Katherine Burke considers: “The Beginning”

As PTO’s President Katherine Burke begins a new Theatre of the Oppressed project with the Slavic Village neighborhood in Cleveland, she considers how her history and privilege might affect her work. Join Katherine’s journey.

“The Beginning” by Katherine Burke

Katherine Burke, PTO President

Katherine Burke, PTO President

My name is Katherine Burke. I’m the current President of PTO, and I work in Medical Humanities at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine (CCLCM), using the arts to engage med school students, Clinic employees, and community members in deep dialogues about health care, health, and well-being.

This fall, as part of my work with CCLCM, I am embarking on a theatre project at a community agency in the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland. The idea is that I will meet with an intergenerational group once a week or more, to create a theatre event of some sort, to be presented to the community in April of 2014.

A little about Slavic Village. It’s an old neighborhood founded by Polish and Czech immigrants in the 1870s; many of the old wooden buildings in the area have Slavic decorations and names on them. In recent years this once-thriving neighborhood has had more than its share of difficulty; it has been described as the epicenter of the United States’ foreclosure crisis, earning the title of “hardest hit” zip code in America by CNNmoney.com. Residents of this tight-knit neighborhood have struggled with predatory lending and fraudulent contractors who did shoddy work on houses and “flipped” them for a hefty profit. Property crime in Slavic Village is now common, violent crime has increased, gangs and drug dealers inhabit abandoned houses.  The public schools are underfunded, the teachers overwhelmed. Families are stressed to the limit.

The community center where I will be working is a bustling place, filled with people who come to use the many free services offered. There are programs for seniors, people with mental illness, foster families, teens, single mothers. They have a food bank and a clothing distribution center. A computer lab is always filled with students and teachers doing math and computer science. This place is the heart and soul of Slavic Village.

So I’ve been tasked with doing something, some kind of project. I want to help them create something good, meaningful, useful. I have used Theatre of the Oppressed many times in many communities, and I know it works, and I want to use it here. I have been to this community center often before; I love it, and I have a deep desire to work here for a very long time, to be a true ally. But still, I have trepidations:

I’m a white woman who lives a comfortable life in the suburbs. What right do I have to come in to this place, their place, and then drive home to my safe neighborhood? What if no one is interested in doing this?  Space is limited; what if we don’t have a room that is right for the work? What happens if, when I introduce Boal’s games, no one wants to play? People have busy lives. Will we have enough time to put this together? Will people come back week after week?  What if they just don’t want to do Forum?

My biggest fear is white privilege, which I struggle to see and deal with on a daily basis. Even writing this blog entry is a reflection of white privilege. I may have good intentions, but I am naïve.  I’ve been told before to check my racism. Who, me? I used to balk at the notion. But it was true; I’ve been silent when I should have spoken up, and I’ve made “safe” choices so I wouldn’t rock the boat. I’m sure that I’ll be confronting my own white privilege again, and I already feel intimidated by the idea of someone pointing it out. But I hope people do point out my shortfalls. I hope I will welcome the critiques with an open and mind and heart.

I don’t know the people who will be in this group. I don’t know their desires or needs. I don’t know so many things, and the unknown is a scary place for me. Part of me wants to bag it, to take an easier road, to not take this risk. But the other part of me desperately wants to be the person Paulo Freire describes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.

So my first task is to “meet the people;” to “enter into a dialogue.” I am not the liberator, but I do come armed with the arsenal of Theatre of the Oppressed in my tattered copy of Games for Actors and Non-Actors. And with these tools I will commit myself to becoming an ally. Wish me luck. I’ll keep you posted.