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In Two New Books, Professor Shepard Shows Activism Can Be Fun
Photo credit: Caroline Shepard
Changing the world can be fun, according to Benjamin Shepard, assistant professor of human services at City Tech. His two recently published books explore the use of play as a valuable component of social movements and political activism, from the local to the national level.
In Play, Creativity, and Social Movements: If I Can't Dance, It's Not My Revolution (Routledge), Shepard, a longtime activist who is president of the Mid Atlantic Consortium of Human Services, reviews how humor has been used by Dadaists, Surrealists, Yippies and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), community garden, cycling and public space activists to call attention to pressing social and political problems. In The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City's Public Spaces (State University of New York Press), Shepard and co-author Greg Smithsimon examine the use of public space in New York City and the conflict between its privatization and public use.
The Carroll Gardens resident, who has been teaching at City Tech since 2007, is not just a proponent, but also a practitioner, of the ideas he discusses in his books. Since his community organizing days in the 1990s in San Francisco, Shepard has been drawn to “the fun aspect of organizing” he found in social and cultural activist groups dealing with serious issues via play, rather than the “dour politics” of traditional organizations.
Even direct actions on behalf of life-and-death struggles incorporate play, as Shepard shows inhis look at the work of ACT UP. Rather than give in to what he terms “the theatre of fear,” AIDS activists often use street theatre, costumes, music and other elements to make a serious point. Social movements from labor to Gay Liberation, and even Civil Rights have built on these tactics.
He cites an early example of this approach. “On the civil rights movement Freedom Rides, people on the buses would sing often humorous versions of church songs so as to demystify the Jim Crow system. Humor – such as gallows humor – is important to help people feel they can sustain themselves and cope with a difficult situation,” Shepard states, “as well as to disarm political opponents so they have less authority.”
The Beach Beneath the Streets, he explains, “grew out of conversations about New York City’s public spaces I had with co-author Greg Smithsimon, a sociologist at Brooklyn College, during play dates with our kids in Prospect Park.” Between their two campuses, the two authors saw conflicts between privatization and public use take shape in front of their very eyes in a “dialectic between expression and repression as space was increasingly contested.”
Over the years, Shepard has become involved in what he calls “the theatre of joy and pleasure. This kind of activism invites audience members to join the process of social change,” he explains. “Anybody can participate and enjoy organizing. It’s better to laugh and stay engaged.”
Practicing what he preaches, Shepard campaigned to preserve community gardens created by city residents on empty neighborhood lots. Crowds of people wearing Paul Revere costumes and cardboard horse heads rode bicycles to Mayor Bloomberg’s home, accompanied not only by music from a sound system, but a few journalists and a simple message that the city needed to protest and preserve the community gardens. “We sounded the alarm that the bulldozers were coming unless something was done,” says Shepard. And the city responded.
An enthusiastic cyclist, he believes that an action as simple as riding bicycles can demonstrate the change sought by activists. “The best public spaces are well used public spaces. If you clog the streets with people riding bikes instead of driving, the city takes notice. It’s a healthy form of civil participation; it cuts down on pollution. Show it as a viable transportation alternative for those weary of paying four dollars a gallon for gas or subway/bus fare and people will follow. The Bloomberg administration now is building a useful bike infrastructure.”
However, Shepard and Smithsimon warn in The Beach Beneath the Streets, “The city is using public spaces for its own purposes, inch by inch privatizing the city's public commons. Public space is a leading indicator of where the city is moving, what kind of a neoliberal city we’ll be living in.”
They point out that public plazas that the city required to be attached to any building it helped build are often inaccessible to the public because private enterprise has co-opted them. “A restaurant encroaches on the space with chairs, and people have to spend money on a glass of wine to sit in a public space,” Shepard explains. “But people pushed out of public spaces now are reclaiming them."
Currently, Shepard teaches courses on community health, organizing, and health and social welfare policy. His City Tech students are learning to involve themselves in campaigns in their own communities, using tactics that are culturally appropriate, including play in both individual and group settings.
Says Shepard, “It’s an exciting service learning model to have my City Tech students go out into the community and learn by contributing, and there are so many interesting ways to contribute. Civic participation is an important part of what human services teaches and practices.”