By Giovanni Roberto
When I was invited by the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute to participate in a series of conversations on community activism I was elated. The need to connect the issues of students in the United States and Puerto Rico is critical to learning about issues that impact our learning experience. I formed part of a delegation of students from the University of Puerto Rico to discuss the student strike against the university. I was motivated to participate because I've always felt that it is necessary to let others around the world know about what is happening in Puerto Rico. Efforts like this one are important because they contribute to establishing an international solidarity network, which is essential in these times of global crisis.
When I was on my way to participate in the activities at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), on March 2011, the purpose of this dialogue was clear: to see the role that art played during our strike process, and discuss the relationship between both. The intrinsic connection between art and activism was fundamental to our student movement. The student strike evolved around art, to the point that some have named the UPR 2010 student strike as the creative strike.
Connecting social justice and art — before, during and after the strike — was the product of a quest for freedom-of-speech opportunities under a totalitarian and oppressive university administration. Nothing that happened during the strike can be separated from the circumstances under which it was born: It was the result of taking over the school and transforming its educational process with alternative content that explosively promoted art. This strategy of placing art at the center of our strike was a direct response to the administration and the government’s attempts to shut down the educational process. When they wanted to silence our message, we organized ourselves and moved forward with our alternative communication process of incorporating art as our main vehicle of informing the public.
Our first New York presentation was at New York University (NYU), hosted by Randy Martin, chair of the Arts and Public Policy Program, to a large group of students and also open to the public. Puerto Ricans from varied cultural, arts and political organizations also attended. During this event we had the opportunity to provide the audience (comprised primarily of students) with an initial evaluation of the strike process, which ended just a few weeks before our arrival in the United States. This was also a good opportunity for us to explore how the University of Puerto Rican student strike and its impact were perceived outside the island.
Important to the visit of our delegation from the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean (CEAPRC) was our exchange with students and administrators at MICA. The opportunity to have more in-depth exchanges with the students and faculty around community activism established an important connection between both institutions.
As the students of MICA explained and demonstrated their work, the focus and intent of their community engagement demonstrated great quality and commitment. The programs developed by MICA are community- and youth-oriented, a matter of vital importance for me because I teach at a school that believes precisely in community work, activism and social transformation. MICA gave me that same transformative energy that I always seek to achieve in my daily work.
MICA’s renovated building, located within the community that houses the community arts program, impressed me. I could appreciate the historic commitment that this institution has developed with the arts. In the meetings I was excited to see the intellectual and moral commitment of the students and faculty to the work of transforming the realities of underserved communities. The majority of the students are also committed to protecting their environment, influencing the present in order to assure a more just future.
I feel the same commitment as a young Puerto Rican student. If together we combine our energy to work to provide the necessary resources to marginal communities, there is no doubt we will have a positive impact. The possibilities opened by international student exchanges, sharing of information and advocacy strategies driven by the arts provide us all endless opportunities to transform inequities and have a broader public to address and engage in the work.
It is my belief that artistic and social projects must go hand in hand, as strategies and practice are implemented to assure social transformation. Therefore the discussions that developed around the concept of developing a community arts advocacy program in Puerto Rico, networking with institutions of higher education in the States, were a an important step. The opportunity for the creation of an initiative that networks students, community advocates and scholars to work together to further this work is needed. Therefore the initial conversations around the creation of the Community Arts University Without Walls as discussed by Marta Moreno Vega begins to address an initiative that will connect and expand our community arts work.
I hope that the development of this collaborative work between CEAPRC, MICA, NYU, the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute and others is more than an initial attempt for cooperation and that it is the beginning of a communication channel between students, faculty and community advocates that will contribute to our human expressions and the transformation we all want in this world. I feel that we are on the right path.