s. it’s better in regards to money and material wealth, while in Mexico health, lifestyle, and family unity lead to a better kind of quality of life. So again, those of us in the global north fed up with consumerism and unhealthy lifestyles flee south in search of a ‘better’ life while those in the global south, many with real material needs, continue to push north in search of material wealth to support their families and create a ‘better’ life.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. Where do we draw the line between useful, mutual exchange between cultures and appropriation or exploitation? I’m not convinced that mutual exchange is even possible given the power inequities among countries, the histories of colonization, imperialism and resource extraction.

As someone who’s always been eager to learn about and engage with cultures different than my own, I believe that we need to shift from european dominance, to stop holding up european ideals as the measure of success. I believe it is important to understand and view our lives through other cultures and cosmologies. Even so, I’m continually challenged about how to do this ethically, without reinforcing imposition and oppression.

These questions are particularly acute for me as a white woman practicing Capoeira Angola. As part of my trip, I spent three weeks training in Bahia, the birthplace of this Afro-Brazilian martial art, dance, conversation, and resistance practice. Brazil is home the largest population of African-descendents outside of Africa, due to the slave trade that brought from anywhere from 4 to 10 million enslaved Africans to work in sugar plantations. Capoeira evolved from coming of age rituals practiced by peoples in Angola and other areas of Southwestern Africa and served as a means to disguise their training from the plantation owners and overseers.

Today, capoeira is a major export of Bahia. Tourists head home with tiny berimbau necklaces around their necks, pictures of themselves posing with capoeiristas doing backflips beside them, and caxixis made exclusively for the World Cup. The Mercado Modelo in Salvador, the site where enslaved people were detained before being sold, is now a tourist trap, with capoeira demonstrations out back and thousands of knick knacks to waste your money on. In an extremely blatant example of black face, you can stand in the Praça da Sé behind a mannequin of a Baiana, with all the ingredients for acarajé spread before you – another great photo-op for facebook.

In these ways, I saw capoeira being used in Bahia as a commodity. What does that mean for a cultural practice created by enslaved people to resist colonization and oppression? Once African enslaved people were treated as a commodity, and now their practice of cultural resistance has become one as well.

At the same time, this prevalence of capoeira can be seen as a celebration and embracing of Bahia’s African heritage. And the capoeiristas playing in the Terreiro de Jesus are entrepreneurs clever enough to capitalize on tourists’ curiosity to make a living by playing capoeira. There’s always a both/and way to view things.

There are those committed to preserving Capoeira in its original form and purpose. In an attempt to grant capoeira legitimacy, the late Mestre Pastinha is responsible for moving Capoeira Angola from the streets into the academy. In many ways in the US, this shift has taken capoeira from its base as a people’s art and made it elite, available only for those able to afford to attend classes (often in liberal arts colleges, which is how I began practicing it). Although establishing a place in the academy may help preserve Capoeira Angola, it has also confined it. Mestre Cobra Mansa of FICA spoke of how capoeira is losing its originality, with everyone training and learning the same form, the same movements. The creativity and spunk that came from the street is getting lost.

Another Mestre I met in Bahia dedicated to both preserving and propagating Capoeira Angola is Mestre Boca do Rio. I attended the “Voltas que o mundo da” event held to celebrate his return to Brazil after living in Spain for many years. Mestre Boca do Rio framed the conference around the theme of the globalization of capoeira. During a panel discussion, he expressed his concern with the quality of capoeira that is being exported and taught. Mestre complained of Brazilians traveling to other countries and falsely claiming to be experts in capoeira. With its global popularity, many imposters arise to fill the increased demand for teachers.

My critique of capoeira’s globalization centers more on all the white people practicing capoeira (myself included). I would like to participate in more discussion of this among our groups. What does it mean to be a European-descended person practicing an art form developed by enslaved people to resist white supremacy? Given the parallels between the u.s. and Brazil in their experience of slavery and racism, I find that it makes sense to me to practice Capoeira Angola here. In the united states, I find Capoeira Angola as site for anti-oppression work. Within my group, we form deep friendships of mutual aid and support through training together in this African-descended practice. In a recent interview, my teacher Contra Mestre Kamau shared his own thoughts on this:

Clearly, I’m an African and this is an African Brazilian martial art and it’s only right that you have people who share that lineage, culture and connection and spiritual energy in your circle.  I’ve always wanted that and I still want that but that’s not the only component to creating a positive and workable energy and it took me a lot of time and thought to gain the maturity to recognize and understand that.  That was a big thing for me.

What then, of capoeira in Europe, where groups are primarily white, and don’t share “that lineage, culture…and spiritual energy?” When I asked this of a French woman training in Bahia, she replied, “We all are enslaved to something,” she told me, “We all have things to be liberated from.” I believe this: we all have obstacles, challenges, and forces that hold us back. Capoeira can help gives us tools to confront such barriers. Yet the fields on which we play are not equal, in large part because of the awful, crushing violence and abuse of slavery and the resulting legacy of racism.

I witnessed lots of alternative lifestyles and resistance practices throughout my travels Latin America. Despite hip hop being a major capitalist industry, it is alive across the world as a form of resistance and justice. I witnessed a dope hip hop battle in Puebla, Mexico among three youth spitting about respect (though homophobia still was rampant in their lyrics). I was also excited to see another alternative culture taking root in Mexico, as I watched a troupe of roller girls out recruiting new members and lots of goth kids hanging out in the zócalo. One bizarre cross-cultural moment for me was practicing tai chi aerobics and eating vegetarian food with Salvadorean Taoists in San Salvador.

Aside from those adapting and embracing cultures from abroad, many of the friends I visited while traveling are actively preserving their own cultures. Werner teachs Nahuat, an indigenous language almost extinct in El Salvador. Roxana, who is proud to be a professional and a campesina in Nicaragua, prefers to cook with firewood and wash clothes by hand. Jerry buys stones mined ethically around Nicaragua and incorporates them into his jewelry. Paulinho is busy working to build a cultural center in his hometown in Northern Brazil as a venue for regional music and a platform to engage folks in community organizing.

I believe it’s important for us to know our own cultures and be grounded in them as we encounter and exchange with cultures different than ours. To have roots to return to. I must know my own history, and understand the reasons why I am interested in learning other cultures’ histories and practices.

This isn’t the kind of thing that will have a conclusion. It’s about conversations and wrestling with unjust power dynamics – on international and interpersonal levels – towards genuine mutual exchange and growth. It’s about sitting at the table with people who are like you and people who are different, be it in front of a bowl of açai or lentil soup, and working together to figure out who we are, and who we want to be, as individuals and as a world. I pray only–as people continue to travel, to search, to exchange and fuse cultural practices–that the source of revolution and resistance stays present and alive in the cultures we share.

OUTTAKES:

Exoticism. Early colonizers, anthropologists, studying the “Other” living with people different than them.

How is capoeira’s exportation different than that of yoga?

Yet sometimes being in another culture reinforces who you are. You aren’t cognizant of being US when you live in the US. Need to be an other to realize who you are.

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Even so, this search for ‘modernization’ can be deceiving. Take El Salvador for example. Long an unofficial colony of the States, El Salvador has used U.S. currency since 2001. People often attribute their economic decline to the americanization of the currency.  When I asked two friends what they were proud of their country, “nothing,” they both replied. They felt it had sold out, and had no more culture to respect. The presence of gang violence is so thick that people live in fear of picking up the phone, of going out. I heard countless stories of threats made on the phone, hold-ups on buses, shootings in internet cafes, kidnappings. And it’s known that this gang violence yet another U.S. export, as a result of racism experienced by Salvadorean immigrants in California in the 1980s (source from Karen?). “I like Nicaragua,” my friends told me, “it’s safer there. You can trust people.”

Nicaragua, in contrast to El Salvador, has a long history of resistance to U.S. imperialism, with resistance William Walker’s imposed government in the 1850s, to Sandino’s presence in the 1920s, to the contra wars in defense of the Sandista revolution. When I asked two friends from Nicaragua about their pride for their country, they stated they were proud of “our indigenous history” and “that we are free.” (Even so, Nicaragua is fast modernizing. Deal with china to build canal through lakes the open it to free market and more abuse- opinion that canal will just benefit china and not nicaragua)

What are we looking for? How can we possibly find ourselves in cultures different than our own?

Making a Space for Truth

By Njoli Brown

I just finished reading an article about the experience of a homeless teen revealing his predicament to his teacher and his class.  In the context of a project called StoryCorpU, this young man decided to take the huge leap to sharing his situation in a scenario in which he had previously been ridiculed, at times, and even bullied.

What spoke to me most profoundly was the idea that a difficult situation can be transformed with real intention and active strategizing.  This program developed by NPR, the teacher’s willingness and action in working past her own discomfort and a classroom forum where honesty is rewarded.  Now, there’s nothing to say that this all works out with a fairy tale ending.  But the real telling moment is this quote from, teacher, Celeste Davis-Carr…

“I want to see you happy… Just your smile is the best moments of you.”

The idea isn’t that we have all the answers or that we will all magically create the projects that draw out our communal truths in one big dam breaking moment.  But, we can make a practice of recognizing teachable moments and diligently searching out initiatives and activities that will tap into undiscovered potential.  Remembering this, I think, makes us all better educators and allows our young people opportunities to be their best selves.

Check out the article and listen to the student recording…

A Homeless Teen Finds Solace In A Teacher And A Recording

http://www.npr.org/2014/03/07/286921391/a-homeless-teen-finds-solace-in-a-teacher-and-a-recording?ft=1