Since September, eight high school students and four Street Sense vendors have met at Church of the Epiphany on Wednesday afternoons to participate in a theater group called Devising Hope.
The group leader is Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang, a part-time professor of theater at George Washington University and co-founder of Educational Theatre Company (ETC), an Arlington-based non-profit. ETC seeks out people who don’t necessarily travel in the same circles and gives them tools to explore their differences and find common ground. ETC, founded in 1998, has been bringing together disparate groups for years; often the groups are intergenerational.
A 3-year partnership between ETC and Street Sense is planned, with three or four 10-week theater group sessions per year; there will be Street Sense vendors and high school students in each group. The students participating in the current theater group are from H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, a public high school in Arlington, Va.
At the start of each meeting, Kitsos-Kang gives a prompt to stimulate discussion among the twelve participants. This might be a poem by Langston Hughes, a sonnet by Shakespeare, a word, a game. The prompt allows the group as a whole to begin a conversation; they talk about family and relationships, misconceptions, their deferred dreams, their heroes or any topic that means something to them.
Next, they break up into smaller groups, usually two students and one vendor, and continue their discussions. They all know their conversations are being recorded, but that doesn’t stop them from getting personal.
After each meeting, Kitsos-Kang uploads the sound files to Dropbox and sends the link to all participants. On their own, group members listen to the files and continue the process of creating pieces for the group to perform.
Chloe Dillon is a junior at Woodlawn who heard about Devising Hope from one of her teachers. Dillon told Street Sense that though she’s already busy with school, homework and other activities, when she realized how much she liked Devising Hope, she made it a priority, saying, “Deciding to join was one of the best decisions I’ve made this year.”
When asked which prompt was most memorable, Dillon said she doesn’t remember the prompts as much as the discussions. One of the best discussions was about family, a topic that got everyone going, even people in the group who were often reticent. She said she always knew everyone has something hard in their life, but that idea seems more real to her now.
Dillon describes the theater group as a place to “sit down and listen,” a place where a person can speak openly and feel safe, because a no-judgment policy is deeply woven into the experience.
Leonard Hyater is a Street Sense vendor and a member of Devising Hope. He joined because, “I figured I had more to gain than I had to lose.” He described a group discussion. “I told them about myself, and they were very open minded. If you talk to them in a civilized manner, they’ll talk to you in a civilized manner. I felt respect was very important between both age groups. I was surprised how the young people conduct themselves. They conduct themselves like little ladies and gentleman. I think it’s pretty positive. It’s sort of helps to relieve some personal stresses that I’m going through. And it beats staying in that shelter all the time. It’s something positive to do, and that’s a good thing.”
Hyater’s message to the young people he’s been working with is, “Please stay in school, listen to your parents. You might not agree with them but they’ve been through what you’re going through and you’d be wise to listen to them, whether you agree or disagree.”
Chon Gotti, another Street Sense vendor who participates in Devising Hope, said he does it because he was asked to be a mentor, which he enjoys. “Working with the kids, they need to know about life before it happens.” Gotti says he’s willing to reveal parts of his life, but life experience has taught him to keep some things private.
Kitsos-Kang says her goal with Devising Hope is to take two communities that often feel misunderstood and give them a bond, a place to vent and a chance to understand each other; she says the experience is “cathartic and empowering” for all.