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Giving Children a Voice: An Interview with Dr. Stephani Woodson

August 13, 2006
Michael Jung, Feature Writer, Office of University Initiatives

Dr. Stephani Woodson, Herberger College of Fine Arts associate professor in the School of Theatre and Film, Affiliate Faculty in Women and Gender Studies 

Many Arizona State University researchers do work that benefits the community. For the last several years, Dr. Stephani Woodson has been using her expertise as a theatre artist to help give children a voice in the community. Through her theater performance residency program Place: Vision & Voice, Dr. Woodson helps foster kids create digital videos that allow them to show who they are to new caseworkers. She works with youth in Native American communities to produce videos that explore teenage and adult perceptions of happiness, family, and drug culture. These digital storytelling pieces are shared with the community to encourage more candid and democratic dialogue between adults and children.

I spoke with Dr. Woodson and learned how she became interested in socially embedded research, the challenges and rewards she experienced from working with the community, and the advice she has for people interested in beginning socially embedded programs.

MJ:  Stephani, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’d like to start by asking you to give a little background about your research and explain how you’ve managed to bring this research into the community.

SW: When I did my doctorate research, my research [asked the question] “What does childhood mean?” Childhood is a cultural construct – not biological. We as a culture say what childhood is – and different cultures have different meanings for childhood. I became very interested in how we teach our children to perform childhood. But it seemed unethical to study how we tell kids how to be kids without actually talking to them and exploring how they felt about the situation.

I’m interested in working with kids whose voices are systematically degraded and denied. That means kids of color, kids like foster children – I’m interested in exploring the way children are active agents and what that agency can feed back into the community. So the work I do now through Place: Vision & Voice is about creating dramatic pieces that can create dialogue between the adults and youth of a community in order to answer that question both for myself and for the kids.

MJ:  How does your program help give kids a voice in the community?

SW:  Well when we did the pilot work with foster kids, we found a common pattern was that the kids did not feel listened to. Ever. The team that takes care of each kid is in transition all the time and learns about the foster kid by accessing their file and reading the police reports about why the kid was taken away from the family and the mental reports about what this kid’s mental state is. There is nothing in this file that the kid writes. And kids have no access to the files – they’re not allowed to look at them. They cannot dispute what’s in there. 

So one of the things that the kids talked about is how they didn’t have a voice within the system – and that they wanted one. They wanted people to take them for who they were now and not who they were in the past.  So part of the work that I’ll be doing with Child Protective Services (CPS) is creating small little digital stories with any kids who want me to work with them – and that will be placed in each kid’s case file. And that will be the kid’s voice.  So then one of the first things the people who are responsible for this kid will turn to is the video image of the kid telling them in a poetic, artistic form who they are now and what’s important. Which hopefully is going to provide a more authentic connection.

MJ:  What are some of the best ways you have seen the projects developed by your kids encourage communication between the adults and youth of a community? 

SW:  Well I think it’s when the kids see [their projects] being showcased publicly. One of the young men… when we did the public showcase of the “Being Me Through the Eyes of Youth and Foster Care” he turned cartwheels on the stage – I mean literally turning cartwheels on the stage – because he was so overjoyed with the fact that he had made his case manager cry. He had touched her in a way that he never had – and that felt powerful to him.

MJ:  Because he finally got his voice. 

SW:  That’s right. And I’ve made sure that they feel that achievement and they feel that connection when they engage authentically in deliberative dialogue with someone. Part of being in a democracy is knowing how to deliberate. So – I teach democratic skills.  That to me is really important.

MJ:  Based on your experiences with community partnerships, how do you believe outreach programs should be conducted? 

SW:  I think [outreach programs] should be done as facilitation – it’s like I’m learning something, they’re learning something – we come to the table together as co-owners, co-learners.

MJ:  And how do you make sure all your partners come to the table as co-learners?

SW: One of the things I do when I work with a community or do a residency is talk to them. I put in writing – as much as possible – what benefit I get out of [our partnership] and what benefit they’re going to get out of it. I’m totally upfront about this – there are no hidden agendas. I’m totally out there with my politics, my ethics – I can’t go in with the romantic view of either a scholar or artist who has a direct pipeline to God or a higher power and sees the world better than anyone else and doesn’t need anyone else. Instead because my art is a collective art, I always have to try to balance the needs I have with the needs of the people around me.

I’m interested in creating civic dialogue with the stuff that I do and that means I need to know who I am working with – and the better the relationship between me and the organization, the better embedded the work will be. 

MJ:  How do you make sure your partners aren’t intimidated by the fact that you are a scholar – how do you help them feel they don’t have to worry about status?

SW:  In order to work with a group collectively you have to create an environment of risk taking. One of the techniques that I do – and this is both a teaching technique I use and a technique in order to make people take risks – is that I take risks. And I allow myself to look silly – a lot – to show everybody that if I can act this way, then they can take littler risks and everybody will be okay with that because they’ll all be making fun of me anyway.  

MJ:  Looking back on the mutually beneficial partnerships you created with Gila River and foster care, is there anything you would have done differently?

SW:  One of the things that was a phenomenal learning experience to me – though I have to admit it was very painful – happened when I worked on Gila River. I saw my primary partnership as being with the kids in the community. Not the teachers and the administration of the school. I didn’t consider them stakeholders. And they were. And part of the thing that came out was the kids repeatedly talked about drug culture, which is a large part of the environment that they live in. And I never stopped it. In fact if they were going to have to talk about it, I made them talk about it honestly. For the teachers in the school, that is not okay to talk about. That was an error on my part.  

So in my residency with CPS, I had to really think hard about who all the stakeholders were and how to get in touch with them. I was very upfront with them that my primary duty is to the representation of the youth with whom I am working and that I will not practice censorship on that child. In fact I will facilitate the kid talking about drugs or sexual abuse – but I will negotiate this with my partners first. We talk about what happens when kids bring up things that you don’t want to talk about but I’m okay with.  How are we going to deal with that? That’s part of the conversation that has to happen before you begin the residency. The negotiation.  

I think if you’re going to talk about controversial things – and in general, almost everything that has some importance to people has some controversy about it – you’re going to alienate somebody.  Somebody’s going to be unhappy and you can’t expect to keep everybody happy all the time. But if you acknowledge that fundamentally you are concerned with ethics – you have to begin to trust your own judgment. 

MJ:  How do you feel your approach to community partnerships has created a better rapport between the university and the community?

SW:  I think it’s useful for the university to have someone like me working in this field because I can hopefully change the minds of some people about the possibilities of a relationship between a university and an indigenous community. Since my training is in art and philosophy and not social work, I’m always kind of an outsider, but I’ve found that people really like that outsider perspective. I think it’s good for the university to be seen in that light. 

The other value to the university is that I train people to do what I do. I expand the possibilities for my students. My teaching is not removed from what I do, it is what I do and oftentimes my students are working with me.

MJ:  Do you encourage community partnerships in your classroom? 

SW:  Absolutely. 

MJ:  How do you do that? 

SW:  Well I’m able to do it in part because I teach community-based courses. I think students need to intern.  They need to apprentice. [Last Spring] I taught a graduate class in community-based drama where we worked as an artistic community with two separate organizations.  We worked at a residential treatment facility – kids who have mental issues, behavioral disorders, drug and alcohol addictions are residents in this facility. We worked with them to create a piece that they then showed the other residents – it was a video and live performance. 

By doing those different residencies, the students actually learned what goes in to doing a residency. And their final project was to design their own residency – I have one student who wants to work with elder women and adolescent women in Guadalupe. So as part of her work with me, she wrote a project proposal about what she would do, what contacts she would need, what it would cost and what people’s responsibilities would be. This summer she’s been out talking to the priests and to the community centers and the Boys and Girls Club about how to do that – she went and spoke to the city council. 

I think that when I was a graduate student, I didn’t even know that this work was possible. To do socially embedded, civically-engaged work – I had no idea it existed.  And – because of the classes I teach – my students get really excited about making their art important in this way.

MJ:  What suggestions or advice would you give to other faculty members who are interested in engaging in social embedded research? 

SW:  I would say they need to consider the ethics of the program they want to do. They also need to identify all the stakeholders – even the most marginal stakeholders. Also, the more planning that goes into a program, the better the program is going to be – the more beneficial, the more mutually satisfactory, the more reciprocal. I think reciprocity is a key to any kind of these programs – what do I get? What do you get? 

Developing a language of partnership is good too. I might say a word like “success” which for me may mean one thing and something entirely different for you. And everybody will have to agree on what that means before beginning these programs.

MJ:  Are there any future projects or programs in the works for you right now?

SW:  Well, the foster children project that I’m on with CPS is going to go full blown in the Fall. I will also be taking sabbatical in the Spring and working on a book on techniques about what I do – how do you do digital media with youth, how do you do positive youth development, what are the ethics of all that? 

MJ:  Stephani, thank you for sharing your thoughts on socially embedded work. I’d like to end by asking what do you think is the greatest personal benefit you have received from your experiences in your work?

SW:  Well personally I feel like I’m making the world better by doing what I do. I provide metaphor which is important because it is a language – art is a language and if you can conceptualize a problem or difficulty or joy, you can become aware of it in ways you weren’t before. So spiritually and personally what I do gives me great pleasure and joy and I would not feel fulfilled if I didn’t do it. 

MJ: Thank you for your time.

SW:  Thank you.

Through Place: Vision & Voice, Dr. Stephani Woodson has held residencies at Gila River Indian Community and long-term foster care programs in Child Protective Services. She facilitates candid discussions with children in these communities and helps them translate the emotional experience of their lives into dramatic digital storytelling pieces that can be shared with the community.


Suggestions for Engaging in Socially Embedded Work

1. Consider the ethics of the program you want to do.

2. Invest a lot of time in the planning stages of your program – research has shown that the more planning that goes into a program, the more beneficial and mutually satisfactory it will be for all partners.

3. Identify all the stakeholders in your partnership(s) – including marginal stakeholders. Be aware of the techniques and practices your partners may consider taboo and be very upfront about what techniques and practices you are planning to use in the program. Be prepared to negotiate.

4. Make sure all stakeholders in the program (including yourself) know what you will bring to the partnership and what you will get out of it.

5. Develop a language of partnership – make sure everyone shares the same definitions of success, socially embedded work etc. for the purposes of the program.

6. Balance your needs with the needs of those around you.

7. Be willing to create an environment of risk-taking for all members of your partnership.

8. Trust your partners – and trust your own judgment.