By Cathy Salit
Every two years I have my mind blown. It happens at an international conference in New York City called Performing the World (PTW), that brings together “performance activists” from over 40 countries to share ideas, share their work, and build community. Performance of a Lifetime has been a sponsor and organizer of PTW since its beginnings in 2001, and over that time the use of performance, theater and improvisation as a catalyst for individual, community, and organizational development and change has grown into a movement that spans geographical, cultural and professional borders. At this year’s conference I spent three packed days with over 500 performers, artists, health care professionals, businesspeople, academics, psychologists, young people, educators, community activists and others, and in my next few posts I want to share with you a little of what blew my mind this year.
Antanas Mockus served as mayor of Bogotá, Colombia for two terms between 1995 and 2003. But he is no ordinary politician. By training he is a mathematician and philosopher — he has had a successful academic career and was vice president and president of the National University of Colombia. But as a human being Mockus is a performer, and he sees the world as a stage on which to create new ways of seeing, new ways of acting, and new possibilities. He was interviewed at PTW by Jacqueline Salit, an independent political strategist (and yes, my big sis) and he captivated the audience with his accounts of his career, creativity, humanity and courage.
“People respond to humor and playfulness from politicians,” he says. “It’s the most powerful tool for change we have.” When Mockus came to office, Bogotá was, by all accounts, a mess. Its traffic situation was infamous (and deadly to pedestrians). One of his first initiatives was to replace 1,800 corrupt traffic police officers with mime artists. 420 of them. Instead of cops collecting fines (and pocketing them), the mimes performed their responses to traffic infractions — for instance, pretending to be hurt or offended when a driver ignored the pedestrian right of way in a crosswalk. It was a crazy idea, but it worked — drivers began to obey traffic signals and, for the first time, they respected crosswalks.
Throughout the city, Mockus enlisted drivers themselves in the performance, distributing hundreds of thousands of flash cards with a thumbs-up image on one side and a thumbs-down on the other. Drivers were directed to flash the thumbs-up in response to courteous driving, and a thumbs-down to express disapproval.
Within a decade, traffic fatalities fell by more than half.
Mockus insisted on staying outside of the traditional political box, and found a seemingly endless number of ways to playfully build community, shared responsibility and citizen ownership. In a city with the highest murder rate in Latin America, 7000 community security groups were formed and the homicide rate fell 70%. In 1995 to combat a severe water shortage, rather than imposing mandatory restrictions, Mockus designed a campaign for citizens to voluntarily restrict water usage — including a TV ad featuring himself in the shower turning off the water as he lathered. Water usage dropped 40%. With the water saving, the city could now provide safe drinking water to all homes (up from 79% in 1993), and sewerage was provided to 95% of homes (up from 71%).
More recently, Mockus has been an important part of the Colombian peace process, which has brought bitter enemies to the table after 50 years of a civil war that has caused almost 250,000 deaths. His unconventional and irreverent sensibility and leadership has contributed greatly to this momentous achievement. (Colombia will vote in a plebiscite on the peace treaty on October 2.)
You can read more about Mockus here, here, and elsewhere, and I hope you do! In this moment when so many of us face a political system so overwhelmingly characterized by its dysfunction, I find it profoundly moving and hopeful to be reminded of the vast potential for change that lies in our capacity to perform in new and creative ways.
Cathy Salit is a performer and co-founder of Performance of a Lifetime. Her book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books) is on sale everywhere books are sold.
Follow her on Twitter: @CathySalit