PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 6: Migrant Stories and Rights, Inside Out

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the fifth in a series of blogs profiling the USDAC’s Policy Prototype projects, seven projects across the U.S. receiving micro-grants to document their work related to the proposals in “Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform.”

“Playback Theatre” is a type of interactive improvisational theater work that has attracted practitioners around the world (learn more here). It is often used in group work to address conflicts and spur dialogue. In her Policy Prototype proposal, Heidi Winters Vogel described a series of storytelling events in communities of migrant workers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, places where the residents were often unaware of the extent of their legal rights and the groups that exist to pursue them. This partnership between Inside Out Playback Theatre at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA (where Heidi taught theater for many years; she’s now at Wabash College in Indiana) and the Legal Aid Justice Center of Charlottesville, VA, yielded a Participatory Theatre with Migrant Workers Toolkit the Justice Center plans to share with other groups serving migrant workers.

Heidi’s proposal connected to Platform point 6: “Integrate community cultural development and the work of artists into all social programs affecting culture.”

Our partner agency, Legal Aid Justice Center, is building capacity in the migrant worker communities for resistance to exploitation. The most persistent barrier the Center encounters is the workers' fear of seeking help. Inside Out Playback Theatre storytelling events provide a way for camp residents to share their stories and connect with Legal Aid representatives in a welcoming and safe atmosphere. Inside Out provides bilingual entertainment honoring the cultures and stories of the people laboring to feed the United States.

Or, as the Toolkit put it in a bullet-list of essential preparation:

  • Recognize audience members’ vulnerability. Some in the audience are documented and some are not but all are working at the pleasure of the American companies. They are one injury, complaint or reputation as a troublemaker away from deportation or worse.

  • Accepting giving up control of the stories offered to the audience to build trust. Playback Theatre is in service to the stories and the needs (often unrecognized by company members) present. Also, serving the storytellers, not the goals of the partner organizations.

The prototype project had already completed its first stage when Heidi applied for the Policy Prototype micro-grant. Inside Out company members spent several days on the Eastern Shore early in Legal Aid's outreach to summer agricultural workers, hosting bilingual storytelling events at two migrant camps and one trailer park—mostly Spanish-English but also Haitian Creole-English. Legal Aid found that residents were more willing to engage after these events, and definitely eager to have more theater experiences.

Inside Out Playback Theatre performance with migrant workers, Eastern Shore Virginia, summer 2017

Inside Out Playback Theatre performance with migrant workers, Eastern Shore Virginia, summer 2017

Heidi stressed the vulnerability of migrant workers and thus the challenge of offering help. “For obvious reasons their positions are tenuous. They serve at the mercy of the large tomato-canning companies that work out there. A white person coming in and asking to work with them and asking questions about their time there and what difficulties they experience, they're reticent to share. When we asked them to share their stories by coming in to do teatro with them, it became a completely different environment.  When we came back a second year it was even better because people remembered and invited their friends, so there was an even larger turnout. It really built on the work that they were doing."

The Toolkit evolved “primarily based on our second year,” Heidi told me. “We did four events in the course of a week, one each day. We talk in the Toolkit about developing a new form of community story. We found the first year that when we were in groups that were primarily men, one person would say, ‘I had this experience,’ and somebody else would jump in and say, ‘I had this experience.’ They wanted to share together. They didn't want to go deeply into a single story. We talked about that and came up with a solution which was different than we normally do, saying ‘let's all contribute to a community story.’ That was particularly effective the second year.”

She described the situation the project encountered on Virginia’s Eastern Shore:

We primarily worked in two different kinds of locations. There are a couple of trailer parks where families would live and whole families would come. The other locations would be barracks where they would be housing the workers, primarily men but some women as well. This past year there were more Creole-speaking people from Haiti, though Spanish speakers were still the majority. As the current administration limits the amount of Central Americans coming into the country, more Haitians have taken advantage of the work. We don't have as much language capacity in Haitian Creole, so that is something we would like to improve.

I asked if key themes emerged from the stories. “It was unexpected,” Heidi explained, “how little people would talk about the pain of leaving family but the joy of providing for their family, sending money home, how important it was to them to be doing something to contribute to the well-being of their family. And I was surprised. I expected the privation they felt from having to be away from their family or the stories of difficult crossings, and while those things emerged, they were outweighed, at least in terms of our storytelling, by the idea that they were able to be productive, that they were able to do something very positive.”

Inside Out Playback Theatre performance with migrant workers, Eastern Shore Virginia, summer 2017

Inside Out Playback Theatre performance with migrant workers, Eastern Shore Virginia, summer 2017

Openness to engaging with Legal Aid changed markedly.

Legal Aid felt that they were able to connect with some individuals more deeply. A couple of people notified them that they had an accident and they had short-term need for some aid. They were able to meet those needs which then led to more people being able to trust them not just in terms of “I need this” but “I want to share this with you” or “this other person is needing something.” So it became more communal. Leaders emerged from the different groups that were willing to meet with Legal Aid representatives and strategize how to make things better. At the end of the season, they had a big gathering mostly led by members of the migrant worker groups stepping up and taking leadership as opposed to the Legal Aid people. Legal Aid people told us that ‘the best thing about Playback was that it created a different atmosphere, more cultural and festive, to engage with people than just the approach of talking about problems. We saw the need for communal experiences to build trust with migrant workers.”

 “The families are close-knit,” Heidi explained, “so there was a lot of celebration of the children’s achievement. And their food, lots of stories about what somebody had made and what they had contributed to a group meal and a celebration that emerged from that. It was so inspiring, that sense of community, because the food was something both the Creole-speaking group and the Spanish-speaking group shared. They talked about coming together to share each other's food, and they'd be like, "Oh, I want to try that."

For others contemplating similar projects, Heidi stressed having an ally in the organization you want as a partner. “It took us having someone that understood Playback deeply, that was a member of Legal Aid, to make that initial event happen. It is difficult for such organizations to imagine how this theater work could be helpful, so I don't know how to advise a group in approaching them except to say if you have someone that has a connection, that can speak to it, that personal link was very important. Now we wouldn't need it because we've demonstrated the importance to them but at first, that was vital.”

One challenge that Citizen Artists often encounter is conveying the value of arts-based organizing to those who haven’t experienced it directly. In the case of this Prototype Project, a member of the Inside Out company had moved to Charlottesville to work with Legal Aid, creating an organic connection. I asked how the company would start to build such a relationship in the absence of a natural ally.

We've done a number of free events where we've invited different organizational leadership in the area. Legal Aid would’ve been a little more of a stretch because there’s not an office here. But that’s how we've gotten into the schools. That’s how we've gotten into other organizations in this area, by inviting them to come and experience it themselves. If the connections can be made the results were so incredibly profound—far more even than I expected them to be as a true believer in theatrical interventions. Even if it’s a friend of a friend, finding those community connections is the way. I wish I had a magic bullet, but I don't know what it is except talking to people and giving lots of demos. See it work, I’ve become an even bigger believer in the way we can build communities with this work.

If you’d like to explore bringing any points in Standing for Cultural Democracy to life in your community, please feel free to contact us at While Policy Prototype micro-grants were a one-time thing, we can still offer technical assistance and help share information with the wider world if you have a project that promotes one of more of the Platform points, so call on us.