Youth & Community Theatre for Development
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Yesterday morning, on 23 June at UNICEF NYHQ, there was a feature on “Community Theatre in Achieving Results for Children” that was part of UNICEF’s 2014 Spotlight series on Communication for Development (C4D) Innovations for Equity. This feature facilitated a panel discussion on how Community Theatre can be an effective platform for youth to identify, validate, solve, and express personal, social, or political issues critical to their lives and experiences. There were quite a few poignant examples of Community Theatre efforts coming from different regions and on different issues – ranging from Street Children in Zambia to Internally Displaced Children in Tanzania to Children in Transitional Justice in Afghanistan. Community Theatre for youth seems to combine artistic expression with restorative justice and trauma therapy to those that need the tools to self reflect, to be heard, and to have communal support during both.
To start, Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn, a community activist and community theatre expert, speaking virtually to the room from Ukraine, highlighted how the point of Community Theatre is that it is theatre with, not for, communities. Therefore, it is an empowering method that centers on asking youth questions and engaging in discussion and listening rather than giving prescriptive, ready-made answers to youth. In terms of addressing trauma or discrimination, specifically, theatre has the ability to create spaces to come together and humanize one another which is incredibly important for communities and youth in fragile situations. Young people have expressed how theatre has encouraged them to become “protagonists of their own lives.”
A special guest at UNICEF was the Barefeet Theatre group from Zambia. Adam McGuigan, the artistic Director and Group member introduced the organization’s model for Theatre for Development. The history of Barefeet Theatre originated during Zambia’s 2006 election when street children were given a lot of negative media attention as to how dangerous they were. When the group provided youth, including street children, artistic opportunities, it facilitated getting children from the streets, into safer environments, and connected to other services. Theatre gave youth a voice and allowed young people themselves to identify the issues important to them that they wanted to perform and express to the community. McGuigan described the organization’s “light bulb moment” in 2006 when street children performed, were applauded, and seen in a positive light by the broader community. That is, the positive affirmation motivated each young person to work towards more performances, staying off the streets, and being heard by others. When youth actors and actresses used their own stories to perform, they had something to engage in and focus on. When they were celebrated, the youth recognized their own importance and voice. After its establishment in 2006, Barefeet Theatre had to grow because so many young people were coming in to participate. It now holds a Children’s Council, reaches out to vulnerable children, builds performance companies, launches workshop interventions, and holds an artist festival that trains and supports local and children artists to express themselves.
UNICEF Education Specialist, Friedrich Affolter, spoke to his own experiences in Sudan with Community Theatre as being an effective peace-building tool. He saw theatre “awake a social consciousness” where individuals were equipped to develop their own solutions. In terms of using Theatre as a tool for youth, it is especially meaningful in conflict situations in that young people are in a unique social position to support or resist conflict, even though hardly any youth feel powerful in such situations. Yet Affolter witnessed youth who had thought they were the only ones resistant to engage in conflict become empowered in theatre exercises where resistance and hesitation was soon to be understood as wide-spread amongst youth in their communities. In Darfur, where the government was very suspicious of outside organizational work being done, Community Theatre was so effective, that the government was quick to support the efforts Affolter was part of.
It was also noted that Community Theatre has been an innovative way to involve the community with political decision makers. Joffre-Eichnorn gave examples of legislative theatre work done in Afghanistan which engaged women and girls in storytelling and performing to identify the kinds of laws and policies necessary for gender equity. A lawyer working with the group devised a legal report of 24 concrete suggestions which was presented to parliament.
One question that arose was the different level of specialization that is required when dealing with sensitive issues or working with those in trauma. The panelists agreed that the ability to make quality referrals is necessary because artist collectives cannot serve every health and security need of children and their communities. However, the reality is that communal and peer support is necessary for effective trauma healing or rehabilitation and theatre groups can provide that support. Overall, when engaging children in sensitive issues that are central to their well-being, artistic opportunity and collaboration can establish positive and empowering skills that are carried on later in life.
While it is difficult to demonstrate social transformation on a micro level, Theatre for Development must be monitored in order to be further supported, funded, and implemented. It is important to document the change that Community Theatre for Development work generates, otherwise it will not be given the legitimacy it deserves. In regards to sustainability, Community Theatre is cost effective and resilient because it is fun and results-oriented. Experience shows that once a community picks Community Theatre up, chances are it will be a continued practice. However, Community Theatre is not just fun, but income-generating and meaningful. It gives youth the chance to be a part of the positive change needed in their communities.
In light of UNICEF’s current engagement with integrating youth voices into the agenda as well as the co-led Means of Implementation (MOI) consultations that focus on participatory monitoring, Communication for Development and specifically Community Theatre, provides a way to translate the concepts of youth engagement and participatory monitoring into practice on the local level. Such innovative practices may be effective answers to how the people-centered spirit of the Post-2015 discussions can live on for youth around the world.