Part 3: Liberatory Theatre & Popular Education

During one of the sessions, 
we were asked to take a picture 
of how racial injustice impacts us. 
Outside of the church I saw this hook, 
screwed into a cement brick, with 
a cord hanging from it. NOOSE. 
Racial InJustice is a noose.

Part 1Part 2 and now the last and final part, 3.

(Loosely edited) So, after curating my own session at the 2017 PTO Conference, I was ret. Ready to participate in other sessions. Hol’ up ‘fore it slips my mind, something I really respect and appreciate about PTO is that the conference organizers are intentional in utilizing local unionized businesses and they’re intentional in feeding us healthy and environmentally conscious food. The food was vegetarian and vegan by Food Not Bombs and Food Lab. There was also, Homespun Hustle where you could rent sustainable foodware vs using plastic/paper plates.

Plenaries and Sessions.

As usual, I learned some thangs from the sessions and plenaries, while also being annoyed by white liberalism that refuses to acknowledge privilege or thinking that diversity and inclusion are merely about “identity.” Also, I wasn’t down or being the teacher. It’s not people of color’s responsibilities to be burdened with teaching folk. I understand we’re all at different places on our journey, but yeah. I get PTO is about dialogue, naming etc., but sometimes, with PTO being framed in theatre, some practitioners get caught in the games and theatre-ness of PTO and place PO to the side.

“In matters of race (and sex, disability, gender and sexuality, but let’s stick to race right now), the marginalized are tasked with being educators. That is, people of color (POC), are expected to be patient and polite racial and cultural ambassadors who provide white people new to this whole “thinking critically about race” thing with a “way in.” The role entails charitably and unselfishly engaging questions, assertions and doubts from white people who’ve previously done precious little thinking about racism and privilege, but often have quite a bit to say on the topic. When POC refuse to take on this dual role of spokesperson and resource library, they’re often accused of having shirked an assumed responsibility.” Link to quote.


  • Above Banners, Chants and Drums: The Role of Culture in Revolutionary Practice
  • The Struggle for Education in Detroit

The plenaries had potential, but the facilitators felt disconnected from the panelist and what was happening on the ground in Detroit. Nonetheless, I got a lot from those doing the work in Tha D and I was inspired by their innovation and determination to sustain their city in the midst of forces trying to break Black communities even further. Though inspired, it also made me uneasy. I found myself shifting in my seat and my leg shaking because I could see Chicago in the future. Chicago could be headed in this direction as it relates to the water predicament and the education system.

As one of the panelist stated: “All eyes is on Detroit because of plight, but also for possibility: 1. Urban decay (plight) 2. Divestment (plight) and 3. The re-imagining of Black communities (possibility).


There is no longer a DTU (Detroit Teachers Union):::and ya’ll know there’s a push in Chicago to dismantle CTU. Also, the Detroit education situation was pure foolery because when the system “collapsed” there was a SURPLUS. That’s a lie that the public school system “broke” due to a lack of money:::that’s also what happened in Chicago, there was a surplus when there were mass school closings.


As for education, do not limit education to schooling.

Riverwise is a new local community-magazine that chronicles local activism and new work being done in and around Detroit neighborhoods.

Activist and organic intellectual Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty and the Bogg Center see youth as solutionaries, not as problems so they support youth to empower themselves and their communities.


The water situation in MI is not only scary, but disheartening and inhumane. William Copeland, a Detroit organizer and cultural worker, called out privilege as unexamined trauma, and he also shared an alternative way of looking at the water crisis. He suggested that the water crisis is a “womyn’s issue.” How? Per his explanation, water is in the home which is a “womon’s domain” so that’s why it hasn’t gotten as much attention as police brutality and the killing of Black men because it’s considered a domestic issue. I thought this was an interesting take on water, so in my mind I instantly started situating the water issue as a “reproductive justice” concern.

How in the heck are Detroit residents expected to pay 20%-30% more for water than the rest of the country. Water is a humon right and like housing, should be affordable. Thousands are without water because they can’t pay their bills. Tha fuq kind of world we live in? I can wrap my head around having gas cut off in the summer so that IHeap can pay the whole bill in the winter, but not having water, oh heck nah, that takes it to a whole ‘notha level of figuring out how to be resourceful.

Like Chicago, Detroit is a divided city. Haves and Haves Not.


Throughout the conference, I decided to participate in several double sessions to go deeper and explore more.

Sessions I attended:

  • Unpacking Race: A Tutorial. First session: Plot your racial journeys with others; learn strategies to facilitate T.O. workshops unpacking Institutional Racism. Second session: Unpack White Fragility, a common roadblock to racial solidarity.

I appreciated how this session broke down TO into 3 Tiers: Experiential, Transformative and Tactical. Along with the 3 Tiers, the facilitators shared 4 Agreements of Courageous Conversations, plus 1. The +1 was centering people of color, and white people doing the “heavy lifting.” This was good to hear, but the test is always in the application.

There was a nice balance of self and group work in this session. We were asked to discuss in pairs, the first time we acknowledged race. I struggled with this question and I overthought it. My thoughts initially went to “racism,” not race. I was saddened that I couldn’t remember the first time I merely acknowledged difference, not when I knew there was hierarchy placed on difference.

The exploration of white fragility and racism, active and passive, sparked meaningful internal dialogue. I do not separate racism into categories, but I get it, and I can see how it’s key to highlight for those who are just starting to engage these topics.

  • I see my shadow in TO/PO/social justice work, do I run, do I hide or do I learn to love? From Rebellion against one’s shadow to Waging Love How can TO serve as a tool to shine the mirror internally as well as externally? Can we, as social justice communities learn to first, see and then, love our own shadow? Can communities learn to distinguish the key difference between radical love and abuse? Can our communities identify and engage with dichotomies of power within ourselves using tools from Theatre for the Oppressed?

A drama therapist, who is in training to be an art therapist at my alma mater, led this session. The facilitator set the tone of “safety” and “space holding” early by having a cut off of when latecomers could enter the group. We explored Carl Jung and “shadows,” and distinguished safe space from brave space. We were also guided in participating in “games” around forming communities and community accountability. Our innate tendency to fight, flight o freeze in situations was tested, and we engaged a Gestalt technique of the “empty chair,” but with string. Time caught us and we weren’t fully able to explore how to use these techniques while in conflict.

  • Re-Rooting Arts-Based Practices: Using Photovoice to Inspire Theater of the Oppressed. In this application workshop, participants engage in a Photovoice process (community-based, documentary photography and intergroup dialogue) to inspire the creation of Theater of the Oppressed performances.

This double session I really really liked as an artist-practitioner. It brought several of my interests together: photography, writing and PTO. One of the directives in this session was to take a photo that reflected how racial injustice impacted us. We only had 10 minutes so I went outside and was inspired. I took several pictures.

We were also given directions for a freewrite after we’d chosen one pic.

Fallen Angel. The pic I chose that represents how racial injustice has impacted me.

I wrote:

Angel climbing up brick wall, even that which is holy, righteous and already free second-guesses itself because of racial injustice (R.I.J.). There is no reminisced bystander or true account of what’s seen here only the outline cos history erased it. A tail possibly mistaken. Possibly, the devil comes packaged in life. R.I.J. induced delusions and sight through a stalemate lens. PTO can make an offering to center the voices of those merely outlined. R.I.J. works hard to erase us all.

In small groups we then embodied our photos, freewrite and discussions. Very intentional and powerful process.

Waterfall on Wayne State campus

By Saturday night all I wanted to do was enjoy the weather and chill. Wayne State has a beautiful campus so I spent time with myself walking around. I ended the night with Netflix and snacks. I finally watched Southside with You.

In bloom,

nicole jhan’rea

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