Exploring Issues in Race, Identity

March 19, 2012

School Without Walls students will create a video as part of the Asian American Youth Program.

Huddled in a circle, a close-knit group of about a dozen School Without Walls students gathered late one recent afternoon at Building J for one of their many complex discussions about race.

Though only in their teens, you’d never know it listening to the conversation. The students tackle tough questions—like what it means to have an inclusive, diversity-rich environment—with a level of maturity and ability to express feelings far beyond their years.

The group is part of the Asian American Youth Program led by Dana Tai Soon Burgess, M.F.A. ’94, chair of GW’s Department of Theatre and Dance. The initiative, funded through a community grant from the District’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs and under the Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company, is in its third year. Each semester, a group of students recruited by Mr. Burgess—some new, some back from the previous semester—get together for field trips and discussions centered on race and identity.

“They are so sophisticated,” Mr. Burgess observed recently. “It’s amazing to me. When you give them the opportunity to converse openly with their peers—and not be judgmental and just hear what’s on their mind and just go along with the dialogue—they’re very intelligent.”

And that’s just what Mr. Burgess does. Punctuating the dialogue only with encouraging words like “Oh, so cool!” and “That is so interesting!” Mr. Burgess is part cheerleader, part nurturing teacher, gently prodding the dialogue and challenging the students to think about their identity and how it shapes their world view—and the world’s view of them.

The current group is working on its final project. Shortly after a recent group session, the students broke off to explore their childhood, their identity, their take on race issues—all in front of a camera.

“When I’m in the States, a lot of the time people don’t know what I am,” one of the participants, a 16-year-old Filipino American, tells the camera during his interview. “I know they have a lot of misconceptions that I’m Chinese. They say, ‘Oh, hey, Jackie Chan’ and stuff like that. But that was really when I was younger; it’s not so much like that anymore. So far, because I live in D.C., it’s been a pretty easy experience for me. Especially growing up and getting used to my own skin, I’m not really worried so much. People ask me what I am, but I don’t mind it actually. I like it a lot. Because it shows that I don’t look like one race more than another.”

Footage like this will be edited down with the help of Drew Loughlin, a freelance filmmaker, and they’ll add personal photos with a 3-D effect. Then it’ll all be put to student-played music. The final product isn’t just a video but a “short film,” as Mr. Loughlin sees it. He searches for a common theme that runs through the piece, and said he really enjoys working with the students.

“They’re always a little nervous at first to get in front of the camera, but after a while they loosen up and you can tell they’re really enjoying the filmmaking process,” he said.

Mr. Burgess is clearly invested in his students. And though he usually comes to their meetings with a lesson plan, he knows that when they get off track, they’re still going to take away what he wants them to by the end of the program.

“I really want them to be able to feel a real sense of pride in their identity, and have the ability to move through their life feeling clear about who they are, what their purpose is in life, and that they are empowered individuals who can succeed,” he said. “And for them to know that they are part of a multifaceted changing America. And they’re a very important part.”

The group’s video project will be ready by the end of April or beginning of May. Also on the horizon is a screening of three of the program’s past videos at Busboys and Poets, 1025 5th St., NW, in May. And on April 5 and 6, the Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company celebrates its 20th Anniversary Dance Concert at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre.