Category: GEMA

Title:IN YOUR SHOES project from GU’s Lab for Global Performance and Politics

As part of Georgetown’s Lab for Global Performance and Politics — a joint initiative between the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Performing Arts — Georgetown Department of Performing Arts Chair Derek Goldman co-created the “In Your Shoes” project, which brings together individuals of various backgrounds into a respectful dialogue to promote mutual understanding and empathy. The project was recently spotlighted in a Washington Post article last month.

GEMA spoke to Goldman about the project’s impact, timeliness, and future productions.

How did the “In Your Shoes” project first come to be?The project is a core project of the Lab for Global Performance and Politics, which is an initiative that’s eight or nine years old. It’s the only joint initiative of the School of Foreign Service and the College, so it’s a partnership between the Department of Performing Arts which I chair, and the SFS. I think that’s important because the lab feels to me like a very distinctly Georgetown entity it couldn’t quite exist and be what it is anywhere else in the world. It is both taking the hallmarks and the strengths around international relations and global work, and the commitment to the greater good and to social and racial justice. Its methodology is all about performance. I think the mission basically is to humanize global politics through performance, and we do that in a whole range of ways.It comes out of a decade of different kinds of work that our students have really been at the center of, like Centennial lab courses that SFS offers where we bring students to Cambodia over spring break to look at the role of performance in coming to terms with the genocide and conflict there, the specific role of the arts and rehabilitation of that country. It comes out of a framework more than just like a professor with a cool idea in class.What are the specifics of the project?In Your Shoes arose out of a kind of a method or an approach that I had developed over many years working in different parts of the world and that I was often doing in my courses at Georgetown, which we call performing one another, or witnessing across difference. People in pairs have a conversation off of a prompt like “home,” or “belief.” It’s really a two-way conversation that they happen to each be recording. They then basically choose a section of the other person’s words to transcribe very precisely, including all of the ways that we sort of halt and stammer and all the things that we do as we as we describe things, and then they bring the work back and they perform each other’s words as a pair. Those presentations are used to catalyze further conversations.

I’ve been doing this for years, and students love it, and it just always has deeply moving, interesting results. One of the interesting things about it is that a lot of the students who don’t identify as performers at all and who are actually the shyest and most terrified to do it, have the most revolutionary experiences.In the last few years, I started to realize that it was more than just a really cool exercise, but what was happening in this assignment was that students were really coming to have something more profound. There was a quality of deep listening and in a sense, the capacity to step into the shoes of someone they might really feel differently than. I started to intentionally start to explore ways of doing this where they were around students who have different ideological beliefs or perspectives. That led us to connect through our relationships with the government department and democracy and governance studies at Georgetown with Patrick Henry college which is a conservative Christian College in Virginia, and to pilot this program in a much more intensive sustained way.

Last year we expanded the model because it was extremely popular and we had huge demand for the course on both campuses. We sort of doubled it in size and the pandemic hit before we had our culminating, in-person events but we were able to move that onto Zoom.

Why do you think theater and drama intersect so well with concepts of diplomacy and foreign service?

In order to have a world class School of International Relations, you need to understand narrative, and you need to understand storytelling, and the enormous amount of power in how we come to understand the world and understand how human beings are operating in the world and what they’re responding to. So I think Joel Hellman [SFS Dean], in embracing the lab, has been particularly out front in thinking about the SFS as not only a space for pieces on a chessboard, kind of strategic way of thinking about international relations, but a much more human and narrative one. Of course that’s something that theater has been doing for thousands of years, since the Greeks and before. I think that’s the power of what it means to engage with another human being empathically, to witness a story that moves you. Those first experiments in drama and democracy were really oftentimes about the understanding that the enemies in those wars were actually other human beings, and allowing one to have a more kind of complex view. I think what I have found is as the world that we’re moving through feels more and more polarized and more and more broken — and even the arts world can feel very much like a bubble — I’ve gotten just more and more interested in how at core, theater really has the power to bring people together across differences, but I think it’s an underused part of its power. There’s a different kind of work performance can do when you are actually using it as a vehicle for people who really have very different views of the world and very different experiences of the viewer to come to understand each other.

That’s what this whole method and approach has been designed to try to do and in order to do that you have to cultivate. I think that in times where things are at their most raw and broken and violent, the students have found this work is a really productive, nurturing space. It’s not like we’re all going to come together and agree, but it is designed to create a loving, respectful space for people who differ to understand each other better.Why do you think empathy and understanding other people’s experiences is so salient and important right now?What else do we have? It’s always been important, but I think sometimes we realize how important things are when they’re imperiled, when they’re broken or shattered. Georgetown has always had the highest aspirations around what its mission is in terms of notion of the greater good, and contributing to the global world and all of those kinds of investments.

It’s not only about political ideology. I’ve done these workshops a lot with students from the medical school, for example, because part of their training is about empathy, and it’s about learning to listen, the musculature of actually listening deeply and understanding what someone else is going through in order to be able to do your best work I think that applies in the business world, I think it applies in the medical world, in the scientific world, and in the political world.

I think what has been most exciting to me about this practice is that it feels like it’s not topical, it’s not just about like one walk of life, or it’s not about any particular theme or lane of content. It really can apply to just what it means to be a citizen of the world and to be engaged with other human beings. It really feels to me like a core practice of how the tools of theater and performance can be applied in so many different kinds of domains and spaces.

Could you talk a little bit about what’s coming up for the project?

We are starting a new one-credit course online in mid-March with a new group of students and a new culminating public performance. We’re going to have students who are part of the “In Your Shoes” experience reaching out to other members of the Georgetown community ranging from senior administrators to maintenance staff to alums and descendants, and they’re going to be the pairs. So instead of it being student to student, we want to try to get a wider swath of what the Georgetown community represents. So that kind of witnessing across difference: maybe socioeconomic difference, racial and cultural difference, generational difference, but to have a gallery of people, all of whom connect to Georgetown, but not all of whom are undergraduates. There’ll be some public component of that by the end of spring semester that we would be sharing out and it could even be that some of the alums that are part of the GEMA network would be great people to reach out to to be part of it.

Access the In Your Shoes Project website here.