Forty U.S. citizen exchange alumni made up of artists, performers, educators, students, and entrepreneurs from 19 states and 19 exchange programs gathered in Santa Fe, New Mexico in December 2019 to share best practices and learn about arts-based approaches to conflict resolution and peace building. Over four days, these remarkable alumni were exposed to ideas, strategies, and resources that directly impact their work in their own communities.
A screening of the documentary “Moving Stories” set the tone for the seminar on the first evening. The film follows alumni-led Battery Dance Company (BDC) as they traveled to South Korea, India, and Romania and their work with at-risk youth through the “Dancing to Connect” program. The spirited discussion with BDC President Jonathan Hollander about grass roots community-based interactions overseas (Fulbright 1992, 2011) left the group feeling energized and ready for the official seminar opening!
Throughout the week, participants shared stories and best practices from their personal and professional experiences during panel presentations and small group discussions. As experts and leaders in the field, participants touched on a number of topics such as the power of augmented reality and how it is being used to transform communities; storytelling as a tool for conflict resolution; how to identify funding opportunities and community assets; and the importance of understanding your own story when trying to transform conflict in other communities. These discussions and presentations included information about concepts, methodologies, and tools in the field. During the plenary panel discussion entitled, “Conflict Transformation through the Lens of Artistry,” panelists discussed contact theory and narrative empathy. Contact theory is the reduction of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination by the process of having different group members come together to share similar perspectives, while narrative empathy is a process of storytelling that allows one to step into the shoes of another while recognizing each other’s identity and differences. Subsequent presentations and small group discussions focused on youth arts education programs and diversity and inclusion initiatives for the arts. Alumni speakers demonstrated how film, photography, theater, improvisation, drawing, and other art forms are being used as pedagogical material to foster healing within communities to accomplish goals such as balancing traditionally one-sided narratives or providing a space for underserved communities to share their voices.
Participants also observed how organizations are using the arts to fight for social justice, promote equality, and address community conflict through visits to local organizations, Creativity for Peace, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, and Wise Fool. Creativity for Peace shared how their nonprofit supports peaceful dialogue, understanding, and mutual respect between young Israeli and Palestinian women. At the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, participants learned about the museum’s activities in preserving and keeping alive the knowledge, history, and cultural understanding of native cultures especially among the youth. Through hands-on circus activities, alumni learned how Wise Fool is incorporating social justice and advocacy for art accessibility through theater.
Other highlights of the seminar included a networking night with local exchange alumni and artists from Santa Fe, and the “Artists in Action Pop-Up,” where alumni showcased their community art initiatives to their peers and local artists. During this “pop-up,” or temporary exhibition, 16 Alumni TIES participants exhibited work and performed pieces that support conflict resolution, social change, and community reconciliation through the arts to an audience of fellow participants and local artists invited by the Santa Fe Council on International Relations and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Attendees not only had the opportunity to connect and discuss projects with this creative arts community, but they also tapped into interactive activities such as improvisation, song, and dance.
The participants took full advantage of the resources in Santa Fe, including a visit to Meow Wolf, an immersive and interactive art collective that started in Santa Fe in 2008 and is expanding their cutting-edge concept to other U.S. cities. The group also met with the Meow Wolf corporate team and learned about their community-focused art and social projects across the United States, the impact of building art collectives and providing opportunities to connect with the local school system on youth art education.
Following every Alumni TIES seminar, participants are eligible to apply for a grant of up to $10,000 to implement a community project related to the seminar theme. During this seminar, participants had the chance to directly connect with an Alumni TIES grantee, Torran Anderson (Fulbright 2015–16). Torran shared his small grant best practices and how he used his grant to bring Muslim and Jewish youth of Arizona together to explore the impact of fear and discrimination within their own communities through the lens of Japanese internment during World War II. Following the presentation, the group collaborated and exchanged potential project ideas with one another. Some concepts included the use of augmented reality to educate students about the history of their cities and the use of photography as a form of art therapy for children arriving at the southern border of the United States. By the final day of the seminar, many had shared their intentions of capitalizing on the grant opportunity to transform the discussions that they had already started with their fellow participants from an idea to a community action plan.
After a jam-packed and memorable seminar, alumni left Santa Fe having made lasting and meaningful connections with their peers. It was evident from the final reflection that they were reenergized and eager to collaborate with one another on projects to dismantle unjust barriers and provide artistic platforms for communities in conflict. As one participant described it, the Alumni TIES seminar “put wind in my sails!”
The Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by World Learning.