Joi Sears leads the Theatre for the Free People on the world’s stage

Joi Sears is a lot of things; stationary isn’t one of them. She started out as a dancer, starting with the Cincinnati Ballet then moving on to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. After that she got into theatre acting, and then photography, music, poetry, spoken word…though, despite her many varied interests and activities, she still describes herself as a “theatre-maker,” with writing and directing as her primary focus.

“My background is in theatre,” Sears says. “In New York, as an artist, you end up becoming a waiter who auditions a lot. That was not the kind of life that I wanted.”

It was during grad school that she expanded her work within the arts.

The artist and arts activist, originally from Cincinnati, studied the intersection of arts and social change while attending graduate school at New York University. It was during these studies that Theatre for the Free People first emerged.

“I wanted to create an organization that was really dedicated to using art as a vehicle for social change,” Sears says. “[That can mean] anything and everything. We’re really focusing on artists who are using their creativity to make the world a better place.”

Theatre for the Free People focuses on community building and arts education by organizing educational workshops, working within marginalized and disenfranchised communities and in schools in lower-income and minority majority districts. The group also produces artistic and creative works, primarily large-scale multi-disciplinary events.

After leaving Cincinnati to study theatre at Marymount Manhattan College, Sears lived in New York and abroad for about 10 years, including stints in Amsterdam, where she worked with an artist collective for several years and produced an “Artist as Activist” event, and Brazil, where she studied directly under Augusto Boal, the creator of Theatre of the Oppressed.

Boal was a director, writer, and politician. He created Theatre of the Oppressed in order to use theatre to open up a dialogue to discuss social issues in the community, working within mental institutions, prisons, and impoverished communities. His techniques – which focus on the deprivileging of the role of “instructor” into that of neutral facilitator and blurring the line between education and art, with audience and facilitator learning and exploring issues together – are used in Brazil and throughout the world. Boal passed away in 2009, but Sears was able to go to Brazil and learn his techniques from him prior to that. These techniques can be highly interactive – with an obvious intentionality and visibility – or entirely invisible, performed in a public place where the “audience” isn’t aware of the performative aspect of the performance.

There are also more therapeutic techniques that address the oppression a person experiences from within, looking not just at how a person feels oppressed by society or by another person but also by him/herself (as Sears describes it, it’s that voice in your head that tells you you’re no good). “[It’s] using theatre as a rehearsal for change, as a rehearsal for the revolution,” Sears says. “It’s about using theatre to put the audience in the position to experience and invoke change in themselves and in the world.”

Sears uses the techniques she learned studying under Boal in her manifestation of Theatre for the Free People. She had created an “Artist as Activist” program in New York City and wanted to do something similar in her hometown of Cincinnati when she decided to move back two years ago. She says she took the ideas from the work she had done in New York and Amsterdam and merged them together in Cincinnati.

One of the projects she has led in Cincinnati was a ten-week workshop for local artists, activists, and community organizers. “Most people wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves artists but are looking to do more creative things in their personal lives or in their work with organizations in the city,” says Sears.

The participants worked together to explore some of the major social and environmental justice issues that they were witnessing in the city through games and discussions. “We were kind of exploring the city in different ways,” Sears says.

Along with initiating dialogue, the group worked together to produce a larger event that celebrated arts and activism in Cincinnati called “The Exchange.” “The idea was to create a space where artists could exchange ideas with one another and with the community,” Sears explains. “Also throughout the course of that each artist, activist or entrepreneur had a personal project they were working on.”

She refers to a participating couple that wanted to launch a tea business. “I offered my support and expertise on branding and marketing. I worked one on one with them on developing their business as well as discussing social justice issues and planning the event. At the event they launched their business; they had a space where they sold their products and were able to market their brand to other people in attendance. It kind of had a threefold approach, which was really based on the three parts of Theatre for the Free People – arts education, services for artists and creative entrepreneurs, and producing the event.”

That third prong to Sears’s efforts to use art to affect positive social transformation is Free People International, the parent organization of Theatre for the Free People, which she defines as “a social enterprise specializing in offering creative solutions for some of the world’s biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking, and social innovation.” Through Free People International she offers services and consulting to emerging creative entrepreneurs, organizations, nonprofits, cultural institutions, and NGOs, solving the problems they face in their institutions.

“It’s really just problem solving, digging into our basket of theatre, arts, social innovation, design, product design, and figuring out which kind of tool can best solve that problem,” whether that be social justice issues, like the well-documented police brutality in Ferguson last year, or environmental justice issues.

“I am an artist,” she says. “I feel like artists have such a responsibility to be the voice of conscience in our society and put a light on social issues, environmental issues, and economic justice issues. [We have to] put our brains together and figure out how to tackle issues important to us.”

She jokes that Free People International is the end result “if all of the amazing things about the arts and all of the equally amazing things about design and innovation had a baby and this baby wanted to change the world – that would be the baby.”

A major part of her work through FPI is social innovation through consulting design, and the word “International” is no misnomer. She created an environmental justice program in Southeast Asia through the United Nations, visiting Thailand and Cambodia, and before that she was in Greece to attend the Rhodes Youth Forum.

For her work in Southeast Asia, an initiative she calls “Green is the New Gangsta,” she recently received the World Summit Youth Award, which honors young people around the world for using technology to address the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. This project is all about making being green “cool,” which she developed through the “Artist as Activist” program she had been facilitating.

Never one to allow the grass to grow beneath her toes, next up on Sears’s globe-trotting itinerary is Germany, where she has a fellowship focused on creating economic opportunities for social and creative entrepreneurs during which she and 19 other fellows will work with international retailer H&M on creating a more eco-friendly and sustainable packaging system while developing their own initiatives. For this fellowship, her new initiative is an online platform that will act as a forum for creative exchanges between artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs, offering online courses for skill sharing and creating a space for artists and makers to be more financially independent, with an outlet for them to sell their products and services online.

But she isn’t concerned about leaving behind the work she is doing in Cincinnati (or anywhere else, for that matter). “One of the things I’m really interested in is creating, building, and nurturing communities that are self-sustaining,” she says. “The group that came together under me still meets without me, which is kind of the legacy of the work that I do. I give them the necessary tools to go off and do their own thing; now they’re doing their own grassroots activism work around the city.”