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‘Performing one another:’ Theater tools help these students accept different perspectives
Judy Woodruff: In a moment marked by deep political and cultural divides, an innovative program harnesses theater techniques to step into the shoes of others.
Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: Two recent college graduates, Myiah Smith of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., founded by Jesuits, but ecumenically and culturally liberal, Michael "Mikey" Pozo of Patrick Henry College, a small conservative Christian school about an hour away in Purcellville, Virginia, different backgrounds and college experiences, brought together in an unusual program called In Your Shoes.
Michael "Mikey" Pozo: Me, as a Christian, there are some things that I would -- I believe that it's very hard for me to get out there. But I was able to speak freely in that context.
Myiah Smith: There are so many ways that we could identify how we are different from other people. But what In Your Shoes project was about was, despite those differences, how could we discover a commonality?
Jeffrey Brown: The project, in pre-COVID times done in person, uses tools of performance to push people of differing views to not just listen to one another, but to speak the words of the other.
Myiah Smith: Things may go haywire in the world, but, at the very least, you be that spark. You be the joy for others.
Michael "Mikey" Pozo: You're not really your brain. You're not really your body. You're not even really your heart, your thoughts. It's just like -- I don't know. It's just -- there's so much here, so much there.
Jeffrey Brown: Students pair off, are given a prompt or topic, and record their conversation. Next, they swap words.
Here, Amira Ali (ph) of Georgetown and Anna Allen (ph) of Patrick Henry.
Woman: I also love freedom. And it depends how you define freedom. And I feel like we may be losing that.
Woman: I did have a thought about the whole cancel culture. I find it so destructive.
Jeffrey Brown: Derek Goldman, head of Georgetown's Performing Arts Department, calls it performing one another.
Derek Goldman: I think it works because what we see happening are the deeper, harder conversations that many of the students feel That are not happening in their lives.
They feel like they're in these kinds of bubbles with people who agree with them and feel the same way they do, and then they're at odds with a whole set of other people.
Jeffrey Brown: In Your Shoes is the brainchild of Goldman and Daniel Brumberg, director of Georgetown's Democracy and Governance master's program.
Man: You're speaking to something that's really so hard to deal with.
Jeffrey Brown: It's a creative effort to address increasing political and other divisions within the country.
In 2018, they partnered with Patrick Henry College, an institution founded in 2000 to offer a rigorous liberal arts education with a biblical worldview, its motto, For Christ and For Liberty.
The school has had notable success placing graduates in conservative political and legal circles, including in the Trump administration and as Supreme Court clerks.
Patrick Henry and Georgetown students often bring different values to the table, including on issues of sex and sexuality and the role of religion in public life.
Myiah Smith: The first thing that they were sharing us about their campus culture was the slogan ring by spring. And students often date and then marry.
Myiah Smith: And it's very, very different from Georgetown.
Jeffrey Brown: Corey Grewell is a literature professor at Patrick Henry who leads the project there.
Corey Grewell: There's some tension, right, because there's an implicit idea of both students having a sort of idea, well, kind of according to what you think, I'm in the wrong here.
But, to their credit, the students have not tried to impose that on each other. And I think that those conversations lay the groundwork for some of the political differences, right, that they encounter later on.
When I go into the voting booth to pull the lever for someone who makes policy, we're not going to vote for the same guy, but that doesn't negate my respect for you as a human being.
Jeffrey Brown: Prompts such as the idea of home or what I love bring commonalities as well as differences. Politics usually remains just below the surface, but not always.
A recent meeting held via Zoom took place after the events of January 6.
Here, Nicole Albanese of Georgetown speaks the words of her partner, Daniel Cochrane, of Patrick Henry.
Nicole Albanese: Why do you go and storm the U.S. Capitol or damage property or do any of those violent acts? You do it because you believe your voice is not heard.
Jeffrey Brown: Cochrane, speaking the words of Albanese, said this.
Daniel Cochrane: It's such a big country. Its identity has definitely shifted and changed a lot. I think some people don't really have as clear, like, an idea of how it has changed.
Jeffrey Brown: Ijeoma Njaka works on equity and inclusivity issues at Georgetown.
Ijeoma Njaka: For me, that was the most -- that was one of the more affirming moments about this work and about its power, that folks were feeling like actually this is the moment when I want to make sure that I'm talking to somebody, to other folks who I know are going to hear me and understand me and where I can learn something else and where I can try to better understand what might be sort of other perspectives about this.
Jeffrey Brown: Out of it all came a sense of respect, if not always agreement, and some new friendships, including that of Myiah Smith and Mikey Pozo, who both found something that was missing previously.
Myiah Smith: You talk all the time to people. I mean, we have TikTok and Instagram. We can record videos and listen back to it. But very rarely do people share word for word the things that you have shared.
As I'm walking through spaces where people are imposing bias or making assumptions about who I am, because we all do it -- we can't escape that -- what's different is now I have had the opportunity to practice and grapple and build language and habit to appropriately converse with those people.
Jeffrey Brown: Mikey, what was it like for you to say Myiah's words?
Michael "Mikey" Pozo: It was beautiful. Being able to capture someone's words, and it coming from your own mouth, you can really say, this is what she says, this is what he believes in, and I'm going to repeat it to her, respond it to him, and I'm going to do the best that I can and do justice for that.
The person who is a liberal, I can still take care, I can still have love for. And I cherish that person.
Jeffrey Brown: How much difference can one small program make to a larger divisive political culture?
Georgetown's Derek Goldman:
Derek Goldman: These are really powerful skill sets, if people are going to go on and they're -- be bridge-builders in whatever fields that they may be in.
Jeffrey Brown: Myiah Smith is now working with Teach For America in Baltimore. Mikey Pozo, a musician and writer, has his own bakery business in his hometown of Ashburn, Virginia, small steps, In Your Shoes.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.
Judy Woodruff: And the young will teach us. Fascinating report.
Thank you, Jeffrey Brown.