Growing up in Metro Manila as a young Chinese-Filipino, it was inevitable for me to care about politics. All I had to do was look outside the window of my family’s car to see the staggering divide between social classes in Metro Manila. Significant political events also marked my formative years. I was in elementary school when Chinese-Filipinos became the primary target of kidnappings. My school, which primarily had Chinese-Filipino students, cancelled all field trips for over a decade. When I was in high school, the second People Power Revolution happened, successfully ousting the corrupt President Joseph Estrada but ushering in the equally corrupt, if not more, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Not long after that, September 11 shook the world and forever changed it.
I can’t speak for everyone in my generation, but my much younger self took the charge of being my country’s future seriously. In retrospect though, this sense of responsibility was rudimentary: I paid attention to politics, wrote critical papers about society for school, and participated in outreach programs. In other words, while there was nothing inherently wrong with any of these, I saw civic engagement as something apart from my day to day life.
Figure 1. Civic engagement is separate from my daily life
However, a shift occurred the year before I graduated college. A series of suicides occurred among the student and faculty body of Ateneo de Manila University and a number of theatre students, myself included, felt the university wasn’t responding to what was clearly a campus mental health crisis. (I didn’t know about suicide contagion at that time.) We students mobilized and chose to stage Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. We earned the support of our faculty and the school administration as well as collaborated with the university guidance office so that we could make as safe a space as possible throughout our run. We incorporated pre- and post-show rituals to ease our audience, mostly college students, in and out of the sensitive material. Overall, it was well-received and we were even given an award by the university at the end of the year, but that wasn’t what stayed with me. What struck me was the awe I felt for the entire process of collaboration. I truly felt in my bones that I was part of the university community and that my voice as an artist mattered.
What happened was, although I wasn’t able to completely understand this until later in graduate school, my understanding of civic engagement deepened: civic engagement is not only the water we swim in, it is also the boat we are all on. While it’s important to engage in dialogue about the systemic issues that plague society, we enact our values on a local level. Darren O’Donnell (2018), artistic director of Mammalian Diving Reflex, articulates this better than I do. He writes how in analytic sociology, “[i]t doesn’t matter how macro the social phenomenon, be it neighbourhood segregation, low scholastic achievement of certain demographics, different mortality rates for people with different income levels, and on and on. All of these phenomena come into being through interactions between individuals” (p.50). This, of course, does not entail that systemic oppression doesn’t exist; “what this means for artistic social practice or, indeed, any intervention is that the place to begin is between individuals” (p.51, emphasis mine).
Figure 2. Civic engagement is everything all together
My studies in the United States–in the City University of New York (CUNY) and New York University (NYU)—have given me the opportunity to engage with civic engagement both on the macro and micro level as an artist. I would research about, discuss, and make theatre about systemic oppressions and their manifestations, i.e., racism and gentrification, in my classes and workshops with my colleagues. For instance, for our final project in Joe Salvatore’s Ethnodrama course, we had to conduct an ethnodramatic research in groups. My group interviewed a diverse group of women on their thoughts about the #MeToo Movement. On the one hand, we were engaging society on a macro sense because the research was moving towards a broader understanding of the phenomenon. Yet on the other hand, we were also engaging in a micro sense in multiple ways: (1) we conversed and connected with people about a topic they wanted to talk about and (2) we embodied the research by doing a reading of the ethnodrama to two groups of people and listened to their feedback.
I still have a lot to learn about civic engagement. As someone who has only participated in a march once—and it was the 2017 Women’s March in New York City at that, not even one based in the Philippines—I reflect often about what it means to fight for equity and justice. During the Fall of 2018, I took Noelle Damico’s Community Organizing course in Wagner. Many of us students were wondering if bringing about social change solely meant protests, strikes, and direct action. I remember a classmate confiding in an embarrassed whisper, “I’m not exactly the activist type.” But what exactly is activism? When the Black Panther Party established its “Free Breakfast for Children” Program and Eldridge Cleaver commented, “Aw, that’s a sissy program.” Bobby Seale took him aside and said, “That’s some one-dimensional thinking, man. Voter registration and community programs unify the people, Eldridge” (Shames, S. and Seale, B., 2016, pp. 78). Everything and everyone matters in our collective liberation.