A workshop participant is asked to create a “social sculpture” that represents how she sees immigration in the U.S., using us — her fellow participants — as her clay.

As the daughter of two immigrants, this issue is something she deeply cares about. She starts by asking our permission to take us “at face value.” That is to pick us by the race we represent, not by the human she knows us to be.

She starts by setting two people with brown skins on the ground. One lies down, the other sits. She then asks six white females to stand in rows behind the brown bodies on the floor. A white male is asked to head up this row of females. On the opposite side stands another white male. The men face each other, not the people on the ground. Behind the second male, more white females stand in ranks.

Three females that pass as white, but who are not, are asked to stand facing away from the sculpture, looking toward the wall. Everyone else are deemed to have immigrant status. They sit on the edge of the room, watching, but not participating.

We all stand there, taking it all in before we begin to debrief. The experience of the sculpture changes our conversation from an intellectual inquiry into the felt experience of the situation.

“I feel guilty,” says a white woman.

“I felt the safety of not facing the situation,” says another white woman.

“I felt powerless,” says an immigrant.

“I felt isolated,” says a white-passing woman.

“I felt misunderstood,” said a white male.

“I felt abandoned,” said one of the brown-skinned women.

Together we discuss how this affects us and how we affect it. We participate in this system. Hearing how it affects people sparks empathy and care. Witnessing our own participation shows us how to shift our role.

If we had more time, we would go into the generative phase of this sculpture and feel with our bodies for a desirable shift, but that will have to wait for another day.

This activity is informed by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Arawana Hayashi‘s Social Presencing Theatre. If you plan to do something similar, please be mindful of the prior work of trust-building that needs to precede this and the skill needed to host a generative debrief.