Sarah Hobson, Ph.D.
What is ethnodrama? I learned from Anna Deveare Smith. She is the mother of ethnodrama for me. She goes into communities post-conflict and talks to people who were up close and personal to the conflict, who have studied similar conflicts, who have historical knowledge on communities, and who hail from different cultural backgrounds in the community.
She turns each interview into a monologue, mimics how each person speaks and acts, and then performs each monologue back-to-back in one comprehensive text that now captures multiple perspectives on the issue at hand.
The first time I engaged high school students in reading and watching one of her ethnodramas, Fires in the Mirror, they feigned disinterest. I started the video of the first monologue and half of them put their heads down, seemingly not watching at all.
Fires in the Mirror captures the perspectives of many people in and outside of Brooklyn in the 1990’s after a black child was pinned to a wall and killed after the driver of an orthodox Jewish rabbi ran a red light in the rain. Hours later, a retaliatory death occurred of a Jewish young rabbi scholar, most likely at the hands of black youth egged on by their elders. Racial riots erupted as neither Jews nor Blacks felt they received needed justice.
After each monologue, I asked students – what did this person say happened? Heads still on their arms, glancing sideways at the TV screen, hands started to go up. They had heard every word.
I kept going. By the time we got to the version of the incident from the perspective of an adolescent who almost seemed to confess to the murder of the Jewish scholar, their eyes were glued to the screen, and they were helping one another fill in more details to what the young man had shared.
This simple exercise became a month-long student-driven inquiry into the social, economic and political situation in Brooklyn that had led to this event and to the racial riots.
Sure, I had to design carefully, but I was able to help them layer in more perspectives as we went along. Historical, media, personal. A broader data set. And with each new perspective layered in, new opportunities for inquiring into the cultural fabric of Brooklyn that was recreating cross-race rioting emerged. New opportunities to explore the collective action that was steadily debunking some of the myths about racial groups while advancing community-centered solutions also emerged.
This broader array of perspectives has become a central element of our Honoring Stories and Integrating Curriculum™ change-management approach. If companies and schools and non-profits and governments want to understand how to position themselves to deeply impact communities for the better, they have to learn how to tap into a broader array of perspectives.
A set of perspectives that are what other people say about the community won’t suffice. The set of perspectives needs to be situated in the cultural fabric of the community, in the voices, and the lives, and the circumstances, in the regular meetings and the assets and the solutions of the people in neighborhoods.
For too long, we have viewed communities as “disadvantaged.” Yes. There are histories of discrimination that have removed resources like housing, finances, education, employment, transportation, and health care from black and brown communities especially but white communities also. Yes. Cities have given companies eminent domain rights to take land and housing from communities already impacted by generations of such acts. Yes. These histories have fragmented neighborhoods, families, and access to resources.
Yet in the midst of these histories, communities have risen every time. They have become even more resourceful and more innovative. So to have an impact, we need simply to join those who have been making an impact for generations. Communities already know how discrimination works against them. Communities also know how they have been working through collective action and a host of community-centered businesses and organizations to fix what has been broken for generations.
The expertise we need to rebuild our organizations to be more equitable is the expertise of those on the front lines of change-making. When we are serious about making change in and through our companies, schools, non-profits, and governments, we join the teams of the many who have been making change for generations.
It is exciting to learn how people, companies, schools and organizations have been rebuilding products, services, partnerships and communication practices for generations. It is exciting to remove our assumptions about ourselves as the central experts (even if we are on the front lines of making change) and to create opportunities for mutual sharing and learning together about how we become a part of the solution together.
That is the work of Community Allies. We help sectors come together and create spaces of learning with others in different areas of our industries who have been making change for generations. We help sectors learn together how to honor one another, everything each person, industry/sector knows and does, so you can provide products and services that communities are asking you to design in the service of their solutions and everyone’s collective expertise.
We help you advance the kind of awareness raising and advocacy we need from one another so that histories of discrimination can stop because we all are doing our part. We all are a part of needed solutions that create a whole new set of trajectories for wealth building and community stability this world and all of our industries and schools desperately need.
Sarah Hobson, Ph.D. specializes in supporting teams, departments and schools, businesses, and government agencies in building inclusive innovative change-making communities who understand how to connect well with and join diverse populations in providing needed sustainable resources for all youth and families.