May 31, 2011
May is one of my favorite months of the year, with light lasting into the evening hours, baby green tree buds turning into adult green leaves, and bursts of color (both flowers and people’s clothing) dotting the city streets. But this year I spent the middle of the month far far away from New York City’s spring awakening. I was in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh conducting workshops on effective education for the 21st century, which introduced university faculty and students to performatory and playful learning and development approaches. And while there was no feel of spring in the very hot and very humid city air, the human awakening to the joy and intimacy of creating together was palpable.
I was invited to Dhaka by Daffodil International University, instigated by Syed Mizanur Rahman (“Raju”), an economist and drama educator who heads up the university’s Career Development Center. As a graduate of the East Side Institute’s International Class and participant in our Performing the World conferences, Raju has embraced performance as how to live one’s life developmentally and, being in a position to breathe life into the rigid and static British-based educational system of his country, he asked to partner with the Institute to help advance his work and socialize performance broadly within the school’s community. I was happy to agree and added my workshop facilitation partner Carrie Lobman, who is the Institute’s director of pedagogy and on the faculty of Rutgers University School of Education, as co-leader of the training week.
All told, Carrie and I worked and played with about 200 students, faculty and administrative personnel in six different workshops. Our broad thematic was that the shift underway from past centuries to the 21st century is from questions about things (What is “X”?) to questions about process (How does “X” work?). We had prepared an overall plan of discussion topics and improv exercises but needed to hear what the specific issues were that people wanted to work on so we could work off them. Students and faculty alike were unhappy with the formality and rote nature of the learning environment they felt compelled to recreate and said they wanted to change. We worked with each group offering ways they could do so as well as, perhaps more important, ways they could create together outside the formal classrooms (which would, we believed, have a big impact on what happened in the classrooms). Working with the students was pure joy! They threw themselves into doing so many things they never dreamed they could do together. The faculty was a more conflicted grouping. While many willingly went along with our invitations to create and imagine, some could not move beyond “tell us exactly what to do”—rejecting the very stance we were trying to get them to consider giving up, holding on to their own authority as experts and the institutional authority of knowing.
We also met with the high-level dignitaries of the university, had a lovely dinner with the chair of the board of the Daffodil Group (founders of the University), and watched a moving performance by the Daffodil All Stars of a play written by Raju.
Raju and his assistant, Md. Ziaul Haque Sumon (Sumon), were exceptional hosts and great organizers—gracious, relaxed, reassuring and proud of what they’re doing and our relationship. In addition to our work at Daffodil, they took us to Raju’s alma mater, Jahangimagar University, where we were treated to a great performance by the current members of the theatrical group he founded there many years ago; to the new campus site of Daffodil outside of the city, where this August Raju and Sumon will orient the 500 incoming students (performatorily) to university life; to villages and monuments and a heartbreakingly poor section of the city to meet a remarkable woman who cares for children of sex workers.
Back in New York, May’s spring is transitioning to June’s summer and I to the luxuries of American life and to the work at hand. I feel humbled and privileged that this work now includes this new relationship with Daffodil University, dozens of new friends, and the opportunity to contribute in unknowable ways to the development of the people of Bangladesh.