Earlier this fall I led a workshop at New York Institute of Technology entitled Talking Politics. Amy Bravo, an innovative educator and NYIT’s Senior Director of International and Experiential Education, invited me to design an improvisational workshop that could help undergraduate students talk to each other about the Presidential campaign without rancor. (She also asked me to lead an improv workshop on voter registration.) As a lifelong activist, I was thrilled.
As we head in to the final days of this horribly long and miserably negative Presidential campaign, I have been thinking about this workshop and the hope it gave me and the participants when it comes to the future of our democracy.
In this fun and interactive workshop the focus was on the performance of curiosity. I asked the question, “Can we find a way to our shared concerns as we head into the 2016 Presidential election, even if we don’t agree when it comes to how we will be voting?” By creating and performing curiosity we discovered things we never imagined. By learning the basic rules of improvisation – the ability to say “yes” and to actively listen, accept “offers” and build with them – we found our way to our shared humanity, concerns and passions, even while we “disagreed.”
After the workshops I was interviewed by NYIT’s online publication, The Box.
“I think the learning tools of improvisation help students learn how we typically listen and converse,” said Rich. “We tend to listen to ourselves more when we speak instead of being fully present. We think about what we’re going to say and do not respond to what the other person is saying. Listening and conversing skills become much more vital because conversations can become contentious if we don’t listen to the other’s point of view.”
All too often we engage in conversation about our disagreements in the service of trying to change the other person’s mind, rather than finding out more about why or how they came to have their point of view. We live in a culture that is obsessed with knowing, being right and winning, so much so that we hardly hear what the “other side” has to say. We shut each other down. We are dismissive, judgmental and self-righteous. This is how most Americans engage in political discourse. No wonder so many Americans are feeling angry and fearful.
During the debrief after the Talking Politics workshop I asked the students to share their experience of the political conversations that took place that afternoon. One student said that he was surprised how calm and open the conversations were because people were really listening to each other. Following our curiosity – asking questions to learn more, to open things up and not shut things down – is risky. And it can be very intimate. And intimacy is scary. But divisiveness and rancor is even scarier if our democracy is to develop and thrive.
Join the international performance activism movement – perform curiosity and help recreate our democracy.