Category: Good (page 1 of 2)

How Social Practice Art Is Not Community-Based Art

The more I do guest lectures for colleges and universities, the more inspired I become by the next generation of artists.  Many young artists aspire to do good and are already active in the world in those pursuits. Increasingly so. Lacking, though, is an awareness of what’s already at play. What options currently exist and how are different arenas of this work differentiated?

What would seem most beneficial would be an overview of the field. So here is my interpretation, integrating elements of AFTA’s Arts + Social Impact Explorer tool. Hope it’s helpful.

Community-Based Artists
Currency: Development 
Commitment: Institutional mission, giving back, often focused on one group or geography
Common issues: Economic, workforce and community development; affordable housing, food equity, transportation, community safety, city planning; passed-down history, tradition and culture; shared identity; health and wellness; aging; public welfare; prisons and rehabilitation
Duration: Years and years, Decades and decades, One generation to another
Success: Sustainability and Leadership Succession
Metaphor: Gardener

A gardener is experienced in keeping a garden healthy and productive. They are often planting and maintaining a good environment by watering, fertilizing, and even weeding the area.

Social Practice Artists
Currency: Relevancy/Application 
Commitment: Intervention, project-based, often intergroup or crossing borders
Common issues: Peace building, community cohesion, political activation, immigration, diplomacy, military; diversity, access, and inclusion
Metaphor: Chemist 

A chemist is a scientist who researches and experiments with the properties of chemical substances. A chemist will usually work as part of a larger research team, and create useful compounds for use in a wide variety of practical applications..

Duration: As long as it takes, as short as it takes
Success: Project is no longer needed, participants and collaborators are running their own programs, environment of entrepreneurialism and trust, relationships are strengthened between other parties, healthier ecosystem, priorities shifting, spurring enough social change for other things to happen
My 2018 List of Resources for Social Practice Artists

Teaching Artists
Currency: Student Learning 
Commitment: Arts Integration/Academic standards with art-making and social emotional growth
Metaphor: Beekeeper

A beekeeper is, in essence, a manager of bees. He or she maintains and monitors the hives. A beekeeper needs to maintain healthy bees and prepare colonies for production. Beekeepers also need to follow food safety guidelines when harvesting and processing the honey. 

Duration: Academic calendar
Success: Increases in student test scores, results evidenced by pre/post student assessments
ArtsEdge – Kennedy Center
Project AIM
Eric Booth

Arts Educators
Currency: Student Learning 
Commitment: Discipline-specific arts standards, training
Success: Employability, Students’ post-program achievements, where they go with it
Visual arts 
Metaphor: Pilot

The most well-known pilots are those who work for an airline company, flying passengers who are commuting or vacationing. Their primary responsibility is to operate the aircraft, but their day consists of many hours performing other tasks. Pilots check the weather and confirm flight plans before departing.

Other arenas are led by phenomenal Arts Therapists and Movement Analysts who round out this field. What’s most beautiful is when there is a referral process between these actors, or when there’s collaboration.

I’m excited to see how the next generation of socially engaged artists rework these distinctions and move this world. Thoughts?

Photo: Dance Peace project | Credit: Mohamed Radwan

Why We Need Active De-Victimization in the Arts, Right Now

Syrian and Burmese Rohingyan refugees. Children of Flint, MI. Terminally ill pediatric cancer patients and their families. LGBTQ+ teens who are experiencing homelessness. A predominantly Black preschool on the South Side of Chicago. Residents of a Section 8 housing facility. Young men in and out of the juvenile justice system. These are just some of the collaborators I’ve been fortunate to work for, with and beside in my career as a social practice artist.

I, like most artists, am prone to want to help groups and individuals who need help. Altruism and charity are natural cousins to the arts. We know this. And as identity politics become an ever increasing function of our divisive societies of The Left and The Right, marginalized communities play a major role in the work of artists on the left, and unfortunately are often played

Sometimes it feels as if we artists (of many races and backgrounds) suffer from own own version of The White Savior Industrial Complex. Our outreach and our “giving back” are designed with artists staying at the seat of power and program delivery. Everyone must want our arts programming; the problem is simply inequity of access, right?

Sometimes artists want to spread awareness and understanding, which are important. I was speaking to the director of a nearly all-white choir that was learning a song in Arabic. They wanted to do a Syrian song in tribute to “people who’ve lost everything.” Their intentions were good but I could tell from our early conversations that they held a conception of Syrians very much as victims. While in actuality, Syrians in Chicago could be their consultants, experts, partners, collaborators and leaders.

Even though many of the recently-resettled Syrians I know in Chicago are dealing with traumas from war and bureaucratic hell, and working below minimum wage, they don’t want people’s charity. Most are Muslim and give zakāt (2.5% of their own income) to “those less fortunate” in America and family back in the Middle East or Europe. They want opportunity. They want to learn. They want to contribute and thrive. 

But they need support, and time. They need to translate their skills. They need a little space as well as some opportunities for happiness during the struggles. In our program, refugee students and their siblings/parents help with costumes, carpools, translation, organizing and much more. As one Syrian refugee mother told me, “We just need help catching up.” They shouldn’t have to do that in isolation or insularity.  In today’s America, we certainly need each other. That’s one reason I go to every birthday party I’m invited to in their homes. Good friends are good friends. Good neighbors are good neighbors.

At first, me (a white American lady) offering a Western dance class (tap, jazz, ballet, contemporary) to Syrian refugees seemed absurd and counter to everything I’ve written here. Shouldn’t it be a Syrian cultural dance being taught by a Syrian? Turns out, when I listened to the refugee families and observed their behaviors, I noticed that while they had a robust system of support and cultural celebration within the Syrian-American community, they had little to no positive interaction with groups different from them, even refugees of different nationalities. They never met their Orthodox Jewish neighbors, who all attend private schools and live a very insular life. I noticed neighbors avoiding eye contact. Distrust is big around here. The refugee families told me they wanted their children to have this dance class as an opportunity for joy, confidence, knowledge, skills, English practice and new friends. I soon realized they wanted those same things for themselves and are gaining much from the magic of what happens in the lobby. When I gave them a choice of dance forms for this semester, they chose ballet and jazz. It’s a start. 

The program is made possible by partner organizations/case managers and volunteers, including a dance therapist and two teen apprentice teachers (one is a refugee herself) who are getting school credit. Eventually, the goal would be for more dance forms to be valued and shared, and for at least 50% of the faculty/artists to be from the refugee community — if that’s something they decided they wanted.

Co-support is key. When I collaborated on the Flint, MI site for Global Water Dances 2017, it was an honor that the project was eventually led by local artists and educators. I am from Mid-Michigan and have connections there, but I am not a Flint resident. I did not experience the water crisis first hand. Yet, there was definitely a contribution for me to make: to make something great happen. I was a catalyst and a support for the project. They clearly said they no longer wanted to be anybody’s victims. They took the leadership while I made connections and filled gaps. After some reflection, I realized that the fact that I only did little on the day of the event is, for me, a huge mark of success as a social practice artist.

I usually don’t focus on my role so much, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of an artist as a citizen, just like the sanitation worker or the physician of a community. What can we do as artists? Here are ten ideas.

  1. Push back against re-victimization wherever we see it, especially in the arts. 
  2. Use “we” as often and as authentically as possible. Know the difference being an arts program as social intervention and an arts program as social interference.
  3. If we are given an opportunity to lead, partner instead. Collaborate. Co-teach or train. Share the income or profits, when we can. Make sure the monetary and non-monetary benefits are reciprocal. 
  4. Hire or bring in experts from marginalized communities, better yet, a marginalized member of our own community. Get to a point of where marginalization and discrimination are nonexistent and we don’t have to use those terms. 
  5. Find out what’s happening in our neighborhood. Be a student. Take a lesson. Show up to other people’s classes and projects. I go to the local Chicago Steppin’ class at Marshall Field Garden Apartments on Tuesday evenings, but not as often as I should. This is a good reminder.
  6. Instead of trying to get “buy in” for our ideas, ask how we can contribute to other people’s ideas.
  7. Bring our unique gifts; don’t duplicate their offerings. Stay alert for artists acting as agents of gentrification.
  8. Know when to step up — and more importantly, when to step back. 
  9. Remain an active resident and friend. Accept invitations to birthday parties, town halls, candlelight vigils, political rallies and festivals.
  10. Care about more than the arts.

I have much to learn. And I am not yet living up to the standards I set for myself as a social practice artist. But I’m trying. Writing this post is part of that effort. Those are my ramblings for this evening. Tomorrow I’m taking a day off.

The Phase of Life When We Lose Our Moms

My mother knew loss. At the beginning of her senior year of high school, her father died tragically in a motorcycle accident. Then when she was in her early 30’s, my mother lost her own mom to colon cancer. In all honesty, she had lost her mother in some capacity years prior, as my grandmother had struggled with depression since the death of her husband.

My mom Kaye (born Kay, but later added the ‘e’ herself) was the oldest kid of five. Through it all, she kept her hippie arms open for her brothers and sisters as well as for their kids and their kids. We became a much racially and religiously diverse family over time. She was there for us all.

She gave birth to me in 1978 and I had a birth defect, Craniosynostis. I was much to handle financially and emotionally. My mother tells the story of me going into skull surgery at 2-days-old without anesthesia, just a frozen pacifier, her holding much hope that I wouldn’t be brain damaged, or wouldn’t die. She was happy my surgeon had been on President Kennedy’s team in Texas. She was a great mom. And last week, she died.

As I grieve alongside my family, I know we are not alone. So many friends of mine have lost their mothers this year; I can count at least eight recently. With social media,  the phases of life intensify as we experience them more visibly alongside our peers. There was the dating and general worldly frustration phase. Then the career accomplishments phase. Then the “everybody is getting married” phase, followed by the “all my friends have kids” phase. Now, me and friends seem to be losing our mothers. In the vein of sharing, I want to share what it was like to lose mine. She loved when I blogged about our experiences, and she was sure that writing helped others out there. “Lose” seems both precise and inappropriate as a word. In any case, the world lost Kaye Ann Lent when she was 65 years old.

My mother was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation and breast cancer in 2012. She underwent a double mastectomy with lymph nodes removed, several rounds of chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. She had no evidence of disease for a year and a half. Then they found tumors on many of her bones (six at that point, I believe) including three on her back but she continued to rally every time. My dad and her remained jokesters. He nicknamed her “Boobs” and I have never known a stronger name.

One tumor in her leg broke her femur while she was standing at the ATM a couple years ago; she rallied back to walking just about two weeks after that surgery but was made to retire from work despite her not wanting to. The tumor behind her eye gave her double vision for awhile, but she rocked the eye patch. Her swelling and neuropathy remained very bad, but she rallied back into doing puzzles and crocheting. Her appetite was especially poor, but she forced herself to eat when she could. Her mobility was effected and the tumor in her hip was excruciatingly painful, but she wouldn’t let on. Her walker was her “little buddy” and she often lost track of where he was because she would walk so often unassisted.

In August 2017 the medical team stopped the chemotherapy treatments because it was effecting her heart. Since then, she had been doing a regular bone enhancement treatment. She was rushed to the hospital in early 2018 because she had a mild stroke and was been showing symptoms that seem like dementia. They did a CT scan and MRI, confirming the cancer was in her brain. She forgot our names, her passwords, and basic language. When my aunt suggested she name me because she had named me the first time, my aunt said, “What about Shawn?” Mom dismissed that as boring. We all laughed. And then she rallied. The palliative radiation brought relief and her memories and cognition back. Yet, we were told the cancer was moving into her organs. She went home and had a ride on the speedboat that she and my father had recently purchased.

In late July 2018, she was rushed to the hospital for the last time. Her blood pressure was 47/27. She said she was fine. Our family all came to sit with her, and she joked about hosting a party. Her humor and generous spirit were rock solid; she even had the chaplain who gave last rites laughing. When she seemed to be passing, we whispered in her ear that she could go now. We played “American Trilogy (Glory, Glory Hallelujah)” by Elvis, as she had requested. Unable to open her eyes, she gave us a sassy wave goodbye that brought the whole room into laughter. She never liked being told what to do.

We held her hand and cried into Nurse Dorothy’s arms in the hallway, on rotation all night long. Nurse Dorothy had lost her own mother just a couple months before. In the morning, mom rallied again. She sat up and continued her jokes about the cute Nurse Joe’s butt. Every time the medical staff asked about her pain, mom said 7. But when they asked about the level of the disgust in the food, she said 9. Then mom declined again. Once again, we held her hand on rotation all night long. We told her she could go and played her song, but she kept saying what sounded like “nah.”

She hid her pain gracefully. I thought she might be wanting to rally again and was looking for signs that this was the case. Yet the next day, she was only breathing and being, on her own time. Her eyes were crusting shut. We were disturbed by a faint gurgle that we were told was normal. I went to the parking lot to decide about at-home Hospice. They told me there was a chance the ambulance ride would be painful or that she might die en route. My dad suddenly decided he needed a haircut, and his (mom’s) car broke down on the way back.

When we all finally returned to the hospital around 5pm, mom and God had decided she was passing. The seemingly young Nurse Kayla sat with us this entire time and described what was happening, which turned out to be a much needed play-by-play full of grace.

Mom unexpectedly opened her eyes at that point, saw us, let out a single tear, then closed her eyes and died peacefully as dad and I held her hand. The room cried. I felt something that I thought was only true in movies. I felt her spirit leave her body, immediately sensing her strength, like I had a parachute lifting me up. Within seconds, I no longer felt her in the room or in her body. She was within us and everywhere at once. That’s the moment I lost my mother and gained something beyond words.

Her jokes continue past her death. When Dad (a die-hard University of Michigan fan) and I entered the funeral home with trepidation, she made sure the first thing we saw was a giant Michigan State coffin. We were laughing already. And when she knew Dad would need to keep busy in order to process losing the love of his life, she sent him a project in the form of that speedboat flooded under two feet of water.

They say she is in a better place, that she is no longer in pain. Those sentiments are hard for me to hear. She was 5’0″ with 11 tumors but even more will and humor. She loved her family and this world. Yet I know her pain-free disposition was mostly for our benefit. Now she is with her God, her parents, the babies we’ve lost in this family, and all of your parents who have passed.

Bereavement has begun for us. From release and relief, to a debilitating weight of sadness, it has already been an uncontrollable process. To all of you who have lost a parent, I am feeling you and sending much love. 

Speaking of love… Love you, Mom!

My 2018 Resources for Social Practice Artists

Opportunities and resources: we all need them.

Perhaps you are a high school student looking to go the direction of socially engaged art. Perhaps you are an artist early in your professional career. Or maybe you have been doing this work for decades and could teach us all a thing or two.

No matter your background, you may find this following list of interest. You will note that I work in social practice and community-engaged dance, with a focus in intercultural, inter-group and international projects. This resources list is skewed in those directions. My practice is an acknowledged departure from teaching artistry in both the fields of arts integration and community-based arts. I also do not consider my practice dance therapy and do not offer resources in those areas, but what I do offer here will hopefully be helpful to some of you out there.

It is a hearty but not completely comprehensive list so please feel free to add additional links and resources in the reply section below.  I will offer resources in the following categories:

  • Undergraduate Programs
  • Graduate Degree, Professional and Certificate Programs
  • Fellowships, Jobs/Internships, Volunteer Opportunities and Residencies
  • Groups, Initiatives and Organizations
  • Readings, Videos, Webinars and MOOCs


Undergraduate Programs

Bachelor of Fine Arts in Socially Engaged Art at Goddard (low residency)

Performing Arts & Social Justice with a Dance Concentration at University of San Fransisco

Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation (CAST) interdisciplinary minor at Brandeis University

Community Arts BFA Major at California College of the Arts

Minor in Social Practice and Public Forms at California College of the Arts

Contextual Practice BFA Major at Carnegie Mellon University


Graduate Degree, Professional and Certificate Programs

Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Community Arts at Lesley University

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Teaching Artistry at Wayne State University (3 years, part-time, low-residency)

Educational Doctorate (EDd) in Equity Studies in Education at Simon Fraser University (Canada)

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Art, Education, and Community Practice at NYU Steinhart

Master of Fine Arts (M.FM.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D. in Performance as Public Practice or M.F.A. in Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities at The University of Texas at Austin

Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in Contemporary Art Practices (Art + Social Practice) at Portland State University

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Socially Engaged Art at NCAD in Dublin, Ireland

Socially Engaged Practice in Design and the Arts (Certificate) at Arizona State University

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Socially Engaged Art at University of Indianapolis

Performance Art and Social Practice continuing education course at Seattle Central College


Conferences, Institutes and Labs

Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Arts in Society

Social Emotional Arts (SEA) Certificate at UCLA

The Dance + Social Justice Conference

Dance Exchange Summer Institute

The Institute for Somatics and Social Justice

Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI)

Luna Dance Summer Institute

Social Practice Lab at Duke University’s Rubenstein Arts Center

Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute


Fellowships, Jobs/Internships, Apprenticeship and Volunteer Opportunities and Residencies

Exchange Programs: The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs offers a number of fully-funded international programs. Many of these opportunities are posted with little notice so check regularly.

(SPAN) Social Practice Artist Network

Common Field

Daniels Spectrum Artist-in-Residency for community-engaged professional artists

A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art

Imagining America Page Fellowship for graduate students

Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP) volunteer opportunities

On-the-Move cultural mobility network’s list of residencies and other opportunities, many of which are in Europe

Idealist volunteer opportunities and job postings

BCorps Jobs Board openings at certified B Corps, companies that meet rigorous social and environmental standards 

Creative Time jobs, internships, fellowships, and volunteer opportunities

Peace and Collaborative Development Network’s PCDNETWORK professional opportunities (jobs, fellowships, internships, etc. in social change, which also provides the following links for job seekers.

  • UNJOBLIST jobs at UN agencies and other Intergovernmental Organizations
  • RELIEFWEB jobs in International non-profits 
  • Rework jobs in impact with companies working on social and cultural innovation
  • International Organization Careers Website employment opportunities in International Organizations (site sponsored by the US Department of State)
  • SKOLL WORLD FORUM JOB LIST– Job and Fellowship postings related to social entreprenuership, the social sector and corporate social responsibility.
  • The Posner Center for International Development Job Board – Is a coworking space based in Denver, Colorado with over 60 member organizations. Their job board lists openings at Posner and the center’s members.
  • Mission Investing Job Bank – shares career opportunities in mission investing at member foundations, affiliate member organizations and other organizations
  • Social Enterprise Alliance Job Board – Positions in the social enterprise sector.
  • Social Impact Jobs – List from Echoing Green, one of the leading orgs in the field.
  • OpenGov Hub Member Jobs – Job opportunities from organizations based at the OpenGov Hub in Washington, DC.
  • Be Social Change Jobs – Maintains a job board of positions and internships in key social change orgs.
  • Open Gov Jobs – Positions related to open government.
  • Impact Design Hub Jobs – Jobs at the intersection of public interest, social impact, humanitarian, and community design.
  • – positions worldwide in the following sectors Social, Environment, Economic, Health & Safety, Climate Change, Human Rights, Finance.
  • Give to get Jobs – Opportunities in the for profit sector that are involved in social change.
  • ICT4D Jobs – Opportunities in information and communication technology for development.
  • Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Job Board – Careers in international Affairs, largely NY and DC based positions.
  • Zebra Jobs – A leading online portal for jobs in Africa, many focused on development related issues.
  • JOBS FOR CHANGE – Useful resources and guides to careers in social change.
  • FOREIGN POLICY ASSOCIATION – Listing of Jobs at Key US nonprofits involved in international affairs.
  • JUSTMEANS – Jobs in Social Change and Environment.
  • FOREIGN AFFAIRS – Listing of jobs in International Affairs.
  • DEVNETJOBS – Listing of Many Positions in International Development and related fields.
  • Next City Jobs– Jobs focused on urban issues and innovation.
  • Jobs for Change – Wonderful resources on nonprofit jobs.
  • OneWorld Jobs – brings the latest jobs and volunteer positions from organisations working to create a better world.

Artslink international grants and fellowships

Mladi Info with lists of scholarships, fellowships, conferences etc. mostly in Europe.

Alliance of Artists Communities case study residencies in social practice.

Surdna Foundation grants for artists engaging in social change 

U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program (for artists, faculty, researchers or staff) Deadline is August 1, 2018 – This is the program I did. Let me know if you have questions or want my help reviewing your application!

U.S. Fulbright Student Program (for current masters and PhD students, recent grads, and young professionals in the arts and other fields) Deadline is October 9, 2018.

Baba Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Fellowship travel to Africa

Charles B. Rangel Fellowship offers both a graduate fellowship and summer enrichment program

American Music Abroad international tour opportunities for students, adults and ensembles

Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship graduate study in any academic field relevant to the work of the Foreign Service 

Institute for Current World Affairs international fellowship for applicants under 36 years of age

Donald Payne Fellowship for graduate students

Diplomacy & Diversity Fellowship for graduate students and young professionals

UNAOC International Fellowship Open to participants between 25 to 35 years old, from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and North America, with a strong interest in intercultural exchanges. The theme of the Fellowship 2018 being “Fostering youth resilience to prevent violent extremism and build sustainable peace.”Apply by April 8, 2018 for this year’s program.


Groups, Initiatives and Organizations


The International Centre of Art for Social Change

ASC! (Art for Social Change) 

Battery Dance – Dancing to Connect

DanceMotion USA

Dancing on the Edge

Move This World



Design your own volunteer or apprenticeship opportunities at your local children’s hospital, veterans’ affairs group, refugee center, homeless shelter, juvenile detention facility, or public or private religious school (insular or divided communities).


Readings, Webinars and MOOCs

Performing Revolutionary: Art, Action, Activism by Nicole Garneau and Anne Cushwa

The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Politics

Americans for the Arts Social Change

“How art creates social change in 5 TED Talks” b

“Bringing the Arts to the Conversation on Social Change” by Claudia Juech and Carolina García Jayaram

Robert Battle: On dance and social justice

Animating Democracy’s “Dance and Civic Engagement”

“The Scales of Socially Engaged Practice” by Hannah Hull

“What is Social Practice, Socially Engaged Art, and Civic Practice?” b

UNESCO’s Centre for Arts Research in Education, forum on dance and social justice with Bharata Natyam artist Kavitha Krishnan

“20 Change-Making US Artists You Should Track During 2018” by Shawn Lent

“30 International Artists You Should Track During 2018” by Shawn Lent

“Who Are the Key Figures in Socially Engaged Art Today?” by Patina Lee

Social Justice Funders webinar by Americans for the Arts

Bibliography listings and Glossary for the Duke MOOC on Public Art

Americans for the Arts’ On-Demand Webinars including Arts Deployed and Current Trends in Public Art & Social Practice

Creative Capital: Values-Based Goal Setting

4 Questions for Artists Working in Social Justice

On Social Practice and Performance by Andy Horwitz

Free Body Project

Who Gets to Perform? The Ethics and Aesthetics of Social Practice by Simon Dove

Arts-based Conflict Resolution, an interview with Michelle le Baron

Acting Together documentary and toolkit (peacebuilding and theatre)

Dancing to Connect’s Cultural Diplomacy Toolkit

Imagining America publications, case studies, research, blog and Public journal

Dancer Citizen online scholarly journal

ASC! (Art for Social Change) resource articles and publications.

50 Titles, 50 Perspectives: A Reader’s Guide to Art + Social Practice by Broken City Lab

Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion by Naomi Jackson

Movement as Cultural Diplomacy at Battery Dance

Arts in the Public Interest Archives

Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture by Randy Kennedy

How the Art of Social Practice is Changing the World, One Row House at a Time by Carolina A. Miranda

Alliance of Artists Communities resource list

Free PDF Books on Race, Gender, Sexuality, Class and Culture

Education is Performance Art

Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up? by Shawn Lent (Huffington Post)


Photo: “The promise of Spring” Johannesburg, South Africa, by Unsplash contributor, Zelda Gardner @enskye


How Can the Debate Still Be Out On Kids Wearing Ethnicities As Costumes?

It was near Purim, so I recently allowed my younger dance students to dress-up for class; they were allowed to bypass the usual ballet uniform and wear anything they like. For fun. My first class of the day was students ages 3-5, all girls. They came dressed as Elsa, Jasmine, Cinderella, queens, lady bugs, rainbows, etc. Two wonderful sisters from a wonderful family walked in with brown tutus, headdresses and face paint; the girls stood up in front of the class and told me and their peers that they were “Indians.”

My colleague turned to me later and whispered, “Please tell me they were dressed as turkeys.”

In this situation, I didn’t know what to do. For me, dressing as Jasmine was far different that dressing as an Arab woman. Dressing up as Elsa is different than dressing up as a white woman. Dressing up as Princess Shuri of Wakanda is different than dressing up as an African woman. Dressing as Pocahontas would have been different than dressing as a Native American or even an Algonquin woman. This situation in preschool dance class seemed innocent enough, as many of the families are from a very insular community. But this class is at a very diverse studio; while I was certain the kids in question were not of Native American heritage, I was less certain that no other students were. These little girls had the costume of a race/culture, not a character, which is a definite no-go for me. Perhaps this could have been a teaching moment but I decided to do nothing at the time.

Instead, I later went to an online group of dance educators for some advice. I asked how have they handled similar situations of cultural inappropriateness and appropriation. I was shocked and overwhelmed by the vast majority of the group strongly saying I was wrong and that it’s important for children to explore cultures and to express their appreciation.

My thoughts flashed back to when I grew up in dance during the 1980s and 90s. My friends had a number called Cherokee Maiden that included a sequined, fringe dress with headdress, and shuffles accompanied by the cartoonish hand-over-mouth war cry gesture. All dancers were white and — although we all lived in small towns with Native American names such as Chesaning and Saginaw — if any of us had Native American heritage whatsoever, it went undiscussed. I remembered feeling grateful that I was never asked to dance such a grossly inappropriate routine. Yet when I was a junior in high school, we did a dance called Africa where I had the lead role. We wore animal print unitards and I had an Afro wig while lip synching to Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” I won’t even describe the choreography. We dancers were all white and I never stopped to question this once. So yeah, awareness is important.

The good news is that society has progressed. We have come a long way from the encyclopedic presentations of Ruth St. Denis in the early 20th Century. And four years ago John Oliver asked “How Is This Still a Thing?” about dressing up as other races. The Halloween and dance costume companies are slowly evolving.

Costumes currently sold by Dansco, similar to many other costume companies.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of examples where cultural appropriation is still widely accepted and embraced. The most obvious example for me is the Shriners (which I wrote about previously), an Arab-themed Western fraternity with few to no Arab members, and with no real intention or interest in learning the actual cultural or religious practices of any Arab peoples. They proudly wear the fez with a crescent emblem, often accompanied by bellydancers in parades. Shriners are generally older, white gentlemen who say “As-salāmu ʿalaykum” to one another as if it their own sort of secret password. The fraternity was founded as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.) in 1870. 

Also in the year 1870, the opera Aida premiered. La Bayadère came out just a few years later. The ethnic/racial depictions written into many of the characters, costumes, and choreography are highly questionable. While I was living and teaching in Egypt in 2014, I worked to convince the Cairo Opera to stop wearing Blackface and doing cartoonishly stereotyped movements during their productions of these ballets, but I was forcibly dismissed. The director gave me a mighty amount of pushback founded, his stance mostly in traditional practices of the performing arts.

Coming back to the US, I encountered similar concerns. Nutcracker, with its problematic second act in the Land of Sweets and Stereotypes, was written in 1892 and has been embraced as the right of passage for any budding ballet dancer, of any race. Nearly every young dancer portrays an Arab, Asian, Russian, or Spanish person during their training. 

Nutcracker is a keystone. Just a year following the first Nutcracker was the World’s Columbian Exposition (world’s fair) held in Chicago. This event brought Orientalism and “culture on display” to new peaks. The World Fair/Universal Exposition continues to this day — every five years — but nowadays the focus is much more on trade and cultural exchange, learning about one another. I was honored to attend the 2015 Expo in Milan, Italy as a guest of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and found it fascinating. In 2020 the World Fair will be in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. 

If the World’s Fair can evolve, can dance and musical theater education as well? Can our predominantly white school perform West Side Story or Aladdin? What about Fiddler? What about learning and performing a Hoop dance from one of our peers when only one student is from that tribe? What about offstage; does a non-Indian wear a Sari to an Indian wedding? So many questions arise.

For me, after much debate and discussion, I’ve come up with five elements that must be at play if you are going to have children exploring cultures through arts education in these days and times.

  1. An invitation. If you weren’t invited, there must at least be a context of reciprocity, sharing and learning. An attempt to collaborate within a balanced power dynamic.
  2. An aim toward accuracy, learning from someone of that lived experience not just genetic heritage. 
  3. An attention to the details of a specific cultural practice or a person/character with a complex and unique history and experience. Never a cartoonish stereotype of a nation, religion, race or ethnicity. Never trying to replicate a skin tone. 
  4. An awareness of the communities and peoples of these cultures, both in the past and (more importantly) the present, both internationally and in your neighborhood. With the internet, we can communicate and share with people of different geographies and cultures.
  5. The intention of respect. No culture stealing or profiting off the other. No student being type-cast for their own cultural heritage. No demeaning of a culture or peoples.

What are your thoughts? Should we even still be talking about this?

For Artists and Arts Organizations Who Are Interested In Peace

From December 1-7, 2017, I was honored to join 15 other international delegates in New York City for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) summit on “The Role of Media and Civil Society in Fostering Peace.” This summit concluded with presentations hosted by the German Mission to the United Nations, with my subgroup focused on the role of storytelling and the arts.

With Aziza Benlamoudi of Algeria, Fatima Al Banawi of Saudi Arabia, and Tomas Horvath of Slovakia (left to right)

Back in 2010 I was honored to have been part of the pilot cohort for the UNAOC Fellowship Program, traveling to Alexandria, Cairo, Casablanca, Doha, Fez and Rabat. The fellowship aims at fostering intercultural exchange and interfaith understanding by engaging with young leaders and professionals from Europe, North-America (EUNA), the Middle East and North-Africa (MENA).

Framed around multi-week exchange trips between EUNA and MENA countries, the program sends participants from each geographic area to their counterparts’ region. Like my peers, that trip was my first time to the MENA region. During the seven years following the fellowship, I returned several times to Cairo and eventually lived there as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar, EducationUSA Coordinator, and dance educator. The UNAOC program was impactful, indeed.

Fellows from a range of UNAOC Fellowship years 2010-2017 gathered for last week’s summit in NYC, and thus, represented different age groups as well as sectors and countries. Participants included:

  • Athar Ahmad, Journalist for the BBC, United Kingdom
  • Aziza Benlamoudi, Co-Founder of Algeria Youth Voices, Algeria
  • Elena D’Angelo, Fellow Project Officer at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, Italy
  • Emadeddin Badi, Project Manager at Peaceful Change Initiative, Libya
  • Emna Ben Yedder, Co-Founder of “ACT – Think and Decide”, Tunisia
  • Fatima Al Banawi, Social Consultant and Artist, Saudi Arabia
  • Hayder Al Shakeri, Youth Advocate, Iraq
  • Jasmin Hasic, Assistant Professor at the International University of Burch, Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Khalil El Masry, Consultant for the Advancing Inter-religious Peace-building Project, Egypt
  • Klara Hoskova, Media Programme Coordinator, Germany
  • Manal Elattir, Founder of ASILASHOP, Morocco
  • Roda Siad, Documentary Filmmaker, Canada
  • Taras Dzyubanskyy, Adviser to the Mayor of Lviv for Religious and Ecumenical Issues, Ukraine
  • Tomas Horvath, Project Manager at the Slovak NGDO Platform, Slovakia
  • Yousef Alhelou, Journalist for Al-Araby TV, State of Palestine

As the only U.S. delegate, I was proud to represent American values as I understand them. I organized an outing to see “The Band’s Visit” on Broadway and shared the progress of the Dance Peace project in Chicago. For the delegate from Libya, this summit represented what was perhaps his last visit to the United States, as the Supreme Court’s decision on the travel ban went into effect mid-week. For the delegate from Gaza, a good friend I had met during a previous alumni summit in Baku 2013, the President’s announcement on Jerusalem made for an especially painful and busy time. 

Pre-show for “The Band’s Visit” at Barrymore Theater, NYC

In preparation for this summit, we were to read three UN documents. Surprisingly, these were motivating reads. They detail actions that can be undertaken no matter our sectors or geographies. Below are curated excerpts with the goal of providing my colleagues in the arts the language and resources to approach or expand their work in peace-building abroad and locally. The recommended strategies and circumstances apply as much to combatting domestic terrorism, gun and gang violence, or hate crimes, as they do to combatting international terrorism. 


UN Security Council Resolution 2250 (2015)

“Expressing concern that among civilians, youth account for many of those adversely affected by armed conflict, including as refugees and internally displaced persons, and that the disruption of youth’s access to education and economic opportunities has a dramatic impact on durable peace and reconciliation.

Youth are the future role models.

Facilitate an inclusive and enabling environment in which youth actors, including youth from different backgrounds, are recognized and provided with adequate support to implement violence prevention activities and support social cohesion.

…promote a culture of peace, tolerance, intercultural and interreligious dialogue that involve youth and discourage their participation in acts of violence, terrorism, xenophobia, and all forms of discrimination.”

At the United Nations Headquarters, NYC

UN Secretary-General Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (2016)

“Nothing can justify violent extremism but we must also acknowledge that it does not arise in a vacuum. Narratives of grievance, actual or perceived injustice, promised empowerment and sweeping change become attractive where human rights are being violated, good governance is being ignored and aspirations are being crushed.

Two main categories of drivers of violence can be distinguished: “push factors”, or the conditions conducive to violent extremism and the structural context from which it emerges; and “pull factors”, or the individual motivations and processes, which play a key role in transforming ideas and grievances into violent extremist action.

[Youth with almost] no religious knowledge or education, makes them vulnerable to indoctrination.

Provide medical, psychosocial and legal service support in communities that give shelter to victims of violent extremists, including victims of sexual and gender-based crimes.

We must pay particular attention to youth. The world ’s 1.8 billion young women and men constitute an invaluable partner in our striving to prevent violent extremism.

Harness the idealism, creativity and energy of young people and others who feel disenfranchised.

The rapid advance of modern communications technology also means that today ’s youth form a global community of an unprecedented kind. This interconnectivity is already being exploited by violent extremists; we need to reclaim this space by helping to amplify the voices of young people already promoting the values of mutual respect and peace to their peers. 

We have to identify better tools with which to support young people as they take up the causes of peace, pluralism and mutual respect. 

Support and enhance young women’s and young men’s participation… by prioritizing meaningful engagement mechanisms, as laid out in the Amman Declaration on Youth, Peace and Security.

Involve hard-to-reach young women and men, such as those from underrepresented groups, in efforts to prevent violent extremism, as laid out in the Guiding Principles on Young People’s Participation in Peacebuilding.

Establish national mentoring programs for young women and men, create space for personal growth in their chosen fields [including the arts], and offer opportunities for community service which can enable them to become leaders and actors for constructive change.

Implement Security Council resolution 1624, promoting a comprehensive approach to incitement and violent extremism, and the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”


During the UNAOC summit this week, each group was to conclude their presentations with a list of their own recommendations, inspired by the UN materials. Before sharing excerpts from the third and last document, here are the recommendations from our summit subgroup looking specifically at storytelling and the arts, with credit to Aziza Benlamoudi, Fatima Al Banawi, Tomas Horvath and Shawn Lent.

  1. Ensure that funds are prioritized to strengthen projects by artists aimed at social integration, Track 3 people-to-people diplomacy, and psychophysical well-being, especially involving residents from insular communities.
  2. Leverage and promote existing arts institutions and programs that engage in peace-building, rather than creating new multinational initiatives.
  3. Build the capacity of educators and curricular designers to promote global citizenship, civic engagement, critical thinking, multiple literacies and expression.
  4. Collaborate in broad support of the arts sector, in both rural and urban locations, investing in the development of the creative skills needed to meet labor demands and to sustain arts entrepreneurship activities.

Now back onto the final document…

UNAOC High Level Report (2006)

“Public and private donors should support education efforts aimed at the general public in the West and in predominantly Muslim countries by funding arts performances, film festivals, educational tours, and scholarly/educational conferences that disseminate information on the richness of diverse cultures and on the importance of cultural interactions.

Engage the talents of youth and adults in constructive social action through service learning programs and initiate service learning components connected to degree and certificate programs.

Educational reform efforts have emphasized technical and skills-based education in an effort to stem high unemployment rates. While this is a positive development, in some cases the focus on strictly job-related education has diminished the attention paid to the humanities and social sciences and limited the availability of instruction in these fields. A well-rounded holistic education is invaluable for the development of critical thinking, interpretive, and adaptive skills which are increasingly important in a world of increasing complexity and diversity. 

Muslim and Western public and private donors should work together to establish a Cultural Fund and Networking Service to connect young Muslim artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, etc. with their Western counterparts and leaders In the culture industry. The objective would be to facilitate the dissemination of contemporary Muslim culture to other societies and, in doing so, to promote the cause of dialogue and understanding.

A coalition of key stakeholders should be established to develop a consensus youth employment strategy [including in the arts].

Public and private donor agencies should support girls’ and young women’s associations, networks, and organizations which advance girls’ education, develop platforms for women’s participation in all aspects of society, or implement other projects which enhance women’s status.

Expand support for programs that help situate young immigrants in the broader communities outside of the schools and provide direct experience in social interaction and civic activism with other youth which can reduce feelings of alienation.”


These last recommendations, in particular, underscore the importance of supporting projects like Dance Peace, where we are in need of dance and music scholarship sponsors for spring 2018 and beyond. We know that artists can play a dynamic role in creating and sustaining peace through arts participation, monitoring tensions and progress through movement analysis, and educating a peaceful generation through kinetic empathy and collaboration. We know the arts can have a great impact in this increasingly cross-cultural and transdisciplinary world, and that being so, has a great responsibility. 


There’s Cancer, Then There’s Breast Cancer, Then There’s My Mom

Mile 5: that’s exactly what today marks. Five years facing cancer for my mother.

On this day in 2012, while I was settling to a US Fulbright scholar adventure in Egypt, my mom was rushed to the hospital for a heart problem. She hadn’t been to a doctor since my traumatic birth three and a half decades prior, but she was starting to go then because of a troubling case of double vision. During my bon voyage party, I had lovingly called her “the pirate” because of the eye patch.

While getting great care there and with her only child 5921 miles away, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, tumors on both sides.

Her husband (my dad) had undergone his own cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery years before. She took care of him then; now the roles had reversed.

Over the coming years, she would face a double mastectomy, numerous bouts of radiation and chemotherapy, and neuropathy so bad that she even couldn’t feel if she had walked out of her shoes. Her eyebrows and hair fell out. She wasn’t able to do her favorite things such as crocheting, reading, puzzles and gardening. She could no longer help others in the ways she and we had all come accustomed to her doing.

My mom overcame all that and — making sure it was safe — drove herself to nearly every treatment appointment. She went to work every day and Skyped with me with some of the best jokes. (To those who became her virtual, adopted children for a day during Mother’s Day in 2013, we thank you.)

Then came the beautiful day in 2014: no evidence of disease. Two years of survivor walks and survivor fairs and survivor swag. Every six months, we held our breaths during scans then exhaled and told the next inappropriate, love-filled joke.

Last year, her cancer metastasized. While in the hospital for scans, she was standing at the ATM when one of the tumors suddenly and dramatically broke her femur. She fell to the floor and was in surgery almost immediately. Within weeks of home care, she was up and walking again. Fiercely positive and telling jokes the whole time, crying when she needed. I wasn’t sure how to help other than serving as physical therapy cheerleader and bathroom support; I simply spent much of that time in complete awe of her.

She was forced to retire just shy of her 50th anniversary as a working woman but she’s rocking retirement with a newly purchased lakeside cabin where she is the hostess with the most-ness for family and friends, while wearing her compression sleeve on an arm that has doubled in size. She got tested for the cancer gene and is all clear. Her medical team’s plan has included active treatment chemo, palliative radiation, and a hearty regimen of medications that I have no idea how she keeps up with — I can barely remember my vitamins.

She recently had another heart scare due to the chemo but was back into host mode by the following weekend. They are taking a break from the chemo so that her heart can recover. She’s in her early 60s and she’s a rock star. 

In a couple weeks, it will once again be Breast Cancer Awareness Month; my mother and I definitely want you to be aware. Cancer is a beast. It’s real. But she and I also want to remind you that September is childhood cancer awareness month. For Donna and Shea, for RackStar Rosie and Happy Abby, for Lauren and Hussain and for everyone at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital of Egypt, I must speak out. While hundreds of drugs for adult cancers have been developed over the past 30 years, only three have been developed for children. The politics of cancer research and funding are troubling. Read more in “Before the World Turns Pink Tomorrow.”

So for cancer awareness in general, mom’s words are best, 

“It has been five years since my life changed along with my husband’s. Cancer changed our lives. I can’t say it all has been bad, though. A lot of set backs but you just keep fighting back. It helps you realize what is really important in your life. Mine is family and friends who have supported and encouraged me. A very special thank you to my neighbors and life lines who have been there though it all. I will always keep fighting with all the special people in my life. I love you all.”


The Arts Make Us Safer Than a Wall Ever Could


Example 1. A peace wall still divides the city of Belfast in two, as a physical insistence of societal difference. Only recently are pieces of the peace wall starting to be knocked down, mostly due to a lack of diversity caused by living for decades with the wall. “One thing you hear a lot in Protestant communities is, ‘The wall comes down, then they [Catholics] will move into our community and we will continue to move out,.”

Example 2. A border wall separates Israelis and Palestinians in a grotesque and contested manner, both on the claimed borders and within cities. In Hebron/Al Khalil a couple years ago, the Israeli police asked me my religion so that they knew which side of the wall of apartheid to direct me to walk on. No further comment necessary here.

Examples 3. Massive Indo-Myanmar, Indo-Bangladesh, Afghanistan-Pakistan, and Russia-Ukraine walls are currently under construction. While people suffer economically, public funds are being prioritized for these large objects of division. Will they see the same fates as the walls of China and Berlin?

With these examples I ask a general questions: When a society constructs a wall, is it constructing sovereignty and safety, or rather building misunderstanding and otherness? Walls perpetuate dual narratives, animosity, and otherness. They never build trust.

I am not going to talk about the feasibility of the proposed US-Mexico border wall, but I do have something to say looking specifically at the proposed Trump administration budget which decimates programs like the arts and international cultural exchange to boost the military and build the wall.

Where the walls lay the foundation for conflict, the arts lay a foundation for peace.

When people share in a creative experience that moves them in body, heart and mind in a common space, peace is possible. My work centers on this with the intention to design the dance intervention most relevant for the needs and assets of a certain place, time and population. There is an existing body of research showing that personal healing and community change can take place through dance. Embodied learning has proven value in several philosophies of education, “Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas” (Montessori & Costelloe, 1966).

Philosopher Richard Shusterman coined the word “somaesthetics” which provides the beginning of a new matrix for a positive body consciousness and “essential element in the philosophy of nonviolence and the quest for less violence against bodies” (Fitz-Gibbon, 2012). Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty adds a theoretical perspective, “The body is not only the crucial source of all perception and action but also the core of our expressive capability and thus the ground of all language and meaning” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

Research on intergroup contact has shown reduction of prejudice between groups (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Intergroup contact is thought to decrease prejudice through several psychological mechanisms including increased empathy toward outgroup members, decreased intergroup anxiety, and enhanced knowledge of the outgroup (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Engagement in body-based arts experiences with intergroup contact has the capacity to positively disrupt norms of segregation, provide positive and immediate results in prejudice reduction and joy, thus inspiring future work by local artists and longer-term outcomes.

Hearts and minds.

When I lived in East London September 9, 2001 through to 2003, I was there in a youth worker role as an artist and evangelical Lutheran. The community is mostly Bengali, Pakistani, Afghani, Indian, Muslim and Sikh. I was the only American around. It is a economically disadvantaged neighborhood on the far East End. On 9/11.

Apart from leading dance and music workshops, I alone disarmed a young man I knew, getting him to put his large knife down at a heated moment of retaliation as he stormed in a rage down the street. I pulled a 16-year-old from a burning, stolen car as his friends had left him there injured when they ran from the impending police. This was late at night and I was the only person there, locking up the building when I heard the crash and ran outside to help. Twice, I held young men’s hands and wounds as they bled from knife injuries and waited for the ambulance. Often, I worked with the police to report the thefts and drug sales these young guys were involved in. I am 110-115 lbs and 5’1″ and only know what I know.

It didn’t matter that I was a White American and these were Muslim South Asian/Arab young men, and this was the aftermath of September 11th. Well, it did matter in one big sense: we trusted one other enough to listen and learn from one another about race and religion and theories on both ends. The arts did what force could not. We did our jobs barehanded.


London, UK. I’m the lady in the tree.

In Egypt, I led dance workshops at the US Embassy Cairo, collaborated with Egyptian artists on programs for the Children’s Cancer Hospital, and served as a lecturer in dance as a US Fulbright Scholar. In addition, I served as the national coordinator for EducationUSA, the US Department of State’s international education advising and promotion service. In that capacity, I had the unique honor of receiving an award from the Ambassador for innovation and excellence in using technology and personally engaging tools in work with students, scholars, and artists in Egypt, encouraging them to study in the US.

I also learned from Egyptians and was protected by them. During an Anti-American rally, strangers even made me tea. Strengthened borders and bans will not keep Americans as safe as relationships, empathy and trust. All are fostered through the arts. 

I know that in both these circumstances I described above, both in predominantly Muslim communities, I directly and positively shifted people’s perceptions of America. I know I boosted peace and safety between America and other countries. And I did this as an artist… at a fraction of the cost.


Only Way Chicago Can Say Goodbye To 2016

A friend let me know that Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina was planning a Peace March on the Magnificent Mile this New Year’s Eve at 11am. Six buses of parishioners and volunteers had come from the South Side church. One volunteer named Greg Zanis created the nearly 800 crosses in honor of those killed in 2016 in Chicago due to gun-related violence. I put on my hat and gloves and headed down to Tribune Tower underneath the NYE “Chi-Town Rising” Star as the crosses were being unloaded from the trucks. They were numbered and grouped by the month of the person’s passing.

First, family members were given the opportunity to find the cross of their loved one; one aunt told me she knew the exact number for her niece and was waiting for the May group. As the crowd waited, I turned to a woman next to me. She clung to a poster of 27-year-old Erik and when I asked her about his story, she wept. I held her as she opened up about Erik’s sense of humor and travels to Minnesota. We sobbed together. I thanked her and moved through the volunteers. The mother of a young man named Isaiah killed an ingratiatingly short time ago told me she was wearing his pants. I offered to help her carry the weight of his cross plus his large framed portrait, but she said she would do this alone, as a mother’s duty.

Once the majority of crosses were lifted and taken to the street in preparation for the march, it was announced that they needed volunteers for the remaining crosses. I looked down to see the cross of Demetrius Griffin Jr. No one had claimed it. His picture said he died at age 15. Cause of death: fire. This young man would enter my world.

As we walked the cross became heavier and heavier, yet the honor I felt had more weight. Demetrius’ picture settled itself on my chest as I instinctually cradled him as his family once had in reality. Oh, the loss.  

I walked alongside a stranger carrying the cross of a young woman named Marilyn and we chatted about this loving, wounded city we share. Two Latina sisters with matching remembrance t-shirts shared the weight of a cross for a man named Luis. Tourists shopping on Michigan Avenue, CTA crew, police officers, and passersby all had tears in their eyes. It was quiet. An elderly woman with a walker was struggling with her smaller cross. As I stooped to assist her, Demetrius’ cross nearly fell. A stranger swooped in. She asked if she could take the cross the rest of the way. “Of course,” I responded. My pangs to hold onto  Demetrius’ story longer were selfish but real.

The woman explained that she is a Chicagoan here to shop but felt compelled to march with her city. I spent the last few blocks helping the elderly woman find a public restroom with proper access for people with disabilities; turns out that is much more difficult than it should be. Eventually, I helped the woman find her bus and said my goodbyes. 

I wondered how many of those we honored with crosses today were Christian and if that matters. I wondered how the city held or harmed them during their lifetimes. I wondered if one death was the cause of another death in a cycle of vengeance. I wondered how we as citizens can reconcile having so many guns and how need to stand together much more often.

When I got home I straight away looked up Demetrius’ murder. As I had carried the weight of his cross and his story, I was humbled to have even a moment of connection with him. My gut flipped as I learned that he was burned alive in a garbage can just a few months ago. I can’t even. Would it be okay to reach out to his family or volunteer at his school? I could start with a blog post.

These are not just statistics. These are human beings. Calling on all Chicagoans! Get personally involved! We cannot go into another year with blood on our hands, blood in the streets. Peace does not just happen. Peace is created. 

– Father Michael Pfleger 12/31/2016

Polly Sykes, mother of Demetrius Griffin Jr. Photo by the Chicago Tribune’s Nuccio DiNuzzo



Support Dance Activism in Flint, MI: Global Water Dances 2017

I am launching a new project with partners in Flint, MI and we really need your help.

Global Water Dances (GWD) illuminates water issues through the art of dance and takes place in over 80 cities on six continents on the same day. Global Water Dances has had a vibrant history for seven years. We have staged three worldwide events in 2011, 2013, and 2015, with a fourth event planned next year. One day, every two years, cities from around the world participate in the Global Water Dances event. From Beijing, China to Zadar, Croatia, choreographers take on local water issues through workshops, dance activism and dialogue.

On June 24, 2017, the Flint, Michigan community will come together for their first-ever site of Global Water Dances. This event is a celebration of togetherness and de-victimization through dance in several sites throughout the city. As a project, it showcases the strength of Flint’s artists as agents of change and activators of positive momentum. GWD-Flint aims to build positive relationships across diverse groups of residents living near the Flint River. The project aims to provide a way for all to share ownership of the parks and water. Project details, goals and budget can be found below. We have some support from foundations but are limited because, as part of a global endeavor, our fiscal sponsor is not based in Michigan. We need to raise $3-5,000 from individuals in order for the event to be fully possible.

Donations can be made through the link on the bottom right of the page HERE and are tax-deductible through our fiscal sponsor The Laban/Bartenieff Institute for Movement Studies. Please write “Global Water Dances – Flint, MI” in the special instructions to ensure your gift goes to this site specifically.


Flint water crisis inspires portion of UM-Flint Spring Dance Concert, by faculty member Emma Davis.

Flint water crisis inspires portion of UM-Flint Spring Dance Concert, by faculty member Emma Davis.


Section I. RITUAL is an opening ceremony specific to Flint River Bank Park’s ADA-accessible amphitheatre. To create this ritual performance, Adesola Akinleye and her team will facilitate conversations and movement workshops with Flint mothers who are who are currently residents at Odyssey House about the work of women and its connection to water, the women’s role of simultaneously protecting children from harmful water and providing healthy water. There will be 5 sessions of 75 minutes each over three weeks. These workshops will be fully complete experiences for the women: they are not just service the choreography of the dance that will follow. Adesola will then work with dancers from FIM to devise and rehearse a 10-12 minute dance work in response to the women’s stories.

Section II. GLOBAL DANCE presents choreography done simultaneously by all GWD performers worldwide to the same piece of music, connecting participants and audience globally. Participants in Flint will include individuals and families from Headstart, Odyssey House, senior centers, and Vista volunteers. The sequence will be taught and guided during spring workshops led by the advanced students at Flint Institute of Music – Flint School of the Performing Arts’ dance division under the direction of Karen Mills Jennings and guest artists including Shawn Lent. In addition, on the day of the event, there will be Open Studio sessions throughout the city by partner organizations and dance schools to learn and rehearse the sequence. The sequence will be performed by community participants following the previously described RITUAL performance at Flint River Bank Park.

Section III. LOCAL DANCE is an afternoon, free dance concert featuring local choreographers Emma Davis, Alisyn & Jared Hurd (Vertical Ambition Dance Company and intermediate students at Flint Institute of Music addressing the river and recovery efforts.

Section IV. PARTICIPATORY DANCES invites audiences to travel back down to the river at the conclusion for a co-created movement sequence and group improvisation facilitated by Shawn Lent in River Bank Park, illuminated by the “A Body of Water” sculptural installation by artist + activist, Desiree Duell. The evening will flow into a family-friendly dance party.


GWD-Flint is focused on local empowerment and de-victimization for Flint, Michigan residents who are living through the water crisis. The project is intended to inspire a local ecology of collaboration, environmental knowledge, and activation of public spaces through dance.

COLLABORATION: Peace is an embodied practice. Dance is a way forward for children and families living in a volatile world. GWD-Flint aims to build positive relationships across diverse groups of residents living near the Flint River. The project aims to provide a way for all to share ownership of the parks and water. Creative movement is a particularly powerful tool for breaking down barriers, engendering empathy, and resilience, going beyond verbal dialogue.

KNOWLEDGE: GWD brings needed attention to water issues around our planet. Close to 1,000 surveys from our 2013 performance were gathered from four continents, and tabulated by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Survey Research. The surveys showed that 75% of the respondents reported that the performance increased their interest in water issues and 78% answered positively that the dance event inspired them to take action regarding water issues. Dance is a powerful way of increasing awareness in the global community.

ACTIVATION: Public spaces, like those in Flint, are often under-utilized. According to a bipartisan nationwide poll of kids ages 13-18, “80% said it was uncomfortable to be outdoors” and preferring screen time instead. On the positive side, “91% percent said that if a friend encouraged them to spend more time outdoors they would listen.” In addition, a study published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, “only 51% of children went outside to walk or play once a day with either parent. Only 24% of dads said they had parent-child outdoor playtime each day.” Time together. Outdoors. As families and neighbors. Moving. That is one foundational concept of our project. Dance engages the body, mind and spirit, releasing endorphins. Providing a natural and inviting entry point, community dances are fairly accessible for all ages and levels of dance experience (from novice to professional).


  • Engage 100+ local students, seniors, parents, toddlers, and artists in a day-long celebration of dance, of each other, and of water.
  • Draw 400+ audience members through various activities.
  • Celebrate and animate stories of local residents and of the park and river.
  • Strengthen the network and visibility of Flint’s dance artists nationally and internationally.
  • Increase capacities of at least 3 local practitioners.
  • Offer experiences where participants can grow in somatic awareness, social identity salience, spontaneity, greater extent of physical expression, positive mood/lessening of anxiety, sense of security, release of inhibitions, reduction of defensiveness and prejudice, and physical trust and interaction.
  • Provide movement experiences that are relevant, fun and engaging for families and residents of diverse ages and backgrounds.
  • Enhance familiarity, ownership and sharing of River Bank Park among diverse residents.
  • Activate everyday participation in River Bank Park as a place of important community exchange, creative learning and civic engagement across generations.
  • Promote creative exercise, fitness, and physical activity in Flint.


Adesola Akinleye is the artistic director of DancingStrong. She trained at Arts Educational School, London and The Rambert Academy. She began her professional career as a dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Since then she has danced with companies in North America and Europe. Adesola teaches dance and receives choreographic commissions internationally working in university setting, K-12/Foundation to Secondary/High School systems and private dance academies, as well as in community based projects. Adesola holds a PhD from Canterbury Christ Church University Social and Applied Science, Sports and Exercise Science Department and a Masters of Arts with Distinction in Work Based Learning – Dance in Education and Community from Middlesex University.

Karen Mills Jennings is the Chair of the Dance Division at the Flint School of Performing Arts and is the founding Artistic Director of the Flint Youth Ballet. Mrs. Jennings danced principal roles with Ballet Michigan and has been on the dance faculty for the Flint School of Performing Arts since 1980. As the Outreach Coordinator Mrs. Jennings facilitates programming for community partners both off and on site at the FSPA. Mrs. Jennings has worked closely with Director of the FSPA Davin Torre, in the development of FSPA’s teaching approach Beyond Boundaries, which utilizes non-judgmental teaching techniques that encourage and support the goals and learning styles of all students. Community Engagement has been her priority.

Shawn Lent moves this world as a manager and social practice artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s hospital in revolutionary Egypt. Shawn currently serves as Program Director for Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Alliance Building Lead for Createquity, and project lead for SUNY Purchase and Dance Peace, which is catalyzing an integration initiative through dance and music for Syrian refugees in Chicago. Previously, she was the national coordinator for EducationUSA Egypt with AMIDEAST and U.S. Department of State, U.S. Fulbright Scholar, UN Alliance of Civilizations International Fellow, instructor at Cairo Contemporary Dance Center, Commencement Speaker for Millikin University, and panelist/presenter at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, Hope College and TEDx Shibin El Kom. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago, and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith’s College.

Global Water Dances is a fiscally-sponsored project of The Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (LIMS), a non-profit educational organization with a global network of movement professionals. 


TOTAL COST $21,000*

Space River Bank Park site rental $500 $250 per day x 2
Space Theatre venue rental $3,000 UM-Flint
People Power Local Coordinator $2,000 $400 per month X 5 months
People Power Choreographer/Artist $2,000 $500 per artist x 4 artists
People Power Dancers $2,000 $100 x 20
People Power Project Director $1,250  
Supporting Roles Filmmaker(s)/Documentation $1,500  
Supporting Roles Tech Crew $2,000 $500 x 4
Supporting Roles Musician Fees $1,200 3 x 4 days @ $100 per day
Stuff Rentals $2,000 Equipment and Seating
Stuff Costumes/T-shirts $1,000 $10 x 100
Stuff Marketing/PR/Promotion $500 printing, signage
Stuff Water and snacks $750 for all participants
Stuff Workshop & Event Supplies $300  
Transportation Artist Travel $1,000 4-10 trips @ $50-250
TOTAL   $21,000  
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