Humphrey School News—May 2, 2018

The Importance of Magic: Policy and the Arts

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A group of Humphrey School students, alumni and staff who attended a performance at Penumbra Theatre
Humphrey School students, alumni, and staff attended a performance of "My America" at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. Octavia Smith is second from the right.

By Octavia Smith, Master of Public Policy candidate, 2018

While magic may appear to exist only in the world of fantasy and fiction, I know it to be real. In my 25 years on this earth, I have practiced magic. Not the spooky/witchy vibes, but an old ancestral magic passed on to me by the generations of men and women who have come before me.

In a country divided by fear, anger, and hatred, this magic is our ability to continue holding spaces for love, laughter, and community despite reasons we may have to disengage with others around us.

I recently shared an evening of magic with a group of students and staff from the Humphrey School, when we attended a transformative performance titled My America at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.

Penumbra is one of the largest African American theater companies in the nation, and this performance is part of an annual civic engagement campaign that invites Minnesotans to share stories about their experiences and how they see themselves in the world.

For students of public policy and public affairs—many of us who are preparing to graduate later this month—the stories may very well shape the ways we lead. 

That night we heard five people of different ages and backgrounds share their understanding of where we are as a society, and how they fit into it:

  •  A 14-year-old girl with a disability reflected on how she experiences two Americas: in the "normal" one, she’s a follower. In the other one, surrounded by other individuals with disabilities, she’s a leader.
  • A Black woman reckoned with how she struggles to explain her family’s blackness to her young children.
  • Another speaker described how she considers herself "as Minnesotan as anyone else: half Scandinavian and half Indigenous," yet feels "somewhere in the middle."

The presentation of these personal stories filled audience members with compassion and understanding in ways that may not have been possible outside of this environment. The experience points to the important ways that the arts help create spaces for dialogue and change.

Humphrey School student Octavia Smith poses with Sarah Bellamy at the Penumbra Theatre

I was born and raised in New York City, a place filled with vibrant communities of various cultures, languages and food. But I grew up with the feeling that art was out of reach for my community and other communities of color. It wasn’t until I was in college that I began to realize the importance of creative expressions of self, culture, and systems.

Hearing the people on stage share their stories resonated with me, demonstrating the power we possess as individuals when we share our stories with strangers. I was reminded how our voices and stories matter in shaping our world. For me, this solidified my commitment to keep practicing magic by leading with compassion and truth, when it is often times easier to take the path of least resistance. 

Because of that performance, and a conversation I had with Penumbra’s artistic director Sarah Bellamy (pictured together above), I spent a lot of time in deep thought around what it means to show up in a space authentically and unapologetically as yourself. In large ways I believe many students who are seeking to advance the common good are struggling with that same question. Too often we are afraid to say something contrarian for fear of causing harm. As a result, we hide our feelings, parts of who we are, to appease others.

When I think of a world that allows me to be free, it is not one that is free of conflict. Our ability to lean in to the messiness and vulnerabilities of others is the work of anyone seeking to advance the common good. Spaces that foster deep thinking and freedom to express a range of opinions are the true centers of innovation.

The Humphrey School is similar to Penumbra in that it seeks to bring people from various places and cultures into the same space, and engage with issues in a way that opens them up to seeing a different side of the world in which we live. 

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