Hope is Vital...But Is It Scalable?
In 1991, I founded a theater-based civic dialogue program in Washington, DC called Hope Is Vital. It brought a group of local teens and a group of HIV+ men who were receiving services at a center called Health Care for the Homeless into meaningful, productive collaboration with each other.
For 18 months, we created and conducted performance workshops all over the metro D.C. area for hundreds of young people focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and sexuality education. We worked at schools, youth shelters, correctional facilities, hospital drop-in clinics, churches, and afterschool programs.
After a period of challenging but immensely rewarding work, we felt that our approach—our model—could be useful in other places. The group gave me a mission: take our product, which was in fact a process, and try, at the age of 25, to head out into the world and spread the word.
Pre-email and pre-cellphone, I accepted the recklessly ambitious and well-meaning, impact-based, artistic necessity of scaling up. Community by community, program by program. I spent almost seven years doing that. I learned some things.
First, do the thing
In 1993, one of the first things I did was write Madonna a letter. I asked her to help fund our idea for a national network of programs like ours. Instant scalability via pop star. She was a big funder of HIV/AIDS prevention work back in the day, so it was only a half crazy gesture. Madonna did not write me back.
In addition, the absurdity of having to acknowledge, to myself and others, that my big plan started with a pop star and grandiose ideas about national presence before actually attempting to replicate our program in any specific place was a lesson.
After 20 years in the not-for-profit arts sector, what has become second nature to me now was, back then, a painful and scary revelation—you must put your primary energy into doing the thing, not into getting people to see how valuable doing the thing would be. The perception of value will come. And it will require its own hard work. But first, do the thing.
I spent the summer and part of fall 1993 driving around the U.S. in a beat up Toyota Corolla.
I knocked on the doors of every arts council, theater company, college theater program, and high school I could find. I ran up almost $10,000 in credit card debt paying for Sprint long distance cards, constantly calling one town ahead to try and make appointments with anyone who seemed in charge of some place that might give my program a chance.
One day in mid-September, I was sitting in a parking lot at Capital High School in Santa Fe, NM. The principal had given me just five minutes of his time. No one at the local university would see me and I was low on gas money. It was New Mexico hot out and a man I had seen in the school office approached me with a soda.
He introduced himself as Bryan Fant, a teacher who, among other subjects, taught some theater classes. He’d gone in and asked the principal what I was doing there, got interested, looked at the brochures fresh from Kinkos that I had left on a desk, and followed me to my car. Bryan was curious, and he was generous. By the time the soda was gone, he had offered me a two week residency at the school, a room at his family’s house, and the promise of a paid teacher workshop for local educators if I was as skilled as I claimed to be.
Before that moment, it had never occurred to me that someone who wasn’t clearly “the boss” might have the resources, interest, and authority to host me. But he did. And because of that, not only did I get to start two programs in Santa Fe that autumn, I was able to expand my conception of sources for invitation and partnership.
I suddenly saw gatekeepers not just as leaders of institutions, but as movement makers in small and large contexts; individuals within systems who had goals and needs and were searching for assets that, as an artist, I could bring to the table.
Control vs. Dissemination
I helped start over 100 Hope Is Vital groups around the world between 1992–1999; but, the impact has been broader than that because of a book I was persuaded to write in 1995.
In 1994, I trained several high school and college groups for the Douglass County Health Department in Omaha, NE. Tracey Wiseman, my Omaha host, told me that her superiors were frustrated by the lack of “leave behind” written material that local educators and artists could access to build their capacity for arts-based civic dialogue with young people.
But I was convinced that the work I was doing was “in the room” practice. I didn’t believe a text could translate the sequencing, the facilitation and the creative inquiry that seemed to me essential for the program to have efficacy and integrity.
Tracey got a grant from the state of Nebraska for me to create a workbook. We gathered a sample group of teaching artists who hadn’t trained with me, and gave them the workbook to see if it was usable. The results were profound.
They demonstrated an incredible hunger for strategies that could be used to deepen individual creative and teaching practice. Teachers and artists wanted new tools, and they couldn’t always access workshops and professional development. I was completely persuaded that developing the material into a book was worthwhile; more than that, the need I observed outweighed my fears of losing control.
That book, Theater for Community, Conflict & Dialogue, is now in its 15th printing, has been translated into multiple languages, and not a week goes by that I don’t get an email from someone somewhere in the world (lately, often in Central America) who has a question about an exercise or an idea contained in it.
My work now is quite different from the work I did then, but by scaling up Hope Is Vital through travel, training, and print, I feel a part of an ongoing global movement more prevalent today than ever.
Having recently started the Center for Performance and Civic Practice which is focused on scaling up capacity building and advocacy efforts around the country for artists and non-arts partners building the new work of Civic Practice, scalability is on my mind a lot these days.
I am grateful to Bryan, to Tracey, and to Russell, Jerry and Tim, not just for their collaboration many years ago, but for the push each one gave me to believe that a good idea was worth spreading. And scaling. Recklessly, ambitiously, and always with purpose.