Diversity and Democracy

Bridges of Empathy: Crossing Cultural Divides through Personal Narrative and Performance

To meet the needs of a pluralistic democratic society, the undergraduate experience must expand students’ abilities to learn about and reconcile diverse perspectives. Sarah Churchwell (2014) reminds us that the humanities are particularly powerful in this regard: “We understand ourselves and our world through the telling of stories. Visual dramas teach us sympathy, empathy, [and] pity, encouraging us to break out of our solipsistic shells. They explore ethical issues, ask challenging questions, [and] inform the way we view each other.” As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves, making possible the work toward shared goals that is so necessary to a functioning democratic society.

Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, have leveraged the power of the humanities in general—and of personal narrative expressed through performance in particular—to build empathy and break down misconceptions across racial and cultural divides. Both colleges have convened faculty, staff, students, and community members to view, discuss, and participate in performances based on personal narrative, believing that such engagement will lay the groundwork for building strong communities.

Shared Performance at Middlesex Community College

Performance as an expression of personal and cultural experience has a unique power to transform people’s understandings of complex issues, giving challenging and divisive topics such as immigration a human face and connecting experiences shared across humanity. Through its participation in Citizenship Under Siege, an initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and organized by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and The Democracy Commitment, Middlesex Community College used the arts to create powerful moments shared by faculty, staff, students, and community members across distinct cultural identities.

Since its establishment by venture capitalists seeking to build new factories at the dawn of the American Industrial Revolution, Lowell has been a city of immigrants. The city has always drawn economic strength and cultural vitality from its immigrant groups, from the original Irish canal diggers to the Greek and French settlers to later Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cambodians, Brazilians, and West Africans. In a pluralistic democracy composed of such different groups, good citizenship requires an understanding of cultural diversity, global self-awareness, and personal and social responsibility. Pride in one’s own culture is a cornerstone for feeling the support and empowerment necessary to participate with confidence in the broader community.

In April 2016, in an effort to celebrate cultural pride and promote cross-cultural understanding, Middlesex sponsored a public forum on immigration at the Lowell National Historical Park. The program of speakers, moderated by Middlesex faculty member and historian David M. Kalivas, featured historians and representatives from community agencies and provided cultural and historical context related to the topic of immigration, an issue steeped in controversy in the current political climate. The highly successful event was attended by over 120 community members and students. It not only offered information about the important role immigration has played in Lowell’s economic and cultural development, but also provided a forum for community discussion about the needs and concerns of overlapping immigrant communities. At the forum, members of different cultural groups expressed ethnic pride, kinship, and validation gained through knowledge of their shared experiences, and it was apparent that building connections across these groups was important to developing a healthy community.

To build on the forum’s conversations, Middlesex opened to the public certain events at its Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) Weekend, held each semester since spring 2010. This thematic one-credit course, which has featured the cultures of Asia, South America, Africa, and the Middle East, addresses issues of global importance and provides information, skills, and perspectives necessary to help students more fully engage in a globally connected world. In 2016, approximately 120 Middlesex students, joined by over one hundred community members, registered for the spring semester’s IDS Weekend on Southeast Asia.

Middlesex launched the IDS Weekend on Friday, April 29 with an event focused on the cultural contributions of Cambodians. Students and community members gathered at Sompao Meas Hall in Little Cambodia to experience and participate in an interactive and informative performance and discussion led by the Angkor Dance Troupe (www.angkordance.org), a nonprofit cultural group based in Lowell. The Angkor Dance Troupe was created by Master Dancer Tim Chan Thou and a small group of committed Cambodians who learned traditional dance in refugee camps; it was founded on the principle that dance and other cultural rituals are essential for Cambodians to reestablish a sense of cultural identity and community in their new countries and that these practices are particularly positive outlets for youth. At this event, Cambodians and non-Cambodians alike shared in a participatory experience as they learned dance and rhythmic movements together—reimagining traditional culture for a new generation of citizens.

Throughout the following day, registered students attended a series of lectures on historical, cultural, economic, and scientific topics related to Southeast Asia, exploring concurrent sessions in a conference-like atmosphere. There was even an opportunity to work directly with Yari Livan, Cambodian Master Ceramicist and National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, in an introduction to traditional pottery forms at a Cambodian brick kiln located on Lowell National Historical Park land. At lunchtime, participants came together to share a Southeast Asian banquet.

The weekend ended with a concert open to the public. Two Cambodian Master Musicians, Song Heng and Sovann Kohn, shared their immigration stories and talked about how music not only kept them alive through dark times, but also helped them acclimate and thrive. Their work to preserve traditional musical forms helped them gain acceptance in their new community. Moreover, the reinterpretation of those forms within a new context—as when the Angkor Dance Troupe combines the traditional Monkey Dance with hip hop to appeal to a new generation of Cambodian Americans—produces new American cultures based on shared aesthetic experiences. 

 The dance and music performances that bookended the IDS Weekend complemented the historical knowledge offered at the public forum by providing something fundamental to the human condition: a visual expression of the intersection between cultural self-awareness and shared narrative. Connections made through rhythm, movement, and melody bind people across cultures and teach us that we are the same in our differences, seeking a common good. Reflecting afterward on the power of the performances, Middlesex students and community members realized the need for understanding across cultures. Such understanding is the foundation of the immigrant experience in any generation and the basis for cultural competency in a pluralistic society.

Dramatic Engagement at Santa Fe College

Two of the most effective programs from Santa Fe College’s Citizenship Under Siege project were an interactive simulation of voting processes and a performance of a collaborative work by journalist Bill Maxwell and author Beverly Coyle. These events illustrate how effective dramatic performances and programs that emphasize student participation can be in addressing key questions about citizenship and belonging.

To an outsider, Gainesville might appear to be an idyllic college town with prospering and innovative health care and technology sectors. A closer examination, however, reveals patterns of poverty and racial tensions lying just below the surface, poised to burst forth and expose cleavages as old as the country itself. Although Gainesville has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state and a thriving high-tech sector, over one-third of Gainesville residents live below the poverty line, according to the American Community Survey (United States Census Bureau 2014). This poverty is not uniform across the community. It is concentrated in neighborhoods with higher minority populations, which are also plagued by problems such as food deserts and disproportionate police contact. The persistence of these divisions and the tensions they create prompted the city to commission a racial inequity study to be completed in 2017.

Santa Fe’s Citizenship Under Siege activities aimed to engage students in examining the implications of these inequities and divisions. The voting simulation, which one student likened to “a really interactive board game,” walked students from several history, political science, and sociology classes through all of the stages of voting, from registration to casting one’s vote on Election Day. At the beginning of the exercise, each student received a profile with demographic, family, and employment information. As they attempted to register to vote, students received cards stating whether they were successful. They were then instructed either to try again if their registration had failed or to proceed to the next step: voting on Election Day. After following those instructions, students received cards that explained whether they were able to vote. The simulation was designed to allow only about 30 percent of students to vote; those who were unsuccessful received explanations corresponding to common obstacles to voting and registration. The event concluded with a discussion involving all participants.

The simulation opened students’ eyes to several dynamics that affect the voting ability of Americans of various backgrounds and life circumstances. Several students were disappointed that work schedules or transportation problems kept them from voting and were pleased to learn about early voting, mail-in ballots, and other options that could help overcome those obstacles. Students realized that voter ID requirements can pose significant barriers to members of particular groups. Many students had never given much thought to the fact that some people with felony records are not able to vote; the simulation made them consider whether that practice is just. In later class discussions, students who participated in the simulations expressed near-unanimous support for a proposed Florida ballot initiative that would automatically restore voting rights to most people convicted of a felony upon completion of their probation.

Parallel Lives is a collaborative work in which Bill Maxwell and Beverly Coyle recount their experiences coming of age in Florida as an African American male and white female in the waning days of Jim Crow. For the performance at Santa Fe, which was open to the public, the writers updated the work to include a postscript in which they discussed their experiences working together to demonstrate that many aspects of racism and misogyny persist today. Their performance was followed by a discussion with the audience about issues the performance raised about the contemporary state of race and gender relations.

Students who attended the performance gained tremendous insight into the state of race relations in America, both past and present. As one instructor who required her students to attend noted, the performance “provided a curricular space for the students to openly and safely discuss race and give voice to their own thoughts about the racial divide in our country.” This outcome was evident both in the discussion after the performance and in later classroom debriefings and assignments, in which instructors built on the themes that emerged to begin discussions of the origins of contemporary racism and illustrate concepts such as moral community.

Maxwell’s description of the humiliation he felt after being struck in the face by a urine-filled balloon thrown by a group of white people driving through his neighborhood was so shocking that it made an impression on everyone present. Coyle’s statement that she believed when she was growing up that African Americans wanted segregation as much as whites, and was confused by feelings that African Americans seemed to hate her, helped students understand how racist attitudes and behavior became self-perpetuating.

The authors’ contemporary experiences also struck a chord with many audience members. Maxwell’s account of store employees following him when he shopped while Coyle shopped uninterrupted resonated with African Americans in the audience. Coyle’s account of people continually assuming because of her gender that she was Maxwell’s romantic partner instead of his professional collaborator helped several female students reinterpret some of their own experiences. Students not only learned about the history of racism and misogyny in America, but also saw how it continues to play out in microaggressions that many of them experience in their daily lives.


Democratic society requires us to work together toward a common good. To do that effectively, we first need to understand each other. Colleges and universities that prepare the next generation of leaders are obligated to develop the foundations for mutual understanding by promoting intercultural competence, global and historical knowledge building, social responsibility, and respect for difference. The humanities, particularly personal narrative and performance, serve as a powerful means to develop those foundations. Through shared stories and ideas, we express our humanity. Through participatory experiences such as simulations or interactive drama, music, or dance performances, we create bridges of empathy and understanding that allow us to see ourselves in a broader context and to understand that “they” are really “us.”


Churchwell, Sarah. 2014. “Why the Humanities Matter.” Times Higher Education, November 13. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/comment/opinion/sarah-churchwell-why-the-humanities-matter/2016909.article.

United States Census Bureau. 2014. “Summary File.” 2014 American Community Survey. Washington, DC: United States Census Bureau, American Community Survey Office. http://census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/data/summary-file.2014.html.

Dona Cady is Dean of Global Education at Middlesex Community College. Matthew Olson is Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Middlesex Community College. David Price is Professor of History and Political Science at Santa Fe College.

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