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Using the Arts to Revitalize Civic Life

A Conversation with Doris Sommer of Cultural Agents

Interview by Jeanne Dasaro

The mission of Cultural Agents is simple: to promote the arts and humanities as social resources. Through arts education, Cultural Agents expands citizens’ imagination and resourcefulness so that together, people are more capable of solving community problems. The initiative identifies creative agents of change, reflects on best practices, and inspires their replication. Prior to conducting this interview, Faculty Director Doris Sommer invited me to participate in two Cultural Agents programs: Paper Picker Press (La Cartonera) and Pre-Emptive Acts (training sessions in the technique of “forum theater”). Initially, I was unsure why my participation was considered a vital part of the interview process. Looking back, I understand exactly why. I had the opportunity to see first-hand how these programs are able to break down conventional social barriers, getting to the core of whatever challenge the community as a whole hopes to overcome. It was a powerful experience, and one I would recommend to anyone interested in the arts or social justice, or how the two complement each other. After spending some time as an active participant in the work, I met with Doris Sommer again to learn more about the Cultural Agents and its larger purpose.

NPi: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and about Cultural Agents? How was Cultural Agents founded? What are some of its goals?

Doris Sommer: I’m Doris Sommer, the Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University. I’ve found during my years as a professor that my best graduate students were going off to law school, medical school, or social work school in order to be more prepared to make social contributions to the world. That put me in a professional crisis because if I wasn’t preparing them to make important contributions to the world, then I didn’t know what I was doing. And so I had to make more visible to students and to colleagues, as well as to myself, the ways in which the arts intervene with social change. Our work started with a conference that we hosted in New York in 2001 and in Cuzco, Peru, the ancient center of the Incan empire.

One of our programs is called Paper Picker Press or Cartonera, an instructional program for teachers to adopt and adapt techniques that enhance higher order thinking through hands-on engagement with literature. In the summer of 2006 in Lima, Peru, while directing a course on Cultural Agents, we invited local “cultural agents” to a Cultural Agents fair for students. This provided American students with the chance to meet arts activists in Lima with whom they could apprentice for six weeks. There I met the people from Sarita Cartonera. Sarita is an informal publishing house that uses recycled cardboard to make books. They get unpublished literary material from very distinguished artists as well as up-and-coming artists, engage visual artists to help decorate book covers, and then sell the books. Sarita is the name of the patron saint of poor Andean migrants in Lima. It’s a brilliant project involving people who are garbage collectors whom they then partner with the most elite writers in the country. It’s replicated from a model in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The founding Cartonera house (cardboard publishing house) was founded in Argentina about a year after the economic crash of 2001. A poet and a painter set up shop to make cardboard covered books with unpublished literature donated by the best writers in Argentina.

Cultural Agents’ Paper Picker Press program in the United States offers units of instruction that invite economically disadvantaged students to explore literature as recyclable material, re-writing classic texts through creative techniques that incorporate visual and performing arts. We encourage students to display their work in public performances and art exhibits and to get involved in entrepreneurial activities in their local community. We feature dialogue between established writers and young people, and we engage the arts to measurably increase student performance in reading and writing. Literacy is still a very good indicator, if not the best indicator, for levels of poverty, violence, and disease worldwide. Targeting literacy is the most important work we can focus on from the Faculty of Arts and Science at Harvard University. We’re continually evaluating ways to improve what we do and further establish effectiveness of the program. Right now our most important outreach activity is to multiply variations on and expand the reading and writing workshop. We’re currently working with the Barr Foundation to develop creative literacy in out-of-school sites throughout Boston.

The expanded Paper Picker Press program now focuses on consolidating all of the art forms featured (photography, music, theater, dance) around a project of developing readers, and on creating the raw material for interpretation from a single difficult literary text… The program honors a variety of modalities of art and the concept of multiple intelligences in both students and teachers. Multiple intelligences isn’t simply the recognition that some people are talented at one thing and others at something else; it’s the acknowledgement that we are all capable of creating different forms of art… We achieve recognition and admiration for what we do very well and we can exercise recognition and admiration for people who do other things well.

I’ve spoken with the Paper Picker Press in mind, but about Cultural Agents as a whole—it’s a varied approach to creating venues for developing arts and arts interpretation as contributions to social development. We’ve hosted conferences on photography for youth, teaching them about perspective and composition so that they may learn about their own power to adjust the world and look at it differently. We’ve hosted conferences on popular music and theater—different areas where art engages issues of social justice and communication. It’s very interesting when we collaborate with partners outside the university, for example, the UN Safer Cities Project (part of UN-HABITAT). Partners want to know how we’ve developed our positions. What theories would support the expenditures of local, state, or federal governments on the arts rather than armed police? It’s our job to make those arguments deep and clear to decision-makers. We see ourselves as a bridge between the academy and the world of decision-makers and developing citizens.

NPi: Can you tell me more about your work with the UN Safer Cities Project and share some of your thoughts on the value of collaboration in general?

DS: Safer Cities has benefited most by shifting their perspective on the value of the arts. Before they worked with Cultural Agents, the experts engaged to develop programs for violence prevention among youth at risk had all of the bases covered except the arts. When we first met with them two and a half years ago, I noticed the youth leaders at the meeting were all artists. When I pointed that out, the directors began to consider the importance of this element.

What we can do at the academy is quite simple. We define art in many ways, including its connection with violence prevention. Donald Winnicott, a distinguished British child psychiatrist who changed the way doctors deal with children and psychiatric therapy, defines art as “symbolic destruction.” He says all children, all people, are normally aggressive. You push against the world and you see what happens. That’s the way we live. It’s not a pre-oedipal or sexual or developmental issue. Aggression is normal and we have to learn how to deal with it symbolically. If we don’t, we’re not socializing children or ourselves. And if the aggression doesn’t get sublimated, it acts out in a very primitive way and becomes violence. Saying that you acknowledge aggression rather than just trying to stop it—which is really impossible—opens up venues for expressing aggression in symbolic ways. Art has everything to do with violence prevention.

Some people mistake the arts as only a vehicle for expression. That’s a very limited view. Art is a vehicle for exploration, learning, and trying things out. If people are serious about reducing violence and educating youth to become productive citizens and more satisfied in their own lives, supporting and expanding art is a major opportunity for developing intellectual capacity. All of the rhetoric about empowerment gets immediately grounded when a youth is working on an art project. This person is authoring something that didn’t exist before.

NPi: Can you talk about one of your successes? or share some thoughts on what you believe will be the lasting impact of your work?

DS: The Paper Picker Press training that we did in Chalco, Mexico City, is something that we’re very proud of. We’re proud because the teachers in Chalco have appropriated the program in such an enthusiastic and creative way that they are multiplying training sessions and involving everyone else in the school. The first ripple effect of the Cartonera in the school “Mano Amiga” came when children who were involved in after school program workshops went home and played literature interpretation games with their brothers and sisters. Next, their neighbors and parents became involved. The next year the school decided to train 30 more teachers. The program now has a life of its own and is expanding. We’ve affected change for a whole neighborhood because people are enjoying playing with literature.

The evaluation following the first semester of implementation at the school included testimonies from kids. The one I like best is from a 6th grader who says, “My mind is bigger. All of a sudden more things fit into it.” And a similar thing happened in another evaluation in Puebla, Mexico. A mother wasn’t sure what the program had done for her daughter, but said, “She asks more questions now. I can’t get her to stop asking questions.” These evaluations really keep us going, they keep us fired up.

NPi: Where could Cultural Agents use help?

DS: The first thing I’d say is advice about what we really need! We welcome advice. What we need in the short-term are more venues for the Paper Picker Press and money to enable trainings and follow-ups, as the training is a five-day intensive. For the program to work, we accompany the team that’s been trained over the 10 or 12 weeks of the implementation and listen to members of the team troubleshoot. We try to say as little as possible, which is the general principle of the Paper Picker Press: invite people to do and then reflect on what they did. If you talk too much you’ve killed the lesson. We encourage people to troubleshoot for one another.

Another need is for resources, for more conferences and publications, engaging more academics and graduate students in the field. The good recent news is that Cultural Agents has a new center in Bogota, Colombia, where a doctoral program was initiated in April 2010. Other possible regional centers are also being considered. My hunch is that through centers, conferences, and publications, we can begin to engage a broad base of leaders. However, I may need advice on how to ensure a growing base of academics for Cultural Agents, catching students at the point when they are still interested in the arts before they’ve gone off to some other professional school. [This may happen] because they don’t understand how working in the arts will make them responsible citizens. We need to catch them at that critical point and make their work in the arts count for social change.

NPi: We’ve talked about the importance of treating problems at their root cause. Can you speak about how you do this at Cultural Agents?

DS: By reducing violence and redirecting aggression into creative, even non-conformist, education. One of the ambitions of the Paper Picker Press is to create “Cartonera Crews” or “Paper Picker Press Packs.” A way of redefining (not undoing) a gang because young people who join gangs need these families, these collective structures. Otherwise they wouldn’t join them. But when a gang reaches the point when it considers its life at a dead-end and is ready to make a turn, members can continue to work as a collective of artists capable of improving literacy in their neighborhoods. Controlling the violence isn’t enough; you have to redirect it. That’s why I said symbolic aggression is redirected aggression. Young people also need a stream of income or they go back to stealing. If we can channel that aggression into art that produces a salary, we’ve really made an impact. If there’s one thing I’m eager to develop through your readers, it’s a network of young people involved with this program.

It’s very shortsighted to think you’re going to stop violence or get women to speak up for themselves, for example, while not developing economic streams to sustain those advances. I would like to see boards of education open up to this little bit of risk capital, gather a bunch of teenagers whom they may not have located as their best pedagogical vehicle and start working with them. Let’s see what happens. There’s a great model for this in Medellin, Colombia where a lot of ex-combatants (paramilitary or guerrilla) are being trained in prisons and schools to return to society without guns. If they don’t have a job that’s waiting for them, they certainly can’t stay legal. The city of Medellin has developed a program providing jobs for these ex-combatants with local businesses, guaranteed by the city. A local businessman agrees to hire an ex-combatant because he/she doesn’t have to worry about whether that person will come to work or steal as the city covers the damages. The program works, the new workers respect their jobs. That’s something people need to hear.

How To Get Involved:

Click here to make a donation to Cultural Agents or learn more about internship opportunities. If you’re interested in becoming involved with the Paper Picker Press program, find contact information here. To sign up for Cultural Agents’ newsletter, click here.

Read More:

In August of 2009, Doris Sommer also participated in NPi’s community dialogue, “Building Community Online and Offline.” To read excerpts from the dialogue, click here.

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2 Responses to Using the Arts to Revitalize Civic Life

  1. […] article starts off with two quotes, which I’ll reproduce below.  The first quote is from Doris Sommer, Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University: Some people mistake the arts as only a vehicle for expression. That’s a very limited view. Art […]

  2. […] Using the Arts to Revitalize Civic Life by Jeanne Dasaro […]

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