The Arts

Around the world, Baha'i youth workshops promote tolerance

In Brief: 

Spontaneously and with no central plan or direction, Bahá'í youth in some 50 countries have formed dance and theater groups that promote a new moral vision for young people. Their enthusiasm has touched the hearts of many. 

PLAU, Germany - After touring through 19 countries in 12 months, members of the Diversity Dance Workshop were used to surprises, from finding a planned border crossing through Croatia impossible because of a war to a quirky new minibus that had an unusual series of three flat tires.

But for many Workshop members the biggest shock of the year came when, during a visit to this small down-and-out agricultural village in the former East Germany, several avowed "skinheads" - reactionary young people who shave their heads to signal their belief in racial and ethnic separation - became fast friends with the theater group, whose main message is that diversity is good.

Following a performance in a high school, a group of skinheads began making fun of the group, whose dynamic music and dance routines carry a strong antidrug and antiracism message. The skinheads continued to heckle the theater group at a post-performance youth meeting, objecting to the fact its members come from many different races and backgrounds.

But later, after one of the theater group's members had approached the skinheads, and after the group's persistent warmth and openness began to have an effect, some of the skinheads let down their guard and began to engage in a dialogue.

"They told us how they don't like to see foreigners and immigrants coming into Germany," said Diesel Schrader, the Workshop member who initiated the discussion with the skinheads. "They feel they are taking their jobs. But we had deep discussion about all of this, and then the next day they came looking for us, because they wanted to be together with us again."

Over the next few days, the skinheads became some of the group's biggest fans, showing up at many of their performances here, hanging out with them and generally reversing their initial attitude.

"At our last performance, they were the ones who put the audience on fire, and pushed for encores," said Vahid Khamsi, a 20-year-old Workshop member from Switzerland. "And at the end of the show when we said which countries we were from, they encouraged us, cheered after each country. They even liked our antiracism dance."

A Transformative Process

This sort of enthusiastic and transformative reaction to the Diversity Dance Workshop (DDW), which is composed mostly of young Bahá'ís, is not at all uncommon - either for the DDW itself, or for many of the hundreds of other Bahá'í youth dance and theater groups that have been established in more than 50 countries around the world.

Founded in the United States of America in the 1970s to reach disaffected young people battered by racism, gang violence and drug abuse, Bahá'í youth workshops seek to touch young hearts with a message of positive values and spiritual principles.

They strive to do this through a two-step process. First, workshop members are encouraged to explore cutting edge social issues themselves through an intensive process of group consultation, combined with improvisational training in acting and dance. In the second step, which is sometimes nearly simultaneous with the first, the workshops begin to give free performances for their peers, offering up a self-realized message that stresses ending racial prejudice, freedom from substance abuse, the emancipation of women and other progressive social principles.

As a process for reaching youth with a constructive message, these workshops have been phenomenally successful. They have spread out organically around the world, without any central organization or direction, replicating as youth have been inspired by their peers.

And as the workshop concept has spread, new and constantly changing groups of young people have created a distinctive and ever-evolving portfolio of inspiring dance and music routines that borrow from cultures worldwide, from the "rap" and "hip-hop" styles that originated in the U.S. urban centers to traditional indigenous dances and songs from whatever nations a particular group's membership might happen to represent. With diversity as a watchword, the workshops all project a distinctive sense of world-mindedness that is reflected not only in their repertoire but in their composition.

"The number one message of the workshops is 'unity in diversity.' We are trying to say that all people, despite their differences, are created to give something back to the world and that the best way to solve problems is to work together." 

-- Oscar DeGruy, Founder of the first Bahá'í Youth Workshop

"The number one message of the workshops is 'unity in diversity,'" said Oscar DeGruy, who started the first workshop in Los Angeles in 1970s and has since been involved in explaining and refining the concept around the world. "We are trying to say that all people, despite their differences, are created to give something back to the world and that the best way to solve problems is to work together," said Mr. DeGruy. "The workshop process itself is a multiracial, multicultural experience for young people."

Although almost all of the workshops are composed of youth with little or no formal training in the arts, a number have reached a high level of professionalism. Bahá'í youth workshops have given performances as part of the cultural activities at major United Nations conferences, at regional arts festivals, and at various youth fora. But whether the performances are professional or amateurish, their reception has been almost uniformly positive, touching the hearts of audiences virtually everywhere. Consider:

The Third Ocean Waves Youth Workshop, composed of 32 youth from 11 countries, toured four cities in China in July and August, aiming to establish bonds of friendship, brotherhood and love. "We have had special invitations by high government officials and been entertained by some of the most talented artists and singers in Northern China," said Dr. Firaydun Mithaq, the Workshop's adult director. "Most important, we have touched the hearts of the youth that we have shared so many inspirational experiences with and they have touched ours. As a small group of us shared a meal, a local Chinese youth remarked, 'I think if all people believed in these messages of unity in diversity, our world would be a very peaceful place.'"

In Greece, the Dance Workshop Ablaze began as a local youth project in Thessaloniki and, with help from other youth in Europe, launched a two-week tour throughout Greece in June, drawing enthusiastic crowds and extensive coverage in the local news media. "Being with the group was an experience of spiritual upliftment and a kind of peeking into the near future when youth will change the world," said Jutta Strieth, an adult who helped drive the group's van. "The spirit of unity, love and understanding for each other, mixed with regular consultations, prayers and fun time, caught the adults quite often by surprise."

In Ecuador, there are at least 11 Bahá'í youth workshops functioning in the country. Last February, 25 representatives from the various workshops came together for a three week training course and then embarked on a seven-city tour, visiting not only schools but also a senior citizens' home and a youth correctional center.

Roots in Racial Turmoil

Mr. DeGruy and his late wife Freddie first started holding youth acting and dance workshops in their home in 1974 as an antidote to the turmoil afflicting young people in the Los Angeles black community. "Initially, it was geared toward youth in our neighborhood," said Mr. DeGruy, who is now 47 years old. "We had started out working with a neighborhood theater group, but gradually, because we were Bahá'ís, we found the kids were interested in the Faith, and, also, Bahá'í youth began to get involved."

"With drama, you can solve problems that you might have to face. Like someone offering drugs. You can act out how you should react."

-- Aixa Sobin, involved with Bahá'í youth workshops since 1989. 

They soon saw that the arts, especially when tempered with the moral and spiritual principles of the Bahá'í Faith, could have a powerful transforming effect. "With drama, you can solve problems that you might have to face," said Aixa Sobin, 26-year-old dance teacher of Puerto Rican background who has been involved with Bahá'í youth workshops since 1989. "Like someone offering drugs. You can act out how you should react. It also becomes a good way for youth to become enlightened and to learn more about social principles. And to learn to work in unity with others."

The early Los Angeles Workshops performed at various Bahá'í events and conferences, and soon the idea spread throughout the country. "It was self-replication," said Mr. DeGruy. "Other kids in other communities saw us and said, 'You know, why can't we do this too?'"

Because of the decentralized nature of the workshops, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many are in operation at any time. Mr. DeGruy said in 1995 he took a survey and found more than 100 in the United States and as many worldwide, established in at least 50 countries.

Over time, a number of standard dance numbers have evolved. One of the most powerful is called simply the "Racism Dance." In it, the dancers are divided into two groups, one group wearing all white and the other wearing all black, symbolizing the division between races. Most of the members of both groups are also wearing blindfolds. At the start, two young members from each group, too innocent apparently to be wearing blindfolds, come together in the middle and start to become friendly. They are then harshly dragged back to their own groups by the blindfolded adults, who communicate through gestures their mistrust of and hatred for the other group. And the youngest ones are given their own blindfolds to wear.

In the dramatic climax, however, the young ones shed their blindfolds, return to center stage, and demonstrate to all that the races can unite. At the end, their example leads everyone to remove their blindfolds - symbolic, obviously, of blind prejudice - and all come together in a final joyous dance sequence.

While the routine may sound simple - even melodramatic - on paper, when enacted by a group of sincere youth, it can have a powerful impact on an audience, as was clear when a workshop based in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA, performed for a group of public school teachers who were attending a multicultural training session just before the start of school there in September.

"If I had opened my mouth, I would have started crying," said Lola Conley, a second grade teacher in Springfield, whose comments were echoed by others. "They can teach us so much about where we should be today. It captured reality and gave us hope that this is the way the world could be."

A Model for Moral Education

At the 1995 NGO Forum on Women in China, the parallel NGO meeting to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, a special six-member workshop from the United States performed five times and was selected to perform in the closing ceremony, before some 15,000 people.

"We performed two pieces: a dance on domestic violence showing women as peacemakers, and a rap on the nobility and dignity of women, showing and the importance of women and men working in partnership," said Leili Towfigh, a 27-year-old graduate student who participated in the China trip and is now secretary of the national Bahá'í youth committee in the United States. "Quite a few people seemed surprised at this way of presenting ideas. Some expected to be entertained by the pieces, but soon realized that they were seeing results of a long process. It was a challenge to stress the developmental purpose and thrust of the Bahá'í Youth Workshops, but once we did, our audience began to think about how they could apply these ideas at home.

"To name just a few examples, we were approached by people from Bougainville Island of Papua New Guinea who were trying to find new ways to stop gang violence. They said to us, 'your movement would be the only hope of eradicating gang violence on our island.' Another person from Pakistan wanted to address the role of boys in the self-esteem of girls. And we were approached by a woman from southern Sudan living as a refugee in northern Kenya who used the arts to address the trauma of children in refugee camps, and was interested in the Workshop as a holistic model of education," said Ms. Towfigh.

"Bahá'í workshops have used the black and white imagery of the Racism Dance to talk about wars over national borders in Cyprus; they have used it to talk about tribalism in Cameroon, and they have used it to talk about war between ethnic groups, as in Eritrea and Ethiopia." 

--Leili Towfigh, long-time workshop participant

Ms. Towfigh also said the Racism Dance has been translated by a workshops around the world to address other forms of racial, national or ethnic prejudice. "Bahá'í workshops have used the black and white imagery of the dance to talk about wars over national borders in Cyprus; they have used it to talk about tribalism in Cameroon, and they have used it to talk about war between ethnic groups, as in Eritrea and Ethiopia," said Ms. Towfigh. "It has been animated by whatever culture is involved."

The workshops flourish with the help of local Bahá'í communities, who often give support by providing a place, chaperoning and/or helping to book performances, either for a local workshop or one that is touring. Local Bahá'í communities all over Europe, for example, served as agents for the Diversity Dance Workshop during its year-long tour, which ended in September. Not only did they obtain performance venues, often in local schools or civic centers, but they would also provide room and board for the group, which traveled under the overall sponsorship of the Bahá'í community of Germany.

Local communities also help with the careful arrangements to ensure that the young men and young women in any touring workshops are housed in separate quarters, in line with the Faith's strict teaching that sexual relations are reserved for marriage.

Indeed, this provision highlights one aspect to the distinctive dynamism that seems to infect the workshops. Bahá'í youth strive to lead lives of high moral principle, eschewing drugs and alcohol and promising to lead lives of sexual chastity - attitudes that are often in sharp contrast to those held by youth in the world at large. At the same time, however, as many observers have noticed, Bahá'í youth manage to maintain a hip sense of "cool" that nearly always earns them the respect of their peers, as the incident with the skinheads in Germany suggests.

Fiana Keleta, an 18-year-old member of the Workshop, said at first the skinheads were wearing combat boots, leather jackets and T-shirts with Nazi slogans. "But, at the end, when they met with us, they would take off their T-shirts and turn them inside out. And they stopped drinking in our presence," said Ms. Keleta, who is from the United States. "And during our final performance, the skinheads were sitting in the front row. And one of the girls with them, while were doing our multicultural dance, she was crying. She was really touched."

- Reporting contributed by Jessica Dacey