My name’s Caroline Baron and I’m a recent graduate from the University of Michigan undergraduate policy program, where I studied gender and racial biases within criminal justice policy. I’ve been facilitating creative writing workshops in youth, adult male, and adult female correctional facilities for 3 years in Michigan with the Prison Creative Arts Project. As a student I’ve sought and helped cultivate communities that encourage thoughtful, committed, and engaged work — it’s become clear to me that my salient anxieties about graduating from college revolve around a desire to sustain these nourishing and supportive spaces. The various incredible organizations and participants we’ve encountered in Brazil are all imbued with a commitment to enabling these spaces, and they work to uphold each community’s accountability to serve all its inhabitants — where such communities might be severed, they work to connect and heal.
PCAP courses and curriculum historically include the work of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal and their elaborations on “theater of the oppressed” — it was fortifying and exciting to continue our education from PCAP to the teatro em comunidades programs in Florianopolis and Rio de Janeiro and work with folks whose values and practices also stem from these two Brazilian authors and activists. Freire and Boal write about the importance of recognizing the humanity of all people through communal imaginative work. Where structural change can be necessary and far overdue, the philosophies at play in theater of the oppressed claim that everyone continues to have the capacity to live, love — Freire talks at length about the politics of love — and to create powerful art. Not only do we always have that capacity, but within communal art work, we can imagine and create a better world.
In Rio, we had the privilege of working with Marina Henriques Coutinho and take part in her Teatro em Comunidades program, which connects youth in favelas with UniRio theater students — some of whom grew up in the same favelas where they now work — for engaging and energetic theater workshops. In her forthcoming article, Marina writes about Freire’s insistence on imagining a better world, the ways that theater can enable such an process, and each community’s responsibility to provide spaces for reflection and growth to all of its members. She quotes author David Harvey writing that,
the right to the city…is much more than the right of individuals or social groups to have access to the resources of the city. It is the right to change and re-invent the city from one’s aspirations and desires, which depends on collective action (Harvey 2012:4).
Twice, I and other U of M students accompanied UniRio students to their weekly theater workshop that they facilitate at the Centro das Artes in the Maré favela. Marina and Isabel, another woman who works at Centro das Artes, took us around the block to visit the building of the organization that funded the creation of the Centro; Redes is a nongovernmental organization that works to provide educational and arts programming, child and adult libraries, and college readiness projects to the community of Nova Hollanda, a smaller neighborhood in the Maré favela. During our visit to Redes, we learned that official city maps of Rio don’t include the street markings of favelas but list them instead as blank slots of land — people living in these sites end up undocumented on national and city-wide census, which in turn affects their access to public services like sewage maintenance or public safety; the lack of documentation prevents many inhabitants from having an authorized address to receive mail. In the temporal context of our visit to Rio, this lack of public attention stood in stark contrast to the city projects that work to prepare more visible parts of the city for the upcoming Olympic Games. Such a worldwide community event exposes where the city is willing to provide money — it highlights the divisions of worthiness that inform who the city is built to protect, and to whom the city owes nothing and virtually wipes out of existence.
This division resonates with the way the PCAP community often understands and talks about prisons in the U.S.; prisons and the process of incarceration sever communities and work to basically wipe a created class of people out of society. Our justice system frames crimes as individualized problems, rather than manifestations of community harm to which we are all, in some part, accountable for. We talk a lot about how U of M can be more accountable to serving its communities. U of M is an incredibly powerful public institution, and while it is funded in part by taxes from every city in Michigan, its wealth of resources rarely reach beyond students and faculty. Programs like PCAP actively work to distribute university resources and programming to those who exist outside the walls of the university, but remain intertwined with our lives and responsibilities.
I think Harvey and Marina highlight the way that severing communities diffuses the accountability we have towards each other, for taking responsibility for societal problems we’ve all contributed to creating. The collective action and imagining that everyone involved in Teatro em Comunidades commit to each week stakes claim on the “right to the city” that each person holds. While I’m navigating the world post-graduation, and even choosing the cities where I’ll live, I’m recognizing more about the ways I depend on my communities to help me grow, make me feel safe, challenge me and support me…and the commitment I make to support these spaces in turn.