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Doris Sommer Discusses Her Work With Cultural Agents

Excerpts from NPi's

On August 6th, 2009, Doris Sommer, Faculty Director of Cultural Agents, participated in NPi’s community dialogue, “Building Community Online and Offline” at City Year. Additional speakers included Dave McLaughlin from Boston World Partnerships and Joseph Porcelli from Neighbors for Neighbors. NPi community dialogues bring together local leaders to discuss lessons learned, current projects, and potential collaborations. Click here for pictures and video from the event. Below are some excerpts from the conversation.

About Cultural Agents

I am the director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University. What Cultural Agents does is very much in the spirit of NPi because it puts a positive spin on problems as we explore creative solutions to problems that may seem intractable. This is especially urgent at the university. Those of you who remember courses or who are still taking courses at universities probably remember that much of the human and social sciences is infused with pessimism. Very intelligent reflections amount to affirming how bad things are and that this cannot be helped. Asking how to intervene sounds naïve in many university courses.

Cultural Agents looks outside, as well as inside, the university to people who perform and create arts, including interpretation, that make contributions to society. There are an incredible number of these cultural agents who can recognize one another as such, no matter how varied their practices are. What we do is think about what they teach us, reflect on it, and then learn from them to multiply their practices. We host workshops to promote their best work through more agents, not only research. Let me just give you an example of one spectacular cultural agent:

Does anybody know about Bogotá, Colombia? Until about 15 years ago, it was the worst city in the hemisphere. It was the only American city—American, meaning the hemisphere—that was on the advisory list for the State Department. You were strongly advised not to go there. To risk a trip and get into trouble would not oblige the State Department to save the traveler. Bogotá was violent, corrupt, chaotic. It was a hell hole of the drug business. And in 1995, a very strange and brilliant academic was elected. His name was Antanas Mockus. He is a philosopher and a mathematician. After about a month of not figuring out what to do because all of the conventional interventions were not going to work—What would happen if you gave stimulus packages to a city that was run by the drug lords? What would happen if you put more armed police on the streets when the police were in cahoots with the same criminals, right? Nothing conventional was going to work. What Mockus finally did was fire the traffic cops and put 20 mimes at the traffic lights to direct traffic. [Laughter] Exactly! People started smiling and looking at each other and saying, what do you think of that? It was the first time in a long time that there was any contact on the street. And where there was a public for this spectacle, you had a public to talk about corruption, reform, water—you could talk to them about anything.

After 10 years—we’ll just cut to the chase—after 10 years the homicide rate was reduced by about 70%, income to the city was increased three-fold, people started paying their taxes and in excess of what they owed because they wanted to support a new library or a new park or whatever was on the menu. And that’s one cultural agent. We’re not studying Mockus in government departments. We’re not studying him in performance art. Cultural Agents is a proposal precisely to study a character like Mockus, and there are many around the world who do creative arts to change society in very profound ways.

Another initiative that we’ve learned a lot from… is a creative literacy program that I started to talk about, which we implement around Boston, in New York, all over Colombia, Mexico, lots of places called Paper Picker Press. We learned it from young people in Lima who thought that they would set up a publishing house with recycled material. They connected the greatest writers in Peru to donate unpublished work, work with garbage collectors to get clean cardboard and decorate it, and make beautiful books. But nobody was buying these beautiful books, not because the modest price was too high, but because few people wanted to read fiction and poetry. So instead of closing up shop, they decided that they had to make readers, not just books. And they figured out how to do it, brilliantly. I teach literature for a living. That’s my day job. And I can gauge the dimension of this contribution. They figured out that literature itself is recycled material; it’s not just the covers. Literature is made of words, ideas, characters, thoughts that people borrow and rob and change from great writers, and that’s how they themselves become great writers. Tell me a plot that William Shakespeare made up. [Laughter]

And once you let kids in on that joke, they can keep spinning and riffing and changing great literature, make it theirs, and really learn how to read deeply and with detail because they’re using stuff. They all become artists… The best artists that we’ve been working with are spoken word artists and performance artists. There’s a great hip hop group in Colombia who live in Bogotá, not on the coast who are doing this program all over Colombia… and really making literacy not only fun, but incredibly deep. Because as I say, to recycle—you have to know what the material is. This project is something that I would like to develop even more. We’re doing it a little bit in Boston, but I would like to develop it more and in general, make connections with you to see how to promote arts as social engagement.

In response to the question: How have you found online tools to enhance or strengthen your communities? How have you found them to limit your community building efforts?

[Social media] is very powerful today. There are very few of us who are not using the media this way. For us, the website has been a good way to identify us, but the best way to get people to understand what we do is to start playing. It really is a hands-on approach to social development. Just reading about it is an introduction at best; but the powerful moment is creative participation. I’m struck by [Dave McLaughlin’s] narrative of getting people together and then the dynamic happens. You need the ice breaker, but that’s just the beginning.

In response to: How do you create spaces for meaningful face-to-face interaction and networking or conversation? How have you done in this in your organizations? Or how have you struggled with this?

Convening through a purpose is our way. It’s a very interesting question—how do you make community. I’ll just give you a story because this is the medium that we all work in. We are going to do a five day workshop to prepare for this literacy program that I talked about called the Paper Picker Press. We were going to do this workshop in the Lower East Side, and a psychiatrist who is part of the team now was sure that we had to develop community with the instructors and the artists before we started the training. I was skeptical because just making community so that you can do work didn’t seem to make sense to me. It didn’t seem to make sense to anybody else either. We will make community through the work. I’m looking forward to that. So there’s something about convening with a purpose, and a loose purpose, so that people can find deeper levels of connection as [Joseph Porcelli] was saying, too.

I think that this rich human capital people are talking about in Boston is one way of signaling the fact that things matter to us. Lots of different things matter to us, and so I think that finding collective interests or commitments is the way to doing something. Class is not something you inherit; you develop it.

In response to: How do you keep members of your community, volunteers within your organizations accountable?

[Dave McLaughlin], you say give the people that you’re working with leadership. Make them the president of something. They have to own whatever it is that you’re hoping to create. You’re just facilitating. That’s one reason that working with artists for us is a model for social development. Because you can’t give anything to an artist without them changing it. That’s what they do. And they can change it and actually develop the spirit of what you’re trying to facilitate. There are very few basic rules of intellectual and social development that will evaporate if you just empower people to be authors of the initiative, of the work. And that’s in fact what we’re trying to teach kids, too. If kids aren’t authors of what they’re doing, they’re being imposed upon and they don’t want to learn… Children love to learn, but they hate to be taught… People like to make things up for themselves, discover what it is that they’re getting out of an organization and make it up as they go along.

On bringing the community together to solve social problems

I wanted to say something that links up with the Neighbors For Neighbors. One thing that you, [Joseph Porcelli], made me think of was a problem that we were called in to think about. It was in Mattapan. A classroom of 6th graders who had just graduated the Renaissance School were complaining bitterly to their English teacher all year about how they hate the policemen in their neighborhood because the cops don’t pay any attention to them. They’re just waiting for the kids to get into trouble, and they don’t attend to the kids’ problems while they’re children. So the teacher got in touch with the MIT community development office and they got in touch with us, Cultural Agents. What we did was host a workshop with those 6th graders, their families, and the policemen. I said if we don’t have the Mattapan police there, it doesn’t make any sense to do the workshop.

What we managed to generate is artwork together, interpretative artwork together, and the book that we used was Invisible Man. That can work very well. To see police officers work with those 6th graders developing painting and rap and sculpture, human sculpture—it was a way to break the ice between them and to show that both sides were interpreting things in various ways, but in possible ways. Then we broke into a discussion about the tension and they heard each other. And the kids heard that the police really have urgent issues sometimes to deal with; they can’t deal with a robbery when there’s a stabbing. It got to that. But the kids were more relaxed about not being heard because for the first time they heard the police… Sometimes we want to bring together a community around issues that we can solve together creatively. It’s important to have our feelers out to see where those problems are and try to attend and create community around solutions.

On encouraging participation in organizations, letting the organizational models change and evolve

[Artists say] fail. Fail again. Fail better. Because artists and scientists, especially engineers, but any scientist—they know that they’re playing with material. Sometimes something good will happen with it, but you never know when. You just keep playing with it. And you, [Joseph Porcelli], were saying that you just assume that everyone in the community is a leader. We assume that everybody is an artist. Everybody has to put their lives together every day in a way that they hadn’t put them together the day before. It’s a way of sharing that self-authorizing spirit that lets you tell a story and know that it’s connected to other people, but really your own at the same time. I like this idea of identifying failures as part of the process.

Advice she would pass on to others

In the excerpt below, Doris Sommer responds to Joseph Porcelli’s comment about how community service and even just making small changes in his day-to-day life—saying hi to his neighbors in the morning, giving up his seat on the subway—gives him joy.

I want to follow immediately on that point because I would risk calling that energy pleasure. We don’t talk about pleasure as a positive social contribution. In fact, we’re usually taught that if it’s pleasurable, it’s bad. I’ve actually been writing about this… There is a tradition we’ve inherited—it doesn’t matter what religion we were raised in. There is this Protestant ethic that Max Weber wrote about that basically is the foundation of a capitalist system wherein everything that is pleasurable looks like sin. It’s amazing how deep that is. We don’t think about it, but we think basically if you are productive, if you are serious, if you are responsible, if you have social ethics, then it’s hard work. And to notice that getting up and giving your seat to somebody on the subway, or being energized by great people in the city actually puts a smile on your face—let’s dare to call that pleasure because there is a virtuous circle of producing that kind of socially motivated pleasure. You produce pleasure in other people. It’s more fun to help out because you know it’s pleasurable and their pleasure is going to multiply in other circuits.

I think that we should recover the idea of pleasure as socially constructed. We don’t have to be afraid of it. That’s one thing that I learned from artists and that I also learned from students who do public service. Sometimes they’re motivated at first by self-interest—if you don’t do public service you don’t get into college, or you don’t get a job. But once they start, it produces the kind of pleasure that’s self-sustaining. That’s what I would like to share. Pleasure is not a bad thing; it’s a good thing.

In response to: What have you seen as the benefits of the work you’ve done through your organizations?

I mentioned just the one day workshop in Mattapan. It relaxed the tension between one group and the local police. And we don’t know what the ripple effects are going to be. But the greatest benefit, the most consistent benefit of this program, is teaching young people how to read and write very well. They can compete with anybody. It doesn’t matter what social class, what economic center they’re from. When they realize that reading and writing well are arts that can be fun to develop, they just blow everybody out of the water.

It’s become very trendy in education circles to say literacy, special reading, classic works and hard things—that’s so elitist when kids aren’t involved in those kinds of things anymore. They’re involved in audio-visual work, media things now. Well, the media publish stories that people write. The media publish messages people write. The media are just vehicles. If we don’t teach children from underprivileged neighborhoods, from underserved schools to read and write very well, we’re condemning them.

This is one of the shames in Boston, and Mayor Menino is very active on this count, too. This area is about the densest area for academics that you can imagine. The greater Boston area, on the last count I heard, had 32 institutions of higher education… and our schools fail children… They go, they graduate, and they don’t know how to read and write. The drop out rate in Boston is practically the same as in New York City. Only 40% in a good year graduate from high school. White kids drop out about 50%. Black kids about 60% and Latinos about 70%. So what are we doing in a university when we live in a city that is not educating children to read and write well? Mayor Menino has this initiative that collaborates with major universities to put in little pockets of money and do enrichment programs. It’s not enough. What we want to do is multiply the bases for reading and writing well for the arts because every community can own that. Any dancer can do a choreography of any great story and get kids to do their own—any drummer, any singer, any painter, any theater person… If we want to talk about social justice and social development, we have to teach kids how to read and write well.

On being sustainable and generating revenue

Financing Cultural Agents is a real challenge because foundations either want to do educational programs or they want to do arts programs, but getting those together can be difficult. Funders imagine that there’s money at Harvard… What we’re doing is Robin Hood like—selling to the rich and offering to the poor. So if there’s a program that can pay for the workshop and the follow up, we take their money. And if they don’t have the money, but they’re really committed to developing it and implementing it, then we go and do it for free… We’ve been sustaining ourselves through services we can offer both in literacy and in theater work, which is conflict resolution through theater—I don’t know if you know Theater of the Oppressed? Augusto Boal’s model? Boal is someone who taught us this Robin Hood model, too. He would take a lot of money from people who had it and then just go everywhere else.

How to Get Involved:

Please visit culturalagents.org for more information.

Image by Ari Klickstein



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One Response to Doris Sommer Discusses Her Work With Cultural Agents

  1. […] dialogue, “Building Community Online and Offline.” To read excerpts from the dialogue, click here. var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname="A Conversation with Doris Sommer of […]

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