Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity & Democracy Volume 10, Number 3  

Diversity & Democracy
Volume 10,
Number 3

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About This Issue
Featured Topic: Shared Futures
Civic Learning in a Diverse Democracy: Education for Shared Futures
Exploring Global Connections: Dismantling the International/ Multicultural Divide
Art and Social Action in Cambodia: Transforming Students into World Citizens
Deconstructing the American Dream through Global Learning
Africana Philosophy: Globalizing the Diversity Curriculum
Campus Practice
The Catalyst Trip: A Journey of Transformation
Recommitting and Re-Energizing Community Engagement in Post-Disaster New Orleans
Indigenous Peoples' Issues as Global Education: Theory and Activism in the Classroom
Improving Opportunities for Latino/a Students through Civic Engagement
Research Report
Advancing Cultural Literacy in the Core Curriculum
And More...
In Print

Art and Social Action in Cambodia: Transforming Students into World Citizens

By Carlos Silveira, professor of art at California State University–Long Beach

# CSULB Professor of Art Education Carlos Silveira works on art projects with the children at Little Folks, a Maryknoll Missions nongovernmental organization that supports healthy Cambodian youth who are the primary caretakers for their AIDS-infected parent(s). (Photo by Erin Henning/Cut Loose Productions)
CSULB Professor of Art Education Carlos Silveira works on art projects with the children at Little Folks, a Maryknoll Missions nongovernmental organization that supports healthy Cambodian youth who are the primary caretakers for their AIDS-infected parent(s). (Photo by Erin Henning/Cut Loose Productions)

Social justice community service learning is a powerful tool that prepares students to engage as global citizens. In my work as an art educator, I view service learning as producing a transformative attitude change akin to what Paulo Freire (1970) calls the development of “critical consciousness.” Through “critical consciousness,” students become world citizens, developing their political voices as social advocates not only in their national communities, but also throughout the globe. This is particularly true of art education, where social justice service learning has proven to be extremely powerful.

Art Education and “Critical Consciousness”

For several years, I have had the opportunity to observe my art education students’ development of “critical consciousness” through their domestic social justice service-learning projects. My students become social advocates, designing and implementing art projects in collaboration with several Long Beach advocacy groups (such as women’s shelters, agencies for runaway youth, and agencies for HIV-positive or AIDS clients). These projects lead my students to think critically about their life experiences and challenge their current social values as they reflect on the implications of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and culture. As a result, these students develop valuable skills, critical thinking, and a sense of social responsibility that will enable them to be effective future educators and social advocates.

space CSULB student Amanda Mithers (yellow apron) helps the children at Little Folks paint an art mural on the cement wall that surrounds the property. (Photo by Teresa Hagen/Cut Loose Productions)
CSULB student Amanda Mithers (yellow apron) helps the children at Little Folks paint an art mural on the cement wall that surrounds the property. (Photo by Teresa Hagen/Cut Loose Productions)

I feel very fortunate to be in the field of art education, where I can encourage my students to utilize art as a tool for empowering underserved communities. Art, in all its many forms, has the power to transcend cultures and bridge social and economic gaps. It allows individuals to express their feelings and frustrations in a way that is both easily understood and nonconfrontational. Art instruction assists students in identifying social and political challenges and helps them connect what they learn in the classroom to what they experience in their communities. In this way art instruction becomes a vehicle for social action. Through art, students can move the soul while also encouraging social awareness. With such a powerful tool at their disposal, students can become cross-cultural humanitarians.

Globalizing Social Justice Outreach

Lesson Plan Workshop

Student pairs write the first draft of their lesson plans while in the U.S. Upon their arrival in Cambodia, each pair of American students joins two Cambodian students to form a group. The U.S. students present the drafts of their lessons to the Cambodian students. They then modify or completely rework their lesson plans based on the Cambodian students’ feedback and ideas. Similarly, in their first visits to the community agencies, students present their ideas to the children they are teaching and ask them for feedback by providing some options. They then modify their lesson plans for the last time on the basis of that feedback.

Lesson plan requirements:

a) The design of lesson plans is focused on the declaration of human rights by the United Nations and the development of awareness of three types of identity: personal identity, group or collective identity, and cultural identity. Usually the first lesson is based on concepts of personal identity and self-expression, leading to lessons in community and civic engagement and cultural identity.

b) Lesson plans should have a strong therapeutic component developed through the use of play and by building interdisciplinary connections between art, music, theater, and dance.

c) Lesson plans should involve the rich Cambodian heritage in the arts. Students must research traditional Cambodian art forms and translate their knowledge into their lesson plans.

Lesson plan project examples:

  • Community murals—Past themes have included My Community, My Future, and Life as a River.

  • Social advocacy posters (printmaking)—Children play the role of social advocates and design posters for their communities with messages based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • Shadow puppets—Children produce shadow puppets and develop plays with pro-education, antiviolence, and antidrug messages, or with morals based on Cambodian mythology.

  • Emotional self-portraits (painting and dance)—Children portray their emotions through color and movement.
  • In the fall of 2003, I was a faculty fellow at the Community Service Learning Center at California State University–Long Beach (CSULB). As CSULB began to globalize its curriculum, the curricular committee charged me with developing an international service-learning initiative at our university. After visiting Cambodia during the winter session of 2004, I became inspired to develop an international social justice service-learning model in the arts. I hoped that I could push American students out of their “comfort zones” and encourage them to experience social justice issues on a global level. As Richard Kiely points out, “participation in an international service-learning program with a strong social justice pedagogy can trigger extremely powerful reactions from students who begin to critically reflect on long-held assumptions about themselves, lifestyle choices, cultural norms, U.S. capitalism, careers, relationships, social problems and the world around them” (2004, 16).

    Working from Kiely’s premise, I developed an internationally tested, cross-cultural curricular model designed to foster social advocacy and multicultural sensitivity in college students. This model also aims to provide individuals, particularly disenfranchised youth, with positive life alternatives and heightened self-esteem.

    In the winter session of January 2005, I taught Art and Social Action in Cambodia, an international service-learning immersion course based on the model I developed. For this three-week course, I took twenty-seven CSULB students to Cambodia, where they joined students from Panassastra University of Cambodia (PUC) in Phnom Penh. Cambodian and American students paired up in teams. The students learned how to design, teach, and implement community-based art education projects that are sensitive to the needs of the populations involved and reflect the rich tradition of Cambodian arts. They implemented these projects with groups of disadvantaged youth in Phnom Penh, including HIV-positive children, teenagers who are their HIV-positive parents’ caretakers, and young women rescued from sex trafficking.

    This program proved to be the most rewarding experience I have ever had as a professor. I clearly observed transformations in the attitudes of both the disenfranchised youth and the college students. CSULB students underwent, in their own words, a “life-changing experience.” They empowered themselves by becoming world citizens.

    In their final reflection papers, students indicated drastic changes in their worldviews, including their views of U.S. diversity. Their responses implicitly illustrate how U.S. diversity and global awareness are not parallel contemporary issues, but are intersecting and complementary challenges in the path of students’ empowerment. Many students attested that after being in Cambodia and witnessing extreme levels of poverty and human rights abuses, their views of oppression no longer center on ethnicity. Instead, they have developed holistic and complex views of how the interconnections of political systems, class structures, gender, race, and ethnicity perpetuate cycles of poverty among communities.

    Moving Forward with Lessons Learned

    Art and Social Action in Cambodia is going to take place for the fourth time in the winter of 2008. Art and Social Action in Brazil, a similar course, took place in the summer of 2006, and Art and Social Action in India will take place in the summer of 2008. The success of my model depends not only on an effective social justice curriculum, but also on strong partnerships between California State University and Cambodian, Brazilian, and Indian universities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in these countries. Such collaboration is vital to the cross-cultural dialogue and represents another level of cross-cultural exchange for social justice education.

    Voices of Transformation:
    Student Responses

    The following excerpts are from the reflection papers of two students:

    Art and Social Action in Cambodia enhanced my vision of the possibilities of advancement that can be achieved through investigation in the visual arts. Through this experience, I became aware of the potential to raise critical awareness in individuals through participation in artistic endeavors. My level of consciousness about my own responsibilities as a member of the human race has been enlightened through my interaction with the curriculum Carlos has presented and the ideology that he has shared with me.

    —John, former art education student. John is currently living in Cambodia where he teaches English in the mornings and in the afternoons develops art projects with children rescued from dump sites.

    I have learned from this course that through art, we can give less fortunate children the opportunity to have a voice and to realize that they have the power to change the world they live in. I went into this course not knowing exactly what to expect, and I honestly didn’t think that I’d be touched like I was. I now find myself having the same drive and passion for using art as a tool of empowerment. I returned from Cambodia wanting to do more, and I plan to make that my career, to help people through the power of creativity and self-actualization. I know that I cannot help all of the less fortunate children in the world, but I know now that I can touch some of their lives in some way and give them the power to change their lives and others around them.

    —Amanda, former art education student. Amanda is currently living in Cambodia as an artist-in-residence for Arts for Global Citizenship. She is in charge of developing and implementing a social justice art program to children rescued from the dump sites.

    My work in these courses has taught me several lessons about social justice education. I discovered how important students’ preparation is for successful social justice service learning. I have always scheduled several meetings with students prior to the service learning experience. These meetings introduce students to the foundations of Cambodian culture and history, U.S. foreign policy, social justice, and art and social action. Students learn how to avoid colonialist or missionary perspectives when working among underserved sectors of the Cambodian society. After the first few trips, I came to the realization that these few meetings were not enough. Beginning in the fall semester of 2007, students will take a class, Art and Social Action: A Global Perspective, to prepare them for their international service-learning experience. They will follow up with a Special Topics class in the spring, which will help them to reflect on their experiences and translate their new concept of civic engagement into their daily lives.

    My goal is to develop sustainable social justice art programs in Cambodia, Brazil, and India by strengthening my partnership with the NGOs with which the students and I worked. I hope to accomplish this through a newly established nonprofit organization, Arts for Global Citizenship. I envision this organization as a powerful vehicle for bringing together international and local art educators and artists, as well as community resources, to reach disenfranchised youth, helping them to find a voice for social activism through artistic expression. My long-term vision is to encourage a multinational and multicultural artistic dialogue, much like the one my students have begun to develop.


    Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

    Kiely, R. 2004. A chameleon with a complex: Searching for transformation in international service learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (Spring): 5–20.

    Editor's note: California State University—Long Beach is a participating institution in AAC&U’s Shared Futures: Global Learning for General Education project.

    For more information about the Arts for Global Citizenship project, please visit the Web site: www.artsglobal.org.

    Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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