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First Person

AU Hosts Arts, Social Healing, and Restorative Justice Colloquium Inaugural event explores crucial role of arts in problem-solving

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Rafael Cestero
Daniel Abraham
Fanta Aw
Erik Ehn
Sybil Roberts

Adrika Lazarus is a graduate student in American University’s Social Enterprise Program, studying innovation within higher education, with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is currently the graduate assistant for the Inclusive Excellence Plan and to the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion. She attended AU’s first colloquium on Creativity and Innovation for Social Healing & Restorative Justice earlier this month and shares her thoughts about the day in the following first-person account.

On November 2, AU faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community members gathered at the Katzen Arts Center for a day of dialogue to reflect on the relationship between art and social and restorative justice.

This rich gathering of AU and DC community members was the university’s first colloquium on Creativity and Innovation for Social Healing & Restorative Justice. Presenters led sessions such as Grassroots Leadership and the Arts for Social Change, The Power of Comedy in Contemporary Social Justice, and Storytelling and Restorative Justice. Presenters also shared tactical strategies for colloquium participants to be moved towards action, such as practical tools to reframe conversations.

The evening closed with the AU Chamber Singers, led by conductor and colloquium co-chair Professor of Performing Arts Daniel Abraham, who gave a powerful performance of Considering Matthew Shepard by composer Craig Hella Johnson, an oratorio inspired by the death of Shepard, an openly gay college student at the University of Wyoming, whose brutal murder in 1998 horrified the country and sparked LGBT state and federal hate-crime legislation.

A Lasting Impact

Student leaders like Rafael Cestero, a member of the AU Chamber Singers, reflected on the colloquium’s impact. “I truly believe that this colloquium had people shift the way they think about restorative justice and social healing. It showed people the place of arts in our ever-changing society and allowed them to dive into their creativity when solving problems.”

Sybil Roberts, colloquium co-chair and director of the African and African-American Diaspora Studies program, often refers to a quote by writer John Edgar Wideman, “That art is someone making the case for survival,” which she feels is true in this time of deeply divisive partisan politics, unprecedented environmental challenges, and moral malaise.

“When we truly recognize the power of art, we are able to move beyond mere survival into the space of possibility, which is the epitome of healing, the ability to see ourselves as more than we are, and to move toward that becoming,” Roberts said.

Restorative Justice Brought to Life

One session shared how AU has begun to adopt restorative practices to address its own need for community building and healing. Roberts; Amanda Taylor, assistant vice president for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Robin Adams, director of Educational Programs and Training for the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, facilitated a restorative circle that models the way accountability can be achieved through building authentic relationships.

“Building authentic relationships are foundational to creating communities of care where all members feel a sense of belonging, connection, and empathy for each other. This allows us to develop the capacity to address harm in our community when it happens,” said Adams.

Advancing Social Justice through Sustainable Engagement

The colloquium served as a platform for inclusive conversation on social justice topics at AU, in the DC community, and beyond. The importance of broad representation of voices and stories, in terms of both artists, mediums, and audience, was a central theme.

The closing session with keynote speaker Erik Ehn, playwright, director, and theater activist, was especially illuminating. Ehn focused many of his remarks on the importance of play. He reminded us that children engage in playful activities, and that adults should strive to “make the move of letting go” and practice play so we can “survive and fight” for the issues we care for. His message was about self-care and resilience, of letting go to move forward, and to continue creating art authentically in an “act of faith.”

Abraham says he has been reflecting deeply on Ehn’s remarks. He was particularly struck by Ehn’s call for space in today’s stressed society that allows the loudness of the world to have an “out of bounds for inner dialogue and inner theatre. We need a place for escape.”

Abraham has also been thinking about one of Ehn’s key summary charges: “The job of art is not to deliver the changes but to cause the instability…art leads us to the conversation.”

Lessons Learned: Art as a Catalyst for Social Change

There were many takeaways from the day. Art can be a catalyst for change, as both a platform and process for artists to build and share their visions in a community. The AU community is full of creativity and resilience, and spaces that bring students, faculty, staff, and alumni together are critical to our ability to heal and continue to work for social change.

Fanta Aw, vice president for Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence, shared her excitement going forward – a hope to host an annual colloquium – to work towards realizing AU’s vision for Inclusive Excellence.

“It was a remarkable day,” she said. “The opportunity to learn, reflect, and exchange ideas was invaluable.”