Addressing trauma such as homelessness or physical abuse is painful and can sometimes isolate communities. In July, the World Affairs Council welcomed artists to Seattle from 24 different countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe who have developed creative and effective ways to incorporate art therapy in addressing trauma. Through their various programs, individuals are connected to a community that promotes healthy relationships and positive activities that reduce stress and encourage healing.
This International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) delegation was comprised of talented dancers, musicians, choreographers, actors, visual artists, photographers, and videographers. Many of these participants had experienced trauma of their own, and were inspired to create opportunities for healing using art modeled after their own experiences. Art therapy is not only soothing, but it is a productive way to express emotion and process trauma.
As I was accompanying the group to their afternoon meetings, I had the chance to hear success stories from six incredible participants who are making a difference in their communities through their art therapy programs. On our way to the first meeting with Path with Art, I met Farzeen Aziz, a filmmaker for Nur Center for Research and Policy in Lahore, Pakistan. Through her work, she aims to develop confidence and expertise that will contribute to human development at the national, regional, and international level. She currently covers issues surrounding marginalized women and children to develop case studies and impact assessments on various healthcare projects. Farzeen focuses on advocacy and policy through training and technical services by creating documentaries to showcase how health leaders in Pakistan are shaping the health-care environment.
I also met Fathima Muzammil, a manager and facilitator for visual arts at Building Bridges in Sri Lanka. She was excited to be in Seattle to continue learning ways to maximize community resources in encouraging positive social change. In her organization, Fathima creates opportunities to incorporate creative methods of teaching to reduce conflict and increase reconciliation throughout Sri Lanka. Building Bridges nurtures self-expression through creativity workshops for teachers and students to encourage dialogue between ethnically diverse youth. Even though the Sri Lankan civil war has been over for ten years, there are still existing tensions between ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil populations. Fathima expressed how important it is to start educating youth about racial and ethnic diversity in early education, so they don’t grow up with the same biases and beliefs that lead to the civil war. At Building Bridges, Fathima expands the topics taught in early-education classrooms by developing curriculua to reduce discrimination and instead advocate for peaceful reconciliation.
My conversations with these two incredible changemakers about social change in Pakistan and Sri Lanka flowed easily as we traveled to our next meeting of the day with Path with Art.
Path with Art, based in Seattle, provides art therapy to over 700 students to address social traumas through community-based art classes. Students range from 18-95, and can be in the program for as long as they need. Using a multi-disciplinary process, the art classes explore and expose pieces of harm through artistic expression while re-integrating students into a community setting. Each class offers an opportunity for students to release trauma they have experienced in a healthy and creative way through theater, visual art, and music. To be eligible for classes with Path with Art, students must be designated low-income, and be enrolled in social services outside of their art programming. While Path with Art does not provide any social services for their students, every student in Path with Art must participate in social services outside of classes that are equipped to address and help them process through past traumas. After a few sessions, many students decide to become mentors for new students entering Path with Art and they also complete leadership programs to further enable them in their role as a mentor. Path with Art students are transforming their own lives through the talent they express in every class.
At the meeting with Path with Art, many of the IVLP delegates volunteered to share some of the ways art has impacted their lives. Among them was Sandeep Shrestha, a theater practitioner and actor at One World Theater in Nepal. For him, the theater was one of the only places he felt safe to express himself as he was growing up, and it offered him a place to understand his identity. Throughout his childhood, Sandeep spent a lot of time caring for his mother, who was suffering from schizophrenia. Through this experience, he developed a passion for caring for people experiencing mental illnesses. Using his love for theater and his experience in caring for his mother, Sandeep now directs theater productions based on the social issues facing youth experiencing drug addictions or other forms of societal discrimination. His productions are known for their ability to share overt social messages while giving a voice to marginalized populations.
Junaid Jemal Sendi also volunteered to share how art had changed his life as he grew up in Ethiopia. As an energetic child, Junaid spent a lot of time on the streets trying to find things to do. Without a lot of work, or alternative activities, he started selling drugs to make some money and keep himself busy. One day as he was walking the streets, he encountered people dancing and was intrigued. He memorized the moves of the dancers and later practiced imitating their routines at home. Junaid began regularly visiting the dancers and sometimes even participated in their performances. At the age of 10, he was noticed by the British-based dance organization Dance United, and participated in a five year comprehensive dance training program. Dance changed Junaid’s life because it offered him a pathway to a sustainable career. Junaid now works as an artistic director, choreographer, and performer for the DESTINO Dance Company in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He provides artistic education to disadvantaged and marginalized youth, street children, and people with physical disabilities through free workshops, training, and classes. He believes that “through dance you can explain things easier and pass important messages; it is an international language and the perfect tool for young people to express themselves.”
I was impressed with Junaid’s and Sandeep’s vulnerability and realized that for them, vulnerability was the first step to healing. Vulnerability is required to create meaningful work that will adequately connect with their target communities. Every leader I interacted with throughout the afternoon was challenging society to re-evaluate social norms through their different art projects. This was no exception for these two artists working creatively to ignite positive social change.
On the ride back to the hotel at the end of the meeting with Path with Art, I sat next to Sami Khalil Creta, a creative performer from Alexandria, Egypt. Sami is a program manager for the Jesuit Cultural Center. His organization welcomes underground performers and art enthusiasts from all over Alexandria to give them a space, facility, and marketing for their artistic careers. Sami and the Jesuit Cultural Center have hosted a variety of programs including major workshops, concerts, exhibitions, speaker programs, and theater productions. He believes everyone should have the opportunity to produce art, which is why through his organization, he provides artistic aid free of charge to new artists.
Finally, I met Mohammed Reda Courdi who is a production and post-production supervisor at the Morroccan Institute of Audiovisual Cinema in Rabat, Morocco. He is experienced in scriptwriting, cinema, and theater acting -- even serving as a TV host for the Palestinean TV series “Bab Al Amoud.” As an experienced mentor, he currently teaches emerging filmmakers how to raise different social issues in their films and how to challenge cultural norms through their work. He is also passionate about raising awareness for homeless and orphaned children, and strives to create opportunities to involve them in art. In doing so, these children can find purpose, meaningful community, and activities to keep them engaged and off the streets.
I wish I could have the opportunity to have heard everyone’s story, because they truly were an incredible group of leaders. Each artist works hard every single day to create social changes by using different artistic mediums unique to their expertise and audience. Through IVLP, leaders like them get to share their expertise while at the same time learning from their U.S. counterparts to build community and support one another as they seek to address similar issues. Not only that, but exchanges foster more meaningful and compassionate worldviews that build trust, connections, and a stronger understanding of global issues. I am thankful to have met these 24 leaders who are striving to do exactly that by addressing trauma through art.
About the author: Julia Wygant is an intern with the International Visitor Program and a recent graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a B.A. in International Relations.