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  • Caroline

Compassion and Connection in a Combative Culture

We are currently living in a complicated, divided culture where passions, loyalties, assumptions, and fears are tested, flexed, asserted, and threatened. I think the biggest challenge after election night was trying to be a trustworthy leader for my junior high students who felt marginalized, betrayed, disappointed, and confused by the results. These East Bay bilingual students are informed, concerned, active, verbal, and full of hope and bright ideas. Last Wednesday the buoyancy of spirit that always greets me was decidedly deflated, and big eyes a la Cindy-Lou Who in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, were turned on me communicating, “Did you vote? How did this happen?”

I suddenly felt responsible and realized it was time to set my personal feelings aside and, as an educator, find the hope and determination to inspire them to keep working towards what they feel is right.

Now I don’t wish to assert any political agenda here, but regardless of party/candidate loyalty and affiliation, we must agree that our societal landscape is combative, and here, in the midst of our “Year of Compassion” we must dig deeper and come together for the bigger picture. We must turn towards one another rather than away, and must engage in the hard conversations that help foster understanding, empathy, and entertain the possibility that our stubborn opinions might soften or let in the light of an opposing viewpoint.

That morning I walked into the classroom and wrote on the board, Art and Social Change, and asked, “What does this mean?” A girl with a large silk flower in her hair, wearing a sign affixed to her uniform shirt with blue painters’ tape reading, “Free Hugs,” raised her hand and said something about being able to express viewpoints and beauty in a way that might make people open up a bit. Right on. We went on.

We made a list of fears/challenges brought on by the election, and a list of how we can best use our voices to communicate messages of tolerance, progress, respect, and inclusion. We talked about language and how to be more mindful in our discourse, noting that words like stupid and racist should not be blanket terminology applied to thousands of people we know little about.

Then we turned to the art. How does music and narrative help enlighten? How do we communicate the softer shaded hues of humanity—our vulnerability, our longing to belong, our fierce wish to be understood-- after the tweets have twittered and sound bites have been posted? Can we reclaim community and connection and allow sound, melody, and gesture to sweep us up in the experiences of others down turbulent and poignant river of empathy? In class we got to work, creating original music and characters that used the metaphor of art to reach out in ways that conventional language could not. The mood began to lighten as helplessness began to give way to creativity, and the students became industrious in their search for artistic self-expression.

All art is a political act because opinion, conviction, and personal experience are invested in real artistic passion. Keep talking, keep listening, stay hopeful, and keep trying to connect.

“What comes from the heart, goes to the heart. All the rest is silly voices.” —David Mamet

Caroline Altman

Creative Director, San Francisco Opera Guild

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