Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the 17th annual Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference, which this year took place in Chicago! It was a pleasure leading a workshop with NWA workshop leader Krista Franklin and NWA writer Phillis Humphries, and it was even more of a treat getting to participate in a wide variety of workshops led by Pedagogy of the Oppressed (PO) and Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) thinkers and doers from all over the world.

PTO Conference 2011 program cover by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

Our session, “Neighborhood Writing Alliance: Sharing Our Stories, Claiming Our Culture,” was a double session—that means a group of brave souls decided, based on our thirty-word description, that they would give us three hours (yes, really!) of their time to participate in a writing workshop and think about how they could take those skills back to their communities. True to the popular education model, as a facilitator, I walked away learning so much from our participants. When we were setting up our community guidelines for safe space, one participant contributed a beautiful one: “Celebrate risk. Celebrate failure.” Indeed, that’s an attitude that one must adopt, whether for a writing workshop or any community-based work…one must take risks and welcome failures before one will achieve success.

In thinking about writing workshops in particular, we continued the themes of risk-taking and authenticity. We discussed Anne Lamott’s concept (from Bird by Bird) of the “shitty first draft.” This concept formalizes the notion that it’s important, necessary even, to let it all hang out—get something, anything down on paper—in the first draft. It may not be very good, but that’s part of the process. (Hopefully, she notes, the “good second draft and the terrific third draft” follow.)

In NWA workshops, we especially think about the importance of writing in one’s own language. This means not filtering or editing your thoughts for grammar, spelling, or punctuation before they land on the page. This also means that if you’re more comfortable writing in a language other than English when getting your thoughts on paper, go for it! The goal is for you to write what you are feeling, thinking, witnessing in your community, experiencing in your life, and need to express. Nobody is grading your work in an NWA workshop! Content is paramount. Spelling, grammar, word choice, and format can all be massaged into place during the revision and editing processes.

It was awesome to see that this was a liberating idea for some of our workshop participants. One participant, a native Spanish speaker, was taken aback that she was “allowed” to write in Spanish. It felt like an important reminder that as workshop leaders, facilitators, or organizers, we can be perceived as playing out structures of power that can have oppressive effects.

We had a really powerful writing workshop, with each person who shared his or her writing blowing the rest of us away. The air was filled with snaps (indicating resonance), giggles, and empathetic head nods. After the workshop, participants discussed how they could apply the experience of the day’s workshop to their own work. Many of the participants are already doing creative community-based work in a variety of communities: with clients in therapeutic environments; as educators in elementary to university settings; in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. In particular, participants noted that they walked away with specific writing workshop tools, concrete experience of how a safe writing space can help build relationships among individuals and strengthen a community, and ideas for utilizing writing as a strong precursor to performing work in Theatre of the Oppressed.

If you were at the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference, what were some of your takeaways? How will you take what you learned back to your community?




  • http:/ Susan Eleuterio

    love “celebrate risk, celebrate failure”- great summary of how NWA does its’ work and of the conference