Building Community and Cross-cultural Understanding

Wednesday Sep 9th, 2020

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10 New American artists worked with film students at McDowell High School.


Due to the pandemic, millions of classroom teachers across the country have been forced to move their curriculum online. Many have wondered if authentic education is possible under these circumstances. As part of this national experiment, Erie Arts & Culture placed ten guest artists at McDowell High School in a virtual residency in April - June 2020. Erie Arts & Culture Folk Art Director, Kelly Armor, reports, “We discovered we can use technology to build community. It has allowed local artists to get to know each other, and helped students feel less isolated.”

Grants from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts funded ten New Americans, who now live in Erie, to share their art, music, and culture with journalism and film students via Zoom interviews and video footage. Armor continues, “It was a crash course for the artists in technology. Half of them did not regularly use a computer. Most of them had never used Google Drive or Zoom. Now they all can take credible videos of themselves.”

Benjamin Aysan, a Turkish calligrapher, agreed, “Before this project, I do not have as much experience with video. Now I’ve learned to be careful with shooting and framing. If the video is not good, the art becomes irrelevant, it cannot be successful. I am now very motivated to improve as a photographer and videographer of my work.”

The project also convinced artists that distance learning is possible. Ansumana Gbembo, a clothing designer from Sierra Leone states, “I was thinking the internet would not work, and the students would not understand my accent. Now I know that they are interested and that I can reach them even over the internet. I loved their curiosity! This project has changed my thinking. It has given me positive thoughts about teaching online.”

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The students, too, gained skills. Media teacher Stephanie Weiss relates, “Working with Erie Arts and Culture was fantastic! I was able to expose my high school students to culturally diverse artists during a worldwide pandemic! Students learned how to tell the story of someone else in a new way, through either writing or filmmaking, and share what art meant to the artists. It was a challenge to complete this on stay-at-home orders, but together the students, artists, Kelly and myself all discovered new ways to communicate and ultimately learned from each other. We all became a little more sympathetic towards others during a difficult time in our world.“

Kailee Frenn, McDowell High School Sophomore, writes, “I will remember the artists and their amazing personalities and talents. Getting to learn about different cultures was really beneficial. I got to learn about the artists as people. I gained a better respect for them and better perspective as to how their lives were and the reasons they came to the U.S. I also learned better interview skills. The Zoom calls went really well!”

Cadence Hoover, McDowell High School Freshman concurred, “I’ve never done formal interviews before and it was very scary at first, but I loved doing them. Tasana was so cheerful and jovial that I did not fear the process anymore. It was a lot of fun being able to learn about other people in such great detail. Not every question you ask on Google will give you those personal details. I learned about West African culture, but I also learned many journalism skills. The artists’ work is important. We need more culture and religion to be practiced so not everyone is the same and so that people can really remember their past ancestors.” 

While artists learned video techniques and file sharing, students researched the artists and their art forms. Then teams of students interviewed the artists via Zoom. Armor says, “Some of these meetings were astonishingly intimate. I think since everyone is in their own homes, not in an institutional school setting full of distractions and bells. The artists were so impressed and disarmed by the students’ curiosity.” Weiss adds, “If we did this in school the students would be using big cameras and the artists would have reacted differently, a bit more formally. Instead, they were very candid.” 

Journalism students wrote feature articles about the artists. Film students edited clips from the Zoom interviews with footage taken by the artists to create short documentaries.

Ghadah Hussien, a painter and graphic designer explained, “This experience was very valuable. I was very interested to share my tradition with other people in Erie, like students, but there was no chance. Now this project gave me the space to do it, in my own way. The students had really great questions that really touched something deep inside me. When we understand each other then I am very satisfied that I achieved something big.”

Armor continues, “Zoom is completely optimized towards speech.  The artists couldn’t simply hand a student a drum or a paintbrush, they had to use language. Zoom is not particularly friendly to live music either. This project really pushed artists outside their comfort zone. Promoting oneself as an artist, especially during a pandemic, can be such an abstraction. Having the students as an audience really helped focus and motivate the artists to articulate who they are.”

Merjem Garic, a calligraphic painter and singer from Bosnian said the experience was transformative. “At first I think Erie wasn’t ready for me because there doesn’t seem to be much traditional things here. I don’t want to take the risk. I’m not sure I fit in. But the students gave me hope. There is a future!”

If stay-at-home orders need to be reinstated, Erie Arts & Culture and its cadre of teaching artists are ready to continue the work of using art to build community, increase cross-cultural understanding, and teach real-world skills to students.


Read the feature articles about the artists here



artist docs

Sudanese Henna Artist Nialwak Athow by Jack Gilroy

Nialwak Athow is traditional henna artist born in South Sudan who lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. She has passed her tradition down to her daughter, Ashol Akol.


Syrian Music with Belal & Ibrahim Al Dehnah by Samantha Deufel

Belal and Ibrahim Al Dehnah live in Erie, Pennsylvania. This father and son duo play doumbek and oud and perform ballads from the Arab-speaking world.

View the other 9 documentaries on Youtube here

Erie Arts & Culture

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