by Meg Huber
“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can change the world.”
-Howard Zinn, The Optimism of Uncertainty
Such was the message of Steeltown Entertainment Project’s recent event, “The People Speak Live: Student Edition.” The event took place as part of Steeltown’s Take a Shot at Changing the World contest.
Middle and high school students from Westinghouse, CAPA, Environmental Charter School, and Highland gathered together on April 24 at Pittsburgh CAPA downtown to perform for their parents, their peers and their supporters. Several of Pittsburgh’s well-known public figures joined the students on stage, including Sally Wiggin (WTAE) , Chris Moore (WQED, WPXI) and Lynn Cullen (Lynn Cullen Live).
Inspired by historian Howard Zinn’s book Voices of a People’s History and the documentary The People Speak, the kids prepared pieces of art that reflected how they see their place in the world and what they might do to change it. The performances included everything from interpretive dance to singing to original short films.
Guided by teachers and staff at Steeltown, the students prepared their pieces with one central theme in mind: how can the world in which we live be changed for the better?
In May of last year, Steeltown and WQED brought actors and activists together for the original event, The People Speak Live at WQED’s Fred Rogers studio. Actors Matt Damon (Promised Land, Good Will Hunting), Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) and John Krasinski (The Office, Promised Land) joined hometown figures, including Cullen and Vanessa German, to read from the works of Howard Zinn and inspire the community to dig deeper into history, to question our world, and find a way to take action.
On Wednesday night at CAPA, the students showed how inspired they were. Several acts, including a poem, a slideshow and interpretive dances, poignantly portrayed what it is like to live in Homewood, or one of the “bad areas” of the city. A particularly moving piece showed pictures of all the vacant, boarded-up houses and neighborhoods through which kids walk to school every day and where they call home.
Several girls from Westinghouse put together a song/skit that showed their reaction to arts education cuts that are being made in their school. They recreated one of their classrooms on stage and started a beat with their pencils and scissors, accompanying two songs, beautifully sung (Impossible by Shontelle and 16 @ War by Karina Pasian).
Several budding filmmakers debuted their short films at the event. One film, meant to raise awareness about pollution and the environment, showed what it might be like to live in a world 50 years from now where we can’t breathe the air. Another filmmaker asked several people around Pittsburgh what they like about the city and what they wish they could change, and spliced clips together so each person interviewed said one word of a sentence that was turned into a poem.
And what performance would be complete without dancers? Several girls created an interpretive dance involving a homeless person, a doctor, a lawyer, and someone in show business and the impact they had on someone living in poverty. Two girls from CAPA danced, one in black and one in white, representing our need to work together and to stand united.
The mood was light as the kids clapped along with the singer and guitarist as they performed “Over My Head (Cable Car)” by the Fray. They encouraged each other to talk about their videos and dances. They laughed during the rap video produced by a seventh grader encouraging fair trade. And they enthusiastically applauded every performance and every performer.
With their show of creativity and hard lessons learned, it looked like many people in this world have something to learn from these students, rather than the other way around.
Wiggin, Moore, Cullen and CAPA’s Kate Daher each added their own thought-provoking message throughout the night. Lynn Cullen read a passionate piece about women’s rights, and Moore encouraged the kids to read and learn history outside of what their school’s textbooks teach and explained that knowledge is power. Wiggin read from Jane Goodall’s book Reason for Hope emphasizing the need to avoid “just-me-ism,” where you think one person can’t make a difference. And Daher concluded the night with our opening quote: small acts can change the world.
Learn more about Steeltown’s Take a Shot at Changing the World contest at www.takeashotcontest.org. Students can submit their short film about how Pittsburgh has changed the world or how they could take social action. The deadline to submit is May 1st.