Development and Performance
The following, by Lois Holzman, originally appeared in Special Children, July 1997, as “Developmental Stage.”
Which picture comes to mind when you hear the phrase “stages of life”? A stepladder or a theatre? If you’re like most people, it’s probably the former or some other step-like image. After all, from the late and great experts on human nature—Freud, Piaget and Erikson—to their lesser known contemporaries, researchers have told us that the human life process is best understood as a series of progressively “higher” stages that people pass through.
I prefer the theatre image and here’s why. I believe that we human beings create our development—it’s not something that happens to us. And how we create it is by creating stages on which we can perform our growth. So, to me, developmental stages are like performance spaces that we can set up anywhere—at home, school, the workplace, all over. I’m going to tell you about some of the developmental stages I’ve helped to create. Try to “perform” reading them as rehearsals for creating your own stages with the children with whom you work.
But first, a theoretical word or two about environment. This term is typically understood as a place, location, background or context in which things happen. In child development studies, for example, claims are made that certain environmental factors accelerate and others retard the “normal” process of development. Homes filled with books supposedly foster early literacy development. Growing up in an abusive environment is said to be a good predictor of whether a child will be overly aggressive or violent. Recent studies have found that talking a lot to infants is critical for later enriched cognitive development. This understanding of environment goes along with the view that development happens to us.
You won’t be surprised that I have a different understanding of environment—it’s not something we find ourselves in that impacts on our development, but a life space (or stage) that people create together. More an activity than a context, environment is created, shaped and reshaped as an inseparable part of people developing.
Research suggests that most abuse has to do with people feeling they have no choice. In my own research, elementary school children tell us that “something came over them” or “they had no control” or “no choice” when they hit another child. Merely telling a child that he can do other things, even suggesting some to him, might stop the behavior for awhile – or it might not. What I advocate and what I have seen work is supporting children to create options. One of the things I try to share with parents and teachers in as many ways as I can is how important it is to help children create new options for how to act and think. If we want them to become good choice or decision makers, then they have to have a lot of practice in making choices and decisions.
Here’s where creating developmental stages comes in. The following example (taken from, Schools for Growth: Radical Alternatives to Traditional Educational Models, Erlbaum) relates an incident that occurred at the Barbara Taylor School in Brooklyn, NY, a laboratory primary school that was one of our developmental stages.
Justin (age 11) was lying still on the rug, surrounded by several children and an adult kneeling beside him peering at his bare stomach (his shirt had been hiked up to his neck). Len, the adult learning director, was holding a roll of paper upright above Justin’s belly button. Caught by the scene and the children’s rapt attention, I asked what was happening. “We’re performing an operation,” they told me, “the surgical removal of immaturity.”
Later that day, Justin and Len performed a commercial break during a circus scene created by Alice (age 8) and Julia, another learning director. Len and Justin entered the stage walking. Len said, “Justin, you won’t be going to your speech therapist today.” Justin stopped in his tracks, yelled, cried and fell to the ground in a screaming temper tantrum. Len looked up at the audience for a moment, took some wads of paper out of the manila envelope he was holding and said, while he arched them toward Justin’s mouth, “The miracle cure – ‘Matchore Partz’ [Mature Parts].” Justin “swallowed the pills.” He stood up and he and Len began the scene again. Len: “Justin, you won’t be going to your speech therapist today.” Justin looked up at him and calmly said, “Oh well, I guess I’ll go home then.” The audience applauded.
Diagnosed as learning disabled, Justin had attended special education schools until he entered the Barbara Taylor School (about three months prior to this incident). His parents were concerned that he had “reached a plateau,” as they had heard often happens with children like Justin, and that he just wasn’t developing any longer. Justin had a long history of temper tantrums, which the staff and students at the Barbara Taylor School had been working very hard—with Justin—to change.
Justin is a performer. We all are. Performing is how we learn and develop. The renowned Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky told us that way back in the 1920’s. It is through performing—doing what is beyond us (if only for that moment)—that when we are very young we learn to do the varied things we don’t know how to do. Vygotsky vividly described how babies transform from babblers to speakers of a language through performing. When they are creatively imitating others, they are simultaneously performing (becoming) themselves. Performing is a way of taking “who we are” and creating something new—in this case, a new speaker—through incorporating “the other.”
But what happens, as we perform our way into cultural and societal adaptation, is that we also perform our way out of continuous development. A lot of what we have learned (through performing) becomes routinized and rigidified into behavior. We become so skilled at acting out roles that we no longer keep creating new performances of ourselves. We develop an identity as “this kind of person”—someone who does certain things and feels certain ways. Anything other than that, most of us think, would not be “true” to “who we are.”
Justin’s emotional development was at a standstill; he repeatedly did what he knew how to do—have a tantrum. Like most of us, he was unaware that this particular emotional response to frustration, change or disappointment was (and is) constructed by himself and others. It did not (perhaps would not and could not, for whatever reasons) occur to him that there are an infinity of things one can do or say upon hearing that the plans have changed.
Creating an environment for Justin to perform – both his tantrum and something other than a tantrum—can reinitiate his emotional and social growth. Participating in creating the stage and performing on it, Justin goes beyond himself, creates other responses, experiences being other than who he is, develops. Performing challenges the widely-held belief that our actions follow from how we feel. (When it comes to ourselves and those we know we forget that if this were really the case, there could be no such thing as theatre or other cultural entertainment. Depressed actors would act depressed on stage regardless of the play in which they were performing.) Creating the stage and creating the performance changes Justin’s location and relationship to his so-called emotional state, helping him to create, with others, new emotional forms of life. It creates a changed environment (which is inseparable from him and others). The difference between Justin performing his temper tantrum and his typical behavior of having a temper tantrum is the difference between developing and not developing.
Another program colleagues and I have implemented is Pregnant Productions, an after-school project designed to deal with teen pregnancy in a developmental way. The very first time the program was tested, a social worker and performance artist trained in our approach went out into one of the poorest and most devastated inner-city communities in New York City with a flier announcing the program, recruiting pre-teen and teenage boys and girls (all “at risk” young people). Pregnant Productions was to be a production company, which the young people build—creating stories and skits out of their lives, producing fliers to invite the community to public shows, rehearsing and putting on the shows. Six weeks later, 500 people—neighbors, parents and other family members, most of whom had not set foot in the school for yearscame to their first show in the school’s auditorium.
In working together, these young people are constantly involved in activities that are fraught with decision-making and opportunities to create new options—to participate or not, to make fun of someone or not, to take risks to talk openly about sex or not, to take responsibility for entertaining others, to create a song or draw a flier. They have the experience of creating something successful together and of building their community. Producing cultural events that address the complex social, economic and emotional issues of sex, sexuality, growing up and pregnancy, creating their own production company and performances, these teens and pre-teens learn that they can make all kinds of choices and take responsibility for them. These may or may not include whether and when to become pregnant.
Another of our projects is the All Stars Talent Show Network. In its twelfth year, the All Stars is recognized as one of America’s most effective anti-violence programs for inner-city youth. (Over 30,000 young people, ages 4-21, participated in producing and performing in over 65 auditions and shows in New York and other major US cities in 1996.) What it means to be in the All Stars is to perform—not only music, dance, and skits but everything necessary to produce talent shows, including stage managing, audience building, running sound systems, and handling security. Together, and with a small number of trained adults, young people take full responsibility for what they produce and how they produce it.
In building their own cultural organization—many, many developmental stages—rather than simply appearing on stage in talent shows run by others, members of the All Stars create their own emotional, social and cultural development. Since 1995 they have produced the annual Phat Friends Awards honoring adults in government, education, entertainment and other fields whose work supports the development of young people. In 1994, I traveled to Moscow with the producer and three young people from the All Stars to present a symposium, “Developing in a Violent World,” at an international conference of Vygotsky scholars (where, upon request from the psychologists and unplanned for, they successfully organized and ran a talent show). The All Stars supports young people to be other than who they are in a culture in which they are typically overidentified with destructive behavior, defined by others as having nothing to give, and in which all too many of them adopt the appropriate identity and act out the expected roles. But participating in the All Stars requires that they perform as builders and givers. In doing so, they discover that they can do so. In this process, they create new options for who and how they want to be—given the often terrible objective conditions of their lives, which include abusive behavior and violence as rigidified rules and roles. The All Stars is not focused on stopping violence; it’s focused on creating development. It’s not designed to teach young people about the impact of violence; it’s designed to teach them to create their development. Why? The best way I can put it is in the words of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (he was talking to philosophers, but no matter): “What is your disease? You ask this question again and again.—How can one make you stop doing this? By drawing your attention to something else.” Developing—creating stages for life—is that something else.
… by working together to create innovative, culturally specific, developmental programs for families, schools and communities all over the world…
Each year the Institute meets thousands of colleagues through conference presentations by director Lois Holzman and other staff, through books, articles and chapters written by Holzman and Fred Newman, and through the Internet. Many have become friends, conversational partners and collaborative colleagues out of a shared recognition that traditional approaches to psychology and education are failing to help our children, our families and our communities to grow. One of the Institute’s longest-standing collaborative partners is Zdravo da Ste (Hi Neighbor), an organization of several hundred psychologists, educators and social workers that has worked for more than a decade to build community among refugees and displaced persons in the former Yugoslavia and to integrate them developmentally into the broader culture. Newer “partners in development” include community psychologists in Argentina, diversity educators on behalf of Nicaraguan youth, and health and community development specialists in Kenya.
…by bringing down the walls between professionals and everyone else…
What makes the Institute unique as a research and training center is its ties to community-based projects. Our theory and teachings come from independently funded practical work and innovative practitioners, not from a university laboratory. Our events encourage academics, community- based practitioners,clients and students to create together. The Institute’s cross-disciplinary conferences bring together people who work passionately for social transformation. Performing the World 3 in October 2005 was a gathering of hundreds of people — performers, educators,artists, scholars, therapists, health professionals, business professionals and activists from 24 countries — whose practices recognize performance as a powerful developmental activity for people and organizations. Also in 2005, the Institute’s two-day experiential conference on the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky drew students, professors and practitioners eager to learn from the Institute how to realize the transformational potential of Vygotsky’s work in formal and informal learning settings.
… by creating a psychology of possibilities…
The East Side Institute developed social therapy, a radically humanistic approach to helping all people deal creatively and socially with the emotional pain, problems and challenges of contemporary life. Social therapy is not concerned with who people are, but with who they are becoming, given who they are. We believe that, given the choice, people want growth, hope and community — not diagnosis, labels and a new inner reality. Since its inception in the mid 1970s, social therapy has helped thousands of people to reinitiate their emotional and intellectual development, and has inspired dozens of innovative educational and cultural projects for children and youth in both school and outside- of-school settings. We work with hundreds of professionals who have revitalized their practices through training in the social therapeutic approach. Social therapy centers are located in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Saratoga and Washington DC.
…by transforming how we relate to one another, how we teach and heal, and how we live with family and friends…
The Institute offers educational and training programs for people who want to learn qualitatively new and different ways to see and be. We attract people with a broad range of educational and life experiences, including psychologists, psychotherapists, educators, physicians, nurses, social workers,youth workers and corporate executives. One of the Institute’s oldest projects is its two-year postgraduate Therapist Training Program, provisionally chartered by the New York State Board of Regents since 1985. The newest program is the International Class, a yearlong (onsite and online) course of study enrolling students from the US and around the world. Only in its second year, the International Class has attracted accomplished professionals from Argentina, Kenya, Nicaragua, Serbia, South Africa and Sweden, as well as cities across the US. Our Continuing Education program includes seminars on development-related topics, classes with social therapy founder Fred Newman,and workshops in improvisation and performance.
…by bringing the discovery and practice of development to others through books and other writings…
Fred Newman and Lois Holzman have spent the last three decades organizing, studying and learning from social therapy practice and other projects in educational, healthcare, organizational and mental health settings that have been influenced by the social therapeutic approach. Together and separately they have written ten books and dozens of articles and chapters, some of which have been translated into other languages. These writings articulate the methodological, philosophical and political implications of their new approach to understanding human life, to fostering human development and to building community. Over the years, thousands of scholars and practitioners have been inspired and provoked by their bold statements.
…by creating new initiatives…
2006 will see the beginning of two new Institute projects. The Developing Teachers Fellowship Program is designed to enhance the group-building skills of New York City teachers. A select group of public and charter school teachers will be chosen to train in the Institute’s approach to teaching and learning, which develops teachers’ capacities to create more collaborative, creative, playful and participatory learning environments for themselves and their students. The Development Centre for Youth and Community will lend support to community educators and health workers in South Africa who take a human development approach to HIV/AIDS. Building on the pioneering work of The Living Together Project in Johannesburg, which uses storytelling and performance to break through fear and silence in the face of the AIDS epidemic, the Centre will bring several community-based organizations together in collaboration with the Institute around the world. Many people come to us from community-based programs in poor countries where they do not have access to funding. In the US, traditional funding sources are loathe to financially support work that is as “outside the box” as our development approach. In addition to Psych Out, our annual awards dinner and fundraiser, the Institute invites you to join our Circle of Development, a leadership circle made up of people who give an annual gift of $1,000 or more. Or join our Giving Circle with an annual gift of whatever you can afford. Your support will help underwrite training, international collaborations and conferences.
A Peaceful Approach to Profound Social Development and Cultural Change(the importance of the Institute’s international work and why we need to grow)
As a young girl her friends dubbed Melina Baracco “the justice maker” because she fiercely believed everyone deserves the chance for a decent life. While still a teenager Melina volunteered at a community center serving the very poor in her home city of Rosario Argentina. Psychology seemed the natural career path for her to take but in Argentina, as in the US, mental health is associated with established institutions, fixed frameworks, and diagnostic authority. As Melina says, “Psychologists, doctors and psychiatrists claim to know what is good or what is bad for people, and how to fix them, or they commit them to mental hospitals, It was not clear to me that the work I wanted to do was possible to do as a psychologist but I didn’t know what else to do.” Pursuing her university degree, Melina continued working in poor communities and searched for alternative approaches to what she was being taught.
Fortunately, she met a formerly exiled professor who was directing a postgraduate program in an innovative therapeutic approach he was developing. Invited to join and offered a full scholarship, Melina entered the program and there she found a way to work to inspire and support human and community development. Along with other graduates of the program, Melina is developing a non-conventional, grassroots approach that melds therapy with performing arts and community projects, and brings professionals and lay together for workshops and seminars, Recently Melina and her team founded Accionarte, an innovative performance-based youth organization designed to bring different groups of poor youth together with adults who support them. Their new brand of community psychology— grounded in possibility and the potential of ordinary people to make change—is a very hopeful and inspirational development.
Melina is a recent graduate of The International Class, a project launched in 2004 by the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy (Institute). Soon after graduation, Melina commented, “It would be great for more people of my group who I work with to have this experience to see how the Institute and its community works—not to copy, because we cannot—but to have the courage to do things that we feel are not possible. That would be a way to help and support us and the poor people of Rosario.”
The Institute is a New York City-based international non-profit training and research center for innovative approaches to human development and learning, therapeutics and community building. Born in the revolutionary culture of the 1960s, which saw the launching of grassroots, independent community-based social change projects the world over, the Institute successfully sustained itself and expanded over the ensuing four decades through a growing volunteer staff and a modest base of financial support from caring individuals. Today the Institute is the heart of a growing community of grassroots social entrepreneurs who have developed successful educational, mental health and cultural projects that bring together the underprivileged and the privileged in new developmental ways that benefit all.
The Institute’s mission is the development of alternatives to mainstream and traditional models of helping, healing, teaching and building community, specifically, alternatives that relate to people of all ages as social performers and creators of their lives — of what they, their communities and the world are becoming. Equally, the Institute seeks out and supports people the world over who, in dozens of culturally specific ways, actively engage their communities in social development and culture change efforts. Together, these “partners in development” and the Institute counter the negativity of a “mass psychology” of limited expectations, fixed identities, labels and diagnoses with the continuous advancement of a psychology of possibility— a mass psychology, sadly, very different from that of the 1960s.
When civil war broke out in what had been Yugoslavia, developmental psychologist Vesna Ognjenovic was in deep despair over the collapse of her country and the horrible war. Within a few weeks, however, she “woke up” to the realization that she had to do something (she wasn’t sure what) for the tens of thousands of refugees, especially the children. She left teaching at the University of Belgrade and, with a few colleagues and students who joined her, set out to help people who had been placed in refugee collective centers. Vesna’s approach to working with people in trauma was far from typical—rather than relate to pathology she related to the potential of people to develop emotionally through creative activities. Vesna and her colleagues named their organization Zdravo da Ste, which means “Hi Neighbor” and signifies its mission of supporting people to exercise their creative power to develop and build community especially at a time of ethnic conflict, Today Zdravo da Ste’s innovative programs reach tens of thousands of children, youth and families of all backgrounds and help them integrate into and contribute actively to the broader culture.
The Institute and Zdravo da Ste met in 1996 and have been close partners in development ever since. The Institute’s approach, which makes a critical link between social development, cultural transformation and humanperformance, has been important to the continuing growth of Zdravo da Ste’s community building efforts. Our way of seeing performance as something more than getting on stage or singing or dancing struck a chord. Performing, playing, improvising, being other than “who we are” is a key element in how individuals grow emotionally, socially, and intellectually. Performance is how human beings, whatever their age and wherever they live, can go beyond their perceived level of development (and the seeming intractability of the world’s problems) by creating new skills, new intellectual capacities, new emotions, new hopes, new communities – in short, a new culture. As the new methodology for reshaping what exists, performance is the peaceful, non-violent “revolutionary activity” for the 21st century.
Among the Institute’s activities are national and international training initiatives, including the Developing Teachers Fellowship Program, The International Class, the biannual Performing the World conference, the Therapist Training Program, and a series of workshops, seminars and continuing education classes. Each year the Institute meets hundreds of new colleagues through conference presentations, agency and university trainings, study of Institute books, articles and chapters, and through the Internet. Out of these activities several collaborative projects have taken root. Our ten-year relationship with Zdravo da Ste is one. The Development Centre for Youth and Community in South Africa, involving the Institute and several grassroots AIDS and youth performance organizations in Johannesburg, is another. Numerous joint projects with the New York City-based All Stars Project’s youth and theatre programs over the past two decades is yet another. Taken together, the Institute and its international network directly reaches over 250,000 people and influences hundreds of thousands more annually.
Such relationships and collaborations have profound significance today, especially for grassroots activists and entrepreneurs who believe that mainstream models of community and human development are not working and that traditional funding streams are too restrictive. In all parts of the world there are people who, at the grassroots level, are seeking to profoundly and peacefully change the world. They—and there are thousands of them—are working to transform themselves and their communities to help people grow in order to creatively address the economic, social and cultural problems they face.
We are fortunate to know some of these people. Like Melina and Vesna, they come to learn from and work with us. They come from the slums of Kisumu Kenya, Sao Paulo Brazil, Montreal Canada, and East New York Brooklyn. They come from the Roma ghettos in Belgrade and the AIDS-infected townships of Johannesburg. They work on the local level in small NGOs, health and mental health clinics, schools, community organizations and modest for-profit ventures to create change in their culture. Whatever else these dedicated people are—community organizer, elementary school teacher, community performance artist, conflict resolution trainer, social entrepreneur, health care professional, social worker or youth worker—their participation in Institute programs gives them a new understanding of their work, new tools to work with and new friends to inspire and support them.
Ruben Reyes is a child of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. As an adult, he became deeply disappointed in the political situation in his country,but never gave up his belief in the possibility of people creating a better world. Ruben works tirelessly to support the social and emotional development of Nicaragua’s young people (the majority of the population). He and his colleagues at Puntos de Encuentro have created one of the most successful NGOs in the country. Puntos uses media to bring messages of cooperation, peace, and gender equality to young people in Nicaragua and other Central American countries. They created Sexto Sentido, a youth-themed soap opera. Broadcast on Nicaragua’s national television channel, the show surprisingly became a hit and a competitor to TV programs imported from the US. Sexto Sentido has since won awards and is currently viewed throughout the Americas. As Puntos developed more ways to reach youth, Ruben sought ou tpeople and places with fresh ideas. One of these places was the Institute. About his new relationship with the Institute, Ruben says, “ Every year, my colleagues and I conduct a youth camp and support groups and the performance approach has helped us to be better improvisers as we help young people deal with the challenges of every day life in an under-developed country where the great majority have little opportunity to get an education and to find jobs. Young people in Nicaragua are also becoming hopeless as they no longer trust the politicians and do not believe that things can change for the better. The performance approach is helping us to be creative and to help young people to be creative as we continue to work at making Nicaragua a better place.”
The performance approach to human development and social-cultural change is the discovery that the Institute has to offer those who want to make a difference in the world. This is why Melina, Vesna, Ruben and other “revolutionary performers” —like Annalie Alex, Betsi and Tiffany from South Africa; Kitche and Jack from Kenya; Syed and Tahmina from Bangladesh; Vera and Dejan from Serbia—work with the Institute to develop new, performance-based approaches to human development and learning, therapeutics and community building.
At a time when profound social change is no longer part of the zeitgeist, the work being done by these dedicated professionals is all the more remarkable and courageous. In many cases they are burdened with bureaucratic governmental procedures or limited quasi-governmental funding. Others simply set out to do something and created programs on their own that are barely surviving. They work with little support, almost no recognition and in relative isolation. Though their programs are greatly valued by the individuals and communities they serve, these colleagues know that, if their work is to go to another level, they need new conceptions and different tools than the ones they have been using.
The Institute is well suited to help them qualitatively advance their work. Our unique brand of social entrepreneurialism and independence has allowed us to take risks, to venture beyond accepted conceptions and models, to create genuinely new approaches to social development and cultural transformation. We know how to bring people together to create and grow with all of our diversity and difference. We have carried out all of our programs and activities with no governmental funding. We have, instead, chosen to give people from all walks of life the opportunity to participate to developmental change efforts by contributing financially to our expanding work. Additionally, our performance approach has stood the test of time, having been effective in therapeutic and educational settings for over twenty years. It is not an approach full of techniques to learn and follow, but rather it is an overall methodology for promoting human development that they can adapt and apply to their own situations and environments. In the words of Kitche Magak, a grassroots social entrepreneur from Kenya that the Institute has had the privilege of working with, “This is a methodology that gives you room to play around with—expand it, contract it, do whatever you want with it. It’s that flexibility that I find really appropriate to the work I’m doing in my country around health, reproductive rights and sexuality.”
At the end of the day, peaceful and profound social change depends on people becoming able to see possibilities and having both the willingness and the means to act on them. This is why the Institute seeks to become the institution through which grassroots innovators can be fully supported—not simply financially, but in the ways those working in more traditional institutions and with mainstream models take for granted: media coverage, the publication of journal articles, ongoing (including on-site) training and supervision, travel stipends, and other vehicles through which to promote and share their work and impact on social policy. We need to reach, train and support many more of these creative and courageous change agents throughout the world, even as we expand our capacity to support those already working with us. We are seeking to develop new partnerships with individuals, non-profit organizations and businesses that share our belief that progress must be peacefully “stimulated” from the bottom up and that investing in human development is vital for continued economic development throughout the world.
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