Why Philanthropy Should Support Arts for Social Justice and Peace

At a table discussion during a convening of social justice philanthropy practitioners in February 2009 in Cairo, Barbara Ibrahim of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement in Cairo pointed out “… where overt protest is repressed, arts and culture are a subversive way to give people voice… unfortunately from a philanthropic perspective, this has not been a place where resources for change have flowed. Arts are considered a luxury.” This point resonated strongly with Sithie Tiruchelvam whose foundation, the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust in Sri Lanka works in a deeply divided and conflicted society. Sithie urged grantmakers to see that sometimes arts and culture can be the only way to sustain faith in people, to understand that where people’s voices and media are silenced, philanthropic resources can be used to support arts, dance, drama, music which allow people to regenerate themselves. “It is an uncontested space, and it can be so powerful”, said Sithie.

Foundations across the world, working in societies with deep rooted structural and systemic injustices, are beginning to embrace the value of this powerful and uncontested space. They are using it to regenerate broken societies, to give voice to people and to challenge and address discriminatory structures through innovative and positive means.

“The importance of arts and culture in addressing issues of identity and change, confronting difficulty through innovative means, tackling reactionary forces, thinking critically, breaking stereotypes, and inspiring and imagining a better future is undeniable”, says Oussama Rifahi of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC). Take for example the following story of an initiative in Egypt which was supported by AFAC.

Theatre for Social Change in Egypt
Author: Nora Amin
Story Collected by: Zena Takieddine

I am a dancer, performance trainer, author, choreographer and theatre director based in Alexandria, Egypt. I have been engaged in theatre performances for social change for over 20 years now and was recognized in 2002 as the founder of independent theatre in Egypt where my productions are the most widely toured theatre productions across the nation. I was awarded by the Kennedy Center in the USA and the Centro do Teatro Do Oprimido in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as UNESCO Aschberg Laureat. I was awarded an Ibsen scholarship in 2009, the first time to be given to an Arab artist, and recognized by the British Council as Egypt’s international cultural leader in the performing arts.

The initiative of the Egyptian National Project for Theatre of the Oppressed was launched in Alexandria in November 2011 as a workshop to train trainers who can teach other groups all over Egypt in critically and creatively dealing with social conflict through theatre. By training trainers, we could spread out the performances nationwide. AFAC’s grant allowed me to establish our core unit from which everything else has since mushroomed. I was awarded the fund to start the first workshop in Alexandria and then take it to Portsaid and to Cairo during the period of January to April 2012. AFAC’s funding could not have been better timed! I can honestly say it is the most special grant I have ever gotten precisely, coinciding perfectly with the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution when the idea of the oppressed rising up to claim their rights was turning in an actual reality.

The purpose of my project is to use performing arts as a way to encourage dialogue and critical thinking through which to manage struggle and change in constructive way. The project includes training workshops and interactive performances that cultivate a sense of civility, diversity and socio-political involvement. The performances are designed to address issues of injustice in Egyptian society. As a rule, Theatre for the Oppressed has to be conducted outside of theatre buildings. There has to be a sense of us going out to the people. Performances are held in public spaces, in communal libraries, sport clubs, youth center, schoolyards, and universities. It really means so much to the people when they see us coming out to meet them on their ground.

Since starting the seed project in Alexandria thanks to AFAC’s support, we have been performing workshops regularly and we have recruited 500 new actors in just six months! These young students/activists are spread all across Egypt in 14 different districts. I can really say that this project is the first nation-wide performing arts project Egypt has ever experienced. And though we are famous for our entertainment industries, this theatre is not for entertainment. It is the creation of a space we are talking about our conflicts in a straightforward way that asks for people’s engagement and change from within them and onto society at large.

I am exhilarated by the growth rate of this project. People have been very supportive. Audiences are more than willing to walk in and participate. It shows that we value the needs to connect to people and bring them together and help everyone understand different points of views. Egypt is a big country and issues are different according to the location we’re in. In the Sa’3eed, for example, it is tradition that daughters receive no inheritance, only sons. Crimes of honor are also not uncommon. Through performance, we can play out the different parties involved and together examine and simulate a more just way of being. So we started off our training workshop in Alexandria at the beginning of the year and then went to tour and train in different districts. We teach performers and assistants on how to use performing arts in a constructive way to act out moments of conflict. Then we propose critical engagement and changes of behavior and perspective by inviting non-actors to enter the roles and explore different reactions. In just six months we have gone from 30 students/activists and teacher/directors to over 500 people across the nation. I really want people to find a place of dialogue, and not just to be reactive. It is so important to move away from ideas of revenge and violence and move towards critical thinking and understanding instead.

This project is our tool now for change. We have designed performances that tackle certain issues while at the same they are organic and naturally flowing in each rendition. For domestic violence and patriarchal discrimination towards daughters, we have ‘The story of Samah’: For bullying at home and at schools, child labor and homelessness, we have ‘The story of Sokkar’. For police violence and breaking the cycle spying and mistrust that infringes on citizens’ freedoms, we have ‘The story of the citizen and the informer.” For religious extremism and minority discrimination, we have ‘The story of Hany and his neighbor: a Christian musician and his Salafy neighbor”. For freedom of thought and critical expression we have “The story of the writer.”

I plan to continue this work, as there are 10 remaining counties in Egypt that we have yet to visit. It is an enormous work and I just hope to keep on going at the same amazing tempo we’ve so far had. Our work is happening on three levels: following up with the works of the already-trained performers, reaching out and training new groups, and upgrading the core office in Alexandria where we administer all the work that is happening and our expanding network of participants and performance ideas. By next year, we aim to have at least two Theatre of the Oppressed representatives in each of Egypt’s districts. These representatives will then propose and design new performances based on the social justice needs from within their contexts, which we can also perform in festivals and shows nationwide.

I firmly believe that performing arts is the best way to encourage citizenship and empowerment against oppression. My theatre is for change, for refusing the status quo. It is not directly political, in that we don’t wait for government policies to wake up and solve our issues. Instead, the theatre invites everyone’s participation and helps people feel in their own bodies and their own spaces the possibility of change.

For more grantee stories from AFAC click here .

AFAC reflects a very small cross section of the ways in which philanthropy can and is supporting peacebuilding and social change processed through arts and culture. There are many more such examples to learn from. Does your foundation have one to share?