Another World Is Possible for Poor and Neglected Children, and Communities of Color: A Dispatch from the Second U.S. Social Forum

Are adoption and foster care social justice issues? During the first U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in 2007, the consensus seemed to be a resounding “no.”

I remember being in an elevator in my hotel in Atlanta with a number of fellow activists, discussing our workshops. The folks beside me talked about labor, gender equity, grassroots organizing, and solidarity economy sessions they were leading. When I mentioned mine on transracial adoption, I might as well have been speaking Greek. “What?” someone asked, while others looked on in confusion. “Transracial what?”

Luckily, the second USSF, held June 22-26 in Detroit, proved that adoption/child welfare activists and allies have been doing our work, and doing it well, because these issues have now made it on the radar screens of many participants I spoke to. And no one looked at me like I was attending the wrong conference when I told them about the workshop I was leading.

Participants in the child removal and communities of color workshop, at USSF 2010. Photo by Sunny Kim.

Our session was titled “Where Have All Our Children Gone? Linking Child Removal From Communities of Color to Larger Social Justice Issues,” and was facilitated by fellow members of Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD) Connie Galambos Malloy and Ian Hagemann, and Sahngnoksoo (SNS) member Sunny Kim.

It was attended by more than 30 people, who represented a wide range of backgrounds, ethnically, racially, culturally, regionally, and terms of class and age. There were a few members of the adoption triad present (adoptees, adopters, and biological parents), but the vast majority of folks attending work everyday on the frontlines of child removal, from a young woman who is starting up a reproductive justice center for Black women in Philadelphia, to an anti-racist workshop facilitator at the Peoples’ Institute of New Orleans, and a Native American activist who spoke about the catastrophic effect child removal has had on her community.

This was quite a different demographic than that of 2007, when the majority of participants were either white lesbians considering adoption to grow their families, white adoptive parents, or transracial adoptees (TRAs). Everyone was welcome, of course, but I really, really appreciated the input and expertise the adoptees present brought to the conversation – and in fact, took control of the workshop itself, steering it clear of the usual personal narratives into much more political territory.

But I think I am getting ahead of myself here.

For one thing, you are probably wondering what the USSF is, exactly – unless you attended, had friends or colleagues who attended, or are otherwise involved in the activities of the American Left. As I said above, the first USSF was held in 2007, in Atlanta, and represented a major breakthrough in grassroots organizing in the U.S.

It was the first time such a large gathering of organizers and activists from the American Progressive Left came together under the guise of building a sustained movement for social change – and led by those most oppressed by neo-liberal economic policies (mainly lower-income, people of color). Over 12,000 people attended, which was amazing in itself, since many people thought that you could never get a Left as splintered as ours together to discuss the great justice issues of our time, coherently, and set an agenda of action, to boot.

It was this initial event, strategically held in the American South, the cradle of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, that laid the groundwork for the second forum in Detroit. But the real roots of the USSF stretch way beyond our borders, to the Global South. Indeed, the mechanism that initiated the USSF was the World Social Forum (WSF) .

The first WSF, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, was primarily organized by laborers there, in response to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “which, since 1971, has fulfilled a strategic role in formulating the thought of those who promote and defend neoliberal policies throughout the world,” (World Social Forum India). Since that time, multiple WSF’s have taken place around the world, as have regional gatherings in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. For a list of Social Forums happening around the world this year, click here .

The World Social Forum website explains the Forum philosophy and methodology: “The World Social Forum is an open meeting place where social movements, networks, NGOs and other civil society organizations opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, to formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action. Since the first world encounter in 2001, it has taken the form of a permanent world process seeking and building alternatives to neo-liberal policies. This definition is in its Charter of Principles, the WSF’s guiding document. The World Social Forum is also characterized by plurality and diversity, is non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party. It proposes to facilitate decentralized coordination and networking among organizations engaged in concrete action towards building another world, at any level from the local to the international, but it does not intend to be a body representing world civil society. The World Social Forum is not a group nor an organization.”

The WSF’s slogan “Another World Is Possible,” asks participants to not just formulate responses to the newest global assaults on humanity, but to actually come up with viable and sustainable alternatives to the way the world is currently organized. With this in mind, those working on a variety of issues that often do not intersect are encouraged to do so.

There came a point in all this cross-sectional work that a critical mass of people from the Global South looked to we in the Global North who say we are committed to equity to organize our own Social Forum in the U.S., since so many of the most difficult issues the Global South is grappling with are actually the result of the behavior and policies of our government and corporations. This challenge was the first step towards the 2007 USSF, which organizers defined as “a movement building process. It is not a conference but it is a space to come up with the peoples’ solutions to the economic and ecological crisis,” (USSF website).

Selecting Detroit as the site of the 2010 USSF fit nicely into this vision. The city is a stark example of the shape of things to come if free-market capitalism is allowed to take precedence over community needs and relationships, and also exemplifies the kind of do-it-yourself, don’t-wait-for-someone-else-to-save-you ingenuity that is at the heart of the Forum philosophy. Detroit’s consistently high unemployment, White Flight, decaying infrastructure and urban core, and failing schools are all the result of neoliberalism gone wild in some way, while its flourishing urban garden movement, and dedicated organizing communities inspire those facing similar problems around the country.

Hart Plaza, in downtown Detroit.

As someone who grew up in Ann Arbor, a smallish university-town about 45 minutes west of Detroit, the USSF was an amazing opportunity for me to really experience Detroit for the first time. Sure, our family frequented the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend every year when I was growing up, but Hart Plaza was just about as far in as I got. My perceptions of Detroit were largely formed by the media, and the middle-class friends and classmates I was surrounded with: Abandoned houses, corrupt politicians, rampant crime, and poverty. Detroit was seen as A VERY DANGEROUS PLACE in this context, some place to be avoided, and certainly not visited alone, or God-forbid, alone with a baby, as I did last week. And, to be fair, all of this is true in some way. Detroit has major problems that no one can reasonably deny. The issue is that this is only one reality, amongst many others.

Abandoned buildings in Detroit. (Image by Luca & Vita via flickr).

Travelling from Cobo Hall to Wayne State University, back to Wayne County Community College (WCCC) on foot or on the bus during the conference, I was amazed by the hustle and bustle of folks all around me – despite boarded up buildings and houses. Trying to get my son and assorted baby paraphanalia on and off the bus was already a complete nightmare, and would have been logistically impossible, were it not for the assistance of fellow passengers, and the drivers themselves. But people were more than eager to help, and clearly adored my son (you don’t see too many infants being carted all over downtown Detroit). All of the faculty and students I encountered at Wayne State and WCCC were clearly in engaged in the business of getting educated, running their farmer’s market, and helping us directionally-challenged attendees find our way around.

Walking down Woodward Avenue during the Opening March, cars were honking at our signs for environmental justice, job equity, and hundreds of other causes, while people we passed on the street looked entertained, and asked us what was going on, and why.

The Opening March, on Tuesday, June 22.

That’s what wins you over about Detroit: No one puts on airs there, in the way that bristles me when I visit cities like New York, DC, Seattle, or Atlanta. Nor did I experience the coldness or overly-friendly-in-order-to-mask-the-fact-that-you-Black-people-scare-me behavior I have become accustomed to, living in the Twin Cities. Everyone is just out there in Detroit, on the street, doing their thing. There doesn’t seem to be room for a whole lot of pretense, because everyone is really just trying to live.

Was the city gritty? Yes. But that grittiness conveyed a deep sense of history and ongoing struggle that I could appreciate. So, that’s all just to say that the chance to get to know Detroit a little, and on a deeper level, the USSF’s approach to place, were huge highlights of the week for me.

It will probably come as no surprise that our workshop on linking child removal in communities of color to larger social justice issues was another highlight of the Forum for me. Collaboration is never easy, but it its rewards pay dividends. Working with Connie, Ian, and Sunny to facilitate a coherent workshop that would be useful to participants in their work and lives was daunting, but I think ultimately successful. We didn’t agree on everything, but came to a consensus on what we most wanted attendees to take away from the session: That adoption and foster care are major social justice issues. All of us have grappled in some way with the all too common idea that the American family is sacrosanct and beyond reproach – as are the institutions that create, define, and destroy them – so we were therefore committed to making sure we politicized them. We knew that we only had two hours, so there wouldn’t be time for much else. In this sense, depth was much more important to us than breadth.

Workshop participants responded to various images of child removal from communities of color, placed around the room. Photo by Sunny Kim.

We began by having participants respond to various images of child removal we had hung up around the room. This was a simple Popular Education activity, in which people wrote down whatever came to mind when they viewed each image, not worrying over any response was “right” or “wrong.”

The image below generated the following responses:

“It seems easier to love as children.” “Everyone is happy.” “Her eyes are so trusting.” “And will the brightness of her eyes fade when/if she takes time to think about the implications of ‘missionary’ work on adoption when she’s older?”

For this image, participants wrote:

“Happiness on a child’s face.” “Who is not in the picture?” “Where are their families?” “Do they know any adults who look like them?” and “Children create community in absence of families?”

This image from the Vietnam Babylift, generated these comments:

“War babies.” “Colonialism/imperialism.” “Forced removal.” “Terrorized children.” “Children lost their homes because of the war.” “PSTD normal.” “Whose tank? Whose bombs? Who’s funding? Then who is adopting?” “Old eyes, old story.” “How will the definition of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ change for them?”

Finally, a photo of a suburban-looking white woman, flanked by two young Black boys generated a flurry of discussion:

“White folks – no matter how well-meaning – are unable to provide children of color with what they need to survive in a white supremacist society.” “I agree.” “Where is the black male who created these young boys?” “I wonder what ‘lens’ these children see through?” “Role of white American women in child removal. Lady smile while kids don’t.” “Children finally have a home to go home to.” “Oh God…Reminds me of a friend’s aunt who is making a habit of adopting Ethiopian children. She is white. And liberal. So she doesn’t get her own racism.” “What makes a family. Sticky situation. Children seem to be in a loving home, but at the cost of losing identity.” “Makes me think of Angelina Jolie – WTF?”  “Missionaries ‘saving’ poc.” “Note their hands are all in the same position. Whose idea was that, and is that supposed to mean unity?”

As you can see from all of these comments, participants clearly had some familiarity with issues surrounding child welfare and communities of color – and plenty also had an emotional connection to it, as well. This made our time together all the more meaningful, as folks were eager to engage with the problem on a deep level. The photos made it easy for everyone to do so, as we used a few pictures and written responses to initiate discussions on the role that U.S. war and militarism play in opening up “new markets” for international adoption, the ongoing effects of Indian boarding schools on Native communities today, the Evangelical impetus towards adoption, and the underlying narratives that lie at the root of all discourse surrounding child removal.

Attendees discuss the politics of child removal. Photo by Sunny Kim.
Attendees discuss the politics of child removal. Photo by Sunny Kim.

“I feel like the idea underlying all of this is that poor, women of color are terrible mothers, and should not be allowed to parent,” said one woman. “That’s why all this apparatus is designed to make real. So that, if an environmental crisis like the one in Haiti comes along, or if there’s a war or something, this whole system can just swoop in, and take advantage.”

The rest of the session was taken up by going through, and responding to, a Timeline of Child Removal From Communities of Color, headed up by Ian. I am not going to include sections of the timeline here, as it is still very much a work-in-progress. The timeline is a project that many scholars and adoptees of color have taken on recently, including Jae Ran Kim , Lisa Marie Rollins, and members of the Adoptees of Color Roundtable . AFAAD has an ongoing interest in creating a collaborative document – something that folks can contribute to online, through Open Source file sharing, not unlike Wikipedia. The issue is, as always, finding funding to do so.

Please contact us if you have any leads on financial or human resources we could use to make this a reality, as seeing the sheer visual reality of child removal from communities of color forces us to grapple with how successful these policies have been, and then, hopefully, strategize on realistic interventions we can make in order to make families and communities less vulnerable.

Native American feminist scholar Andrea Smith.

Sunny gave an excellent summary of Andrea Smith’s “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” in order to ground and contextualize the discussion during this activity, which was eminently helpful. I, myself, have been mired in the “oppression olympics” paradigm when attempting to organize or even discuss shared oppressions with other adoptees and people of color, so it is very helpful to have a framework to use that acknowledges the destructive and overwhelming power of white supremacy, while simultaneously acknowledging the very distinct ways that Native, Black, Latino, and Asian bodies are racialized in this country, based on our separate histories.

Although I attended, and tried to attend a few workshops and Peoples’ Movement Assemblies (PMAs…and I say try, because carting my son around the festivities was more or less successful, depending on his mood. But he was a trooper!), the one which affected me the most was called “Poverty Is Not Neglect and We Are Not Powerless: Mothers Reclaim Our Children Back From the Child Welfare Industry.” This workshop was organized by Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network, which self-describes as, “self-help, multi-racial action and support groups of mothers, other family members, former social workers, foster parents and supporters in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, working together against the unjust removal of children from their families by the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Children are often snatched, not because of abuse or neglect, but because of poverty, sexism and racism. We fight individual cases, build public awareness, educate the media, work to change unjust policies and practices, and challenge discrimination against mothers throughout the system. We are part of a national movement,” (DHS/DCFS GIVE US BACK OUR CHILDREN flyer).

Phoebe Jones, of the Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network, prepares for their workshop. Photo by Melva L. Florance.

Although Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network put on the session, they invited other women and organizations who are fighting similar battles for their families to the table as well, including The LaStraw, Inc., Family Connection Center, Stop Targeting Ohio’s Poor, and ODVAct. This openness was exemplified by the fact that several women from Every Mother Is a Working Mother came to our workshop on child removal, and contributed their thoughts and experiences to the discussion. I can say that I personally also really appreciated the fact that one of their members also watched my son during their session, so that I could participate and get educated.

Me speaking at the open mic at the end of the "Poverty Is Not Neglect" workshop. Photo courtesy of Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network.

One of the woman who came to our workshop also asked me to go to the microphone and speak about my experience and activist work as a TRA, at the end. I told her that this was their space, and I wanted to respect that, since I knew that they didn’t have many places to do so and build together, but she said that she thought it was very important for us to know about each other, and share. She was right, of course. Many of the women in the room approached me afterwards, and wanted to get AFAAD’s information, since they didn’t know we existed, and want to keep in touch with folks who are working on the other side of the issue. I have included their contact information below, because this is such a big and important issue, so please contact them yourself, to organize!

Beginning with a short film these women had produced, DHS – Give Us Back Our Children! (and I encourage everyone reading this to contact Every Mother Is a Working Mother, and get yourself a copy and share with friends and colleagues, as it is just $7), the session was hard-hitting, filled with energy, and inspiring.

"Poverty Is Not Neglect" workshop attendees. Photo courtesy of Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network.

Women told short but personal stories about how they had regrettably found themselves at the mercy of DHS and its paternalistic case workers, trying over and over again to comply with their unrealistic demands, only to have their children taken away and placed into foster homes, where they were often abused. One woman told the story of her physically abusive husband who almost killed her, and the subsequent DHS interventions, which were too little, too late. After more abuse, and years of threats, her husband finally kidnapped her child, who she has not seen for years. Another woman discussed the repeated harassment she received from DHS, when she called them and asked if they had any programs to help with food and utilities, as she had barely $150 left from her welfare subsidy after paying rent each month. In fact, a key issue that many of these groups are working on is reforming the new welfare rules, which have made it even more difficult for poor mothers to raise their own children.

A commonly heard refrain was, “I asked them [DHS] why they just couldn’t give me the money to pay for my rent and food, so that I could take care of my own child, instead of paying someone else in the foster care of child welfare system to do it?” This idea is further explored in a hard-hitting series the Philadelphia Daily News published earlier this year, featuring some of Every Mother’s members:

 “Group of mothers and its common foe: DHS and its ‘adversarial’ system,”

“Is home where the heart is? Should poverty and inability to find & keep housing tear mother from child?”


“Why did DHS take away her kids?”

The SB 1070 Protest in Cobo Hall, at the USSF. Photo by Melva L. Florance.


Attending the USSF is a priority for me every three years, as I find that the older I get and the longer I fight various social justice battles, the more important it becomes for me to be inspired. Otherwise, I start to feel completely overwhelmed and cynical. My perspective on the history and reality of social movements – that they are usually a series of crushing defeats, followed by very small gains – starts to become completely unmanageable. Somehow, remembering that it is these gains, no matter their smallness, that alone have the capacity to redeem any semblance of our humanity, becomes next to impossible when I am mired in daily struggle. But being around thousands of activists, organizers, and everyday people, who like myself are just trying to live a self-reflective life that harms as few as possible, reminds me that I am not alone. I begin to believe again that perhaps I really can keep along this path, despite the difficulties and heartaches.

I keep coming back to the response of my good friend and mentor Rose Brewer, when I asked how she keeps on going as such a committed and engaged activist, all these years, and in the face of monumental challenges. We were in the midst of the Opening March, slogans and bodies weaving in and out of the small space between and around us. “What other choice is there?” she replied evenly.

I nodded. Exactly. How could I have forgotten?

Contact Every Mother Is a Working Mother Network at (215) 848-1120, (323) 276-9833,, or

The LaStraw, Inc. is located online at, and can be reached at, or (336) 987-9676.

Family Connection Center can be reached at

Stop Targeting Ohio’s Poor is at (216) 321-1677, or

ODVAct is at (216) 751-7150, or

Workshop on TRA and child removal @ the USSF!

Are you planning to attend the upcoming U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit?

Are you interested in looking at the intersection of transracial adoption (TRA), child removal from communities of color, and larger social justice movements?

Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD) and Sahngnoksoo (SNS) are co-sponsoring a workshop on these topics, and would like to invite you to attend. Shannon Gibney is the lead organizer for this event. Please contact her if you are an adoptee and would like to contribute, or if you want for more information on how to attend.


WHAT: Where have all our children gone?: Linking child removal from communities of color to larger social justice movements workshop (find complete details below).

WHERE: The U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit. Westin Book Cadillac Hotel: WB3

WHEN: Thursday, June 24, 10 am — 12 pm

For complete information on this event, click here.

Hope to see you then and there!


Where have all our children gone?


The displacement of people refers to the forced movement of people from their homes and homelands. War, poverty and natural disasters are just some of the factors used to justify the ‘adoption solution’ that contributes to a specific process of displacement–the global movement of pre-dominantly non-white children of the global South, to the global North. Transnational adoption is a global phenomenon involving over 38,000 adoptions annuallly and billions of dollars every year. Yet, whether domestic or transnational, adoption furthers the permanent removal of thousands of children each year–the overwhelming majoirity, children of color.

Beginning in 1879 and continuing well into the 1950s, the U.S. government removed more than 100,000 Native American children from their homes and communities and sent them to over 300 boarding schools across the country, in an effort to “civilize” and “tame” them.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2002), as of September 2001, over 556,000 children are in foster care, and over 40% of them are of African descent.

These are just two examples of the powerful, myriad, and complex forces exerting pressure on families and communities of color in the U.S. and around the world to forcibly give up our children. We find that war, militarism, racism, sexism, the Christianizing mission, capitalism, and other oppressions are the root causes pushing children of color into the Child Welfare pipeline domestically, or making them “available” for adoption internationally. How can communities of color and our allies effectively educate, strategize, and mobilize to fight these systems and keep our families and communities intact? How can we better link the nascent movement of politicized adult adoptees and foster care survivors to other global justice movements, such as workers’ rights and labor, fair housing, environmental & reproductive justice, immigration, and many others, in order to turn the tide of this worldwide phenomenon displacing children, dividing families and communities of color? Join us as we attempt to situate the political economy of transracial/transnational adoption and child removal within the larger global economy, and highlight a process of displacement predicated on the systematic exploitation and domination of the global South by the global North.

Workshop leaders — themselves adult transracial/transnational adoptees and professors, activists, and organizers — will lead participants in exploring these questions through hands-on Popular Education, Theatre of the Oppressed activities, and group discussion.

Conducive article on TRA (Transracial Adoption)

As you may have gathered, I have been woefully remiss in publishing and keeping up with my website and blog lately. Suffice it to say that it has been one of the most insane summers and falls of my life — maybe the most insane actually, although all the changes are good (got hitched, having a baby in early February, writing and teaching, etc.).

So, I am now trying to catch my website up on my publications, articles, and other assorted activities recently.

In that spirit, here is an article I wrote for the newly-minted Conducive Magazine, an online publication founded by sociologists who wanted to explore  social issues and problems from progressive standpoints.


By Shannon Gibney


I. Some Visions I Have Seen…

What would the world look like if every parent – regardless of class, race, culture, or gender – had the opportunity to raise her own child?









How would various communities of color look and function if adults had enough education, training, and opportunity to ensure that when and if a family did encounter challenges, the local community could step in and care for the children in the least intrusive, most culturally-sensitive manner? What if families had every opportunity to remain intact and children were not removed from their midst on a regular basis?

Certainly, in such a world, the reproductive debate would be expanded to not only include the right of women to have safe abortions if they so choose, but to also raise their children in their own families and home communities.

What if families had every opportunity to remain intact and children were not removed from their midst on a regular basis?Poverty would have to be reconceived in the child welfare system as a systemic process that creates less real choices and resources for those mired in it (mostly people of color in the U.S.), rather than a moral shortcoming of certain “irresponsible” individuals. A ruling of “Neglect” would not be reason enough to terminate parental rights – community-based and elected panels would look into the causes of the neglect (which are often, though not always, catalyzed by a lack of economic and social resources).

In this world, the needs of children would be put first, rather than the needs of parents/consumers. Just as importantly, children would be seen as complex individuals whose needs far exceed those of mere survival. As a culture, we would see ourselves in our children, and recognize the web of emotional, psychological, cultural, communal, and other levels which they/we juggle every day, and which they/we will need to fully engage in order to reach their/our potential.

They (the adoptees) are also committed to exploring a collective solution that redirects the communal/spiritual disruption felt by these children toward something far more positive and far more beautiful.There would need to be a reckoning, throughout all levels and sectors of society, that race and culture do matter in America today. The public would have to recognize the notion that all any child needs is “the opportunity for a good education, a safe neighborhood, and a loving family” in order to thrive in any environment is based on the lie of a color-blind society. We have to face the painful truth that race and racism have seeped into every nook and cranny of American society – including, and perhaps most insidiously, the American family.

In this world, a Christianizing mission, and its historic role in conversion by any means necessary to the point of separating children from their parents, would be undermined. This would be accomplished via a devastating critique from the public and educational spheres, as well as through the de-funding of organizations and groups that purport to determine who is and who is not fit to parent based on a person’s adherence to a specific set of “Christian” values. The connection between Christianization, racism, and cultural genocide throughout the world (especially in indigenous communities in the U.S. and in Australia) would be made so plain that to deny it would be to deny your own heart.

children would be seen as complex individuals whose needs far exceed those of mere survivalThe sexism that women face – be it in a powerful institution such as her employer, or the church, or even from family members – would not be allowed to fester and grow in such a world. Women in every culture would have as much access to education as their male counterparts, and would be encouraged and supported in their efforts to tell their stories and present their reality. Even though she might at times feel like her choices were more limited than she would like, depending on her situation, no woman would ever feel that external forces made her either relinquish a child she wanted, or take on a burden that she could not bear alone. In short, there would be far more understanding and support for, by, and of women in this world.

II. Angle of View

Are these visions of justice so impossible in this kind of world? Are they so far off? In some ways, politicized transracial adult adoptees carry these visions with them in their minds, bodies, and spirits all the time. They embody the response to the all-too-familiar questions, “So, you believe we should get rid of adoption altogether?” or “What should we do otherwise?” Such a polarizing approach to the complicated and often contradictory process of child relinquishment and re-attachment to a new family and new community is as limiting as it is unimaginative. Has society’s angle of vision really become so narrow? Can it really only see what is already there, the mess all of us are standing in?










The visions put forth above are not the stuff of fantasy; they represent the labor, analysis, and dreams of so many people.What a collective group of adult adoptees have done is provide a space to discuss these complexities. The organizers and participants of the Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed Conference look forward to continuing the political education and growing consciousness that is shedding light on the chronic problem of removing children of color from their home communities and placing them in predominantly (foreign) Caucasian ones. They are also committed to exploring a collective solution that redirects the communal/spiritual disruption felt by these children toward something far more positive and far more beautiful.

The visions put forth above are not the stuff of fantasy; they represent the labor, analysis, and dreams of so many people. Socially aware people have noted and identified the intersection of the multiple oppressions and systems of power in transracial adoption: sexism, nationalism, Christianity, militarism, racism, poverty, and so many more.


Shannon Gibney lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota where she teaches writing, journalism, and African American topics at Minneapolis Community & Technical College. She is a 2002 graduate of Indiana University’s MFA program in fiction, and also holds an MA in 20th Century African American literature from that institution. Gibney was awarded a 2005 Bush Artist Fellowship and the 2002 Hurston/Wright Award in fiction. Currently, she is at work on a novel that chronicles the journeys of 19th century African Americans who colonized Liberia [excerpted in Fiction on a Stick: New Stories by Minnesota Writers, (Milweed, 2008)].

Organizing for PTO Conference Pays Off!

“Mad as hell”: International Theater of the Oppressed conference in Minneapolis

All photos from conference by Sheila Regan

By Sheila Regan , TC Daily Planet
May 31, 2009
The May 1 death of Augusto Boal, founder of the Theater of the Oppressed, overshadowed the 15th Annual International Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed (PTO) Conference, held May 18-24 at Augsburg College and nearby locations. Boal, who spent a lifetime creating a series of techniques for using theater to create social change, was honored throughout the conference, which included a memorial service for him on Saturday night. Organizers of the conference, including his son, Julian Boal, discussed how to continue the work that Boal started.

Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) was developed by Augusto Boal in the 60s and 70s, in collaboration with Brazilian teacher and activist Paulo Freire, according to the conference’s brochure. The goal of TO is “to turn spectators into actors, all participating in breaking oppression together.” Specific techniques of TO include Image Theatre, which is creating images of oppression using bodies and trying to find ways to break it; Forum Theatre, which are plays where audience members can stop the action of an issue-oriented play and make changes to break the oppression; Rainbow of Desire, which aims to identify and break internalized forms of oppression; and Legislative Theatre, which is performed by citizens in concert with members of a legislative body with the goal of passing laws to lift oppression.

Legislative Theater

This year, PTO conducted a legislative theater session with the Minneapolis City Council. Council Member Gary Schiff said that he was invited by PTO organizer Shannon Gibney to a PTO workshop in February at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), and helped to organize a session with the council members last Wednesday. While only four council members participated in the workshop (Cam Gordon, Ralph Remington, Robert Lilligren and Gary Schiff), Schiff said that he was happy with the session, because it got community members and council members dialoguing about timely issues.

The PTO group performed scenes about youth violence, immigration, health care, and police/community relations. The audience, which included nearly 100 people including the council members, voted to particularly focus on the last scene, which dealt with not only police brutality but with the upcoming issue of whether Minneapolis will close its Complaints Investigations Unit (CIU), sending pending and future cases to the state human rights department. Schiff said it’s an issue that “we’ll be voting on in a couple of months.” He was satisfied that the scene brought the issue into the community, and allowed people to get involved in the decision making process.

“What a great crowd,” said Council Member Cam Gordon. “Great energy.” Gordon said he had never heard of Theater of the Oppressed until he received an email about the workshop. Gordon too was happy that the group decided to focus on the status of the CIU because he hopes that it will be saved.


While the individual workshops throughout the conference required a fee, many of the keynote speakers and presentations, including the legislative session at City Hall, were free and open to the public. In addition, organizers of the conference provided Spanish translators for some of the events.

Accessibility is an important issue for members of PTO because the techniques are meant to “rehearsal for revolution”, as Julian Boal quoted his father saying. On the opening night convocation, Boal said that it was important to remember that his father didn’t believe TO should be entertainment for the oppressed, but rather the practitioners of TO should “identify ourselves as oppressed.”

Choreographer Ananya Chatterjea, who spoke on Friday evening and whose dance company “Ananya”, performed on Saturday night, said that accessibility continued to be a concern for her company. Her company conducts free workshops in local schools, and struggles to provide affordable presentations for the public.

“We’ve had a huge debate with the Southern Theatre, [where Ananya regularly performs]” Chatterjea said. “There’s an assumption that the more a ticket price is, the more prestige comes with it… We’re not happy with where we’re at.”

Mad as Hell?

The theme of this year’s conference was “Mad as Hell?” and encompassed such issues as massive defunding of public education, the broken health care system, the largest disparity in student achievement rates between black and white students, affordable housing, and police brutality. In her opening remarks, Shannon Gibney said “While no one can deny the enormous political victory [of Obama’s election], the grim facts that oppress the country, indeed around the world, cannot be denied.”


In addition, speakers throughout the conference spoke of issues that they were “mad as hell” about and wanted to be able to change. Waziyatawin, a Dakota activist, said that Minnesota has a particular legacy of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native people. “Everyone who is here today is here at the Dakota’s expense,” she said. Waziyatawin challenged the audience to reflect on Minnesota’s history, and to fight for Dakota liberation and reclamation of its homeland. She spoke of decolonization not as tweaking, but rather as overturning every existing institution that continues to oppress all peoples.

Uwemedimo Atakpo, a Nigerian playwright, spoke about his plays, which deal with the oil industry’s disastrous effects on minority populations and the environment in Nigeria. In an interview, Atakpo said that he takes his plays to the “nooks and crannies” of Nigeria, in order to influence political thought. “I have written a play against military violence,” Atakpo said, “And some [militants] have read the work and decided against violence.”

Carrying on the Legacy

Throughout the conference, Augusto Boal was spoken of with reverence. Julian Boal, his son, who choked up in his opening remarks before the session at the City Council. He told of a woman telling him: “For me, your father is a God,” to which Boal replied that he was not Jesus Christ. “There’s no inheritance to be claimed,” Boal said. “There is only inheritance to be deserved.”

Francisco Arguelles, an attendee at the conference, said that in his work as a community organizer, he observed the power of theatre to create a connection between the mind, body, and community, but he thought, too, that intellectuals and academics could be “seduced by the technique”. He said that Boal’s work has value only when it is put into practice in a concrete way, as opposed to simply being a tool for educators.

A number of attendees attested to the success of TO techniques. Liz Quinlan, a professor from Saskatchewan, Canada, said her community used Forum Theater to create dialogue and cross-cultural healing surrounding this issue of sexualized violence against aboriginal women. “We were able to come together as a community,” Quinlan said. “We put pressure on police to change their practices, and establish Aboriginal training.”

Kathy Juhl, a professor from Southwestern University in Austin, Texas, said that in her community, TO techniques were used to create awareness of environmental issues, resulting in students voting that the cafeteria dispense with the use of trays.

Tish Jones

Throughout the conference, a diverse array of young artist/activists showed they were taking the spirit of Boal’s work and carrying it on in their own art. Hip Hop spoken word artist Tish Jones gave a particularly breathtaking performance about identity and her personal struggle with finding truth in an oppressive society.

Activist Alejandra Tobar-Alatriz pointed out the poster for the conference was created by a group of young people through the Youth Design Committee.

Arts literacy educator Jan Mandell, from Central High school in St. Paul, summed up the process of passing on the legacy of politically informed theatre: “We all get our skills from our mentors. When our mentor passes on, it becomes our responsibility to pass on what they’ve given us.”

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer. Email

Article Tags: Minneapolis, Arts, Daily Planet Originals, Entertainment, Thea

Calling up a Tsunami

My colleagues and I gave this presentation at a recent conference, and also at our faculty development day at MCTC. We’re going to continue taking it on the road, to get the word out.

— Shannon


MnCUEW (Minnesota Colleges and Universities English and Writing) Conference
April 3-4, 2009


Calling up a Tsunami: Arresting White Privilege with Critical Literacy and Arts Activism in the Basic Writing Classroom


Participants: Kathleen DeVore, Valerie Deus, and Shannon Gibney

Urban Basic Writing classrooms are increasingly predominantly students of color, while English faculties remain largely if not exclusively white.  This should serve to heighten our awareness of BW as work that does not address cognitive deficits, but cultural divides within Higher Ed. and the broader community.  Our work is not mere error correction to the standard, but cultural brokerage – making the cultures and genres valued in academic discourse intelligible to those coming from far outside that culture: usually people from across racial, ethnic, and class cultural divides from their BW teachers.


This panel of BW instructors from one urban Two Year College in a large Midwestern city have been exploring the use of critical literacy, which Shor defines as: “Critical literacy begins in questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane” (What is Critical Literacy, 1999). Exposing some of the “power lines” in academic discourse allows us to work through with students the systemic privileging of dominant discourse, which they then can begin to strategically adopt, while continuing to hold tight to home discourses that have and will continue to sustain them. 


Despite a stated “commitment to diversity” and a student population that is nearly 50% students of color, our college (and arguably most colleges and universities in this country) operates within an unconscious middle-class and white bias. We are therefore interested in exploring the relationship between that unacknowledged bias and the disciplinary boundary in basic writing courses between “creative” or “personal” writing and more traditional composition. How does this boundary defeat the goals of critical literacy, which arguably begins when students are empowered to tell their own stories in their own creative and critical language?
Finally, it is growing clear to panel members that urban artists of color and arts activists more generally are central to this work — both in connecting to discourses already engaged in critical practices and in reaching into institutions much less racially and culturally homogeneous than higher education. In many communities color around the country – and certainly in the Twin Cities – arts are a primary vehicle for community building and social justice work. Our task as educators in the Basic Writing classroom therefore becomes about mobilizing that power both inside and beyond the classroom, so that students can tell the truth of their lives (and therefore, their community’s lives) through creative and critical language. In this way, linguistic skills/power cannot only describe students worlds, but can actually remake them. Panelists will explore their challenges and successes that we have had with this approach.


One sentence description: This session will explore strategies for engaging basic writing communities of color through critical literacy and arts activism.