Newsletter, December 2017


Arts and Humanities Civic Engagement


Cultural Agents is an interface between academic learning and civic engagement. The Initiative promotes arts and humanities as social resources.

General News:
Cultural Agents




This past semester, Doris Sommer and Mercedes Becerra co-taught the Cultural Agents course at Harvard with a new twist: Global Health. Inviting guest lecturers from both the arts world and the public health world, Doris introduced students to the efficacy of arts interventions in public health crises. For their final project, students had to design an arts intervention for a public health problem of their choosing and present it at the culminating event, the Cultural Agents Fair. Many students focused on mental health and employed forum theater, music, dance, jewelry making, design, etc. as their intervention.

Check out the list of projects here


Cali, Colombia hosted its International Book Fair this past October. As the fair celebrated Jorge Isaacs’ legacy, Doris Sommer presented on Isaacs’ María. The fair’s director, Juan Camilo Sierra Restrepo, thanked participants for helping Cali to realize its mission to make Colombia a country with strong readers and a healthy book market. The 2018 Cali International Book Fair will be held October 18-28, 2018 in el Bulevar del Río, Cali, Colombia. Learn more:




General News:


December 4-5, 2017. A group of fifteen gathered at Harvard for a full Pre-Texts workshop dedicated to an excerpt from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Reading the chapter, “Docile Bodies,” the group considered pedagogical systems and democracy in the classroom. Throughout the entire weekend, every “What Did We Do?” round returned to connections between Pre-Texts’ democratizing power and the text’s focus on mechanizing classrooms. Facilitated by Nai Kalema, the workshop took place from 10AM to 1PM, 2PM to 5PM on both Saturday and Sunday. John Vijay read the excerpt out loud as participants made book covers. Following the protocol, the group then wrote down their questions of the text and published them on the clothesline. Everyone was encouraged to take a question and gather in a circle, discussing their thoughts about the question they chose or someone else’s comment. It opened an insightful conversation about educational systems. Following that, the group broke down into teams of three to make statues, using any line from the excerpt. In several cases, it required many minutes of guessing and re-reading the text to find the right line. Afterwards, the group agreed that it would be ideal to choose a specific topic–whether it be a part of speech, rhetorical device, etc.–to act out in a classroom setting, giving students more guidance in their textual search.

After a lunch break, the group moved to the Harvard Art Museums. The first activity was a gallery tour of the current exhibit, “The Philosophy Chamber.” With fifteen minutes to explore the whimsical tools used by Harvard professors at the turn of the nineteenth century, each participant had to select one piece that reminded them of the text and then present it for the rest of the group. From stone rubbings to paintings to electro-shock machines, the chosen works gave unique insights into the text and into the exhibit. From there, the group moved to the museum’s M/Lab, reading newspapers and choosing articles for “Going Out on a Tangent.”

The following day, the group convened in Boylston Hall. The first activity was called “Question Man,” inspired by comedian Steve Allen’s famous routine, where an audience member would provide a phrase and he would reply with a silly question to which the phrase was the answer. In the Pre-Texts version, the group posted lines from the text on a wall and then wrote goofy questions to accompany them. Following “Question Man,” the group made graphic novels based on the text, using recycled posters as the graphics. The final activity of the day was a peripatetic black-out poetry reading. Participants had to construct five haikus, one per paragraph, by blacking out the text and leaving only the words of the poems. The group then traveled outside and wandered through Harvard Yard, sharing their haikus out loud. The day ended in a discussion of how to make evaluations for Pre-Texts workshops in order to collect data and to learn how to improve facilitation.

At Emory University, Pre-Texts is flourishing through the work of the Engaged Learning Program in the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence.  Working with faculty, students, staff and community partners, the director of engaged learning and Pre-Texts capacity builder, Professor Vialla Hartfield-Méndez, works to integrate pedagogical approaches developed in community-based settings into the academy.  Examples are the use of story circles (in the Emory Telling Our Stories Project and other settings) and Pre-Texts workshops. Since spring 2015, Emory faculty and students have been playing with Pre-Texts, participating in workshops, implementing Pre-Texts in at least ten different courses across the university, and using this approach as a way to build university-community partnerships.

Most recently, Hartfield-Méndez facilitated a series of three mini workshops that used excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the point of departure.  The workshops attracted students, faculty and staff from various parts of the university as well two teachers from Maynard Jackson High School in the Atlanta Public Schools network.  As with several previous Pre-Texts workshops at Emory and in the Atlanta area, there was, by design, an intentional mix of people with different roles in the university (from undergraduates to faculty and administrators) and in community organizations.  This approach has proved productive as a way to demonstrate how hierarchies can recede into the background and mutual appreciation and respect can be foregrounded as everyone in the room steps into creative engagement with a challenging text.

Among the participants in the Frankenstein Pre-Texts workshops were Professor Karen Andes (Rollins School of Public Health at Emory) and Danique Gigger, a Master of Public Health student working with Professor Andes.  Gigger is learning to facilitate Pre-Texts and is working on a project to use this methodology with Spanish-speaking immigrant parents as an approach to conversations with their adolescent children about sexual health.  Andes, Gigger and Hartfield-Méndez plan to facilitate Pre-Texts workshops with parents of students in a nearby middle school in spring 2018.


Polly Lauer facilitated a two-session mini workshop on Saturday, December 16, for the Brazilian Consulate in Boston, which included 30 members of the Boston-Area Brazilian community. The group read an excerpt from Clarice Lispector’s Amor. After completing the first steps of the protocol in the morning, participants looked at art in a pop-up gallery. The gallery included fifteen images of both famous and little-known works, such as traditional Dutch ships, Picasso’s “Guernica,” Sally Mann photography, Esther Ma’s “Abstract,” and more. Participants then chose an image and presented how it connected to the text. The next activity centered on song. Participants were told to imagine they were seated next to the protagonist of the story as she suffers a mental breakdown on a train. They then selected songs to calm her down and had to explain why. In chorus, the participants wow’d the facilitator by joining together in singing beautiful, peppy Brazilian songs. The final activity was inspired by the imagery of the excerpt, where the protagonist feels the trees are laughing at her. In pairs, participants wrote dialogues between characters in the story and inanimate objects and then performed them, illuminating new perspectives of the text. The mini workshops were an invitation to the attendees to bring Pre-Texts to their institutions, schools, and organizations. The Boston team hopes to keep working closely with the local Brazilian community!

Cultural Agents was delighted to receive an update from the director of the Futura Schools in Northern Peru. She wrote that the Futura Schools have been applying Pre-Texts at all grade levels. Attaching samples from several grade levels, she shared how teachers have been implementing Pre-Texts in their classrooms. Check out some of their activities and photos here. She noted that the teachers and administration strive “to empower our students in the comprehension of the world.”


Featured Story

Diego Fernández, the Secretary for Social and Urban Integration of Buenos Aires, visited Cultural Agents at Harvard this past fall to give a presentation for the Cultural Humanitarian Agents Seminar series on his work in the Buenos Aires impoverished neighborhood, Villa 31. He recently gave an interview on Radio Belgrano with Viviana Canosa. The following is a translated excerpt:

Viviana: I truly felt impressed by what I saw when I went to Villa 31. After we said goodbye, I stayed talking with stall owners…Tell me about how the idea to urbanize Villa 31 arose.

Diego: What we want to achieve is that everyone has the same opportunities and responsibilities. Esperanza, the stall owner you met, breaks her soul everyday working. It is good that she has the same opportunities: access to credit in the formal economy, a bank account that pays for her living and costs, etc. The most important thing is that neighbors begin to see the future with more optimism, when I think that I can do better and that my effort is going to get more results, I get more strength to work.

Viviana: It’s beautiful to see a city in action. For me, the truth is that it really excites me: 3 schools, headquarters of the Ministry of Education. Tell me what has been done and what there is to do.

Diego: Look, first, in terms of infrastructure, for December of next year, the whole neighborhood is going to have an electric sewer drainage system. We are improving and transforming all of the homes so that they are secure. The ministry is going to have three schools next to it. The building was created in a public contest and is going to be the largest of the public buildings.

Viviana: What happens to the people that need to move?

Diego: The concept is that they cannot live under a highway, so we are relocating all of these people by 2019 to a new housing group that we are building in a neighborhood adjacent to Villa 31, where there had been container stores.

Cambridge News


A call to Cambridge-area volunteers! Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y seek volunteers from now to January 23. To learn more about HSHS (the first student-run homeless shelter in the nation!), HSHS’s services or other volunteer opportunities, please reach out to or visit the HSHS website! You can also learn more about Y2Y (the first student-run youth homeless shelter in the nation!), serving the needs of young adults aged 18-24, by visiting the Y2Y website or emailing

Sign up with HSHS here and Y2Y here!

Dinner: 6:45 PM – 9:15 PM
Evening: 9:00 PM – 11:15 PM
Overnight: 11 PM – 8:30 AM
Breakfast: 6:30 AM – ​8:​3​0 AM
*But if it is Saturday ​morning (and Sunday morning at Y2Y), then it is*
Friday Overnight: 11:00 PM – ​9:30 AM
Saturday Breakfast: 7:30 AM – ​9:30 AM

DINNER — You’ll be making and serving dinner, and perhaps be lucky enough to run on a food salvage trip or collect pastries from the many shops that donate to us.

EVENING — This is a relaxed time to visit with guests as they prepare for bed. It’s usually very quiet and a great opportunity for some wonderful conversations. Help is also often needed in the kitchen to clean-up after dinner and prepare plates of food to hand out at the door.

OVERNIGHT — You’ll stay awake with other volunteers and night-owl guests, basically having more good conversations, watching movies, doing laundry, reading, baking cookies, etc! This is a fantastic shift because it’s a rare opportunity to have long conversations and get to know people well. People often say it’s the best shift! And never fear, we do take turns sleeping — the night is typically divided into three shifts (12-3 AM, 3-5 AM, and 5-8 AM) and you will be awake for one of them (there is a staff room with bunk beds, so you will be able to sleep when it is not your turn to be awake).

BREAKFAST — Come in bright and early to greet our guests as they begin to wake up! You’ll be making breakfast and helping to clean the shelter (an invaluable service!) after all the guests leave at 8 AM.

Refugee Program Intern/Research Assistant, Job Description

Research Program on Children and Adversity, Boston School of Social Work

The Research Program on Children and Adversity (RPCA) seeks to understand trajectories of risk and resilience in children facing multiple forms of adversity, including poverty, conflict, and infectious disease. Through quantitative and qualitative research methods, the program investigates key mechanisms shaping child development and mental health. The “community based participatory research” Refugee Program in Boston is targeting families in the Bhutanese Lhotshampa and Somali Bantu refugee communities for a Family Strengthening Intervention (FSI).

The student would perform his/her internship/research assistant for the Refugee Program, one project under the RPCA. The student would have the ability to assist in a range of diverse tasks, yet the internship could be tailored to the student’s individual skill set and interests. The main scope of work would be project management and research program management support to the Program Manager. Responsibilities may include:

·         Creating project related materials, tracking timelines, assisting with budgets, attending meetings (sometimes at other agencies) and taking/sharing meeting minutes, assisting with data collection and the electronic data collection platform, assisting with staff training, assisting with program design and implementation, implementing project improvement initiatives, and building relationships within the community and across stakeholders.

·         Data organizing, cleaning, and analyzing, as well as assistance on manuscript preparation, are also possible tasks.

We are looking for someone who:

  • Is a self-starter who takes initiative
  • Is culturally humble and has experience working with people from diverse cultures
  • Has skills in project management
  • Is able to problem solve and be creative in proposing solutions
  • Understands social and behavioral determinants of physical and mental health
  • Has experience working in a research setting
  • Has skills in data management or analyses (preferred, but not required!)

Minimum hours per week: 10; flexible

Start date: Spring 2017

The position is unpaid but we are happy to work with students on obtaining academic credit or field placements.


Cultural Agents wishes everyone happy holidays!
We hope this new year sparks our imagination to find innovative ways to communicate and collaborate.
May our creative spirits light the way.

For more information on upcoming events, please visit our website:


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Caminos de Paz Cases for Culture Cultural Agents Opportunities Partners Pre-Texts Rennaisance Now
December 2, 2017
by Rodriguez