Performance As Public Work: Youth As Civic Actors For Policy And Practice In Liberia
Research on the civic engagement and citizenship education of youth in Africa rarely considers their cultural production. Based on one year of ethnographic data collection (September 2018-August 2019) at a youth theater company in Liberia, of which I am the Founder and Executive Director, this performance ethnography examines the process of creating popular theatre as it draws from the lived experiences of participants while it aims to change the very systems and structures that shape their opportunities and capabilities. In analyzing the interactions between youth and their peers, their communities and members of the international community, this study offers a theory of change for how young people in Liberia transition from perceived beneficiaries to civic actors. I conceive of citizenship broadly, seeking to understand how young people in Liberia engage with and utilize artistic performance-based practices as a form of emergent participatory citizenship which shapes their political socialization. Young people in Liberia strategically navigate differential power between themselves and international development personnel as evidence of embodied cosmopolitanism that encompasses the skills, knowledge and attitudes often reserved for characterizing the global citizenship practices of primarily white youth from the global North. Through interactions with international persons within NGOs that fund their theatre projects, they integrate global matters of concern into their projects, thus reframing them as local problems and reorienting themselves as civic actors in everyday performances of global citizenship. On the interpersonal level, theatre arts contribute to the development of crucial bonds between actors, which may lay the foundation for shifting from identity-based to membership-based civic status. I find that these transformative moments leave the stage and permeate their everyday lives reshaping the social relations that perpetuate gender-based, educational, and health inequities. My research demonstrates how these strategic navigations and crucial bonds are illuminated in everyday performances that build upon the concept of embodied cosmopolitanism as a form of global citizenship education. I argue that this iterative process of engagement and training in popular theatre gives youth the tools they need to strategically craft everyday performances of citizenship.