My last post, “Police and Teens, Connecting” (March 29, 2017 ) pointed to an article that appeared in The New York Times that same day. The article featured a unique kind of “connecting” of police and teens—Operation Conversation: Cops & Kids, a program of the All Stars Project in partnership with the New York City Police Department—and its founder, Dr. Lenora Fulani. Fulani is co-founder of the All Stars Project, a developmental psychologist, grassroots educator and political activist (and my friend and colleague for 40 years). The Times article begins with this question: “What happens when you bring together 10 teenagers from poor communities and 10 police officers to try to get them to talk?”
You can read the article for the newspaper’s answer. And you can read here for some of how I respond to the question as a performance activist and Vygotskian. The following is an excerpt from a chapter on Operation Conversation that I wrote for the second, expanded edition of Vygotsky at Work and Play.
For Vygotsky, creativity is a social-cultural activity of human beings transforming what exists in such a way that something new comes into existence. That something new might be a great scientific advance or an artistic masterpiece, but even these do not spring from individual people’s heads but are, rather, historically, socially and culturally situated. Further, creativity is something everyone, not merely those we call talented, does. It is, in fact, rather mundane. As he wrote:
To use an analogy devised by a Russian scholar, just as electricity is equally present in a storm with deafening thunder and blinding lightning and in the operation of a pocket flashlight, in the same way, creativity is present, in actuality, not only when great historical works are born but also whenever a person imagines, combines, alters, and creates something new, no matter how small a drop in the bucket this new thing appears compared to the works of geniuses. When we consider the phenomenon of collective creativity, which combines all these drops of individual creativity that frequently are insignificant in themselves, we readily understand what an enormous percentage of what has been created by humanity is a product of the anonymous collective creative work of unknown inventors. (Vygotsky, 2004c, pp. 4-5)
To me, the young people and police officers are unknown inventors. They “imagine, combine, alter, and create something new” (actually, a multitude of the new). In the workshops they collectively created a zpd by and “in” which they moved, spoke, listened, laughed, cried, felt, thought, saw and were seen in ways they never had before, and such collective creative activity has enormous potential for development. As I understand Vygotsky, this is due to the dialectical relationship between experience and imagination that is made manifest in creative activity. Imagination and experience are mutually dependent on and produce each other. We imagine based on what we have experienced. We make something other of the experience (we don’t merely reproduce it as it is). This imagining something new is both itself a new experience and becomes usable in creating new experiences. In his words, imagination is
…the means by which a person’s experience is broadened, because he can imagine what he has not seen, can conceptualize something from another person’s narration and description of what he himself has never directly experienced. He is not limited to the narrow circle and narrow boundaries of his own experience but can venture far beyond these boundaries, assimilating, with the help of his imagination someone else’s historical or social experience. In this form, imagination is a completely essential condition for almost all human mental activity. When we read a newspaper and find out about a thousand events that we have not directly witnessed, when a child studies geography or history, when we merely learn what has been happening to another person by reading a letter from him—in all these cases our imagination serves our experience. (Vygotsky, 2004c, p. 17)
And when we perform. Creating the performance space and the performance—cops and kids performing moving slowly, performing improvisational skits, performing conversation and performing empathy—is a collective creative activity that is, for both the young people and the police officers, a venturing beyond “the narrow circle and narrow boundaries” of their own individual experience. Their experiences are broadened and with that, they have more choices for being/becoming.
(From Chapter 5: In Scenes: A Response to Police-Community Antagonism)