How Artists Can Get Out of the Country — and Why

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Shawn Lent and fellow delegates of the UN Alliance of Civilizations International Fellowship in Doha, Qatar in 2010.

The current US political climate is infecting our social scenes, families, workplaces, public transportation and other areas of life. At least that is how I am experiencing the Trump administration. It feels ugly, and there is a gut-felt need to get beyond our bubbles. I wish more American artists had a more global perspective to go along with our love of country. The world should be our teacher, not our oyster.

I recently asked friends on social media what their countries could teach Americans. Their responses included:

In Canada, the personal lives of politicians are not the story and journalists usually don’t cover political scandals of a sexual nature.

 

British political satire — see Private Eye, Viz and Have I Got News for You.

 

I won’t speak for either but believe Ethiopia and Morocco can teach us about religious tolerance.

If you’re like me, you’re itching to reach out in whatever way possible. In my funded travels to Azerbaijan, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar (when their diplomatic ties were better threaded), Italy, Kosovo, Bosnia, Ireland, Belgium, France and the UK, I learned much more as an artist than I could ever have anticipated. We Americans need to travel, not to visit but rather to grow in empathy and understanding. What follows is a list of resources for American artists to (temporarily) get out of the country. Some programs like Fulbright cover all expenses — so get in before the threat of a 47% program budget cut. Other opportunities have fees that would be considered more of an investment in oneself; crowdfunding could possibly support this circumstance

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In addition, these resources offer fantastic help in discovering international fellowships, jobs, internships, volunteer opportunities and artistic residencies:

Another suggestion is to design your own opportunities by working directly with arts organization, arts academy, university, hospital, refugee camp, shelter, detention facility or public or private school. Many organizations will offer you accommodations, stipend, travel and visa support if you commit to helping them out for a year or so. You could land a job teaching English abroad through the arts. You could perform on cruise ship. You could go on tour or join a festival circuit. You could receive a travel grant to attend conferences or work for a longer-term summit such as Expo 2020 in Dubai.

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Whatever way you get out, study up your education before you leave. Dancing to Connect’s Cultural Diplomacy Toolkit is a great place to start. Pack your humility and curiosity. You may be pinned as an expert or some sort of savior, but instead go as a student, friend, global citizen. Partner with your local collaborators to design programs that reach their needs as well as yours.

In October 2016, Jill Staggs, an International Exchange Program Officer in the Cultural Programs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the US Department of State joined a panel titled “A Place for Dance in New Diplomacy and Peace” that I convened and moderated at the 2016 National Dance Educators Organization annual conference in Washington, DC. Jill’s presentation noted that there are 294 US embassies and missions worldwide, and that a key objective for the staff of those sites is to explain “the culture and context out of which our policies arise.” She read a few lines from the Fulbright Hayes Act of 1961, which provides the “mandate, ability and authority to conduct arts and cultural exchange programs”:

The Fulbright-Hays Act authorizes the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to provide, by grant, contract or otherwise, support to the following types of cultural programs: Visits and tours abroad by creative and performing artists from the United States; representation by American artists and performers in international artistic other cultural festivals, as well as participation by groups and individuals from abroad in similar tours and festivals in the United States.

Staggs went on to add a few words of her own:

An aspect of new dance diplomacy that I especially appreciate is the progress that we have made in reaching audiences and students from diverse religious, economic, ethnic and disability communities. Through DanceMotion USA we work with our program presenters at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to design workshops based on the Dancing with Parkinson’s model, workshops designed for people with Autism, and a dance curriculum for students who are deaf. Through additional dance education programs, our office has facilitated wheelchair ballroom dance workshops, break dance classes aimed at girls empowerment, professional development workshops for dance company entrepreneurs  and contemporary choreography seminars focused on LGBTGI rights. One of my favorite examples of inclusive dance education programming is an arts exchange project that we funded for communities of people with disabilities in Guangzhou, China. This program especially reinforced the tenants of the Fulbright-Hays Act by providing and illustrating the societal values that support legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

 

Whether a workshop is based on Lester Horton, Limon or Latin Jazz technique — the educational experience can be based on a dance vocabulary that can ignite our imaginations.  Through its ability to meet a variety of policy objectives, reach a range of audiences and students and create on-going relationships between countries, dance diplomacy can further our efforts to increase mutual understanding.  New diplomacy is faced with incredible challenges to address including violent extremism, intolerance and the plight of refugees. Dance programs can help us see these issues in new ways that may lead us to new paths towards peace.

If international travel is not in the cards for you this year, the issues Jill speaks to can be found within our borders. We need to consider what domestic diplomacy can look like. Rural and urban exchange programming, and bringing together liberal and conservative artists, are just two examples. These resources can help you start thinking nationally and regionally:

If you desire a more long-distance and long-term move, you have the offer of asylum from French President Emmanuel Macron. However you decide to get out, however far or near or how long, I wish you safe travels and glorious art-making.

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Shawn Lent

Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post “Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?,” went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith’s College.