Performance exhibit focuses on shared health issues as a way to peace

It’s no secret that broaching the subject of the political situation in the Middle East can be a difficult task, especially for those who try to approach it as moderates earnestly looking for solutions. But a group of York students, staff and faculty, taking their cue from a successful project they’d seen first hand, has found one way to start the dialogue – talk about something else.

Left: Student volunteers rehearse their performance exhibit Photo-Voice: What is Health?

In this case, that something is the health of students and the community, situated in a multicultural and highly political context. It is the central theme of an art/performance project by the Health as a Bridge to Peace club at York. The group’s first exhibition, Photo-Voice: What is Health?, will be held on Wednesday at 6:30pm in the Undergound at York’s Student Centre on the Keele campus. Students will present their work in dramatic scenes punctuated by the photographs they took.

The Health as a Bridge to Peace Student Club, which was formed in 2007, grew out of the experience of several members with the work of Harvey Skinner, dean of York’s Faculty of Health. Skinner had organized a similar project in 2005 for the Canadian International Scientific Exchange Program (CISEPO), where he is director of research.

Inbal Marcovitch, a graduate student and special programs & registration assistant with Research & Field Development in York’s Faculty of Education, was an intern with the group and had the chance to learn about the group’s experience of using photography to explore the common health issues of Bedouin, Israeli and Palestinian high school students. Marcovitch quickly partnered with Lavina Sadhwani, a fellow student and colleague. The project was also modelled on similar projects by Global Youth Voices at the University of Toronto.

“A dialogue about health creates a space where people can relate to each other and learn to be more compassionate, rather than always thinking of people of different backgrounds in terms of ‘the other’," says Marcovitch. “Harvey’s project worked very well, so we adapted it and integrated drama, as well as extending it to integrate photography with a dramatic element.”

Sadhwani, a graduate student in the Faculty of Education and administrative assistant, governance & policy, in York’s Faculty of Health, collaborated with Marcovitch to use Skinner’s work to bring Photo Voice: What is Health? to fruition. “It is remarkable to hear the shared experiences of our participants," Sadhwani says. "In using Skinner’s framework, participants went from being strangers to referring to the group as family in less than three hours. This project has generated a lot of interest on and off campus.”

With the support and mentorship of Skinner as well as Noel Badiou, director of the Centre for Human Rights, and David Layton Brown, master of Calumet College, the group started recruiting willing participants last fall and began a series of 11 three-hour sessions held on Wednesday evenings. The volunteers had no background in theatre or visual arts and learned photography techniques from Joel Walker, a Toronto-based psychiatrist and photographer who is one of the early pioneers of photo therapy. Sessions included technical instruction and discussion about the stories behind the students’ photos.

The added element of drama came thanks to Kathleen Gould Lundy, coordinator of Destination Arts at York University, a joint venture of the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Fine Arts. Destination Arts undertakes to foster partnerships among artists, educators and the community. Gould Lundy has been a teacher, consultant and co-ordinator for over 30 years in the Toronto District School Board. Working through the drama allowed the group to integrate their visual stories into a collage of poetry, storytelling and movement presented as a dramatic piece.

“The basic goal of the project is to create a safe environment for York students of different backgrounds to share stories of their own health, culture, community and identity,” says Sadhwani.

Although they didn’t start out with it in mind, the group quickly saw the relevance of their project to the themes in the draft provostial white paper on the future of the University. To underline that relevance, Health as a Bridge to Peace is also mounting a separate side element where students will be asked to sign a Pledge for Respectful Dialogue. The pledge will be circulating throughout campus, following the show.

“It’s important to talk about difficult issues, but it’s a question of how we do it,” said Marcovitch. “The idea is to aim for the mainstream of student opinion, which doesn’t want the conflict played out on campus and wants to debate, think, learn and expand bounderies in a way that respects our humanity – through a respectful dialogue,” said Marcovitch. “Hopefully they will influence the extremists on both sides.”

For more information on the club and the Photo-voice project, visit their Health as a Bridge to Peace Facebook page or the HBP blog.