When Drew Kahn, distinguished service professor at Buffalo Sate and director of the Anne Frank Project, visited Oswego Staten on Wednesday, he used visual performances and motivational speaking to implore students and visitors to tell their stories to better the world.
Kahn and other members of the Anne Frank Project from Buffalo State came to the Marano Campus Center Auditorium as part of the Living Writers Series program and class, which brings in artists and writers from different genres to educate creative writing students on writing as a conversation.
When Jane LeBlanc, associate director of the Counseling Services Center on campus, told professor Laura Donnelly about Kahn’s efforts in Buffalo, Donnelly said she saw it as an opportunity to introduce an interactive element into her class and program.
“His work touches on theater and on playwriting, and it’s important for us to have representatives from all different genres coming in to address the class,” Donnelly said. “Since many people in this class are writers and are storytellers, I think that’s an important reminder for them and their work that our prime goal here is to involve people in what we’re doing.”
Kahn used the class’s platform to educate students on the Anne Frank Project, a program that brings students at Buffalo State together to create a stage production that tells the stories of Anne Frank and other victims of genocide. One of the most notable productions discussed frequently at the event featured Anne Frank’s story, paralleled with a female victim of the Rwandan genocide.
“Stories beget more stories, [and] Africa is based on story,” Kahn said.
Before the main class, students and visitors had the opportunity to participate in a series of workshops with members of the Anne Frank Project, where the members’ experience in Rwanda and performing stories on stage guided the creation of a small visual production based on the Rwandan genocide. At the presentation, members, students and visitors performed the result. Two visual representations filled the room with vibrant movements and expressed emotions without dialogue.
Monica Espada, a senior and journalism major at Oswego State, said she was glad Kahn and the Anne Frank Project could portray those stories in a unique way that caught her interest more than traditional means.
“I really enjoyed learning about storytelling,” Espada said. “I didn’t realize that you could say so much without not actually saying anything.”
Damian Campana, a junior creative writing major, participated in the workshop portion and performed as part of an extra-credit opportunity for the class. He said his time spent with the Anne Frank Project helped him bond strangers in a way that fostered a constructive learning environment.
“I was intrigued with the idea that storytelling can be used as a vehicle for expanding upon these profound, abstract ideas like freedom and forgiveness,” Campana said. “It was an experience that I’ll probably never forget—just being in the same room as someone who just sees the world in a completely different way than anyone I’ve necessarily heard verbalized in that way.”
It is important that these efforts of diversity and inclusion continue on college campuses, Kahn said, because the current political climate has created a system that puts the individual over the cooperative, which he said is ultimately harmful for the U.S. and the world.
“The current political climate has used the power of story to shift the narrative [to] a story that doesn’t serve any of us—it doesn’t serve most of us,” Kahn said. “We as human beings were designed to do the three C’s: communicate, collaborate, connect. If we stifle that design, we get into trouble.”
After the speaking and performance portions of the event, students and visitors asked Kahn and members about the project and their experience, which prompted a description of the Anne Frank Project’s experience visiting Rwanda’s memorials and communities to see the relief efforts since the genocide.
“Going to Rwanda was truly the most heart-wrenching and uplifting experience of my life,” said Madeline Allard, a member of the Anne Frank Project. “I don’t think I’ve ever laughed and cried so hard as my time there, and that was only two weeks.”
Amanda Gydesen, an Oswego State junior creative writing major, said the Anne Frank Project’s use of diversity theater to enact change in both the U.S. and throughout the world inspired her to incorporate other people’s stories into her own fiction.
“It’s something we kind of need on a larger scale,” Gydesen said. “If you’re tired of white theater…it’s kind of a breath of fresh air that there’s a pushback against that.”
Kahn said he was encouraged by the positive reaction the presentation received from students and other participants because it assures him students are understanding the message he is trying to send—that it is important to interact with others to express ideas and create important, meaningful stories.
“Students come to us… as big kids, and we get to watch the really important transition from big kid to young adult,” Kahn said. “With that comes responsibilities and ethics and communal values.”