Our Voices

Increasing Student Engagement and Empowerment Through Theater: Voces Contra El Poder in Sonora

According to a recent poll, 50% of students say they are not engaged in what they are learning and 80% of educators are worried about students’ lack of engagement. Theater work, like the recent theater workshop in Sonora, Mexico, can increase student engagement and empower them to become human rights defenders.

In March, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights partnered with El Día Después to facilitate a three day theater workshop titled Voces Contra El Poder (VCEP), or Voices Against the Power, in Sonora, Mexico, which is one of five cities that will host this inspiring theater work. VCEP is dedicated to honoring human rights defenders including journalists, indigenous people, and those fighting for women’s rights in Mexico and connecting students to these defenders’ stories through theater. By telling the stories of these brave defenders who are risking their lives to expose injustice, students pay tribute to them and, through these stories, are invited into the movement to protect and promote human rights.

Before attending the workshops, the university students prepared by identifying a defender whose story they wanted to share, most of whom were local, ranging from a member of the Yaqui people defending their land and water to a mom working for disability rights for her child, to many women looking for disappeared family members. Through pre-programming exercises, students learned how to conduct interviews and how to use their research to write dramatic monologues. These monologues were then refined and performed during the workshop.

For many students, this was their first introduction to human rights. They spent the first day learning a framework for human rights and the background of the Speak Truth to Power Play, “Voices From Beyond the Dark” written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Ariel Dorfman. After watching an introductory video from Mexican actor and director Diego Luna and hearing from organizer Gabriela Loaria about the VCEP process in Mexico, students were given local insight into human rights defenders.

Local human rights groups, such as Sonora Trans, were invited to present on local human rights issues, giving the human rights framework the students just learned about a personal and local context. Representatives from indigenous communities, journalists, and groups that work with disappeared journalists and disappeared women have also presented at past workshops, encouraging students to ask what defending human rights practically looks like in their local areas. Students then shared the stories of the human rights defenders whose lives and work they planned to highlight in their monologues, an exercise that was both thought provoking and enlightening, helping students to connect with others and hear new and inspiring stories.

To prepare for workshopping their monologues, students were guided through a lesson about how to write effective monologues and the most powerful ways to tell a story. The next day, students participated in vocal and body theater exercises designed to promote the synergy of the group and introduce them to elements of performance. After sharing their monologues with other students and receiving group feedback, they had the opportunity to rewrite their pieces in preparation for their performances. Students were coached on how to deliver these performances by local professional actors.

These powerful performances, staged on the last day, allowed students to embody the stories of the human rights defenders they wrote about. Telling and performing another person’s story creates a feeling of responsibility for the stories and builds deep connections while also teaching empathy. Watching the performances encourages audiences to relate to the defender on an emotional level and galvanizes them to want to take action themselves, which is exactly what the last exercise of the workshop is designed to do. During the last session, students were guided to think through how they could share this workshop with their schools and take action on the issues they saw tackled by human rights defenders showcased in the monologues.

Participants noted that they experienced an evolution in both their understanding of human rights and local human rights issues and reported feeling empowered to take action. Carlos Corral, a professor at the Sonora Institute of Technology (ITSON) who brought a group of students to the workshop, praised it as “a great experience” for both his “academic development as a teacher and for the wonderful students,” noting that “it had an impact on many areas, from the social, to experiencing how powerful theater is.” The “reflections on the defenders,” he continued, “makes it possible to resonate the voices that deserve to be heard. I left with a heartfelt sense of humanity on the surface, more committed to myself and the community.”

If you would like to bring this monologue workshop to your school and powerfully engage your students in local issues while also building their research, writing, and performance skills, view our how-to manual on our theater page to learn more. Additionally, look for information about upcoming summer theater camps in our next newsletter.

Thank you to our partner organizers Gabriela Loari, Maria Panella, and Bry Garcia who helped to design and deliver this empowering workshop.