In 2011, I designed and implemented Chain Reaction, an educational theater project for Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. The project was inspired by the life and work of legendary Puerto Rican community leader Antonia Pantoja. Its purpose was to involve the whole school in community organizing and service.
Today, my home country of Puerto Rico faces one of the most challenging times in its history. Pantoja’s firm belief in community building speaks to me now more than ever. If she were alive she would be asking all Puerto Ricans, “What can you do to help rebuild our country in a sustainable way?” For me, it is doing what she inspired me to do with Chain Reaction: use theater and playwriting to motivate young people to take action.
This past January, I had the unforgettable experience of conducting workshops in four public schools in Puerto Rico. The workshops served as focus groups for me, and a team of educators and school psychologists, to assess the needs of the students in the aftermath of the natural disasters. Using drama-in-education techniques, students worked together to identify the most pressing issues affecting their communities, explore the roots of the problems, and begin to develop action plans. Many of the issues centered on the lack of basic needs, and the ensuing rise in crime and violence in their neighborhoods. Other issues included the spread of deadly diseases, the environmental and noise pollution from constantly running generators, and the separation of families due to the massive migration to the United States.
I was truly moved by the serious commitment students showed to rebuilding our country in a new, creative way. Students spoke of the inefficiency of both the local and federal governments to help move the country forward, and the poverty and desperation that have led some citizens to become selfish human beings. Many students became aware, for the first time, of the importance of uniting communities to solve problems, yet understood the challenge that implies in a now devastated country.
The students recognized the power of theater to help them get to the heart of issues quickly. They embraced it as a way to vent and help heal so many wounds. Their teachers became aware of how deeply the students were affected by their experiences during and after the hurricanes.
The Roots and Action program
Based on my work in January, I have designed Roots and Action, an educational theater program for Puerto Rican high school students, to be implemented in the fall of 2018. Two public and one private school will participate in a ten-session residency designed to empower students to take action. The program promotes community building while helping students cope creatively with the trauma caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The Roots and Action curriculum encourages active learning through role-playing, theater games and playwriting. Theater promotes critical thinking, which helps students achieve a deeper understanding of the issues. Indeed, by its very nature, theater leads to self-discovery, allowing its participants to recognize their own abilities and to understand that change begins within them.
The final stage of the program brings together students from participating schools to write a play. Over a period of five weeks, students will build on their experiences from the residency to strengthen their playwriting skills. The process gives students the opportunity to voice their perspectives on Puerto Rico, the impact of Hurricane Maria, and how the public and private sectors have handled its aftermath.
It is clear that the young people of Puerto Rico are ready for change. They want—and need—to help rebuild their country. Roots and Action builds leaders, giving students the tools to transfer their ideas from the classroom to their communities.