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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Designing for Equity: Social Impact in Performing Arts-Based Cultural Exchange

  • Author(s): Murdock, Sara
  • Advisor(s): Gere, David
  • et al.

This dissertation focuses on the concept of social equity in the context of performing arts-based cultural exchange. The work draws upon with Performance Studies and Cultural Studies, reviews several examples through Critical Race Studies and Memory Studies lenses, and then makes advances in Whiteness Studies. All cases revolve around the performing arts as a vehicle for bridging difference. From a practical vantage, the dissertation reviews how organizations do or do not succeed in activating their intentions in an equitable fashion. The document culminates in a Checklist for Social Good, offering a tangible way to link programmatic intentions with implementation. Fieldwork cited includes interviews, ethnographies, and participant observations to determine how programmatic design within cultural exchange has affected social narratives, such as whose cultures have value and on whose terms the programs progress. The dissertation is particularly concerned with the ways in which different worldviews and cultures can communicate effectively so as to decrease violence and xenophobia. While no one means of communication across difference is superior, the project focuses on art, and specifically performance, as a means of dialogue and sense-based learning that augments other, sometimes superficial, forms of encounter.

Chapter one sets the scene by positioning the author’s entry into the cultural exchange field, and goes on to explore the notion of exchange in general. It argues that learning and exchange are largely synonymous, and that both are sense-based processes that occur via the body. Chapters two and three review multiple organizations that utilize performing arts as a method for bringing together people from various parts of the world. Chapter two is dedicated to the Asia Pacific Performance Exchange (APPEX), which opened questions regarding inter- ethnic communications and experimented with ways to talk about politics and barriers through performance aesthetics. Chapter three compares MovementExchange—an Edu-touristic model— with Puentes de Poder, which is dedicated to exploring African diasporic aesthetics. Both organizations work primarily in Panama City and in California.

In each case, the intentions of the program’s founders were often lost or misaligned with the program design or implementation. One of the programs, Puentes de Poder, did have more success in aligning the founder’s objectives with her enactment because she was happy to wait for more equitable opportunities to implement. While her ability to wait harmed the organization on a financial basis, staying true to the vision meant that there was almost no discrepancy between goals and results, particularly in regards to the efficacy of intercultural communications. The first chapter introduces the notion of a Self/Other dialectic, which is then discussed in great detail in chapter four. Exploring the formation of Selfhood frames how humans develop fear of and/or exoticization of Others. This inquiry is crucial to understanding patterns of valuation and devaluation of entire cultures and of individual humans, and is thus related to both institutional treatment of groups and how humans behave on a daily basis.

Chapter five focuses on assessing programmatic impact through the lens of Impact for Social Good. Although young and applied in varying ways across sectors, the framework is useful because it asks leaders to marry intention with output. The chapter reviews the attempts of several institutions to codify the concept of “social good” and what metrics might be used to assess its implementation. Based on my case study and theoretical work, I offer a Checklist for Social Good that organizational leaders can use to assess whether a project is socially equitable. While designed with international and intercultural collaboration in mind, the Checklist reflects power flows and the ways in which dominance or subjugations are insidiously ignored or perpetuated. The Checklist is highly accessible because it refrains from academic language, but is rigorous in that it requires serious reflection on how intentions are manifested in practice.

While this dissertation incorporates a wide range of data, theories, and discussions, its overarching imperative is to highlight an assessment of “what is” within any given project in order to better support what “could be.” In the culminating pages I note how the reaction to this project thus far has been one of agreement but also of a desire to ignore the topic. This project underscores prior work done on Self/Other, Critical Race Studies, Cultural Studies, and organizational assessments, thus adding valuable insight into how these topics fit together. Additionally, the project opens new discussions on Aesthetic Capital, Selfhood Capital, and Social Equity assessment that not only push academic discourse, but also address a humanistic inquiry into systems of power.

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