On May 15th we kicked off of city wide community engagement project CrossTalk DC. Over 150 members of the DC community gathered in the Folger Theatre for a welcome from Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore and some short Shakespeare salutations, then professor and program manager Caleen Jennings led all of us in a choral reading of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew…”, from The Merchant of Venice and asked participants to consider “otherness” as they engaged with the language and each other, lifting the words from the page and connecting them to their own personal experiences as an “other.” Next, actors read short scenes from both The Merchant of Venice and District Merchants as a prompt for fuller discussion. Breakout sessions followed in both of our Reading Rooms. Volunteer discussion leaders facilitated guided conversation among groups of 10 on personally experiencing being an “other.” After, attendees came together in the Theatre to share stories and final thoughts before breaking bread and enjoying continuing to get to know each other.
Since then, we had some time to reflect on the success of the day. As an NEH supported project we surveyed participants and after crunching all of the numbers here are some interesting bits:
Who attended the CrossTalk DC public forum at the Folger Shakespeare Library?
74% of participants lived, worked- or lived and worked, in DC. 26% of participants stepped foot into the Folger Shakespeare Library for the first time as a result of the CrossTalk DC public forum.
What is the most important thing you took away from this event?
- Wow! So many things! I’m amazed that a theatre company/house could be so intuitive, genuine and progressive. Almost like free therapy.
- I can recognize my inherit bias and operate outside of it.
- That I am not alone. There are others who want to celebrate our differences and make a difference.
- Willingness of people to have this conversations.
- The possibility to dive deep in these issues with strong leadership and a well devised structure.
- There are so many people invested in this conversation! The challenge is getting those without buy in to participate
- Safe spaces are critical for courageous conversations
- Difficult topics like Race, Identity, religion can be addressed if the correct parameters are in place
- That in order to break down racial barriers, we must have these conversations. The more uncomfortable the more productive
What would you change about the program?
- Multiple sessions must be had to offer change
- I think it would benefit from having a greater % of the time devoted to performance & more explicit linkage between the performances & the discussion. I also think the timeframe could & should be compressed- not less discussion but tighter management of the intervals between sessions. The final session could have been compressed.
- I would love to hear more actionable items that we can engage in moving forward
- The potential for great conversations is here, but I walked away from our group time unsure of how we make a positive impact on these issues moving forward.
- Reaching out to a different segment of the population – the population. This was a well educated already engaged group – it was a choice and privilege to come here.
- The opening prompt questions were not intellectually stimulating and didn’t yield interesting discussions. Let groups create something, not just talk.
- Learn more about Shakespeare tackled these issues in his time.