During her 10-year career as a teacher at a Seattle public high school, Sooz Stahl has watched as its student population has steadily grown less diverse, a direct result of a 2007 Supreme Court decision that found that SPS’s efforts to diversify school demographics by race was unconstitutional.
While students of color feel pressure to assimilate into white culture to gain approval and success in school, Stahl says, white students are rarely encouraged to acknowledge present-day racism, white privilege, and the cultural strengths and contributions of people whose identities exist outside the norm of whiteness.
In response, the University of Washington College of Education doctoral student embarked on a Youth Participatory Action Research project called “Theater of Liberation” during the winter of 2016. The methodology for the project is based on Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed.”
Stahl, students and fellow educators at the school immersed themselves in challenging issues of race, class and social identity as they created interactive plays based on students’ experiences. The goal is to help people in the school community to better understand and value individuals’ diverse identities.
During performances of the plays, spectators learn how to join the performance and attempt to disrupt the oppression that is being portrayed. The audience and characters then discuss whether or not the intervention was successful, and why (or why not).
“Specifically, I wanted to see if we could explore and more deeply define the concept of cultural flexibility,” Stahl said, “which is the ability to appreciate social identity boundaries, and transcend them.”
Stahl and several “Theater of Liberation” students presented one of their plays, “You People Are All the Same,” during the American Educational Research Association’s 2017 annual meeting and shared their experiences with the project.
Carlos, one of the student researchers, said that while challenging, the program gave him an opportunity to think more deeply about different forms of oppression faced by students and others.
“Mainly I was thinking about racial oppression, but since being in this program I’ve also been thinking about sexism, ageism and ableism, a lot of things that affect the school,” he said.
Kaitlyn, another ensemble member, said she’s been able to build better relationships with students of color at her school as a result of what she’s learned.
“There are so many people that are being oppressed at this time and none of us notice it, but now in the hallways I’m aware of it and I can stop it,” she said.
Together with these students, Stahl is working to determine whether cultural flexibility is a disposition that can be cultivated and taught, especially in white people in mostly-white spaces, using “Theatre of the Oppressed” as a transformative strategy.
“Transparency is a precursor to trust,” Stahl said. “Wherever the power resides, and wherever the people who are feeling oppressed are, transparency has to go both ways and especially has to come from people with power. They have to look at themselves with a critical lens and say ‘What kinds of power do I have and am I using that power for good, or am I using that power, inadvertently, to get what I need at the expense of other people who have less power’.”
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