I remember being nervous to use ethnodrama to engage students because ethnodramas were so intense. Fires in the Mirror, Evicted, The Laramie Project, Twighlight LA. The post-conflict situations they cover orient around violent events.
So I tried everything else I could think of that permitted students to turn their community research into plays and role plays with multiple perspectives.
Then one day in 2008, while teaching in a mostly evenly integrated high school during the Obama election period time, students developed a role play that permitted them to begin talking across race in role.
They were able to explore the biases of the characters I provided them without owning them as their own. The result was that they leaned deeper into the drama to explore the range of perspectives.
It was a powerful class, and their passion and hunger for exploring each perspective by jumping in and out of role captivated us all.
I drove home deeply moved by the lesson plan infrastructure that had held us together. It had helped us start to get to some of the sources to our biases in a safe way, so many rooted in media portrayals of people of every race. I felt I was onto something and was eager to build on what we had created the next day.
To my surprise, when I got to school the next day, a counselor greeted me. She explained that misinformed election-based conversations were now coming to the surface, and the students didn't know if their peers thought they were racist.
The peers had learned from the media and from those around them that if they didn't believe Obama should be president, they were racist.
I had no idea this was the political message students were receiving, and I tried to explore that message with them in class, where it was coming from, and its impact on civic discourse.
I found the students withdrawn and not eager to continue. They were afraid of losing their cross-race friendships.
That was a turning point for me. I realized drama work that started to surface our deeper fears and biases would fizzle out every time the moment the uncertainty of what it was revealing became present to us.
I needed a better container for our drama work, one that would permit us to allow ourselves to explore our biases together, without pulling away from one another.
Ethnodramas began to provide us that roadmap forward.
They helped me find a human-centered framing that meant we could engage in role plays with the monologues they provided that helped us go deeper and deeper into studying the sources for the biases all around us as they interfaced with other people and with us.
It wasn't about labeling people or perspectives as good or bad, as right or wrong, as black and white. It was about accepting that everyone is a recipient of harmful messaging and thus is limited in their lives, in their understandings of themselves and others because of blatant and hidden biases they have internalized.
We began to explore what makes messaging harmful to people and relationships. We began to explore the impact on people and relationships of biases fed to us from news and other sources.
We moved away from a spirit of division and towards a spirit of learning about what was working against unity and what it would take for us to move towards unity.
We began to lean into a spirit of acceptance of one another that helped us extend to one another truth, love, grace, and deeper exploration when our biases surfaced.
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.