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One consistent theme in my professional life has been working on behalf of organizations or projects that purport to use “the arts for social change.” Over time, I’ve realized that this quip phrase can mean many different things depending on the context, the mission and objectives of an organization, the target population, the mode of program delivery and many other factors. What does using “the arts for social change” really mean? Does it result in a shift in political or social consciousness? Does it mean socio-economic uplift? Does it mean a reduction in levels of crime? Does it mean better neighborhood sanitation and garbage removal? Could it mean all of the above?
On a recent research trip to Cuba, I had the opportunity to observe and contemplate what “arts for social change” might mean in a country that is perhaps the world leader in this arena. While in the U.S. we seem to attach the label of “arts for social change” to practically any artistic endeavor that is not solely related to the aesthetic pursuits of high art, in Cuba there isn’t this self-conscious distinction of “arts for social change”—it’s just what they do. I’ll digress just to share an experience I had which illustrates this point. I was in the midst of a conversation between a Cuban artist and a Venezuelan expat. The expat wanted to know if “El Sistema,” the legendary “social change through music program,” which began in Venezuela and is now being adapted around the world, had taken root in Cuba.
After the Venezuelan described El Sistema and extolled its virtues, the Cuban seemed honestly mystified and responded yes, we have something similar; we have many programs like this in all art forms. That’s not to say that all arts in Cuba have a social or community emphasis. However, the very fact that access to the highest quality training in every art form is available to any Cuban as part of a free and comprehensive education extending to post-graduate study has democratized access to the arts in Cuba in a way that we in the U.S. could only dream of. And this is not to mention the degree to which the arts are deemed a necessary and human right for every Cuban, guaranteeing the full spectrum of participation—from admittance to museums and performances both by both Cuban and international artists to support of community arts at the grassroots level. In terms of creating access, Cuba is light years ahead of its neighbor to the North where perhaps our first and biggest hurdle in the “arts for social change” camp is simply democratization of the arts.
I don’t want to make Cuba out to sound like a utopia—although my brief glimpse inside some of the country’s “arts for social change” was in fact pretty utopic. If nothing else, Cuba is an incredibly complex reality (I share my thoughts on some of these complexities in my article, “Human Resources, Tourism and the Conundrum of the Cuban Economy”). And, in my opinion, while Cuban artists have it a little better off than your average Cuban (at least in the end they have their art), Cubans working in the arts are not exempt from the controls, contradictions and frustrations faced by their fellow countrymen and women.
However, in the realm of “arts for social change” programs, I feel that Cuba has something to show and teach the rest of the world, and although what I observed was admittedly limited, I thought it might be useful to share by creating a small window into my experience. In today’s Cuba, putting art at the service of societal challenges seems embedded and natural but perhaps this great success story is also due to unique historical conditions that happily coincided. Even prior to revolutionary Cuba, the island’s artistic and cultural riches ran deep, undoubtedly in part because of the collision of so many artistic lineages—particularly African and European—in such a condensed space. This foundation, combined with the values of the Cuban revolution which sought to create the “new man” driven by moral rather than material incentives, inevitably created exemplary models of “arts for social change” that the rest of the world can now learn from. In this essay, I have chosen to highlight four such models that use the “arts for social change” in different ways.
Starting with one of Cuba’s most acclaimed youth arts organizations, The Children’s Theatre of Cuba is known as “La Colmenita,” which translates as “the little beehive.” La Colmenita is indeed a hive of activity, a “home away from home” where an ethos of love is clearly present—the adults, staff and older youth serving as surrogate parents for the younger ones. As stated on the La Colmenita website (www.lacolmentiacuba.com), “the idea is not only to allow children to feel the heady sensation of applause, but rather to build a place for children to use art and creativity to develop core values and ethics.” According to La Colmenita’s founder, Carlos Alberto Cremata Malberti, “We don’t want to be actors. We want to play at acting. So, we’re not really a professional company. That’s not what we’re interested in. La Colmenita is a place where theatre and art are used as tools to become better people.” And with the project having been in existence for over twenty years, there has been enough time for a generation who has grown up inside La Colmenita to become the organization’s instructors and staff. In fact, when walking through La Colmenita’s hallway, I was delighted to spot a now grownup “Malu,” the female child protaganist in Viva Cuba, one of the most successful recent films from Cuba. Malu grew up inside of La Colmenita and continues to be involved.
On stage, La Colmenita exhibits the highest artistic values which might lead one to believe that entry into the acclaimed theatre troupe is audition or talent-based. However, this is expressly not the case with La Colmenita. The little beehive is open to all, but is targeted at youth with some type of challenge—whether it be socio-emotional, physical, psychological or a less than ideal homelife. La Colmenita uses the arts, in this case theatre, to work through challenges youth are facing and in the process develops these young people not only as human beings but also as top-rate actors like Malu. Along with Venezeula’s “El Sistema,” La Colmenita is the only other youth group to be named Goodwill Ambassadors by UNICEF. Living up to this honorary title, La Colmenita has not only performed on major stages in twenty-five countries around the world, they have also performed and conducted artistic residencies in post-traumatic zones—including recently in Haiti. During the fall of 2011, La Colmenita conducted a friendship tour to the U.S.—including stops in New York, D.C. and San Francisco. This was only the troupe’s second time in the U.S., permitted as a form of ‘cultural exchange’ that has been all too rare during the over fifty year period following the U.S. embargo.
Meanwhile the La Colmenita concept has been embraced and emulated around the world. Twenty years after the founding of La Colmenita, similar children’s theater companies have opened in Spain, Venezuela, Panama, Bogota, Colombia, Argentina, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. “We are multiplying like bees,” says founder Malberti. “We can share with others one of the best concepts that has been created. But it’s heart, its wisdom–that’s all Cuban.”
The love ethos I saw at La Colmenita was also present during my visit to Centro Médico Psicopedagógico La Castellana (La Castellana Psycho-pedagogical Medical Center), despite the fact that the institution is guided by a different mission and serves a different target population. La Castellena’s student and young adult population are coping with cognitive challenges and physical handicaps, and other conditions such as down syndrome and autism. With a mission to integrate students with special needs into the workforce, La Castellena provides “coverage and/or social services as well as specialized medical care to boarding and day students, and to the population of its host community.”
What perhaps struck me most deeply at La Castellana is the extent to which their students received such highly individualized instruction, support and care. As I walked by classroom after classroom, it was not uncommon to see a 1:1 ratio of teacher to student. And once again, love and a feeling of family was ever-present, as highly trained and exceedingly patient instructors exhibited a commitment to develop each student according to his or her fullest potential. I couldn’t help but think about how differently this population of young people is too-often treated in the U.S. where young people facing the same challenges can be over-medicated, segregated, isolated and looked at as a burden or a drain on the system.
Another facet which makes La Castellana stand out is its investment and belief in the arts as a postive change agent. At La Castellana, the arts are viewed as more than just recreational—they are rehabilitative, therapeutic and healing. The Center’s directors talked about the fact that when certain drugs were not available for their students—due to the implications of the U.S. economic embargo—they used the arts as a substitute because they had a positive effect and they’re all they had. The effects that the staff saw led to the continuation of intensive arts programming for La Castellana students even once the necessary drugs became available.
In addition to a handicrafts school in which the students learn ceramics, weaving, woodworking, dollmaking and papercutting, La Castellana also offers intensive music and dance programs. The day of my visit coincided with a performance by the students in the music and dance programs. When watching these students perform it was obvious that they had been given the best, and most loving and appropriate instruction available, and therefore performed at the highest level they were capable of on that particular day. The dance students performed several choreographies, and I was moved to witness the beauty that the arts, and specifically dance, had brought to the lives of these young people, who in other settings would likely have been confined by the limitations placed on them by others. (Click here for a short clip of one of the pieces the young female dance students performed). The dance students take class and rehearse regularly with a professional dancer/certified teacher who appeared to have found her life calling in working with these students. In the photos to the right and below she stands in pink, under a banner that decorated the stage and whose message could not have been more fitting: “only love gives birth to something marvelous.”