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he Citizen Artist

The Citizen Artist
20 Years of Art in the Public Arena

An Anthology from High Performance Magazine 1978-1998

edited by
Linda Frye Burnham
and Steven Durland

 

 

 

We Are All Connected: Elders Share the Arts

By Linda Frye Burnham and Susan Perlstein

For almost 20 years, New York's Elders Share the Arts [ESTA] has been creating models for planning and sustaining meaningful connections among generations and between cultures living in the same communities. This article is the first chapter of Generating Community, a book by ESTA's founding director, theater artist Susan Perlstein, and Jeff Bliss, the intergenerational arts coordinator. It outlines their startlingly creative programs in four culturally transitional neighborhoods\East Harlem, Brooklyn's Northside, Flushing and Flatbush\including groups of deaf children and elders. \Eds.

Elders today still remember a time when extended families lived together and shared each other's daily lives. Increasingly, however, elders tend to be isolated from their communities, and especially from children, and come to feel they are no longer useful people: No one cares about what they know and there is no one to listen to their stories. Children, for their part, are cut off from the elders' wisdom and caring.

In ESTA's early days\as we worked with elders to create Living History presentations in nursing homes, senior centers and other settings\we heard many complaints about children. "The kids are ruining our neighborhood," some elders would say. "There's no discipline." "I wouldn't want to be a kid growing up today." It was this isolation of elders from meaningful activities with children\as well as the seniors' real fear of being targeted for ridicule and crime by young people\that inspired us to begin our program of intergenerational workshops. We realized there was a pressing need to reinvent family and community connections.

We started by researching model intergenerational programs. We reviewed current literature in education, psychology, cultural anthropology, social work and the community arts. We contacted national organizations dedicated to the elderly, to the young and to intergenerational or multicultural issues\organizations such as Generations United of the National Council on Aging, and the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple University in Philadelphia. We asked them to describe their programs and to refer us to other resources. Locally, we sought information from the New York City Department of Aging and the Board of Education, as well as from other arts and cultural organizations. We also interviewed the seniors in ESTA's Living History program, staff in the senior centers and nursing homes, the young people with whom we had piloted smaller projects, and their teachers.

We discovered three types of intergenerational programs: youth serving seniors, seniors serving youth and mutual or reciprocal programs. Projects in which youth serve seniors include "meals on wheels," "home shopping" and "friendly visitors." Seniors serve youth in mentoring projects, latchkey programs and foster grandparent programs. Mutual or reciprocal programs often involve working together on cultural, environmental or political projects.

Clearly, the reciprocal model fit our goals best. In cultural projects like those offered in this book, young and old learn and practice new skills, cooperate, share experiences, and practice teamwork with decision making and problem solving. Creative expression fosters self-esteem, pride, joy and a sense of accomplishment.

For a few years, we experimented with many different kinds of programs, all based on transforming oral histories into theater, dance, music and writing. Out of this experience we developed the Generating Community program in 1991 as an answer to the concerns of cultures and generations coming into conflict. Seeing that all these different groups had no meeting ground, we conceived of the program as a place for them to talk\not just to complain at one another, but to create and to learn together. Instead of letting the groups face off against each other, in Generating Community we turn everybody's head to face in the same direction, toward a common goal. Creating this turnaround is crucial; it's also tremendously exciting. In the Living History community plays in our programs, the various groups explore their problems, and together find solutions to them. In the process, something new emerges: In our program in Spanish Harlem, for example, participating seniors have become surrogate grandparents for children whose grandparents never left Puerto Rico.

Once we developed our basic objectives, we outlined specific goals for our program and a list of responsibilities for the participating groups. In the beginning, one group needs to assume responsibility for getting the program off the ground. ESTA initiated the projects described here by researching, organizing and fundraising. Ultimately, however, all groups must take responsibility for a project's continuation. Here is a sticky point in partnership development: how to inspire shared ownership of a community project. We compiled a "Partnership Packet," which included a detailed definition and description of both the overall project and the role and responsibilities of each partner. We drew up a two-year contract that would commit the partnership team to figuring out how to sustain the alliance beyond the initial project year.

We then selected four transitional neighborhoods and called school principals and directors of senior centers to tell them about our idea. If they seemed interested, we asked them to send us letters of interest. In turn, these letters accompanied our requests for funding from national and state organizations and private foundations.

Over the course of the first year, we trained staff members of the groups we worked with, so that after the second year, a different partner became the coordinating group. In one case, the school kept the program going, and in another the community center coordinated.

Generating Community consists of a weekly workshop program that brings seniors in nursing homes, community centers, and senior centers together with youths ranging in age from pre-school to high school. Each program lasts for about 30 sessions. We start out by training the participants in the skills of oral history, in order to produce life histories of both the elders and the youths.

The two groups then work together to turn their stories into theater, storytelling or dance performances, or into murals, paintings, journal writing or poetry. A public presentation of the work\usually as a performance, but sometimes as booklets or other printed formats presented as part of a festival\is the crucial community-building element of the project. The presentation may be staged at the school, the senior center or a central public place\such as a museum, library or theater, or at several of these locations.

The project takes two years to implement fully, and depends on three community groups working together: a senior group, a youth group and an arts group. The senior group may come from a senior center, library, union retirement program, nursing home, volunteer program, adult day-care facility or church. The youth group may come from a school, community center, or scouting or other community youth group. The participating arts group can be a museum, arts council, community artists' organization or settlement house. Any one of these three groups can originate the project by linking up with the two others.

In our programs, elders from the senior group typically come together with the young people in a workshop led by an artist who has been trained in group work. At ESTA, we train the artists ourselves; in many cases artists can be found through community arts groups. Many theater people and dancers have group-work training, so do people trained in creative arts therapy. It is vital, however, that the participating artist have training, as well as experience, in working with groups.

During the program's first year, the artist trains program assistants from the senior and youth groups, who then assume more responsibility for leading the program in its second year. When the second year ends, these trained representatives become central to the groups' ability to continue the program into the future.

This is the basic program model, but many variations are possible. We have found that teachers will often assume the role of the teaching artist and continue the program themselves. In some programs, we had seniors who had been artists. The program gave them training in leading the workshop, and they took over this role when ESTA's participation concluded.

Our communities face many challenges today. Seniors encounter ageism; youth are adrift; neighborhoods are fragmented. People often keep to their own kind. We have found that Generating Community creates solutions to these problems.

In many urban communities, one ethnic group grows up and moves out and another group moves in\often leaving the poorer, older people living in their neighborhood with people from an unfamiliar culture. Feeling their world shrinking, these elders are likely to further isolate themselves.

This isolation makes it easier for the new young people to see the seniors as "other," and vice versa. Dissatisfied young people can easily target the elders whom they do not know or understand, taking their free-floating anger out on elder victims. Not surprisingly, many older adults fear young people and avoid them.

Our initial approach to ageism is to have young people write poems about what they think of seniors at the beginning of the program, before the groups come together, and then again at the end, after they have spent months working together. In this way, we record the transformation of attitudes that occurs. "Seniors are cranky people," "They don't like us" and "They're dumb" turn into "They're my friends," "We have fun together" and "We can do things together." We find, moreover, that young people and seniors maintain their relationships after the program ends: They walk each other home; the kids bring the seniors groceries; they meet on the street and stop to exchange greetings.

Traditionally, older people functioned as role models for younger generations. Now, the loss of opportunities for relationships with young people has robbed elders of one of life's greatest pleasures. Generating Community gives seniors back the chance to pass on the wisdom and skills acquired in a lifetime of experience; to continue to care for others at a time when they themselves may be the recipients of care; and to learn new skills, remaining creatively engaged in the world.

Young people today are often on their own in a way their parents and grandparents never were. Working parents or guardians may leave them unsupervised; their teachers are often overburdened and lack the time to give them personal attention. Without these traditional support systems, many young people feel unsure of their future.

To discover their interests and direction in life, young people need opportunities to explore ideas, feelings and possible roles in a creative way. They need to develop emotional and social skills, as well as the skills of problem solving, decision making, and planning for the future, which prepare them for adult relationships and jobs, and enhance their sense of self-worth. Finally, they need situations to which they can contribute something real and meaningful, as well as experiences that teach them responsibility and accountability.

Relationships with caring, interested adults are a key factor in helping young people to grow up. Just one person who listens to a young person's opinions, concerns and feelings without judging can create a lifeline to self-respect. This is a traditional role of the grandparent\reassurance and support.

Generating Community creates a setting in which this type of support can be reborn. For example, in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, well-known for violence and drug dealing, we brought Dominican teenagers together with frail elderly people. We trained the kids to explore turning points in life, and they interviewed the seniors about their work histories, asking questions about how the elderly people found jobs when they were younger. This process provided the teenagers with role models for solving problems and making decisions in their own lives.

Generational problems are compounded by cultural issues. Like other metropolitan areas in the United States, New York City's remarkable diversity remains a source of both cultural richness and conflict. The "conflicts," however, get most of the attention. With finite public resources and growing populations of disadvantaged young and old, public policy often defines one group\such as "youth at risk"\as "more needy" than another\say, "impoverished elders." This false hierarchy of needs is based on a competitive rather than a cooperative way of thinking. It sets groups in conflict with one another\instead of recognizing that these groups can help each other to solve their mutual needs\and keeps them segregated in daily life.

The lack of a community meeting ground creates a sense of alienation and prejudice between groups that occurs primarily because they don't know each other. For example, in Flushing, Queens, where older Eastern European adults live with many immigrants from the Pacific Rim countries, we assigned the seniors to interview each other about the changes that had occurred in the neighborhood. The interviews were full of remarks like: "The Koreans should go back where they came from\what makes them think they can take over?" But as soon as they got to know real Korean children in the workshop, the seniors realized these kids had the same goals that the seniors' own children once had: to get an education and a job, and to become responsible citizens.

Sol's reaction was to tell his group of children that he would be there to talk to them anytime; he gave them his home phone number. Erna said this was the most important program of her life because she could give the children a real education\and she told them of her escape from Nazi Germany. The appreciation the seniors received from the children as they shared their life experiences was a wonderful surprise.

Generating Community's vehicle for dispelling age and cultural stereotypes is the process of creating an intergenerational presentation. The program offers many young people their first real friendship with an older person. One fifth grader said: "I thought they wouldn't be interested. I really can talk to Sol, and he gave me his phone number." A teacher remarked, "One caring person encouraging a child can make all the difference in that child's life. ESTA helps make those personal connections."

On a practical level, seniors feel safer walking home when they are greeted on the way by children they know. On a deeper level, they feel needed, useful and creative. "I like being with the children," said Mary. "I feel younger, and they help keep me spry." Fanny said, "Children tell you the truth about what is happening now. I like listening to them." Another senior admitted, "I didn't expect to get so much. We really care about each other and had a great time making the play."

Generating Community exemplifies lifelong learning. In sharing stories, both seniors and youth learn about the past and the present. They get to play out roles that give them a deeper understanding of the stages of life. For seniors, the process reawakens a sense of what it was like to be children, and shows them what children are like today. Young people tend to be isolated from elders; the program connects them to the human story.

Finally, Generating Community demonstrates how culture builds community. At our community presentations, the audience sees itself reflected in the Living History play, or mural, or writings by young and old. "That's me they're talking about!" they exclaim. "I like this because it's about my life and what I care about." "I like how they spoke. It's honest and about real life!"

One parent credited the program for the fact that her child behaved more respectfully at home. She said that the oral-history interviews brought her family closer together, and added that she was proud to see her daughter on stage. Another parent remarked, "Every time I walk into the school and see the Community Tree mural, I'm reminded that we are all connected."


This essay originally appeared in High Performance magazine, Spring/Summer 1995.

Original CAN/API publication: September 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go here for additional reading...

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