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The World As It Could Be

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Human rights? “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way”

At the end of April, Ellen Sebastian Chang (Creative Director of Rex’s The World As It Could Be project) and I submitted the draft curriculum to use the creative arts to teach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This curriculum element is being considered for inclusion in the San Francisco Unified School District’s 2008-09 Pilot Ethnic Studies program.

Wow! When I began work on this project in 2006, my goal was to raise awareness about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to showcase the excellent work of the Rex grantees who utilize the creative arts in their work with youth who, due to their lower socioeconomic status, often face troubling and risk-raising issues. My theory was, “What better way to teach, than through the lessons we can we learn from young people, delivered through the medium of drama, dance and song?”

The first performance of The World As It Could Be – A Declaration of Human Rights was at the Presidio in San Francisco on December 7, 2006. The primarily adult audience was taken by the beauty and eloquence of the performance. During the interactive discussion following the performance, I learned that most of the audience had no idea there was a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that they appreciated the learning that had just taken place. The next morning, the performance was presented to the 1,000+ students of San Francisco’s Balboa High School. Just as the night before, the entire audience was fully engaged throughout the 40-minute performance; students cheered and called-out in appreciation for what their peers presented.

Besides feeling that this had been the most meaningful creative project I had undertaken, I knew that multiple dimensions of learning and teaching had taken place, and that this was something that should continue. Several of the sponsors, along with Sarah Crowell of Destiny Arts Center, who provided the core performance company, and Ellen Sebastian Chang, agreed. We decided not only to do a second dramatization that would build on the first, but also to explore how to bring more focus within the public school curriculum on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, utilizing the creative arts as a key learning tool.

The Aha! about this came to me as I thought about what I witnessed when the performance company youth began working on the dramatization project. In addition to learning about the Declaration, the youth were given numerous thought-provoking questions to prompt writings, dance sequences and dramatic staging, to help express their ideas about what it means to have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. You could literally see the learning taking place as each performer mulled over the questions and shared their responses.

As I planned for the next steps in this project, it seemed that we had an opportunity not only to continue working with youth via the great grantee programs we support, but also to help reinstate the arts as a vital part of public school education. We started working on the second dramatization, The World As It Could Be – Where There’s A Will There’s A Way, to explore the “will” needed to manifest the words of the Declaration, this time including 826 Valencia and Youth Movement Records, as well as Destiny Arts Center. 826 Valencia worked with three freshman English classes at Raoul Wallenberg High School to create writings about human rights and the “will to change” for a Chap Book (a booklet of collected works). Youth Movement Records worked with several of their youth to create an anthem for the performance, and produce a CD of the anthem to be included with the Chap Book.

We arranged for two performances this time, once again at Balboa High School, on January 11, 2008, and at Oakland Technical High School, on April 14. Then, we worked with Balboa High School to develop a pilot curriculum focused on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (already part of the official curriculum for 10th grade history). Ellen Sebastian Chang and Destiny Arts Center program directors are currently leading three classes to create writings about the Declaration. In the fall, auditions begin for students who will create their own production about the Universal Declaration and perform it at an assembly on December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration (which took place in San Francisco!).

My original hope had been that this pilot project could then be considered by the San Francisco Unified School District for broader application. While all of this has been going on, our newly assigned faculty representative at Balboa High School approached us about including the project in the pilot Ethnic Studies curriculum being developed for 2008-09. Now, we’re excitedly moving ahead on parallel tracks to demonstrate the power of the arts to teach, to raise greater awareness about the Universal Declaration, and to shape the public school curriculum.

–Sandy Sohcot

2 Responses to “The World As It Could Be”

  1. Barbara Ruth Saunders says:

    I was inspired beyond my expectations when I saw The World As It Could Be — Where There’s A Will There’s a Way performed at Oakland Technical High School. Aside from the teachings about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these students put me back in touch with what I wanted and needed as a young person: I wanted tools to help me understand my experiences. I wanted to articulate my understandings through a deep dialogue with the rest of the world, including my peers and the adults in my corner of the universe. Most of all, I wanted to translate what I knew into a personal philosophy, a code of conduct, and a life purpose.

    That quest led to my first encounters with the Rex Foundation, in 1984 when I was 17 years old. In between bouts of heavy dancing and blissed-out listening at Grateful Dead benefit shows, I examined the displays describing fascinating charitable projects led by and for people all around the globe. For me, the presence of the Rex Foundation grounded my spiritual connection with the Dead. I got validation for holding the “crazy” belief that the world really could be a better place to be and continuing my search for meaningful ways to participate.

    Since I’ve been an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time working with children and youth, and with organizations that serve or advocate for them. I have been torn about where I stand on a one of the hottest debates in the field of youth development. Some organizations emphasize efficacy; they expose youth to the rigors of writing or performing or playing a sport with the intention of “building character,” giving them a focus for their energies, and generating the successes that bolster their self-esteem. That’s the approach under which I was schooled. Other programs strive to de-emphasize the competitiveness that inevitably kicks in once “excellence” becomes the goal. In my experience, when the latter approach is in an organization’s DNA, that organization usually aims to provide youth with expressive outlets and help them feel good about themselves without regard to the quality of their products.

    The students I saw at Oakland Tech showed me a vision past that false dichotomy. Underneath the layers of dance numbers and music styled after artists I might see on MTV or American Idol, I heard and felt yearnings I recognized communicated clearly and powerfully. The artistic rigor that creative director Ellen Sebastian Chang so obviously imposed had not squelched authentic expression; it had nurtured it. Despite their different agendas and interests, youth, adult supporters in the community, nonprofit partners and for-profit sponsors, school administrators, and San Francisco government had come together around the kind of multidimensional objectives — to advance human rights awareness, to tap the many powers of creative arts, and to enhance kids’ learning in the public schools.

    I left the performance feeling fortunate to have witnessed the toddler-hood of a project that I think is destined for great things!

  2. Gwen says:

    Hooray for Rex and The World As It Could Be.
    Gwen Kaplan