PUSHED: BULLIES & BYSTANDERS (and Remarkable Susan Wynne)

Seventy-One year old dynamo, Susan Wynne, is Chair of the Anti-Bullying Project at the Firehouse Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, and Vice Chair of the Board. The Project is a partnership between the Firehouse Theatre and The Conciliation Project, whose goal is to tackle bullying in Richmond City’s largely black middle schools. Susan brings her Civil and equal rights activities, skills learned in the recovery community, plus her adolescent development background to this important project. Empowering young adolescents by helping them develop into successful adults is one of her goals.

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CUTTING EDGE ADULT PRODUCTIONS

Because Firehouse produces cutting edge plays for adults, the partnership is a good fit for the short, dramatic vignettes from The Conciliation Project, whose performance art demonstrates bullying and tactics for handling it. A young, mixed race acting ensemble, trained in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Theatre Department, dramatize emotional scenes at a bus stop, a lunch room and a classroom, as well as enact news events describing suicides and other tragic consequences of bullying. The experience is enhanced by actors who are fairly close in age to the students for whom they are performing.

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THE POWER OF THE ARTS

The former Director of Counseling at Maryville University in St Louis, with an M. Ed. in Counseling and 25 years as a public middle school Counselor, Susan Wynne has been actively involved in the helping professions for 40 years. She also knows that the arts can be a powerful tool for problem solving and that theatre makes situations feel real. “Dramatic self-expression,” she adds, “can be an effective non-threatening technique in dealing with the painful area of bullying, in particular.”

“It would also be great,” she says, “to involve the actors in the project beyond their roles on the stage. They could invite students up to the stage, for example, to participate in the vignettes–maybe acting out ways to deal with a bully or becoming an ally. That would be very empowering for the students.”

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STUDENTS VERY INVOLVED

Various groups of students have watched the performances in different locations–the Boys and Girls Club, for example, and the Firehouse, which included a tour of the theatre and small group discussions to clarify issues raised in the performance and role play techniques for dealing with bullying. “It was particularly powerful when the students enacted the role of an ally to students being bullied,” Susan says.

Meetings have also been held with Deputy Superintendents of the Richmond Public Schools to discuss the project. A performance was held in February, 2015, at Richmond’s Visual Arts Center for students of a neighboring middle school. A number of school personnel also attended to help determine if the Anti-Bullying Project could be the cultural connection that is missing in the city’s current bullying curriculum.

ENHANCING THE PROJECT

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Susan thinks the Anti-Bullying program could be enhanced through literature dealing with aspects of black urban culture. She believes that the African American students with whom she works will be more attracted to books featuring students that look like them in urban school settings like theirs, although she acknowledges the challenge in finding the right books.

She is impressed by The Skin I’m In, Sharon Flake’s book which features a dark skinned seventh grader who suffers daily taunts about her skin color, homemade clothes and good grades. Presented with a positive role model, she is helped to overcome her insecurities and hold her head high with the bullies.

Playground, by the rapper Fifty Cent, is a great find, too, Susan says. The entertainer was inspired to write the book from his gritty adolescent as a school yard bully to provide positive modeling for his own son and other urban youth.

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“I’d love to have a group of kids read the books in a classroom setting,” says Susan, who has written curriculum for university classes in Psychology and Counseling, “and then incorporate a vignette about the book’s main character into the program. It could really get their attention to see characters they identify with in a book come alive on the stage.”

 

BREAKING NEW GROUND IN EDUCATION (and Remarkable Irene Carney)

At first consideration, what could be less remarkable than a woman working in education, particularly an older woman who came of age in an era when women’s career options were just beginning to expand? But Irene Carney did not take a traditional path to her career as an educator, and that career continues to break new ground.

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As an undergraduate Irene majored in the Humanities, thinking her future was Japanese Art History. Almost by accident she took a job as Teacher’s Aid at Benhaven, a small private school in New Haven, Connecticut, and one of the country’s first schools for children with autism.

THE FIRST OF MANY FIRSTS

It was one of Irene’s earliest opportunities to work with women who were making waves, creating new educational programs and revealing the potential of all children to learn. It made a great impression on her, just as Irene who is breaking new ground as as older woman, is making an impression on those who know her work.

Joining the ranks of such women while still a graduate student, Irene coordinated the transition, in Urbana, Illinois, of students from private non-profit schools to new public schools for children with severe disabilities. As one of the first public school teachers in that field Irene was even invited to speak on the state and national level about her work in facilitating relationships between children with disabilities and their non-disabled peers.

Graduate study led to teaching, marriage and children, then professional changes focusing on young children with special needs. Fascination with children’s early development found Irene at the helm of Richmond, Virginia’s Sabot School for pre-schoolers.

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Always studying and then breaking new ground, Irene helped launch Orchard House School and then Seven Hills School, both single gender middle school programs in Richmond. Like Sabot, both these schools attracted parents who wanted their children to grow intellectually and creatively (and continue to do so).

EDUCATION AT THE CROSS ROADS

As Sabot’s teachers were learning to recognize and cultivate children’s passion and intelligence, the national trend was heading in an opposite direction with standardized course work, memorization and regular testing. Once again, Irene recognized an opportunity and a challenge – demonstrating in Sabot where she was Executive Director that children could develop a strong academic foundation and also experience creativity and joy in their learning.

This was a huge accomplishment as she had to show in all the classrooms that this really was possible, dramatically breaking new ground in the face of popular educational emphasis on sameness, rote, and passing tests. (No surprise that in 2003 Irene was recognized for her insights and ability to make her visions real and named Outstanding Woman in Education by the Richmond YWCA.)

Sabot School continued to grow and thrive as an early childhood model, assisted by Irene’s friend and colleague Marty Gravett who brought to Sabot the world recognized Italian-based Reggio Emilia Approach and with it a new emphasis on the competence of young children as theorists, real life problem-solvers and collaborators with other children and teachers regarding what they wanted to learn.

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SABOT AT STONY POINT SCHOOL

Ten years ago, encouraged by Sabot preschool parents, Irene expanded their program into elementary and middle school. A year later, new ground was broken literally following a merger with the 28 acre Stony Point School.

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Thus was born Sabot at Stony Point, with Irene Carney the Executive Director. The new pre-school through middle school continues to challenge our understanding of how classrooms and schools can work, underscoring the vision of this remarkable educator whose goal is to show that children must have control over their own learning and express themselves through relations with other children. As “turned on learners” in a community of other learners, they will never be isolated, ignored, underestimated or ignored.

Think what this ground-breaking model could do for other schools.

 

THE ICONIC SEARCH FOR PEACE (and Remarkable Karen Karabasz)

Women have always dealt with social issues in a variety of ways depending on the circumstances that surround them, their specific gifts, their era and their country.

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Karen Karabasz, a 69 year old American woman whose current home is Portland, Oregon, and who has lived through the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the on-going Middle East crises, is an artist. In intricate pencil drawings, (16.5 centimeters x 24.5 cm on Aquarelle Arches paper,) Karen has recreated ancient icons from that tumultuous part of the world to represent her feelings about war and peace.

ICONS FROM IRAQ

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Deliberately selecting icons from the art and cultural richness of Iraq to create what she calls her “Dying Lions Series,” Karen says that in the Assyrian culture, lions represented forces opposed to the accomplishments of urban society. Ancient artistic renderings of lions being killed by Assyrian monarchs suggest the king’s triumph over personal forces of evil. Art historians of the Middle East claim that the lion symbolized Assyria (or perhaps present-day Iraq) in its combination of courage, violence and sovereign contempt for any adversary in its path.

We might imagine that the unknown sculptor so many hundreds of years ago was skillfully representing the contrast between the cruel king and his noble victims, but we should not forget that the people for whom these sculptures were designed saw the king as the paragon of nobility and the lions as cruel enemies.

POWERFUL AND UNFORGETTABLE IMAGES

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But Karen says that “possibly nowhere in the history of art could we find such powerful images of physical agony as in the hunting scenes fromAshurbanipal’s Palace at Nineveh (c. 650 BC)”–namely Assyrian culture or present day Iraq. In the Lion icons “the agony of the animals is portrayed in unfeigned details,” she says, “to illustrate suffering so intense that even the animal body’s resistance to it already simulates the body’s surrender or abandonment to it.”

Karen has been particularly drawn to these cultural icons because Iraq was invaded by the United States–her own nation–and because so many of Iraq’s priceless icons were destroyed or stolen during the war.

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She explains that her reinterpretation of these drawings from the royal Assyrian lion hunt is an attempt to join – aesthetically and psychologically – a myriad of values, from virulence and vulnerability, to the sacred and profane, with an underlying reference with what she considers “Western infatuation with violence and victory.”

REFERENCES TO TORTURE

She also includes in some of her drawings “reference to torture with the iconic image from the Abu Ghraib prisoner/victims.” (If you look right of the vertical spear, under the I in UNITED STATES), it is hard not to see something we all too often want to forget.

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These beautifully drawn memorials, each paired with an icon from the United States currency, are seen as” glimpses of the past and at the same time, tragic reflections of the present,” says Karen. While they are also painful to look at, Karen explains that “the very act of the U.S. storming into that country was so awful, making those drawings was the least I could do to bring that horrible event to reality in the best way I knew how.”

She also wanted to make it a part of the history not covered by American textbooks.

WOMEN THROUGHOUT HISTORY

Throughout history women have protested war through marches, speeches, allowing their own bodies to be tortured or defiled, withholding sex from their men, through voice, poetry, literature and song–and through art.

Karen Karabasz is a contemporary manifestation of women’s agony in the face of war and her search for peace through her art. Her drawings are as remarkable as she is able to move us to tears.