The current political context has radicalized many Americans and increased the ideological gaps between antagonistic groups. Regardless of our individual political views, educators and student leaders have had to make hard decisions about how to approach our classes and campus responsibilities as our colleges and universities grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 presidential election, and nationwide protests for racial justice. Many of us have seen tensions in our courses and clashes between our classmates.
On one extreme, some faculty have decided to lecture on neutral material, avoiding any kind of politically charged exchanges between students. On another extreme, some have let students fully express their opinions, embracing the freedom of speech supported by the First Amendment. Many of us have probably requested that student opinions be supported by scholarly peer-reviewed materials and strong evidence.
As they prepared for the 2020–21 academic year, a small group of faculty, resident assistants, and student leaders at Eastern Connecticut State University embraced the technique developed by Augusto Boal in the Theatre of the Oppressed (1979). Influenced by Paulo Freire’s famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Boal created a dynamic theatrical program in which the audience is invited to join a political performance in order to resolve a social problem.
Boal’s technique focuses on a form of democratic participation that brings audience members and actors together to discuss a social problem and discover different solutions that will work best for them individually and collectively. In several online sessions during the summer and fall, two members of our group acted out a scene that presented a situation of oppression affecting an individual or a group. This provided an opportunity for the audience to witness the oppression and feel as if it were happening to them. When the scene was acted out a second time, members of the audience could stop the action and explain how they would resist the oppressor in that situation.
As one participant in our group found, when confronting an act of oppression, it is important to not be submerged by our emotions. Reacting with anger can make the oppressor think that he or she is right, legitimizing his or her own beliefs. In our classrooms and residence halls, faculty members and student leaders responding to oppression might be critiqued by students who believe in oppressive ideas, claiming that we refuse to support everyone’s values and perspectives. We may be accused of failing in our institution’s mission of inclusion by excluding certain conservative points of view. These students’ views might frustrate and exhaust us. However, we may not always be able to end the conversation, so we need to be prepared to find solutions.
One solution is to have a wide array of statistical information at our disposal to deconstruct the arguments of people being racist, sexist, or classist, or to use our courses as research methods classes in which students find information to statistically illustrate their claims.
Another solution is to use C. Wright Mills’s idea of the “sociological imagination” by asking students to explain how their own backgrounds cause them to arrive at their conclusions. It is an opportunity to explain, discuss, and illustrate the social location of knowledge, and perhaps to have students recognize that our worldviews are a product of our biography and history.
The technique described in Theatre of the Oppressed creates a terrific opportunity to explore different scenarios for resisting a situation of oppression. The experience is also extremely emotional because the members of the audience create responses based on their own personal experiences. Larger audiences can be divided into smaller groups, allowing group members to discuss past examples of oppression in which they felt that they did not respond appropriately. In this way, they are able to plan for future interactions and connect the activity to difficult or traumatic past experiences.
Playing a scene provides an opportunity for each participant to recognize the emotions that appear when they are confronted with sexism, racism, classism, antisemitism, ageism, and other biases. These emotionally charged conversations can only take place in a supportive, caring environment. For sociologists, it is an excellent opportunity to discuss the connection between the structure of inequalities that affect all of us and the emotions that we experience individually and collectively.
Three of our coauthors—students in various leadership positions on campus—found that this training helped them to manage and deescalate the many microaggressions that they experienced in their different roles on campus. We can only encourage every educator, student, and student leader to use techniques from Theater of the Oppressed to prepare for the challenges that they face on and off campus.