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Episode 7: Sandy Agustin - The Navigator
Episode 79th September 2020 • Change the Story / Change the World • Bill Cleveland
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Episode 7: Sandy Agustin - The Navigator

Sandy Agustin: Why do you want to change? Why do you want to change? Now? What do you all hold true? What do you see as missing? It's asking the right questions, finding really generous and generative questions. And when people get stuck, sometimes we push, and we name what's hard. Sometimes we just shake it up and we have to move around. We have to play a little bit; we have to think and move physically through the space to get to something different. So, in many of the cases of the groups I've been working with lately, I find out that they've had the ruby slippers on, and the ability all the time. They just are looking at things through a lens that wasn't necessarily theirs, you know. 

Bill Cleveland: From the Center for the Study of Art and Community, this is Change the Story Change the World, a chronicle of art and transformation.  I’m Bill Cleveland.

Like Leni Sloan, from our first two episodes, SA: is what one might characterize as a creative polymath. A dancer, choreographer, university and community educator, a producer, a community leader, healer, an artful alchemist whose work in the US and overseas spans three decades. She's fueled her explorations and adventures with questions. “What's your story? Who are your heroes? Where do you want to go? And how can we help you get there?”. I spoke to Sandy in mid-May of 2020 in the midst of the global question, mark that I've been calling Planet COVID. Certainly, a suitable moment for a lively conversation with somebody who describes herself as a navigator.  

Part One, Learning to Drive.  

So Sandy, this may be a daunting task for you because you're so many things to so many communities, and so many different people, but give it a shot. Try to describe what it is you do in the world. 

SA: Okay. I have had to define this more and more right, as the world has gotten more complex, and for me to say what I do is that I'm a creative navigator. If you say, you want to go to a place, let's say you want to go up north to a particular town, my job would be to help you figure out what kind of car is the right car? What kind of fuel is the right fuel? If there are stops along the way, to define why is that the best place, and who are the people that should be in the car or who are the people in those places that you want to see along the way. So, it really is helping me individuals and organizations that navigate where they're going. My methodology is creative, and creative means anything that will get us out of only intellectualizing the story. But to find the heart of the story, that may be writing, it might be movement, it might be being really silly and playful and being humorous, it might be individual writing, and it might be talking in small groups or communicating and story sharing with one other person.

BC: So, the metaphor you're using is the journey. road trip, actually one of my absolute favorite things, using creative tools and strategies to help folks and communities navigate a journey of decision making or change. Can you share an example?

SA:  Maybe most recently, the Regional Arts Council, they're looking at equity and equitable giving, giving to communities that haven't typically been given to before. You want to look at what, what has been your vehicle of choice or inherited vehicle. Are those still the right ones? Why do you want to change? Why do you want to change? Now? What do you all hold true? What do you see as missing? It’s asking the right questions, finding really generous and generative questions, and when people get stuck, sometimes we push, we name what's hard. Sometimes we just shake it up and we have to move around. We have to play a little bit; we have to think and move physically through the space to get to something different. So, in in many of the cases of the groups I've been working with lately, I find out that they've had the ruby slippers on and the ability all the time, they just are looking at things through a lens that wasn't necessarily theirs. You know, I just said an eye exam, right? Which lens is clear one two, or two three? Yeah, well that one works, but it's a lot clearer if I get the right ones that fit my eyes. I can see better; I can see clearer, and then I can function in the world better from looking through the right lenses. So, I feel like that navigation is really helping people find the right lenses, and often times they've had them or they've had access to them. They just didn't know they did.

BC: Now, you've done a lot of work, advancing social change with communities and organizations. Some people may not really understand how the creative process that you use, these methods of inquiry that you use, can be relevant to people dealing with issues of poverty or crime or feelings of safety, or a sense of belonging in the world. Can you talk about that?

SA: Yeah, I have been taking Tango in the last few years, and in interviewing veteran dancers, good leaders will say a good leader’s job is to make you feel safe and feel beautiful. I'm not going to impose something on you, I want to make you feel safe so that you could get there, and that you can shine and feel beautiful. Okay, so I'll just say that as a mover, that one's really resonating with me. In the case of working with, let's say a group of folks that have been struggling with addiction and chronic homelessness who are desperately trying to get themselves together so they can be good parents or good partners, what does it mean to feel safe and good in your own skin? How can building community helps in that quest for oneself?

BC: So, safe and good! Talk about how these creative tools and strategies can help these wounded souls begin to feel safe and good in their own skin. 

SA: So, for instance, would be offering up some creative tools, some designated time for people to focus on themselves, to be creative and exercise something that is really about their own expression. It's their opinion, there's no right or wrong, that allows them to find their own flow and express themselves in a way that they're not invited to very often. In that case, if the individual feels like their creative badge has been shined and polished, and other people are sharing in that, sharing in their work, they're giving an exchanging, it's still sharing story in a safe and comfortable context that allows them then to flourish and perhaps understand each other really one to one human level. So, if communities feel comfortable with the people in those communities, whatever they describe themselves to be, feel confident, safe, comfortable enough to be beautiful to be creative, I think we've got a healthier, more functional community.

BC: So, your experience is that when you make art with folks, these things happen, a sense of safety, a sense of connection, a sense of coherence, and that people who are struggling with issues of substance abuse or poverty or equity, for these folks, this provides a foundation for individual and collective problem solving and action.

SA: You know, it gives them agency in their own lives where maybe they haven't felt control over a lot of things. This is something you can't, you know, can't take that away from me, as the song says. I wonder, you know, there's perhaps a reason why that brain stores music, musical memories in a different place when the rest of the brain can be in trauma. What's sacred about that music? So. what is sacred about those creative juices? You know, when people's brains are otherwise traumatized, there's got to be something about the sanctity of one's own creative expression.

BC: You know, there's an interesting theoretical conversation that's been taking place among anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists who speculate that prior to the development of language in human species, you're describing them making a musical sounds and patterns with the voice was actually an early adaptive behavior that advanced our survival as humans. First, you know, because it's a powerful way to focus the attention of the community, the tribe, and second because it reinforces that thing that you described earlier, which is a sense of identity or agency within that community. So, the answer to your question about why the brain seems to process music differently, may in fact just be that our brain evolved in a way that reinforces those things that work for us in the world, and that music is one of those. 

SA: Yes, and I, you know, I harken back to, I mean my own upbringing was when we had people over which was often, we always had out the tinkling sticks, which are the long bamboo poles, and we did a tinkling dance, which is jumping in and out in the polls, I call it our own version of jump rope or double dutch. The idea was not to get caught by the sticks. […] Tinkling, it means it's a bird. It's mimicking these bird movements don't we always send music and dancing at all our parties. And to this day, people still talk about that. I remember all the parties in your backyard. I took it for granted that it's, it's always been a part of me to celebrate through music and through dance. It's a way of gathering family, It's a great way of sharing experiences, it’s a way of celebrating.

BC: In your sharing this family history, you're touching on your influences and how you came to this kind of work. Could you tell more of that story?

SA: Well, I harken all the way back to as a child grew up again the daughter of a Filipino immigrant and a white mom in Minnesota. A very interesting combination of elements. My mother, who is not a dancer nor was she Hawaiian, took great interest in for some reason, Hawaiian culture and dance and signed me up for hula lessons at a very, very young age. I was nine. And much to my chagrin, I actually started to like it and it somehow moved me to do it. It felt good to dance that way.  

Speed ahead, my older brother had a party planning business. He was 18 years my senior. And whenever the party had a Hawaiian theme, he would pay me $5 at the time, which was a lot of money to do the hula. I learned at a young age which groups of people I wanted to do that with or for, and which I did not, when I felt like a novelty, when I was being condescended to and used in a way and when I was being appreciated for what I was doing, which I took actually very seriously because it resonated in my body. And so, at a really early age, I think I started making a distinction.  

Speed forward, I did perform a lot, I choreographed. But what was most rewarding was when people got involved in the forum itself. I felt like there was more excitement in the room. There was something more to talk about once the performance, or once the time was over, and people felt connected and I felt more connected to them. 

Moving forward in time, as I was doing my own work and invited into places to be artists and residents at a place called the Pillsbury House in Minneapolis, this is early 90s. I wanted to bring other artists into my evening of performance, and so they were drummers, and they were other choreographers and performers, sharing the space. And along the way, [I] met some other artists were involved in a place called intermediate arts.  

SA: I realized that there was a need to share stories and experiences through and around and on behalf of our art. And not only those who are professional artists, or aspiring to do more through their art, but those who somehow wanted to be connected to it, who would say at first that they were not creative. I took that on as a challenge because I really thought that everybody, everyone is creative. They just at some point, we're told, not in these ways. You're not painting like you're not coloring within the lines; you're not moving, you know the body like a real dancer. I pushed back against that because I would see beauty in bodies that didn't look like mine that could really move and express. I was just exposed to so many different ways of being in the world, and seeing the world.

So, at one point, curating an intergenerational series called Thicker than Water, Art as a Family Value, and presenting the work of two very well-known musical families in Minnesota, the Petersons were sort of the family of jazz and Minnesota, and the Buckner family who were gospel. Putting those family women together on the same stage inspired our bookkeeper at the time, who had been born on the Iron Range, was 60 years old, 65, divorced, five children,  avery quiet woman, grew up on a farm, had a background in some bookkeeping, and she came to me after seeing the program a couple of times and said “I have an idea I would like to run by you”. She was so inspired by what these other families were sharing, and she thought I have that in my family. Huh, we had a family reunion coming up. I wonder if we could do it through the arts and creative expression.

So, she had just renovated a duplex, the lower level of her duplex, and she turned that into a gallery, [and] invited all her family from around the country to submit things that they thought were creative, that they wanted to show off, and it was everything from quilts, to the family Bible, to ice skating medals, to carving, and it ran the gamut. She invited everyone and there was just a different energy at this thing, and I actually interviewed folks, they had no idea the depth of the people in their family. I got really turned on by that by somebody else getting turned on to do something really cool, that inspired multiple generations in their own corner of the universe.

That got my juices flowing, and I decided that --again, and learning from other folks like yourself, Bill--when we're when we create the right conditions for people to shine creatively and exercise their creativity, incredible things happen. The spirit in the room is different, conversations are different, people are divided into space differently. So, their engagement, their level of engagement, what carries on after the thing just ripples exponentially, and that is really turns me on. So that's my trajectory. I think.

Part Two, The Rubber Meets the Road

BC: I think this snapshot that Sandy shared about the bookkeeper’s family celebration illustrates how deeply our stories influence the ways we see each other. Through her simple invitation to share, Sandy's friend helped to reveal all those hidden layers and, in the process, nudging their family's story in different directions. I asked Sandy if she could talk more specifically about some of her own experience bringing these kinds of creative tools and strategies to bear in her own community.

SA: Another regular practice that I have that relates is working with young people in the public schools. Storytelling, doing theater, using Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which is really letting people make change by telling stories through just very simple snapshots, creating shapes and snapshots of a scene with their bodies and changing one element and really exploring what does it mean to change that thing, and how does that change the story.

I am really moved and surprised, not surprised by working with a lot of young people, young kids of color, who are in many cases in dire financial and resource situations, and watching them, take control and take power situations through theater and watching change happen, and hearing their comments and listening to what questions arise, and feeling their level of excitement to get engaged in to make change. It's on a small level, but when we could see something that accessible, that small change, I think bigger things can be built upon it.

BC: Sandy makes mention of Augusto Boal here. There's such a thing as legends in the field of art and social change, Boal certainly qualifies. He was a Brazilian theatre artist who pioneered a practice he called Theatre of the Oppressed using drama to stimulate social change in his native country and around the world. In the early 1970s, his successful work earned him the enmity of Brazil's military regime, which resulted in his being kidnapped, arrested, tortured and ultimately exiled to Argentina. His approach, often referred to as forum theatre, radically shifts the role of the audience from spectator to collaborator in performances that not only explore social issues but seek to mobilize citizen driven solutions. Here's Boal describing Forum Theatre on June 3 2005, broadcast of KPFA’s Democracy Now 

Augusto Boal: “The Forum Theater is exactly the image of the mirror, no. We present the problem because sometimes we know what the problem is. All of us agree we have this problem, so far as the workers that go to claim for better conditions of work or better salaries or whatever everyone agrees. But how to do it we don't know. So, what we do is we present the play, whatever the theme is, whatever the problem is, we present the play, and then we look at it like normal spectators, but at the end, we say, “okay, this ended in failure”.

So how could we change the events, everything is going to change in society in our biological life, everything's always changed, nothing's going to stay the way it is. So, how can we change this for better, and then we start again, the same play and we invite the audience to at any time that they want to say, “stop”, go to replace the protagonist and show alternatives. So, we learn from one another, you have in the scene, the wrong solution, the wrong way, and then we try to see what is the right way --- we don't know. We don't do the political theater of the 50s in which we had the propaganda, you had an idea, you have a message; we don't have the message, we have the questions, we bring them out, what can we do? And democratically everyone can say stop and jump on the scene and try solution or an alternative and then we discuss that alternative and then a second or third, as many as people are there. So, what we want is to develop the capacity of people to create, to use their intelligence, to use their sensibility

BC: I asked Sandy how Boal's approach had worked in the context of a particular class or individual student. She told the story of a fifth grader, she called M describing him as untethered, because he would at times literally wander in and out of the classroom. Sandy asked M’s teacher if she could spend some time with him one on one. Over lunch they talked about what they were doing in class and despite his inattention, Sandy was surprised by how much had sunk in. One particular question she had asked the class seemed to have struck a chord. “If you could, what part of your story would you change?” This prompted him to talk about his parents who had been in prison. Sandy felt this sharing could be an important step forward. She found out when M returned to class and they continued their work exploring story snapshots, which Boal called tableau's.

SA: The story was about in real...