Sunday, December 21, 2008

Everybody is a Star

I’ve had a complex semester—tough for me on a very personal level. I’ve been working as an administrator, a program director for the school’s diversity initiative. And while I believe in the cause—to make our campus a more open, inclusive environment that fights for equal rights—I know all too well that if I do my job right, I’m going to hit a wall that gets me thrown out of it. At the same time, I never appreciated how effective I was as a teacher until I spent a semester feeling wildly ineffective as an administrator. This could all change. There are moments that make me want to hang in there, or at least appreciative of this moment while I’ve got it.

One was a recent show put on by our students.

Yes, my school’s “Multicultural Night for Invisible Children” was a fundraiser for a worthy cause, Invisible Children’s Schools for Schools program, which raises money for education in war torn Uganda (

But I thought the name of the event had its own resonance. It spoke to the best part of the vision of Invisible Children, as a movement, as well as the vision of my students. It speaks to something beyond charity—solidarity, recognizing the ties that bind a group of “kids” in Kansas to their brothers and sisters in Uganda.

Of course, these kids from Kansas were an international group, at its core lay the work of the International Club, Student Services and the Center for Student Involvement (CSI) in bringing together students from all over the globe. It was that network in the International Club and those that take part in the CSI’s Interclub Council that made this happen. In fact, my involvement came out of attending an Interclub Council meeting. The students told me about a multicultural event that one of our students from Northern Sudan put on in Lawrence, and that jibed with what I knew other students, particulary a Colombian and a Kansas (with parents from Kenya) had called for at our very first Multicultural event this semester. They had both said we needed to have more events where students from diverse backgrounds came together, simply to celebrate that diversity and the community possible in that diversity.

The performance in our Little Theater opened with a simple, natural expression of JCCC’s diverse talents. Many students and faculty had heard one of my former students named Natsuki play the piano that sits in the third floor lounge, and she’d even had her picture in the school paper for it. So, it was unanimously agreed that it would be right to start the evening with Natsuki playing piano. In semi-darkness, she played a beautiful, reflective piece by a Russian composer before taking centerstage and welcoming the crowd. This was followed by students from Costa Rica, Mongolia, Kenya, South Sudan, Gabon, Paraguay, India, and the Middle East (actually Palestine, I believe, but she chose to stand for the region) taking the stage and welcoming the audience in their first languages. Invisible Children leaders Ithar and Calvin then took the stage to emphasize that this was not about the particular regions represented so much as the people from all over the world coming together.

This was followed by a film clip about Invisible Children, explaining its origins and history, as a group of young men’s trip to Uganda has turned into an international network of microeconomic support for Ugandan youth. After this clip, a capoiera group of ten men and women took the stage. This form of martial arts dancing, said to have been passed down by slaves transplanted to Brazil from Angola, illustrated both the struggle and the celebration of the evening. And when the dancers went beyond the sparring to call and response clapping with the crowd and building fever in terms of drumming and individual dances, a high bar was set for the emotional intensity of the evening.

Local singer-songwriter Nicolette Paige then took the stage, not letting up on that intensity at all, but counterbalancing the spectacle with the power of one person, one guitar and (because her guitar cable didn’t work) an entirely acoustic performance. Her first song, “Hinun,” was this unlikely and utterly natural blend of a reggae rhythm, a Native American cadence and her powerful, yet lilting vocals. The second song, “Invisible Children,” was an eloquent reminder of the objective reason why we were all gathered together.

That simple, individual intensity was maintained by the poetry of Costa Rican by way of Lawrence, Kansas student Ignacio Carvajal. Aside from the power of a lone person standing alone at a mic, baring his soul, Carvajal also heightened the multicultural focus of the evening. His poem, about the complex and contradictory nature of his identity, was about something more than the fact that we were bringing together an international group of students but that all of our students carries a diversity that makes them who they are. In that sense, his poem built a bridge between Paige’s synthesis of cultural influences and the next film clip, which used rapper M.I.A. sampling the Clash to detail the successes of the “Schools for Schools” program.

This was followed by four Indian men and four Indian women (from our new Sikh organization, KSEWA) in colorful traditional costumes doing the Punjabi form of dancing, Bhangra. The free flowing choreography was beautiful in and of itself, and the rhythms were very upbeat and exciting. But like the capoeira troupe, the Bhangra dancers didn’t let up until a certain fever pitch was reached, an additional young girl taking centerstage, two of the female dancers spinning each other in circles on one side of the stage and another male dancer breakdancing stage-right. For me, that breakdancing was key—it took things up a notch, and it went beyond traditional differences to the wonder of cultures mixing.

At that moment, Purevsuren, from Mongolia, read two poems, one about identity and one about Invisible Children. Her identity poem transcended identity politics by embracing all identities—focusing on the idea of a greater whole that ties us all together. Her poem about Invisible Children boldly took on the persona of one of the Ugandan children and expressed her yearning for peace.

This was followed by a fashion show that became one of the great unifying moments of the evening. Northern Sudan followed by Southern Sudan (peacemaking central to the whole event), Brazil, Iran, Palestine, India (one man and one woman model), Colombia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Dubai, Mongolia, Nigeria (3 models, one man, two women, one in a floor length evening gown, just about stealing the show), and one from Moldova. Again, the cultural contexts varied—some wore traditional, somewhat conservative dress, while others wore everything from a carnivale costume to daily casual wear to rural chic.

As the final two bands set up, Ignacio and Calvin ascended the aisle stairs on both sides of the auditorium, reciting the tale of the abducted children forced to fight for the rebel armies in northern Uganda. This was punctuated by barked orders from a military leader in the darkness above, actually the student doing the lighting for the performance. When the tale, a tandem poem really, was finished, Ithar descended the stairs Ignacio had just ascended, reciting a poem of (a universal call for) peace.

This was followed by an Ethiopian trio, featuring two former JCCC students. They played two beautiful spirituals, one with a traditional bowed instrument, and the second accompanied by keyboard and guitar. This performance worked its way from quiet reflection to an infectious sing-a-long.

The show closed with the four person group, Tambo, led by Colombian singer Carolina Deardorff, appropriately one of the people who first suggested such an event. The band was playing against a few obstacles, including a hurt hand that kept one guitarist from being able to play, as well as sound problems that kept the drummer playing softly so as not to overwhelm the band.
But none of that mattered. The music was beautiful, starting with a gentle ballad, “Invierno,” by a musician from Baja, California. Before the end of the second song, a Gloria Estefan cover, everyone who performed took the stage clapping and singing along.

Although I recently made a point (in a campus e-mail) of naming the names of most of the people who took the stage at this moment, particularly the students who met with me from 3-4 every Monday to make this thing happen, I feel hesitant to do it here. It feels like a violation of privacy, so I've only used first names on those who don't have some reputation as a performer around here. But all of them have inspired me more than I can say, and I think what’s more important is that they have inspired each other many times over.

I don’t see an event as an end in itself, although I know there’s some value there. I will be happy when I see us build from here. But I did recognize this moment of celebration, even in some of the chaos before everything came together, as one of those moments that I should soak up and appreciate because it would stay with me forever, if I’m lucky. I think many of the students feel the same way, and that’s the deep significance of the event. Everybody showed and proved they were stars on this night, and I can’t wait to see where they next turn all that bright, revealing light.