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Acting, singing and dancing for social change is part of new initiative at Cornell

Writing plays for social justice and peace and singing for sustainability are some new ways that the Center for Transformative Action (formerly CRESP) at Cornell is giving a voice to people often not heard.

The Center for Transformative Action (CTA) has launched Performing Arts for Social Change, a new strategic initiative to make a social impact through theater, music and dance.

"We provide an exciting framework called transformative action," said Anke Wessels, executive director of the center, "by recognizing that the most inspiring social actions break the silence that often surrounds social injustice." The new initiative, she said, is "a targeted way to practice transformative action and a perfect venue to show the community what is possible."

Transformative action, she explained, transfers "the creative thinking previously dedicated to defeating the enemy to focus on collaborative and inclusive efforts to tackle common challenges." The most effective social change efforts, she said, interrupt the common "me against you" assumptions, "so that new insights become possible."

The initiative was launched June 23, when Cynthia Henderson, associate professor of theater arts at Ithaca College and creator of the project, presented a keynote address about the project at CTA's annual meeting at the First Unitarian Church of Ithaca.

CTA fosters innovative social change agents or social entrepreneurs who emphasize the values of peace, social justice and sustainability through its 12 projects, including the Ithaca City of Asylum, the Durland Alternatives Library and Simple Living America.

Henderson developed the Performing Arts for Social Change, she said, to "give a forum to those who are often not heard, because the performances are of them and from them."

The initiative generates low-budget theater, music and dance performances that "can be done in a theater, gym, classroom, town square, prison, common area or outside in a field," said Henderson, who has worked with elementary schoolchildren in underfunded schools, gang members in New York City, incarcerated youth in Auburn, N.Y., and with women in Cameroon. "I will go anywhere and do this work with any community that needs it. I'd also like to teach people how to do it because it shouldn't just be me."

Voice Suspended, for example, was a theater project with teenagers at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center that allowed the youths to present in their own words how they were victims of racism in school.

"The young people were frustrated because no one was listening to them," said Henderson. "We simply taught them to use a proactive and constructive method to say what they needed to say, putting them forward as they were, flaws and all," said Henderson.

"A lot of your flaws are actually your strengths, and you need to learn how to use them," said Ithaca High School student Orande McBean about his experience in Voice Suspended. "Cynthia taught me how to do that."

Added Henderson: "The words of the playwrights are important, but what the actors do with those words is what truly affects the other person, themselves and the audience."

Another new CTA-related project is a new course that Wessels will teach in the fall on social entrepreneurship and transformative action (Social Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Problem Solvers, AEM 338), in which students will be responsible for developing an original blueprint for social change.

"If students are committed to making their blueprints a reality, CTA will offer immediate nonprofit status and tailor the incubation service so that these students can launch their efforts successfully," Wessels said.

Graduate student Zheng Yang is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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