Written by Flávio José Rocha da Silva,
This past January, I was invited by the NGO GAIA to facilitate a short workshop on Theater of the Oppressed for teenagers who have been in prison. The youth were able to leave prison on some conditions, like participating socio-educative activities like my theater workshop at this NGO. Most of them come from the Favelas (shantytowns) and a few are middle-class kids who got in trouble for dealing with drugs and/or had been involved in a violent act.
Having been at GAIA before for other activities, I knew what was waiting for me. After introducing myself, I explained to the youth what we would be doing and they didn’t seem very excited. I started the workshop by leading a Theater of the Oppressed game where the participants were to introduce themselves by coming to the center of the circle to say their name and share one positive quality they had. This didn’t work out very well, especially after one of the boys said that he didn’t have anything good to say about himself (something that he most probably has heard his whole life). Then I tried a game to discuss on how we deal with power in our daily lives. Again I failed in that as well.
Flavio Leads a Theater of the Oppressed Workshop
I started thinking that I had made a mistake in accepting to facilitate the workshop. We sat down and I asked them if they had been through a situation of oppression lately. One of the guys, named Pedro, mentioned torture when he was in jail, something very common in the Brazilian prisons. I asked them if we could make a scene about that issue to open a discussion, but a big no was the response (only someone who was never been tortured like me could naively ask something like that).
Then I insisted with the question about other situations of oppression and José told the group that he wanted to go back to high school, but he was not able to register after the principal heard that he had been confined in a juvenile prison for some months. Other guys had the same story. I felt that there was some energy around that issue and asked them to make a skit about it. After a significant amount of resistance, one of the NGO educators offered to act as the principal and one boy accepted to act as the teenager who had the registration denied (he was actually the one who came out with the situation).
I explained to them that in the Theater of the Oppressed we have a scene with an oppressed character who has a dream (someone who wants to go back to high school) and an oppressor (the principal) who would make any possible thing to not allow the dream to come through. I also explained that the oppressed character had to find a non-violent solution for his situation. We had four guys volunteering to confront the principal in the skit. Each one used their creativity in scene. One tried to manipulate the principal asking for a new opportunity in life with a soft voice. Another said that he would start a fire in the school if he was not registered while another one tried to confront the institutionalized power personified in the principal. Finally, the last one told the principal that he could get a declaration from the NGO that would allow him to do the school registration.
I told them that many of us try to use those solutions in our daily lives, including the violent one, but we have to reflect on how many times we want to resolve things too quickly and end up involved in bad situations. I also pointed out that the one who “won” the game was the one who looked for an ally, not trying to solve the problem by himself, but looking for help.
I left the room relieved that in the end they started to get engaged and even participated with comments and suggestions. I reflected on how things that we take for granted such as going to school maybe is not so easy for everyone in our society.
All names have been changed in this article to protect the teenagers’ identities.
Written by Flávio José Rocha da Silva,
Great story. I have worked with young people in Syracuse where I live and have had much the same results. It takes time to build trust. Did you continue to work with this group? How did it go?
My wife and I were lay missioners in Bolivia many years ago and are good friends of Jim Hilgerman. In fact, I will be going to his 50th in a couple of weeks. I will also be speaking for the Lay Missioners in Cincinnati, Ohio this weekend and next and will encourage folks to read your blog. Those stories are the closest I can bring people here to your reality there. Please keep writing.