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Chicago, IL 60660

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Multiculturalism is an action, it’s a way of promoting understanding - Jun 24, 2009

by Andrea García González | Aula Intercultural

Andrea García González: You have worked over the years with a wide range of groups: people with disabilities, young people with diverse sexual orientations, women survivors of violence and prison. With all this experience, what ways have you found as best practices to work in multicultural education?

Salome Chasnoff: One of the ways to expose students to different cultures, different points of view, different ways of seeing a topic, is to screen movies in the classroom that can provoke discussion. In this way, the teacher need not be viewed as promoting a particular perspective, but rather creating a space where people can be presented with diverse views that can come through videos and guest speakers as well as through allowing students in the classroom to express themselves around different issues.The teacher is only the moderator. To me, multiculturalism is not just a concept or a description, it’s an action. It’s a way of actively addressing topics, for example, that permits the expression of the diversity that already exists in the room. It’s a way of promoting understanding. You create opportunities. We as activists and art educators do that, and teachers could do that too.

So Beyondmedia uses video and art as tools to promote understanding about the situations of those who participate in the projects. How do you work in that direction?

S.C.: The workshops last many months. Through this process, participants open up increasingly about the issues that they deal with in their lives. We ultimately focus on one issue that is central to their identity as a group. We give them many different kinds of activities to express themselves artistically and creatively: they make journals, performances, photography, and so on, learning to talk about their issues through art. We guide them in making a group film about it. So the film is expressed through their own voices, out of their own lived experiences, and results from this intensive group process. Afterwards, those involved in the project screen the film for different audiences and facilitate post-discussions. Through this process, they become experts on their issue, and they assume leadership roles in public discussion. It is a way for them to transform their personal experience into personal expertise and raise public awareness of their issues.

Tara Malik: It also lets them take ownership over their own lives, giving them a sense and form of control. They recognize how they perceive themselves and how other people are perceiving them, because they are creating the media themselves, instead of somebody else pointing a camera at them.

You work with difficult situations that people in the group have to deal with. How are you able to create a comfortable atmosphere?

S.C.: By teaching them how to use the cameras and take ownership of the product and the process, they feel they are representing themselves. We also view media made by others, commercial and alternative media, and discuss how people like them are being represented. These media literacy sessions expose them to the politics of representation and give them a critical perspective, which they bring to their own work. So, gradually, they become not just victims of violence or discrimination or whatever; they become critics of a system using cameras to present their critique. They become empowered and the atmosphere reflects that.

T.M.: When there are safe spaces created, people are comfortable in them because after a period of time there is a reciprocal nature about it. I don’t think Beyondmedia people go into the programs thinking “I’m going to teach you this, my knowledge is very valuable and I’m going to pass it on to you.” It’s more a sharing back and forth that builds that comfort and mutual respect.

How would you move this experience with groups into the classroom?

S.C.: It’s important to recognize that the students have lives outside the classroom. They are dealing with the same issues of violence, harassment, discrimination, ageism, racism, gender oppression, and so on. When teachers recognize and acknowledge students’ outside lives, the academic environment can offer opportunities to make school more relevant. I don’t mean the classrooms should become all about students’ lives, but try and make connections where they already exist. You can talk about the issues through a movie, so people don’t have to directly expose themselves.

Your work has a feminist point of view that you engage in each workshop or process. How do you address the intersection between gender and multiculturalism?

T.M.: A good way to address this is to invite guest speakers who have different gender identities, who are maybe from the same cultural background as the students.

S.C.: We have a movie called “Can LGTBQ + School = Safe?” that explores the problems faced by queer youth in school settings. The principal of one school who was interviewed in the video explains that years ago he encountered a former student at an event who told him, “I wish I had known when I was in the school that you were gay. That would have made all the difference.” He learnt so much from that moment. He decided from then on to be out. This is true for any gender expression, any cultural identity, any point of view: A teacher is in the position to help students feel accepted. There are many ways to communicate that acceptance: by the films that are shown in the classroom, by the guests brought in, the language used, the books read, the flyers posted on the walls… It’s so much easier for students to learn when they feel accepted.

Your last video is about sex education, a big issue for students, and difficult to approach. How did you work on it? How did you detect the students’ needs?

T.M.: Three organizations collaborated on the project to be able to approach the subject of HIV and AIDS in a variety of ways: through media production and media literacy, theater and dance, health and sex education.

S.C.: We started three years ago. In July of 2007 we facilitated a two-week intensive workshop with 28 youth. We spent a year preparing the curriculum for it. One of the organizations spent that year interviewing people about their experiences of sexual education. They asked them what they knew about sexuality, how they learnt it, what they learnt in schools, what they learnt in their families, what they learnt in their communities, what they would have wanted to learn… People of all ages were interviewed, including some who were in school a long time ago.

What did you find in that research about sex education?

S.C.: For the most part, people are fed misinformation, myths and morality. Fear is used to try and control young people’s behaviors, and the results are often not only not helpful, but harmful. We wanted to be very conscious of the effects that kind of education could have on a person’s life or sense of self-worth. Our objective was to create an educational environment that was open, honest, positive, LTBGQ inclusive, and directed toward promoting good health and well being - and promoting reality. By reality, I mean taking into account how young people actually live their lives, so the information we were sharing would be useful to them.

Why do you think the people you interviewed received harmful sex education?

S.C.: There are many reasons. For one, I think educators themselves are not equipped to deal with these sensitive topics. In the United States, many people that are charged with teaching these classes are not sex education teachers; they could be science teachers but most of them are gym teachers. Another reason is adults are not in a position of taking responsibility; that is, they don’t want to sound as if they are promoting open sexual practice among their students. A third is that, in public schools particularly, everybody is very worried about what parents think, as parents have a lot of power to exert over the professional survival of teachers and administrators. Finally, it is not uncommon for teachers to use the sex ed classroom to advance their own religious views. Sex ed is not taught like other academic subjects, where the teacher wants to transmit some form of knowledge. Here it’s often to scare kids into behaving in a certain way. Many teachers make students sign an abstinence agreement. This is an example of a class that relates to students’ lives but often in a destructive way.

T.M.: This is especially hard for LBGTQ youth. A lot of them were saying that teachers are promoting their own personal agendas in the classroom, so if a gay student were asking “How I can have safe sex,” the teacher would say “That’s not allowed and you shouldn’t do it,” instead of answering the question. The students have to use other ways of gathering information, some of which may be unreliable.

Did you find a diversity of cultural backgrounds in the students you working with or in your research? How can you make a video around this issue that includes several voices? Could people from different backgrounds understand the message or feel that these are their concerns too?

S.C.: The approach we take is that diverse people can meet around a particular topic and create a space where all points of view and all experiences are valid and needed. So then you end up with a piece that a wide range of people can relate to. Young people are always curious about what other youth are doing in other parts of the city - especially in a place like Chicago, a big city where neighborhoods can be pretty homogenous. Young people feel trapped in their neighborhoods and confined to too-narrow lives, and they have this desire to move out and learn about what other young people are thinking and feeling, what they’re dealing with.

So the point is to connect with the age, with the motivation of young people, regardless of the cultural origin.

S.C.: Yes, that’s what I mean.

Do you think that for teachers this video could be useful to start speaking about sex education?

S.C.: I think it is really useful. Every young person has a lot of questions, which the video attempts to answer in a direct and easy to understand way. The video addresses what HIV is, who gets it, how you can prevent it, what happen if you get it. The voices in the video are young people like them, voices they can trust, so it is a kind of ‘safe space.’ The teacher in the video and the health educators model an open attitude. The video encourages teachers to have open discussions in their classrooms. There is an educator’s workbook on the DVD that provides teachers and group facilitators with all kinds of tools for having those discussions. There is also a youth activism guide to assist students in getting involved in the issue and making a difference.