Sommer Highlights Cultural Agency at Allston Ed Portal

In a speech that drew mixed reactions from an audience of about 30 Allston-Brighton residents, Romance Languages and Literatures Professor Doris Sommer described art’s potential for social empowerment both in the community and internationally at the Allston Education Portal Tuesday evening.

Sommer recounted anecdotes of “cultural agency” in history, specifically former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus’s citywide initiative in the late 1990s and early 2000s to promote creativity in a city ravaged by drug violence.

Sommer described the journey that led her to the discovery that she, too, could be a cultural agent—someone who finds solutions to social problems through the arts rather than through politics.

“We live in a world where we’ve somehow bought the idea that pleasure is a distraction, that it’s almost sinful,” Sommer said. “One thing we all learned from Mockus is that pleasure is crucial in creating social change.”

According to Sommer, that change comes about when citizens are empowered through the creation of art.

Sommer’s lecture was part of PRE-Texts, a program within the University’s Cultural Agents Initiative that Sommer developed to integrate the arts into the academic environment.

This past year, PRE-Texts brought together undergraduate mentors and students at the Gardner Pilot Academy—an elementary school in Allston—to promote critical thinking and a love of learning.

Despite their acknowledgment of the success of Harvard-sponsored programs locally, some residents questioned their effectiveness.

John J. Stenson Jr. of Brighton asked the first question after Sommer wrapped up her lecture, demanding to see funding from the University to promote theater in Allston.

“Never mind about Bogotá. What about right here?” Stenson said. “Put a play on here. That’s your challenge.”

In an interview with The Crimson following the lecture, Stenson explained why he considers theater such an important educational tool.

“When you go and you see the manifestation of sacrifice and suffering, you understand something about yourself,” he said. “It purges you of arrogance...hopefully.”

Robert A. Lue, life sciences professor and faculty director of the Ed Portal, said that he hopes to speak with Stenson to discuss putting a show on at the Portal.

“It’s something we should really think about doing,” Lue said. “This space is for the community.”

—Staff writer Marco J. Barber Grossi can be reached at mbarbergrossi@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @marco_jbg.

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