School of Social Work students practice speaking up to help others

It looks a lot easier in a movie.

  • A bartender notices two young women, who are clearly a couple, being followed around the brewpub by two young men. She walks over and calmly but firmly announces harassment won’t be tolerated.
  • An employee at a medical clinic hears a patient being mis-gendered by another member of staff. She speaks to her coworker privately to explain why it matters to get pronouns right.
  • A job seeker is confronted with racist questions during an interview. He immediately recognizes inappropriate human resources policies, politely declines to answer, and redirects the conversation.

In real life, awkward moments like these are the kind of thing that motivates others to walk away. Yet for social work students, this is exactly what they want to walk towards, to practice intervention techniques for making a difference in the lives of others.

students participating in theatre of the oppressedSo social work students worked with theater students this fall in a unique exercise. Originally conceived by Brazilian theater visionary and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Augusto Boal, “Theatre of the Oppressed” is a form of popular community-based education that uses theater as a tool for social change.

An unresolved scene of oppression is presented. It is then replayed with the audience invited to stop the action, replace the character they feel is oppressed, struggling, or lacking power, and improvise alternative solutions.

Cross-campus faculty collaboration

School of Social Work Assistant Professor Tiffany Jones and Instructor Marie Villescas Zamow, and College of Liberal Arts Instructor of Theatre Amy Scholl, worked together to bring Theatre of the Oppressed to campus this year.

The event was coordinated by School of Social Work Instructor Marie Villescas Zamow and Assistant Professor Tiffany Jones, and by College of Liberal Arts Instructor of Theatre Amy Scholl. Students from SOWK530 – Anti-Oppressive Social Work Practice and from TH 251 – Acting 2 participated.

“My hope was students would pick scenarios they have struggled with before,” said Zamzow, “and create theater around real-life oppressions, and then jump in and try out ways to resolve the situation without oppression and discrimination.”

Scholl had previously collaborated with the School of Social Work to create mock counseling sessions in 2016. Using trauma scenarios developed by the social work students, the acting students improvised while playing the role of clients in therapy. “It is good for the social work students to practice seeing windows of opportunity to intervene,” Scholl said.

“Often times, people only think of improvisation in a comedic way,” said Scholl, “but there is a whole other world of improv where the goal is not entertainment but rather to serve as a vehicle for generating greater empathy and connection.”

students participating in theatre of the oppressed improv exerciseFor Theatre of the Oppressed, social work students wrote the scenes, acting students performed the scene, and then social work students were given the opportunity to join the actors and demonstrate ways to handle the situation. Instructor commentary provided a lens for wider perspective.

“It’s hard to watch, and it’s hard to speak up, even for the actors!” said Zamzow, following one tense improvisational scene in which a person was being harassed in public. “Diffusing tension by avoiding engagement with aggressors can support someone in a tough situation. Stepping in by itself creates safety.”

Other highlighted concepts included using body language to align with a struggling person; addressing policies and system changes within an organization; confronting challenges within a power imbalance; and converting interests when others challenge ideas.

Positive outcomes for all

Theater students learned about other types of acting. “It allowed them to learn about forum theater, but also about the world of simulation,” said Scholl. “Many actors make supplemental income, and in some cases make a living, acting as mock patients for doctors and hospitals, as trial witnesses or defendants in mock trials, or in police training.”

students participating in the theatre of the oppressed exercise
Students from SOWK530 – Anti-Oppressive Social Work Practice and from TH 251 – Acting 2 participated in Theatre of the Oppressed.

Social work students appreciated the dynamic of a theater setting for learning interventions.

“Students said it made things we were talking about in class more real,” said Jones. “Talking about micro-aggressions is one thing, but thinking about what to do when you see it happening is totally different.”

MSW student Bianca Box agreed.

“The engagement and interaction of the audience to be able to change the scene, to see how simple interventions could help or hinder the situation being played out was really eye-opening,” said Box. “It was fun to be able to tweak certain scenes to see how to best intervene.”

students participating in theatre of the oppressedSocial work students also valued collaborating with theater students for their thoughts on the issues at hand, beyond their roles as actors.

“We have all experienced micro-aggressions in some form, and in that way we are all experts,” said MSW student Megan Verros. “Hearing the acting students reflect on where they have seen micro-aggressions in their own life made this a learning opportunity for everyone.”

“I also thought it was great that the theater students seemed so involved,” said Box, “not just being the actors, but engaging with the dialogue on how to change the scene dynamics.”

Students also expressed the hope that students and faculty from other departments, and CSU administrators, would consider participating in the future, to engage individuals across campus in conversations about micro-aggressions and systems of oppression.

“There is a difference between talking about it hypothetically versus summoning the courage to speak up in the moment,” said Scholl. “Having this be a live interaction forces us to step out of our comfort zone and get up on the stage in order to right a wrong.”

The School of Social Work is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.