One Good Question with Vania Masias: How to disrupt the victim mentality when investing in youth agency

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Agency / Eisenhower Fellowship / informal education / International Education / One Good Question

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

One of my dreams is that our methodology through arts becomes public policy in the public schools.  That’s my dream because every day I see the empowerment that our youth leaders have thanks to dance or arts.  I think the government, and people who have never danced, have no idea how powerful this tool is.  I just came back from Trujillo, another state in Peru.  I went with one of the “kids” who is 21 and has been with Angeles D1 for 5 years.  Five years ago, he was in to gangs.  He finished his public school, but school gave nothing to him.  He was emotionally devastated. He was into drugs, gangs, and jail.  Today, he just did a Tedx talk and he’s a leader of more than 200 kids in one of the most difficult communities in our region. He is a teacher and one of the best dancers in our company.  He learned to know himself and to start loving himself just as he is.  When you dance you are just you — you are not your name, the daughter of so-and-so, the girl that went to this school.  When I dance, I am not in a social level, it’s just me, my soul, myself, my truth.  That’s really powerful.

If I were to tell people where to invest in education: creativity, culture, arts.  I believe, because I dance and I choreograph, that every human being has a jewel.  We are so beautiful on the inside and through arts it’s a beautiful thing to bring that beauty out.    Our education system was focused on the British empire, and that established norms around knowledge.  In that system, if you’re not good with math or literature, you’re kind of a pariah.  At Angeles D1, our focused education gives empowerment to the kids so teachers can see their potential and bring it out.  The arts allows you to bring those other gifts to the forefront.

The Angeles D1 model has been heavily informed by the youth participants, their needs and vision. Your lessons on youth agency were very organic.  How would you recommend that adults planning programs for marginalized youth intentionally incorporate these lessons into their work?

The first advice I will give is to get rid of guilt.  Growing up in a country where you have everything and then you see others who have nothing, that’s difficult.  One big mistake I made when I started the program, was that I thought I had to give everything to the youth without asking anything in return.  That mentality creates beggars and welfare dependency.  Don’t give the toys, teach them how to make the toys so that, afterwards, they can make it and sell it and it’s a development.  Otherwise, they will say “Poor me, I’m a victim,” and they will keep begging. You further the stigma that says you are poor, you won’t make it, so I’m solving your life.  I had to learn that and it was kind of difficult.  I felt guilt all the time and they knew that.  It was not healthy.

I remember one day when 4 or 5 of the first generation dancers started stealing from the company.  That day, everything changed.  They weren’t stealing things, they stole the choreography that we made as a group, and they went somewhere else and charged for it.  I kicked them out of the group because that didn’t respect D1 values.  Last week, on the way to Trujillo for the Tedx talk, we saw the same kids who stole from us.  They were in the exact same place, dancing under the same street light that they were 10 years ago.  I just turned and looked at our youth leader and started crying.  OMG.  There we were, a few blocks from the airport and he’s going to speak to a crowd of 200 professionals about his work yet we saw his peers in the exact same place.  We said nothing to each other.  It was evident.  They made the decision to not grow.  They wanted that life.  They just wanted to stay there.  It’s not wrong. It’s not good.  It’s just their decisions.

When we want to communicate, we only see our side of things.  A question that helped me was “How can I reach them and generate confidence?’ I decided to go through urban culture to reach our youth.  I put myself in their place.  I tried to see what are they looking at and understand what’s gong on with them.  I hadn’t studied psychology, sociology, or anthropology to know what was going on with them.  I believed in dance.  When they moved, they were communicating something to me. So with that information, I could understand what they were seeing.  They put their eyes always down, they would never look at me. That gave me a lot of information and then I designed everything around that.  Let’s do clowning and get them to feel ridiculous. We never saw the other, to see and look is different.  We’re in such a rush, we never see each other.  When that happened, everything changed.

Vania MasiasVania’s One Good Question:  One of my lead dancers dreams of becoming mayor of his hometown, Tumbes, in northern Peru.  I see D1 as “The Hobbit” for him, a safe place that will support and encourage him.  As social organizations, can we develop the leaders of tomorrow to be pure and uncorrupted?

Vania Masias was born in Lima, Peru.  She graduated from Universidad del Pacifico and is a professional ballerina.  She was the principal ballerina in the municipal ballet for 7 years, with the most important roles in the classical repertory.  She then began a modern dance career with the Yvonne Von Mollendorf company, with international residencies in Europe and the Caribbean.  Vania was a principal ballerina in the National Ballet of Ireland and was selected for Cirque du Soleil.  In 2005, for family reasons, she returend to Lima and founded the Asociación Cultural D1 (de uno) and is currently the Executive Director. 

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The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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