Monday, July 2, 2012

Guest Blogger Rubén Mendoza

"Report-back from Berkeley: Presenting, Performing, and Participating at the 2012 Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed Conference"

By Rubén Mendoza

I recently had the opportunity to present at the 2012 Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed conference inBerkeley. My larger scholarly project as a doctoral student in English at UC Riverside looks at pedagogico-aesthetic rhetorical practices through a focus on Harry Gamboa’s contemporary work.
At this conference, I looked specifically at Gamboa’s use of performance and digital technomediation on a two-part panel with several other scholars who also focus on Chicana/o art practices and rhetoric, including Joshua Guzman (NYU), Dianna Santillano-Romo (CSUN), Joelle Guzman (UCR), and Ricardo Gamboa (NYU). During my presentation, conference chair Jiwon Chung popped in and provided some valuable feedback on my work. But it was my attendance at his body performance workshop the next day that was particularly helpful, as I was able to participate in a series of Theater of the Oppressed-oriented performance exercises that resonated with Harry Gamboa’s work and with my study of it. In this workshop, which reflected Chung’s performance work around non-violence, peace, and healing with his local Kairos Theater Ensemble, I met and interacted with a variety of people from different organizations who are doing similar scholarly work and performance and art practices in their own communities that resonated and intersected with the work of other Chicana/o scholars and activists who had a large and impactful presence at the conference (Rudy Acuña, PhD, Sean Arce, Liana Lopez, and Bryan Parras, for example, were all featured panelists and plenary speakers).

 (Photo of Sean Arce by Benjie Sanders for the Arizona Daily Star)

The conference in general provided a great opportunity to meet people from around the world who are studying and doing similar work intertwining education, art, activism, and action. This helped to contextualize my own work and the work of other Chicana/o scholars, artists, and activists, as part of a larger web of international and transnational work and struggle. Over the course of the conference, I was fortunate to meet and speak with scholarly art-practitioners and activists who have found creative and effective ways to combine various realms of arts and education work, theory, and practice, in places like Brazil, Portugal, Ghana, South Africa, and Spain. For example, Tamara Lynn and Rebecca Tarlau presented on their work with the MST/Landless Movement in Brazil. Especially illuminating here was the description of how the MST has developed its own educational system. As Tarlau made clear, even though Freire was Brazilian himself, the use of Freiran Pedagogy of the Oppressed concepts was only one small part of a larger systematic pedagogical effort by the MST. While MST educators and pedagogists found that Freire’s approaches were useful for individual situations and projects, their desire to develop a whole educational system led them to seek out a more comprehensive approach to meet the needs they were seeking to address. They asked: Where has an entire educational system based on socialist principles been successfully constructed and implemented? The result of this questioning was a focused study on the pedagogical theorization and practice of the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union. Soviet pedagogists like Anton Makarenko and Lev Vygotsky, for example, formed the basis of their effort to construct an educational system based on collectivist and sociocultural pedagogical models to address the needs of the MST.
 (Photo of Julian Boal)
Inês Beatriz Barbosa presented some of her scholarly work with the Research Centre on Childhood Studies at the University of Minho in Portugal. Her case study about a forum-theatre group of teens from underprivileged areas in Portugal looked at how Theater of the Oppressed work addressed contemporary issues involving youth, cultural participation, citizenship, and social transformation. As with Lynn and Tarlau, Barbosa’s work was not just a scholarly analysis, but reflected a synthesis of academia and art in that the case study involved her own work as a TO practitioner, artist, and activist working with teens.
I was also fortunate to meet Julian Boal (Augusto’s son) and hear him speak several times in different contexts. One of the more interesting and salient points Boal raised was what he described as a current professionalization of Theater and Pedagogy of the Oppressed, especially in his talk, “Traps and Decoys in Liberatory Education: Participation, Indoctrination, False Neutrality.” Here, Boal spoke to the phenomenon of how some TO and PO practitioners have become professionalized, many operating like professional speakers on tour circuits who pop in to communities with which they are unfamiliar (for a fee), hold workshops that consist of highly technical and technicized exercises, then move on to the next spot. Others establish themselves in academic or non-profit organization positions, where they similarly practice a set of TO/PO exercises for local groups. The larger point Boal was trying to make was that in the process of this professionalization, TO/PO practices are reduced to techniques that are then mechanically applied, instead of developing and growing organically into new forms, techniques, and approaches, through non-professional practice outside institutional structures. The result is that the practice and the practitioners ossify. He called—quite self-consciously, as a featured speaker and workshop facilitator—for a heightened level of self-awareness, self-reflexivity, and self-consciousness, about the dangers and threats of these professionalization processes on the part of TO/PO practitioners as practitioners. I found the call relevant not just to TO/PO practitioners, but to all progressive educators, academics, and artists navigating institutional structures and their mandates and imperatives of “professionalization.” The danger to which he pointed is one of acting, paradoxically, as an agent of institutional co-optation of those very practices and forms that represent the efforts to subvert and deconstruct institutional structures to which “radical” and “progressive” educators and scholars aspire in the first place.

Overall, I think the conference is a great opportunity for both new and experienced PO/TO practitioners, scholars interested in PO/TO theory and practice, and anyone interested in critical transformational pedagogy. Visit their website at  for more information on this year’s conference and be sure to check with them for next year’s Call for Proposals.

For an extensive list of PTO resources and organizations, please visit the PTO Conference Resources and Links page by clicking here:

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