Monday, March 04, 2013

Why We Can't "Fix It"

Joanna received this note from an NYU student following her Power of Performance: Theatre in War Zones talk at Gallatin on February 11.

Dear Joanna,

I attended your talk at NYU Gallatin a few weeks ago, and meant to write to you the same night, but it turns out I needed a bit more time to process my thoughts.

For some background, I am an NYU Abu Dhabi student, originally from Vermont. I am a theater major who is still trying to figure out my direction, though I have dabbled in playwrighting, directing, lighting, and stage management. I love theater, and I love creating, but I am really passionate about how theater can be used as a tool for communication, healing, and understanding, both at home and abroad.

I have traveled to Nepal, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and, most notably for me, India. I visited those places for various reasons – primarily tourism and volunteering.

Although that isn't quite the right word. Because it wasn't volunteering in the sense of “oh, lets go into a place and 'fix it,'” – not, “lets go somewhere and bring our superior knowledge, and implement our ways.”  Instead, it was, “I want to go somewhere, and collaborate, and learn, and assist where I can and be quiet and observe when I can’t.” We ended up working on a one-room health center for the town, located right next to one of the main preschools, because the nurse had been working out of the back of her home – something she knew wasn't good for her family or her patients.

I feel like I learned much more than I gave on that trip, and it gave me a lens with which to view travel and work abroad. Coming into your talk, I was honestly a bit worried – worried this would be another case of people who thought they knew best, trying to go into a place and “fix it.”

Instead, what you spoke about was a group of collaborators who understood what it was like to travel, to be inspired, and to create. I respected how you spoke about your experiences so much, and left inspired and thankful that there are groups who treat theater and travel in such a human way.

What struck me first was when you questioned the use of the word empowerment – because you are absolutely right – the people you work with already have power, and you are just providing tools and a safe space to speak and create. You also spoke about working with artists, about using theater for education, and for healing. How theater can get ideas across when words fail us, as they so often do.

Then you talked about building a relationship – not just going in and leaving. That is what haunts me about my trip to India – I promised I would return, and have not yet filled that promise, although my high school has brought other groups back, which is comforting.

I respected this discussion so much, and I left motivated – and I thank you for that.

Thank you again for the work that you do – it is much after my own heart.

NYU Abu Dhabi Class of 2015