Diversity As A Method Of Re-Distribution

Unpublished talk at International Drama/Theatre and Education Association conference, Belém, Brazil, 2010

Dan Friedman: Notes for Roundtable
How can we create communities that practice respect for diversity?
July 21, 2010, IDEA 2010

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   Diversity is an effort to engage all the different peoples and movements and social strata in the world to share what the world is up to.  This is the case whether the organizing your involved in local, national or international.

   One way of looking at diversity is as a method of distribution.  It’s taking all the cultures, all the ways of seeing, all the histories and experiences, all the emotional structures, all the knowledge and ways of knowing, available in any given organizing situation and sharing it with everyone involved.

   Distribution is, by anyone’s standards, the major economic and social problem that remains unsolved.  No matter your politics, everyone can see that the distribution of material wealth is grossly unequal on a world scale and within virtually every nation on earth.  Without solving the distribution problem, starvation, poverty, crime and human underdevelopment—none of which is any longer necessary—will continue.

   As educators and cultural workers we understand that unequal distribution is not only an economic problem.  It may be rooted in economics and reinforced by the political structures and institutions generated to protect those who benefit from unequal economic set-ups, but, as I assume we would all agree, economic inequality has profound repercussions in the educational and cultural spheres, in who gets to learn, who is exposed to the cultural wealth of the world, who is able to create art, who is exposed to new possibilities and who is able to become more worldly and sophisticated.

   That’s where our work, as educators and cultural workers, comes in.  And that’s why diversity is so important in the work we do.

   Given all the inequalities, repression, oppression, even genocides embedded in the history of every community and every nation, organizing diversity is, for those concerned with progressive change and human development, a necessary and important—and difficult— task.

   There is also a qualitative dimension to diversity.  No discussion of diversity is complete without raising the question of what is being distributed.  Put another way: what is the creative process involved when bringing diverse individuals, communities and social strata together?

   Diversity and its political label, multiculturalism, is sometimes understood as simply as bringing different cultures together and respecting them all equally.  The culture of the poor and the middle class, of the oppressed people and the dominant people, all sitting around the same table respecting each other.  A good and necessary prerequisite.

   Then what?

   It seems to me that the challenge of cultural distribution, of diversity, is inseparable from the question of what is being distributed, in other words, what is being created by diversity.

   For me and my colleagues at the Castillo Theatre and the All Stars Project in New York City multiculturalism is not simply about respecting each others’ cultures and histories, it is about creating something new together, something that is not simply determined by the culture and history we bring into the rehearsal room but that is qualitatively other when we complete the creative project.

   At Castillo we bring Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians; Christians, Jews Muslims and Hindus; immigrants and the native born; gay and straight; the highly educated and the hardly educated; people with special needs and those without, the very poor and the very rich (and many in between) together to create theatre and other cultural projects.  We don’t then, for example, put up a Black play one month and a Jewish play the next; instead, through creative activity we figure out together what a Black/Jewish play will be.  The encounter, the engagement is active and open ended.  We work to create an environment in which we are not simply seeking to assert who we are but to discover what and who we might become through our encounter, our engagement, our creativity.  What we might become, of course, draws on where we come from and who we are, but does stop with that. It transforms who we are and where we come from into something that is qualitatively new—and, hopefully, unexpected.

   This active approach to diversity and multiculturalism is important, we think, because solving the world’s distribution problem is inseparable from the question of what we are distributing. We cannot solve the world’s distribution problem with the ethics, the emotional structures, and worldviews that grew out of and reinforced inequality in the first place.  We must find ways to collectively create new ethics, new emotional structures, and new meanings if the task of redistribution is to become possible.  The creation of those new meanings is what we at Castillo see as our work, and most probably, relates to your work as well. 

   We are creating activities, encounters, conversations, projects, productions, plays, institutions, social spaces where diverse peoples can actively encounter each other and together create qualitatively new ways of seeing and being together. Diversity, when understood as an active creative process, is thus both a prerequisite for solving and, in its methodology, the means of taking on the world’s distribution problem.

   My point is simple but important, I think—diversity, if it is to do more than simply allow us to feel tolerant and self-satisfied, needs to be an active engagement through which we use our differences to create qualitatively new meanings, new ways of being.

   We need to go beyond who ware to discover what we together can become.

   And I think diversity, in this active sense, is vital to not only to our work as educators, cultural workers and artists, but to the ongoing development of humankind.