Class blends theater, civic engagement
By Sarah Baker, MA ’15, and Suzanne Hinton
May 13, 2014
Students in the Theatre and Community Conversations class share their experiences at an end-of-semester reception in the Elma Lewis Center. (Photo by Suzanne Hinton)
A Performing Arts Department service learning class taught this year in collaboration with the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research is leaving students with positive life lessons—teaching students how to light the flame of long–term civic engagement.
Theatre and Community Conversations (TH 521), taught by Artist-in-Residence Michael Keck, uses theatrical tools at Boston nonprofit organizations to develop conversations and engage participants through stories. The class—open to undergraduate and graduate students—worked with seniors, women experiencing homelessness, teenage girls, youth with incarcerated parents, and women who have re-entered their communities after being incarcerated.
“It’s very much shaped my perspective,” said Dylan Manderlink ’14, “on how vital education is in creating a pathway to empowerment and action.”
“It’s important that the College is engaging with neighbors in reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships,” said Suzanne Hinton, director of Emerson’s Office of Service Learning and Community Action. “We engage in partnerships through which everyone can learn—not just projects.”
At St. Francis House’s Women’s Center, coordinator Britni de la Cretaz said several women participated in the workshops who ordinarily would not join in activities. They took part in journaling activities and story circles, and noted the skill the students exuded while communicating with participants who sometimes shared troubling life stories.
At the youth outreach program Mission Safe, founding director Nikki Flionis said workshop participants gained “tremendous experience, confidence, and joy.”
Keck, a performance artist, actor, composer, and ethnographist, has taught extensively in the federal prison system and has led countless workshops at colleges and universities. He has performed decades of work in community development.
Robert Amelio, director of diversity education and human relations, with Michael Keck, artists-in-residence, discussing Keck's service learning class at a recent Elma Lewis Center reception. (Photo by Suzanne Hinton)
Keck says the students in this course become “experience makers,” which prompts them to be active, reflective, and adaptive learners.
“The students will become knowledgeable of and engaged with the contemporary phenomenon of performance with familiar and unfamiliar communities,” Keck said.
Community members benefit from the class by learning how they can take ownership of their stories and gain more control over their personal narratives.
Manderlink said her interactions with the community groups were “meaningful and filled with teachable moments for the young women, [as well as] my fellow class members, and me.”
Students in the Theatre and Community Conversations class share their experiences from the past semester at an Elma Lewis Center reception. (Photo by Suzanne Hinton)
Andrea Gordillo ’14 said her experiences at the nonprofits were life changing.
“It’s important to listen to other people and not assume I have all the answers,” Gordillo said. “We are not there to fix anything, but rather to present communities with different tools they can use to solve their problems if they so choose. This class has reinvigorated my passion for the applications of theater in community organizations and environments.”
The Office of Service Learning and Community Action, which is part of the Elma Lewis Center, helps nonprofit organizations, faculty, and students connect to identify and assess community needs through research and service for credit. Emerson has more than 30 courses that prepare Emersonians for life and work in a diverse society by integrating service into assigned work. The office’s work emphasizes the goal of the Elma Lewis Center to bring Emerson’s “distinct expertise in arts and communication to bear in service to the public good through school and community partnerships.”