05 Mar City Beat Feature: Art as Activism
Free People International’s Creative Director, Joi Sears was recently featured in City Beat Newspaper in an article titled: Art as Activism by Maria Seda-Reeder:
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.”