Art Needs No Exploitation

The following is a post from February 2010. As I prepare to teach theatre to community leaders in June (register here), I'm thinking about the homeless women I spent Monday nights with a few years back.

Let's be honest: the work I did there would make a grantwriter salivate. The local newspaper, even. But I always hesitated to draw attention to the women, to bring in a journalist or photographer (pajamas were the attire that time of night); I didn't want to exploit them or have them think I was there to make myself look good.

And yet attention can bring awareness, money can bring opportunities. In this post, I struggled with these ideas. In the end, I never did any public forum, but I did write about them and teach others how to work with the homeless.

For more posts on my work in the shelter, click here.

There's a scene in the film "Julie & Julia" where Julie, who is cooking and blogging her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, has an intense argument with her husband, Eric. He stomps out of the apartment, stopping only to turn around and yell something along the lines of "And don't put this in your blog."

Tricky, these blogs.

I spent a recent evening hanging out at the homeless shelter where I lead theatre on Mondays. While taking in the second annual talent show of poetry, dance, and song over some mouthwatering ribs and cornbread, I had a moment of Oh No.

Something about eating and talking and calling each other by our stripper names (an ongoing joke; mine is "Night Jugs") made me stop and think about the ways I reveal these women's lives in my blog.

Of course I change the names. Of course I alter sensitive circumstances. But would I write in the same way about a friend, who, say, revealed something to me over coffee?

As a writer, I go out and experience a thing, or ask a person about his or her life, then digest and articulate these findings for others. A certain degree of objectification is necessary. I try to distance myself from my own life, as well, to produce interesting observations as I write. This objectifying perhaps cushions the blow of the necessary vulnerability.

Yet I bristle when I hear homeless people objectified to the point of becoming Other. They're homeless, yes, but the final categorization is Human Being.

I've been leading theatre nearly every week since summer, and I'm getting to know these women more intimately. For the blog I must speak of them as types, but in person we are friends. Yes, I think I can safely use that term. They'd probably be flattered to know I am writing about them, and I'm waiting for the day when the cell phone videos they take of my games find their way to YouTube.

My purpose, in a nutshell, is to present a picture of homelessness and the power of art, hoping to heck I'm making a difference in the telling. In other words, I write about but not for the women themselves, and I try to balance the readers' need for details with the women's right to privacy. That's a valid cause, related yet separate from what I aim to do on Monday nights at the shelter. There I'm trying to make the world a better place, one theatre game, one homeless woman, at a time.

Writing also serves a personal need, helping me think through my experiences and better prepare for future sessions. When I wrote about our Christmas play, for example, I sat down with only the image of the teddy in mind. I had no idea what it meant or why it was significant until I started writing.

To summarize, then, I do theatre to help the women. I write to figure out what worked and why, to make me a better teacher. And I write for you, dear reader, asking you to peer with me at the fringes of society, where real people dwell.

I write because an alcoholic 57-year-old woman told me, "The sister can't believe I remember, I was never goes away."

Her story is too common, as old as the hills, but you probably haven't heard it yet and that's why I need to write.


  1. wow. so powerful. i'm glad you keep writing.

    your desire to remain non-exploitative reminds me of some comments i read from the creator of the 'faces of addiction' project:

    'Its also very easy to not look at those who are considered "failures" or "losers" or "marginalized" (choose your unflattering term). By not looking, by not talking to them, we can construct our own narrative that affirms our superiority and their failures. What I am hoping to do, by allowing them to share their dreams and burdens with the viewer and by photograph them with respect, is to show that everyone, regardless of their station in life, is as valid as anyone else. As Katherine Boo has so wonderfully said, "Maybe there are some things at work in deciding who gets to be society's winners and who gets to be society's losers that don't have to do with merit.'

    1. That's well said. Thanks for reprinting that here.

      I often wonder if I did the women a disservice by never going public with it beyond the meager audience this blog reaches. But there were ripple effects, I believe, in the form of subsequent audiences I taught who then went out and taught other homeless and marginalized people. And the women certainly taught me, honing my skills and soul in the broadest sense.


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