Art changes conversations

I had an opportunity last week to go to Chamberlain, South Dakota, to take part in the South Dakota Housing Development Authority’s 11th Annual Homeless Summit.

The social issues theater group from Teen Up that I am a part of, Take Action, was performing a skit called "Lost," about a homeless teen. I was also invited to take part in a panel discussion about ways our state can better support runaway and homeless youth. This was (of course) the first panel I had ever taken part in. I was very nervous to be speaking in front of all of these important leaders in South Dakota.

During the beginning of the day, Take Action was practicing our skit in a separate room and so we did not get to hear all of the discussion going on before our performance. However, we could tell it was all about policies and rules, and were a little relieved that we weren’t part of that.

The skit went pretty well. The performance was very low pressure, and we just had fun with it. Following the skit, our awesome team member Molly Larson performed a slam poem that she had written in the car on the ride over. The piece was about homelessness, specifically a story we had heard earlier that week at Feeding South Dakota (who Numad has had the pleasure of working with). Molly definitely has a powerful gift for poetry, and everyone in the room was moved.

I felt like the level of energy and the quality of the discussion increased dramatically following these performances--for both the adult and the youth participants. Molly’s poem and our skit were saying the same thing as the adults who were talking and talking, but we said them in a different way. There is something super powerful about sharing information and telling a story through theater and other forms of art.

Art opens up conversation in a different way. It helps everyone experience the information more emotionally--not just intellectually--which can really change a discussion.   

An audience connects with performers in their own individual way and takes away from the performance what they think is important, rather than being told what they should think is important.

Next, the panel discussion took place. We talked about a number of things. Each person shared a little bit about the organization they came from. There were members from the YMCA, Arise Youth Center, Safe Places, and a few more. Many of these people are a part of the Homeless Coalition Youth Taskforce, so I had worked with them before. They shared some powerful stories about youth in our community who are dealing with homelessness, and fighting through quite a battle.

After each member shared a bit about what organization they represent, the conversation changed a little. We all understood that there are homeless youth in South Dakota, and that more needs to be done to help them, but it turned into a conversation about the definition of homelessness, and whether or not certain programs were helping.

I understand the importance of decision makers in the state talking about all of these issues. Maybe it’s because I’m 15 and part of a generation that gets bored easily, but I’m not sure that hashing over definitions and simply talking about possible action steps leads to the most creative solutions to the problems we face. A few questions were answered, but by that time you could tell everyone was tired and ready to get home. These are taxing issues to discuss.

As soon as the summit ended, almost every adult in the room asked for a copy of Molly’s poem and many said they were going to frame it and keep it where others could see it. The inclusion of youth in this summit, as well as sharing art rather than just conversation and PowerPoint presentations, had this group of people thinking about things differently than they probably have in years.

I love what theater and art can do to move social issues forward. This is one reason I am SO excited about our next Morning Fill Up guest, Lisa McNulty. Lisa is the Producing Artistic Director of the Women’s Project Theater, the oldest and largest theater company dedicated to producing and promoting the work of female theater artists.  I can’t wait! You should join us on July 26. Register here.