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Sowing the Seeds of a Culturally Diverse Community

Community-Based Arts as Emancipatory Learning

Mat Schwarzman
Oakland, California

"Culture carries within it the seeds of our liberation." - Amilcar Cabral (1)

In American society, the arts are generally seen as either a frill. a hobby, or a way to make money. Commercial art is intended to entertain us and take us away from the struggles and anxieties of everyday life as it provides a living for those who produce it. Fine art is supposed to be an alternative to commercial art, more reflective, more aesthetic, but essentially its mission is the same: to help viewers escape from reality.

This is the story of one summer project in Oakland. California, in which the arts are a means for survival. It is called the Community Arts Apprenticeship Program (CAAP), and it involves young people, artists, and community-based organizing. In addition to developing young apprentices' individual abilities in the performing, visual, and media arts, the program develops collaborative, cross-cultural, and social change skills that enable the young people to improve their communities. In the past two years, apprentices have helped secure passage of a ballot measure ensuring that Oakland youth will get 2.5 percent of the city's budget each year for the next twelve years; they have traveled the state of California to convince a thousand people to help in the struggle to defend affirmative action, and played a major role in the effort to get alcohol and tobacco billboards out of Oakland, where the rates of death from abuse of alcohol and tobacco are among the highest in the country. And they did it all through art.

More impressive than the changes they have made in their communities at large are the transformations the young people have gone through themselves. Through creating murals, plays, radio programs, billboards, Web sites, magazines. and a youth anthem, they have come to grips with racism, addiction, violence, inequality, injustice, and deep-seated beliefs and feelings about the destruction of their urban environment. Many have come away with not only new information and new skills, but new frames of reference within which they can see a different, better future for themselves, their families, and their communities. Far more than just "art," CAAP is an arts-based approach to emancipatory learning and community-based social change. (2)

How It Works

CAAP is a collaboration between the East Bay Institute for Urban Arts (Urban Arts) and community-based youth organizations in Oakland. Urban Arts joins with community-based groups to create art and organize arts projects that develop skills, develop new cultural resources and capacities, and convey urgent messages and information. It began as a project of the Center for Third World Organizing, a national training center for organizers and organizations in communities of color.

Five youth organizations representing hundreds of African, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, European, and Native American young people took part in the 1996 Community Arts Apprenticeship Program - CAAP. Each of these organizations contributed staff time, resources, and members of their constituencies to the CAAP.

The 1996 CAAP program lasted six weeks. The twenty apprentices were divided into five culturally mixed teams, and each team was assigned to one of the five youth organizations. The teams participated in morning workshops at their organization sites and then traveled to the campus of Laney Community College, where they ate lunch as a group and then split up once again, this time into a different set of teams organized by artistic discipline. Most afternoons were spent focused on music, drama, visual arts, and radio. On other occasions, the apprentices came together to participate in trainings on interpersonal communication, cross-cultural alliance building, and action research. Fridays the apprentices spent together, taking social change workshops and a dance class. By the end of the CAAP program, the group had created a short play with sets and costumes, posters, a radio program, a dance/anthem, a Web site, a magazine, and two billboards, all focused on three subjects: affirmative action, the Kids First! ballot initiative, and the alcohol and tobacco billboard abatement campaign. A public presentation ("CAAP-Off') was held at the end of the program for an audience of friends and family. All in all, project organizers estimate that the apprentices' work reached over five thousand people.

CAAP as an Emancipatory Learning Environment

Each apprentice had his or her own analysis of the program, but apprentice Sophie Hou seemed to sum up many of the perceptions when she said.

CAAP put me in touch with the community and introduced me to a lot of new people and new ideas. I learned a lot about cooperation and working with other people and how you have to give responsibility to other people in order for them to become leaders. I was also introduced to new cultures and new ways of thinking about other people.

From discussions with the CAAP faculty and apprentices. three main learning areas emerged: (a) collaboration (b) cultural identity and (c) the community, including the ways apprentices can have a positive effect on it. These appeared consistently in the apprentices' comments about the program.

Working Together: "Finding the One"

"I liked how we had a common goal and we all worked to get there," apprentice Semion Muhammad said. "We expressed that in so many different ways: going out and talking to people together, writing letters together, painting together. singing together. Even when it was hard it was good, because we were doing it together." Throughout the six weeks of the CAAP, the twenty apprentices did things with one another in groups of two, three, and more, right on up to making a few major decisions as a group of twenty.

"We don't normally have opportunities to be together like this:' said apprentice Yvan Iturriaga:

When you meet someone at school, it's really different. Everybody's focused on getting good grades, looking good; it's very individual. At CAAP we were working on something together, sharing stuff, our art, and that made it very different Working on the music and the dance and everything made this possible.

At school "you get judged for everything but who you really are," Yvan said. "Who your friends are, how you dress, how you talk, that's what important. In CAAP, we kind of acknowledged that and said to ourselves this time we're going to do it differently."

On the first day of the CAAP, Guillermo Cespedes, director of the music program, asked the members of the group to stand in a circle facing one another, calm themselves, and focus their awareness internally. "Don't look out the windows. don't look at one another, just listen to your own heartbeat." He had them silently feel the rhythm of their hearts, "just like a drumbeat in your chest," and then led the group in incrementally building from their heartbeat, to each person bringing in a sound, and then a rhythm, and then a song with their hands, bodies, and voices. "No matter how complex a piece of music you play," he went on to say, "no matter how many people you may be playing with, your most important task is to hold on to that heartbeat. Every rhythm in the world comes down to that one."

Later in the day, Cespedes handed several of the apprentices percussion instruments and showed them a rather advanced rhythm to play together. As they struggled awkwardly with its complexity and the dexterity required by the task, several of the apprentices made verbal and nonverbal complaints. "Don't look down at your instruments," he told them. "Look at one another. Playing music is about listening to music, listening to what one another is doing. When you focus on yourself, you take energy away from the group and go inward. That's not what you want to do, you want to stay connected.' Cespedes's metaphor of "the One" evolved into something much more than just how to play music. "It was how we talked about being together and struggling together as a group." Semion said. "'Finding the One."'

Not that CAAP apprentices did not experience conflict; far from it. Nulan Truong, one of the apprentice-actors in the play project, said, 'We had many, many arguments, but somehow we knew it was not personal." Dadrick Johnson, another one of the CAAP apprentices theorized.

Art was the core of the CAAP - drawing, singing, plays. music, -- dance that's what kept people there. They were doing stuff that they enjoyed!

You never get to connect with people like this in your daily life. It's not about work, even though it takes a lot of work. It's joyful -- it's all the emotions, sadness, happiness, pain -- how many chances do you get to be with people like that? You're learning about other people, they're learning about you, everybody's open to each other. That's what art is.

Finding Cultural Ground: "You Have to Approach It Like a Child"

The second theme articulated by CAAP apprentices as a major learning area concerned their understanding of cultural identity, racism, and cross-cultural alliance building. In this case, apprentices' perceptions matched those of the project organizers, for one of the goals of the CAAP had been for the apprentices to learn about one another not only at an individual or group level, but at a cultural level as well. Our belief was that the process of creating art together would bring these issues to the forefront. In the 1995 CAAP, apprentices had created a mural together based on the histories of struggle in their communities. As they developed their themes, conflict erupted between Muslim African American apprentices, who wanted to include the Pope as a blood-stained figure representing colonization, and the Catholic Latinos for whom the Pope was a holy figure. Eventually the two groups reached a compromise. "It was really cool," apprentice Jessyka Ramirez said, "because even in our differences we were able to come together, and the result was beautiful." (3)

Juana Alicia, codirector of Urban Arts and director of the CAAP visual arts program believes

Art can speak to people at a very deep level and expose the anxieties and questions we live with. ... If you put a (racially) mixed group of people in a room and have them try to do anything together, you can be sure issues of culture and power will come up. But give them art supplies, and .somehow those issues don't just come up, they get hot.

Juana Alicia points to the high number of CAAP graduates who have continued their involvement in social change efforts

To those who think art is just make-believe, I reply that the skills and experience are completely transferable. Once someone knows how to negotiate a mural image, it's a small step to more direct forms of community action.

Fast forward to the 1996 CAAP: Brenda Soi and Bryan Chue are having a lot of difficulty participating in the music and dance aspect of the program. "I just couldn't get the rhythm," Brenda says, "and it made me feel really bad." After two weeks of Afro-Cuban music and African American dance workshops, music director Guillermo Cespedes and dance director Soyinka Rahim decided to take a different approach and had each apprentice bring in something from their own cultural background. The transformation was instantaneous, said apprentice Sophie Hou:

Brenda kept saying that she couldn't do it, she couldn't do it, but as soon as she starts singing this Chinese song, Soyinka and I look at one another and our mouths drop open: The whole time her foot is tapping out the beat perfectly!

As a result of that incident, Semion Muhammad realized that "our culture goes right down into our bodies." That makes the diversity of the CAAP program good, he says, "but also hard."

You feel stupid, sometimes, like you don't know even how to walk or talk. You learn that when you try something from someone else's culture. you have to approach it like a child, like you don't know anything.

"That's the way we have to be in every day life, too," he concludes, "if we are going to make it in this world."

Understanding the Issues: "Acting in the World"

The third area of transformative learning concerned the political issues the apprentices studied and the apprentices' sense of their ability to make an impact on their community. CAAP 1996 focused on two electoral campaigns: (a) the "Yes on K" Kids First! ballot initiative which was going to guarantee youth a percentage of the Oakland city budget, and (b) the "No on Proposition 209" campaign to defend affirmative action programs in the state. Apprentices also worked as researchers on a campaign led by NEL Centro de Juventud to eliminate alcohol and tobacco billboards in the Fruitvale District of East Oakland.

Gabriela Candelaria was one of four CAAP apprentices who performed in How Far We've Come, (4) an interactive play about affirmative action that toured the state and was performed in San Diego during the Republican National Convention. She says that being in a play is a great way to understand current issues "because you have to figure out things in order to act your part."

I knew what affirmative action was about before the play, but I had no idea how it affected people. When Brian (Freeman, the director) asked me "How would your character feel about losing her job if she speaks out against her boss?" that's when I got it. "Vulnerable."

Mansour Al-Sabur, another apprentice who performed in the play, said

If you see something on TV or read it in the paper, it's like it has nothing to do with you, it's just happening to 'them.' If you experience something like that while you're acting in a play, it's different. It's happening to you.

Mansour believes the experience has left a lasting impression on him and his understanding of how social change takes place:

Things are going to change when people believe they're going to change. It's almost like you have to pretend in order to make it so. We weren't just 'acting,' " he concludes, "we were acting in the world."


Through art, I can see solutions where everyone else just sees problems. - CAAP apprentice Cameron Quince

The notion that art can change lives has been difficult not only for people in the arts to appreciate but also for many activists committed to social change. As Dan HoSang. director of Youth of Oakland United admitted. 'When this all began with Urban Arts. I was skeptical." He said.

Organizing teaches me to be very pragmatic. If it's not going to build power for you, don't do it! So I had a big question: Why should we spend our organization's very limited time and resources getting members to draw images about something they feel they need, when we could organize them to fight for it?

Gina Acebo of Youth for Justice thinks she has an answer to that question. ''People act when they have something to act for. Mobilizing people's imaginations is essential to any movement, and art is a way to do that."

By viewing the CAAP context as a pedagogical environment, we can see arts projects as an effective and important strategy for emancipatory learning. Because the arts can deal with emotions as well as facts; because they can engage with the whole person; because they can enable people to take ideas apart and put them back together in new ways; and because they can express culture and cultural diversity, Urban Arts believes the arts as an approach to community-based emancipatory learning deserves to take root and spread to many more places throughout society. As the CAAP apprentices said in their youth anthem:

The seeds you plant today

Are the crops you harvest tomorrow.

We aren't just "part of the solution.''

We ARE the solution!


1. From Our People Are Our Mountains: Amilcar Cabral On The Guinean Revolution. London: Committee for Freedom in Mozambique, Angola & Guinea, 1972.

2. I use Mezirow's term "emancipatory" rather than "transformative" because of CAAP's focus on systemic social change.

3. This story was first published in Third Force magazine. May/June 1996.

4. Written by Ellen Chang for Urban Arts.

This article was originally published in Revision magazine in an issue about "Transformative Learning", a theory established by Jack Mezirow of Columbia University's Teachers College. Transformative Learning suggests that people create new knowledge and meaning out of their existing frames of reference. Accordingly, in order to deeply change ("transform") someone's beliefs, educators must engage with learners' often deeply held assumptions about themselves and their world.

Mat Schwarzman is codirector of the East Bay Institute for Urban Arts and one of the founders. along with muralist Juana Alicia, videomaker Maria Luisa Mendonça, and community organizer Rinku Sen. He is a graduate of the doctoral program in Transformative Learning at California Institute of Integral Studies. Schwarzman's dissertation was entitled "Out of the Box: The Community ArtsApprenticeship Program as a Case Study of Collaborations Between Community-based Artists and Organizers."

Published in In Motion Magazine April 22, 1998