Today’s post comes from Abby Gerdts, the Director of International Programs at Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP), a nonprofit that provides arts education and empowerment programs for under-served youth. ASTEP’s mission is to connect performing and visual artists with underserved youth in the US and around the world to awaken their imaginations, foster critical thinking, and help them break the cycle of poverty. Prior to her current role at ASTEP, Abby spent three years building arts programming for organizations working with refugee populations in Istanbul, Turkey.
Everyday Ambassador’s notion that service is a two-way street is profoundly important for those who truly “want to leave the world a better place”. The self-awareness that is acquired by listening to and learning from the community you work with is paramount in the non-profit and service sectors. There are two determinants to the success of an individual’s service work: their ability to approach a given project with the willingness to undo any preconceptions they might have and be open to truly communing with their new environment and learning from the people they are working with.
For several years I worked at a facility in Istanbul, Turkey that housed young refugee men and boys, unaccompanied minors from all parts of the globe waiting to be resettled by the UN. The wait was very long. For some, the wait still continues. For others, the wait ultimately turned into deportation to their home countries in the midst of civil war and political upheaval. Only a small number have finally been resettled in Canada and the US.
During my extended time with them, we worked on many projects together, one of which was a full-length play written by students from different regions in Afghanistan. These young men crafted their story as a remarkable piece of art. But, the journey from the time that I first met them until the day they wrote the last scene was a very long one.
It took months for me to build up enough trust and understanding between us and among the students themselves to be able to enter into the creation process. When we first began working together, none of the students had any experience with theater or playwriting. Even after they convinced each other that they wanted to undertake the project, it took several more weeks to discover the central themes, characters, and plot lines that would become the components of the finished product. It takes time, lots of time, to uncover truth, digest and process history, and come up with the courage to face the pain of their past.
My role in this scenario was simply to guide, to facilitate, and provide a structure to the writing sessions week after week. The students were always in complete control of the direction and the content of the piece. As an artist and a teacher, it is sometimes a challenge to inhibit my own impulses to intervene, hurry the process along, or encourage the piece to head one direction or another. But of course, it was not my job to make the story “better” or “different”; that would have completely diffused the intention of the project.
It was my job to encourage. It was my job to provide structure. It was my job to listen.
The creation process I experienced with the Afghani playwrights might be a good metaphor for how all of us should approach each new community that we are lucky enough to work with. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t contribute; quite the opposite. It is no small thing to provide encouragement to the marginalized or oppressed, to provide a sense of structure when it is somehow lacking in the communities we work in, or to bear witness to the testimonies and lives of those who often go unheard. However, we ought to let the members of the community guide the direction of the content of the conversation. Only they truly know the challenges, the circumstances, and the cultural context in which you are working.
I now work with newly resettled refugees to New York City, where I live and work through the The International Rescue Committee (IRC). My life has come full-circle as I now see the flip-side of the resettling process: children and families arrive in the US, attend school and obtain jobs. Working with ASTEP I have the opportunity to bring my former experience to the table.
This is where the second meaning of the “two-way street” comes into play: It is mentioned on Everyday Ambassador’s website that “we must translate our experiences back to our own homes and communities”. Yes. We must be actively involved in our own hometowns and cities, in our own corner of the world where we do understand the cultural context a bit better. In addition to our work outside of it, we have to be willing to roll up our sleeves and work with the community centers around the corner from our houses and places of work, the organizations that are in desperate need of volunteers, the individuals who need to be seen and heard right here, right now.
If we will go so far as to travel all around the world to serve, it is crucial that we also pay attention and willingly give ourselves to our own neighborhoods, to cultivate the facilities, projects, and relationships in our own backyards.