PCSE Seed Grants in Action: A Note from Evan Okun ’13

In April, the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship awarded five seed grants to Wesleyan students embarking on high-impact projects around the globe. Each grant recipient will be reporting on his/her work with blog posts and photos. Here’s one, a report from Evan Okun ’13 (who, incidentally, also happens to have a new album out.)

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This fall I am moving to Chicago, where I will be living for four months thanks to a seed-grant from the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship.  During my stay I will be working with Circles & Ciphers, a program that uses hip-hop-cipher-peace-making-circles to do restorative justice with system involved youth.

In a hip-hop cipher, participants form a circle and trade off turns sharing their art (poetry, written-rap, improvisization, etc.). Circles & Ciphers combines hip-hop ciphers with “peace-making circles,” a popular tool used for restorative justice (which utilize a talking piece, opening and closing rituals, etc.).   The combination of these two techniques aims to dismantle hierarchical power structures, while confronting issues such as racism, police-brutality, and gang violence.

As the fall approaches, I find myself deeply appreciative of how thoroughly Wesleyan has prepared me for this work.   During my time at Wesleyan I conducted two independent studies analyzing a two-year-class I taught in the music therapy department at a nearby juvenile detention center.  The first study focused on developing the curriculum and pedagogy of the course I taught.  The other examined the detrimental effect that egocentricity and paternalism had in the classroom.   I was able to examine my work further in other classes as well, including Psychology & The Law (PSYCH) and Creative Non-Fiction (ENGL).   Approaching the topic from a range of disciplines forced me to adopt a variety of critical lenses.

This interdisciplinary analysis has helped me realize that I am, and always will be, a learner.  In the first semester I taught at the juvenile detention center, I often found my white-male-body attempting to dominate/colonize the spaces I was in.  Unlearning racism, classism, and colonial conquest is an on going project, but one I am dedicated to.  I am thankful to have been humbled by Wesleyan’s education and I am grateful to have the opportunity to learn from Circles & Ciphers’ innovative approach to social justice.

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