'Unsilence' Helps Communities Address Taboo Topics

Jul 9, 2018

The separation of families at the US-Mexico border has caused many to voice outrage over what they see as an inhumane policy. Dozens of children separated from their parents have been placed in shelters in the Chicago area, part of a group of around 2,000 separated children placed across the country.

On July 21st, a Chicago non-profit group called Unsilence plans to hold a "human rights treasure hunt" in the city with a goal of provoking conversations about this and other issues that go beyond outrage and disbelief.

Since its inception in 2014, Unsilence has held workshops, simulations, performances and other events designed to help parents, students and teachers address topics like suicide, homelessness, racism, mass incarceration and other tough subjects.

Unsilence founder and creative director, Danny M. Cohen, who is also a professor at Northwestern University, says at the crux of each effort is a central question: What don't we talk about and why? The ultimate goal is to help empower communities by shining a light on and confronting problems that are difficult to discuss.

We spoke with Cohen to learn more about Unsilence and its efforts.

Illinois Newsroom: What originally sparked the efforts behind Unsilence and inspired you to start it?

Danny Cohen, founder of Unsilence, speaks about his own hidden stories at the Sounds of Unsilence music benefit.
Credit Luke Adams

Danny M. Cohen: In 2005, which was 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it emerged that the Polish authorities explicitly and intentionally excluded members of the LGBT community from attending the 60th anniversary ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

That led me to ask the question, "Why is it that so many victim narratives within Holocaust history are pushed to the margins and often intentionally excluded?" We're talking the Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, political prisoners.

We're very familiar with the central Jewish narrative of the Holocaust, but surely we need to include all of these other victim groups in a meaningful way, not only to honor their memory, but also to learn real lessons about different forms of prejudice.

So through Unsilence you are tasking students, teachers and others to consider what they don't talk about and why. Can you explain about how that has actually played out in a practical sense?

So we go into schools, we go into communities, we work with institutions to help people have really hard conversations. We do that by designing and disseminating engaging and interactive learning experiences.

We have 'choose your own pathway' mysteries, and web quests, and interactive photography exhibits and testimonies that serve as entry points into these hard conversations.

So for example, we have online a free and accessible feature called Oxygen, where we go through a series of real-world scenarios that help you navigate the questions around why it's so hard to talk about different forms of violence, including gun violence -- including the violence that we see on our news screens. And these interactive features are kind of like a "choose your own adventure" style where you are asked to make certain decisions in these particular scenarios.

You're based in Chicago. Obviously there are a lot of children that are dealing with trauma there due to violence in their community and maybe in their families. Tell us a little bit more about Oxygen and what that tool is, and maybe give us another example of your work in the city.

Students Anya Patel and Isis Davis speak at Sounds of Unsilence music benefit.
Credit Luke Adams

Depending on where you want to start on Oxygen, you get to choose whether you're a parent, educator or someone else. If you choose to be a parent in the experience, then you start in the car, you're in traffic, the radio's on, and there are a couple of children in the backseat. Breaking news hits, it comes on the radio that there is a mass shooting at a shopping mall and you're asked, "What do you do?"

Do you turn off the radio because you don't want the children listening to this, or do you keep the radio on because your children need to know what's happening?

Oxygen helps you reflect on what you're feeling in the moment and how to help children navigate their own emotional and intellectual responses to the news, whether that news is happening far away or close by.

This year we actually piloted an action project at a number of schools across Chicago, mostly public high schools. Students identified the taboos that they wanted to break, and pondered how they can help have conversations about sexual violence, about domestic violence, about racism, about xenophobia. And these groups of students, with the support of their teachers, implemented those projects.

We had one school that wrote a play inspired by one of our Unsilence texts and they performed for the community. The play was a dystopian thriller that they set in the future where stories of human rights were stolen by the government, and a group of young people were working to uncover these hidden stories of human rights from the past.

And at Barrington High School in northern Illinois you had a forum dealing with suicide. A lot of us might not be confident on how to broach the subject -- especially with kids. So tell us a little bit more about what you did at that high school.

We ran a community workshop for two hours. We had an amazing mix of high school students, parents, teachers and administrators all in the same workshop so that as we were talking about suicide and mental health, these different groups of people could hear questions and concerns and the realities of lived experiences from all these different perspectives.

We developed a new feature, a "choose your own pathway" story, where we start in a classroom and the door suddenly opens and four students come running in crying and they tell the teacher, "We need to talk with you!"

The teacher comes to learn that these students' friend has died by suicide the night before.

As we go through the story, the teacher learns about a particular school policy that prevents teachers from talking about suicide at all, for fear of the phenomenon of suicide contagion. The story moves through and we learn about how the teacher is dealing. We hear about how a student is dealing with this news, and we also come in contact with the principal who has to decide at the end of the story what policy to set.

As we move through the story we hear from different experts, psychologists, therapists -- all these different expert perspectives about how a community should talk about suicide in a safe and appropriate way.

So speaking of experts -- how did you go about collecting best practices when it comes to forging these discussions?

Much of this is based on real events. So teachers, who can remain anonymous, submit concepts to us through our story portal. We collect stories and as we develop experiences around them we consult with experts on how to talk about different forms of violence, including suicide, and then integrate that into real online resources.

So it sounds like an important part of this is that you're gathering questions from educators, people on the ground who are coming to you with concerns. And that is how you're identifying these issues?

Right. We go into a community and it's not up to us to decide what the taboos are that need to be broken. We have workshops that help the community identify which issues they want to talk about.

Something that we find, which is really fascinating, is sometimes a school or a group of teachers will bring us in thinking they know which taboos need to be talked about, mental health or racism for example. And when we work with the young people it might emerge that they actually want to talk about mass incarceration, or want to talk about police brutality, for example.

And so often the teachers, administrators and parents are somewhat surprised by what the young people want to talk about. And we really try to let the young people lead in telling us what taboos their communities need to break.

You have a career in higher education and academia -- but this project is about including the voices of people regardless of age and education level. Why is that important to you?

Before I became an academic, I was a youth worker working in inner-city London. I worked with mostly Bangladeshi teenagers, but also Somali teens living in the inner city. And I was a human rights educator. My work has always been grounded in the realities of what young people are facing today.

Danny Cohen runs a workshop around his Holocaust novel TRAIN for students at Chiaravalle Montessori School, Evanston IL, 2014.
Credit Courtesy Unsilence

As I explored these hidden Holocaust histories, I came to see that the framework I was building was applicable to all of these marginalized and hidden injustices happening today. I developed a theory that showed why marginalization happens. I argue with my work that there are three kinds of silencing: cultural, personal, and institutional.

Institutional silencing happens through government or organizations intentionally preventing particular conversations from happening.

Cultural silencing are these hidden norms, the elephants in the room, that we just don't want to talk about as a community or as a family.

And then personal silencing comes from shame, distrust, embarrassment and trauma. It prevents us from telling particular stories of violence and injustice.

You mention you lived in London -- you're not an Illinois native. So why is Illinois a good home base for this project? What's going on here in particular?

We're fairly central in terms of geography. We have many of the same issues people struggle with all across the country, from mass incarceration to corruption, to very personal issues like mental health and access to medical care. We're also divided politically, which makes for interesting tension.

Like many other states, we have pockets of conservative communities and progressive communities. We have very mixed communities that are struggling to have these conversations in a productive way -- in a way that could actually lead to real change rather than being stuck in this deadlock.

So something that we strive to do is help groups of people break through those divides. So the work that we're doing is across Chicago and beyond. I'm in Barrington for example, and we are going to Springfield in the fall.

We are really excited that we can offer a unique experience for communities to have these conversations that they've been so hungry for, for so long.

On July 21st you have an event that is open to the public, and it's referred to as a "human rights treasure hunt." Can you give us a gist of what attendees will be doing?

This is happening in Chicago, in the Loop. This is a bit of a spoiler alert, but this is a "time travel" quest where participants will be starting in the year 2099 and we find out that in 2099 in Chicago, injustice continues. Violence continues, but many stories from history have been lost. And along with those stories, we have also lost the tools to take a stand against injustice and violence.

The participants of our treasure hunt will stop on the 80th floor of the Willis Tower, and will travel through our time machine, which are the elevators, and go to the ground floor. And when they get to the ground floor, they suddenly find that they are back in 2018 where they have to collect hidden stories from the past and tools for social action and information about human rights and send them back to 2099 to help Chicago face injustices.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. For more information on Unsilence, click here.