A Tool for Social Change: Teatro at Camp Ayandeh
A family gathers their belongings in an airport and asks a passerby to take their photo. “What is that language you’re speaking?” the passerby asks. The woman replies- the language is Farsi. “You’re Muslims? Where are you headed?” The woman says the family is traveling together to Iran. Another question: “Why are you bringing so many suitcases with you?” This time a middle-aged man speaks up, “It’s Eid, the Iranian New Year, we have lots of things with us.” “You’re celebrating? Shouldn’t you be mourning Osama’s death?”
It has been a decade since 9/11. For many young Middle Eastern Americans, the post 9/11 atmosphere is virtually all they’ve known. They’ve been harassed in school. They’ve been bothered in their communities. Few of them have had the confidence, knowledge, and strength to stand up for themselves against the attacks. Others have reacted in ways that exacerbate the problem. There’s an obvious gap in the educational system. That is why organizations like Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB) have stepped up to fill it.
This is the sixth year of IAAB’s annual Camp Ayandeh (“future” in Persian). Located this year in the Bay Area, the camp focuses on empowering Iranian American youth, specifically high school students, and giving them the tools to change their communities at home. Campers engage in a number of different activities, ranging from cultural workshops on Iranian music and poetry, to workshops aimed at answering campers’ questions regarding the college application process. One of the more unique activities at this year’s camp, Teatro, is aimed at practicing conflict resolution, and offers campers a chance to actively develop their leadership skills.
Teatro, in its modern form, is a genre of theater that was founded by Augusto Boal in the mid-to-late 1900s. Known as the Theater of the Oppressed in many countries, Teatro was invented with the thought of transforming theater from a top-down approach, wherein the actors are educating the audience, to more of a “dialogue” between actors and the audience. As a social movement, Teatro has several roles: to humanize all participants, regardless of race, gender, or beliefs, to develop what all people have within themselves, and to promote creative, nonviolent action and behavior.
Shirin Vossoughi, PhD, the Director at this year’s camp, is the reason Teatro was included in the curriculum of Camp Ayandeh 2011. “I got into Teatro with a summer program working mainly with migrant students, mostly Mexican American and Central American. My theater mentor, Manuel Espinoza, PhD, introduced this type of performance to me. We used it as a playful space for the students to use the dramatic arts as a forum for making sense of their experiences and learning to intervene in the scenes of everyday life”, says Dr. Vossoughi. It turns out that what applied to the summer program for the children of migrant workers can also be applied to Iranian American youth to address the variety of issues they face.
At Camp Ayandeh, campers are separated into one of ten groups, based on age. For the Teatro activity, each older group is paired to a younger one. The combined group of roughly 15 students makes up the Teatro group. “Each group creates a strong conflict, and the campers must form a way to resolve the conflict with the established characters: a protagonist, an antagonist, and a cast of witnesses”, states Vossoughi.
The scene is initially presented in such a way that the conflict is not resolved, requiring audience participation and help to solve the issue at hand. The audience is granted the ability to stop the scene at a clap of the hand, and replace the protagonist with one of their own. The goal is to resolve the conflict in such a way that humanizes all the characters- even the antagonist.
For the Iranian American students at Camp Ayandeh, the inclusion of Teatro makes sense. IAAB’s educational philosophy is key to how the camp operates each year. Some major tenants of this philosophy include: promoting the notion of a community of learners, creating an all-inclusive environment in which all participants take on the roles of teachers and learners, encouraging inter-generational mentorship and collaboration, as well as cultivating the potential of every young person, and the potential of the broader Iranian diaspora community.
With Teatro, the campers receive another tool they can use to affect their communities back home. “The most important things we want campers to get out of Teatro is to develop the tools of social analysis and nonviolent conflict resolution, and to learn to stand up for themselves and others”, says Vossoughi.
In light of Teatro’s success at Camp Ayandeh this year, it could very easily become the norm at future camps, and spread its reach further around the nation as a legitimate method of developing as leaders and participating in social change, addressing the needs of immigrant Americans who face similar types of social challenges.
The ultimate goal, the reason so many dedicated staff and counselors volunteer at Camp Ayandeh, is to allow the campers to reshape their environments at home. Many of the staff remember what it was like to live in the U.S.A. pre-9/11. They want to give campers the opportunity to see something they’ve never seen: a brighter future, one as free of mistrust, hate, judgment, and fear as possible.
* Special thanks to Arya Saniee for help with research.
About Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB) - IAAB is a 501(c)(3) non-partisan, non-profit volunteer organization with a young, dedicated staff spread across the United States, Europe and Iran. The mission of the organization is to address issues of the Iranian diaspora community while raising awareness of the Iranian community, promoting leadership, and connecting Iranians across borders. For more information about IAAB, please visit www.iranianalliances.org.
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