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.