Cincinnati needs people like Joi Sears.
The twentysomething actor/activist moved back to her hometown, Cincinnati, about a year ago after spending nearly a decade in New York and months — if not years, collectively — traveling abroad. She returned with the long-term goal of building a “creative place-making project” in Over-the-Rhine for artists to gather. But for now she’ll settle for running interactive workshops that empower artists and creatives of all stripes to use their talents for positive social change.
Sears has some serious experience engaging diverse communities of participants — sometimes willing, sometimes circumstantial — in reflecting their cultures back at themselves via events, workshops and performances around the world with her organization, Free People International.
A graduate of Marymount Manhattan College’s acting program and New York University’s Gallatin School of Independent Studies, where Sears studied arts and social change, she believes that art as an educational tool has the potential to change the world. Sears has run workshops with women prisoners in Brazil, assisted with girls’ empowerment programs in Africa and organized an interdisciplinary arts festival in the Netherlands — all with the hope of affecting positive social transformation.
The non-traditional community educator specializes in a formal theater technique called the Theater of the Oppressed, which blurs the line between education and art. Instead of a teacher/student, actor/audience binary, participants in Theatre of the Oppressed are encouraged to learn and explore issues together. This theatrical method, established by Brazilian director, writer and politician Augusto Boal, aims to break down assumed hierarchies by engaging audience members and encouraging them to become a “spect-actor” in the play.
The theatrical tools for participation and communication Boal developed were so powerful at social transformation that he was kidnapped and tortured by his country’s military regime in the early ’70s and forced to live in exile for five years.
Sears had the chance to study with Boal shortly before his death in 2009 and she says it changed her life.
After he coaxed her from the back of the classroom, she says, “I began to think of the ways I was oppressing myself.”
What was “really transformative” for Sears was learning that it’s possible to use theater to affect issues of social justice. “Historically, artists have always been at the forefront of political movements,” Sears says. “It’s only fitting we continue in that tradition and be responsible for the art we’re producing.”
In her workshops, Sears employs Theatre of the Oppressed techniques and plays the role of what Boal referred to as the “joker”: a neutral facilitator (like the playing card to which its name refers), who takes responsibility for but never comments on or intervenes in the proceedings.
Sears created and led educational workshops under her nonprofit organization, Theater for the Free People, which is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has run school programs with mostly lower-income, all-black and Latino high school and middle school students in Brooklyn and the Bronx, New York. “There were a few times I left crying in tears,” she admits.
But a quote from Australian Aboriginal elder Lilla Watson has been a guiding mantra that Sears has used to direct her work as well as give her comfort: “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Therefore, the workshops are always an expression of the participants’ concerns — not Sears’ agenda. “The foundation of my work isn’t about helping or fixing the world,” she says, “but how can we help together to first change ourselves and our communities and then the world.” The theory, then, is that the individual is the microcosm to society’s macrocosm. Affect the individual, and society will follow suit.
Sears ran the same kind of workshop just weeks ago at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with a group that included millennials and baby boomers, and she’s worked with the University of Cincinnati’s Design, Architecture, Art and Planning architecture students whose end project was to design a creative place-making project that considered the surrounding community in their planning.
Sears hosts an “Artist as Activist” program at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center that kicked off Jan. 11, but, because Sears expects every group’s participants and goals to be different, it’s hard say what the end product(s) might look like. She might work one-on-one with an artist to develop a final product, or the group might create a body of work together.
Participants will meet every Saturday for two months. “We’ll look at different issues every week,” Sears says. “And we’ll be thinking strategically about different community-based programs we can organize in the city.”
Her goal as the facilitator of the workshops, then, is not to lead the participants on her own artistic mission, but to assist each with expressing themselves. The aforementioned high school kids Sears worked with in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, created a powerful play about gun violence — reflecting the issues that were affecting their community. Another workshop resulted in a published book of poetry, and yet another resulted in an art exhibition/performance at Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn.
The community that came out of the gallery program enjoyed their collaboration so much that they still perform together — working as activists. “To me, that’s my ultimate goal,” Sears says of her role in helping to build a lasting community of creatives. “That’s what success looks like.”
The creative and start-up community in Cincinnati inspired Sears when she moved back almost a year ago. She took Springboard’s nine-week business development program and met others like her. “I really think Cincinnati has a lot to offer the world,” she says. And her enthusiasm might just be the key to her success.
“I want to bring together a community of people from diverse backgrounds to leverage this collective creative energy to change our city because I think that it’s already happening,” Sears says, unabashedly. “I’m just glad that I’m here and excited to see the outcome of that and how we can usher this movement along.”
For more information on JOI SEARS’ work, visit freepeopleinternational.com.