Theater, social change, and the many aspects of sustainability

I teach a class called “Performance and Social Change”, and it’s to this class that I brought ideas from the Trillium workshop. In the class we explore the body of theatrical techniques created by Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal. “Theatre of the Oppressed”, the umbrella term for these tools, help people to observe, reflect, and catalyze social change. Students in the course learn some of Boal’s techniques, then are challenged to share the techniques through workshops that they lead with members of our community partner organization.  This past year, our community partner was the Durham Crisis Response Center, which provides services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Students find this course very empowering. For some students, the process of going from student to workshop leader is a challenge, and it’s a major victory when they do it. The students support each other, and receive support and encouragement from workshop participants as well.

We talk a lot about structures of power, which we try to be very mindful of. Complex structures of power are embedded in Duke and Durham’s town/gown history and in the race and class backgrounds we all bring into the room. It is super important for the students to become conscious of structures of power and power dynamics so that they can act and respond to each other and community partners consciously.  I see lightbulbs go off for them as they make real connections and are inspired by incredible members of the community who are working to undo racism, sexism and classism in the Duke/Durham community. Hopefully this experience sustains them and motivates them to be agents of social change beyond the course.

The content of the course always engages with the idea of sustainability from a social justice perspective. A piece of that picture is economic sustainability.  For instance, the Durham Crisis Response Center serves women who are living with domestic violence, and if a woman has no means of supporting herself or her kids, it’s a piece of why she might stay with a violent partner. The Justice Theater Project, another community partner we’ve worked with, struggles to achieve their own financial sustainability as a small theater company. We have also worked with NC WARN, which advocates for sustainable energy and environmental justice.

This year’s syllabus framed three different ways that the course would work to be sustainable and address issues of sustainability:  self-sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability. We start each class with yoga, breathing, and mindfulness practice. The content of the class, the theater techniques and the work with our community partners is all about social justice. Environmental sustainability is practiced through recycling, turning the lights out when the space is not in use, and in our food choices when we’re providing food for people. 

The lens of the Trillium workshop gave me a frame for thinking about and sharing with my student the above-mentioned aspects of sustainability.  Caring for ourselves, each other and our surroundings IS living in a sustainable manner.  Emphasizing sustainability in these ways on the syllabus helped legitimize those components of the class, underscoring their importance and making them more official. Thinking and talking about the personal and social as part of the big picture of sustainability helped me bring in the environmental piece to the class — asking students to make environmentally responsible choices became part of the class process.  Turning in all written assignments online was a shift for me to becoming as paperless as possible.  For the students, this was preferable!

Being part of the Trillium community and feeling like there is a community around sustainability at Duke has been great. It helps me feel less of a lone wolf. I have colleagues in the Dance Program who are rabid recyclers like myself, but now I’ve met others in this community across the university who I wouldn’t otherwise know. I think we need to use this community to generate a critical mass and move the crisis that we on planet Earth are facing into the mainstream of thought and action at Duke. The time is now!

Engaging with complexity in environmental science

I came to Duke’s annual Trillium sustainability workshop as a graduate student interested in sustainability and teaching.  The workshop promised to combine the two and I was intrigued.  I was unsure whether the workshop was about teaching sustainably or teaching about sustainability (both, it turns out) and what sustainable teaching could mean other than avoiding printed handouts.  I came away with much more insight than I expected.

The workshop started with an exercise to investigate complexity.  We used lengths of twine to represent connections between different stakeholders in a complex environmental issue, stretching the twine between pictures of the stakeholders to create a physical map.  During this session, we focused on multiple competing uses of fisheries, but I later found that the exercise works equally well with many themes in sustainability.  We got out of our chairs and stretched the string across an entire wall.  The web of string quickly became tangled, which is precisely the point.  As teachers and professionals looking to address sustainability, we have to be able to thread all those connections between stakeholders in complex situations.  More importantly, we also have to teach students how to interpret these complex webs that abound in real-world environmental issues.

That theme of complexity and interconnectedness returned throughout the Trillium workshop, imparting a lasting lesson that has informed my teaching since.  During the workshop, I had the opportunity to talk to people from a variety of disciplines and learn about some of the challenges they faced in both the content and practice of their teaching.  Although our roles and our subject matter were different, our goal of expanding students’ awareness of sustainability was the same.  As a scientist, I found it useful to share experiences with teachers in the arts and humanities and learn how they are choosing to address environmental issues and sustainability in their courses.

The connections that I built with the broader sustainability community at Duke during the first Trillium workshop that I attended have continued to enrich my teaching over the ensuing years.  Being involved with the Trillium community has helped to keep me aware of the numerous events around campus related to sustainability.  I also developed valuable professional connections, one of which led to an opportunity to be a teaching assistant for an introductory environmental science course at Duke.

My experiences sharing ideas with other Trillium fellows informed how I decided to lead my sections for that environmental science course.  Going back to my first experience in the Trillium workshop of taping string to a wall, one of my teaching goals for the semester was to help my students gain the ability to evaluate the multiple interconnected relationships imbedded a complex environmental issue.  As such, that semester the students and I read and discussed Jon Moallem’s book Wild Ones.  This book is packed full of complex issues presently facing wildlife conservationists.  Should we devote resources to saving species whose habitat is likely to disappear as a result of human actions?  What do we do when species become “conservation reliant” and can no longer exist without human intervention?  Should we focus on saving particular charismatic species at all or should we focus on saving ecosystems?  Moallem presents these questions by taking a more in-depth look at species whose stories’ students have likely encountered before: the polar bear clinging to a melting Arctic, for example.

The book proved to be a fantastic avenue to explore a complexity within environmental science.  The book provides thought-provoking and discussion-generating questions, but there are few, if any, answers or value judgements.  That meant that we could spend the class sessions coming up with those solutions ourselves.  For example, Moallem describes a wildlife refuge which has struggled unsuccessfully for decades to preserve a critically endangered set of plants and insects.  The students worked on creating a revamped management plan for the refuge to address the issues described in the book, based on the existing budget for the refuge (which I found online).

One of my other teaching goals for the semester was to empower students to build of their understanding of complexity to develop solutions to environmental problems.  Studying environmental science and sustainability can be disheartening, especially for beginning students.  I remember the litany of destruction that I encountered in my first environmental science course in college years ago.  I want to move students past that point, to help them avoid becoming disillusioned or hopeless.  Staying in touch with other members of the Trillium community at Duke helps remind me that while we there are many challenges in environmental science and sustainability, there are also many opportunities to develop novel solutions.  One of the most exiting aspects of teaching about sustainability is that I get to watch a group of bright students come up with innovative new ideas every semester.

My graduate training is in ecology, a discipline which is focused on the connections between organisms and the environment they inhabit.  Ecology also teaches that no environment is static over the long term.  My involvement with Trillium has helped me to realize that these same insights apply equally well to many issues in sustainability.  To address any issue, just like understanding an ecosystem, we must first understand the relationships that drive that issue.  Moreover, like ecological systems, few environmental issues are static.  As technologies change, new opportunities (and challenges) arise.

The dynamism of studying and teaching about sustainability is one of the aspects that makes it so rewarding to me.  In hopes of passing on some of my enthusiasm for solving complex problems, I start the first class session of every semester with a ball of string, some scissors, and a big, empty wall.