Tag Archives: teaching

Arming rebels with art – Esther Chae’s memoir of teaching in Nigeria

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Stage and television actor and writer Esther Chae is not afraid of adventure, having climbed the Indian Himalayas, Mt Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, among other epic journeys. Here, she shares with the Fellows blog an unusual teaching experience that took her into an altogether different context for her craft, and changed her perspective on the importance of film, acting, and art. Chae recently closed a performance of Extraordinary Chambers,  in which she portrayed a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, in San Diego, and is currently developing her one-woman show, So the Arrow Flies – about an alleged North Korean spy interrogated by the FBI – as a feature film. 

A few years ago, TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt asked me to write about my experience teaching in Abuja, Nigera, to include in her e-book, “The Audacity of Humanity.”  I’d like to share it here on the TED Fellows Blog since it is one of the rare moments my limits both as an explorer and actor (acting teacher in this case) were tested at the same time. There is a strong correlation between the two: both require one to stay vigilantly present in the moment, to be open to unexpected challenges and to persist through that uncomfortable place of extreme vulnerability. That compound effect was intense.


How on earth did I end up here in Africa…?

That’s what I was thinking as a howling sandstorm ravaged Abuja, Nigeria. With bandanas covering our faces and sunglasses protecting our eyes, we stepped outside the classrooms. We looked like a group of bandits about to rob a bank, not fancy artists sent to teach filmmaking. As my students were rehearsing their assigned scenes, I suddenly felt like Coolio, singing in my head how kids in the hood had been spending most their lives living in the Gang-sta’s Paradise. I felt like I was in some intense music video and I needed to rap my way through it.

In the spring of 2010, I was part of a group of American teachers who were “planed over” to help build Nigeria’s first official film academy. I was hired to teach Acting for Film.  Somehow I missed the memo that I was going to be playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s tough character in the Nollywood (Nigeria’s version of Hollywood) edition of Dangerous Minds, teaching “gangster rebels.”  Craft service and make up were certainly not on this set, though.

The makeshift film school was located in an abandoned governmental structure, and the water stopped and electricity went out every day (but not at the same time).  This was a stress factor for this gal who was trained (and tortured) under her über-fastidious Korean mom. I could see Mom tsk-tsking, shaking her head at me. “Now look at where your horse traveling spirit has brought you to. And this place, so dirty!”


Filmmaking class.

Filmmaking class.

In the first few days following our arrival, one of the African-American teachers, who was overwhelmed to be “back” in Africa for the first time, broke down in class.  He was so excited about and focused on teaching his students, he did not even notice those sandstorms.  He lost his voice and then got a sinus infection from the dust.  I had to take over his class on top of my already five-class load that first week.

The production assistants were not doing so well, either. Not only were they younger and  less experienced working in developing countries, but they did not have the benefit or gratification of working with the students. They didn’t get to see the students’ lightbulbs turn on and creativity flow, like we teachers did. Instead, the PAs had the harsh task of managing the expensive film equipment, which started fraying in the heat and dust, to over 200 confused students who were completely new to film production and constantly fought over time slots and camera equipment. Their duties were stressful, and it started to take a toll.  I would see mounds and mounds of hard liquor bottles and cigarette packs outside their hotel room doors.

I knew Nigeria was one of the most recently volatile regions in Africa. Before going there, I had spoken with friends familiar with the area who thought tough Esther could handle it. Okay. I’ve trekked the Himalayan mountains in India, bamboo rafted across Thailand’s rivers, and even survived tiptoeing across the frozen Neva River in Russia in the dead of winter. I could do it. I’m going to Nigeria! But when I first arrived there, I felt I’d made a huge mistake.

When our group of fifteen-some teachers from Los Angeles and New York landed, we were greeted by an equal number of uniformed guards all armed with AK-47s.  They shuffled us into the vans that were waiting to take us to the the crumbling “five-star” hotel. This was not customary, but the US-affiliated film academy insisted that we – and the expensive equipment – be guarded for safety. I think I would have felt safer without the guns. The guns stayed with us the entire time we were there.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

But later, I understood why.  Ten days after our team of U.S. instructors had arrived, more than 500 civilians, mostly children and women, were killed at a church in the nearby city of Jos. It was surreal to watch the CNN news in the hotel lounge, knowing the brutal massacre had happened only 160 miles away from where I was standing. It was the latest in a sickening cycle of retaliation due to differing political and religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds, all which were too complex for me, the foreign teacher, to decipher…

One of the screenwriting students mentioned that the Nigerian press reported that the US Film Academy teachers were there to rehabilitate the rebels of the Niger Delta region. The Niger Delta region is the southeastern area between Lagos and Cameroon, home to nine Nigerian tribes whose land contains vast reserves of oil. The area had become a scene of horrific bloodshed and violence as the conflict between disenfranchised populations, oil conglomerates, and the government played out. Apparently, many of our students, who were former rebels from that region, were fully funded by the Niger Delta government to come to this Film Academy for “rehabilitation.”

Well, that was helpful information.  No wonder some of the students looked so completely lost and confused! The students all had stories of how they’d found themselves at the film academy: cousins who’d applied on their behalf, church pastors who’d reached out, radio advertisements they’d heard while driving. Those students wanted to learn filmmaking. But the other students from the Niger Delta region had been granted scholarships to go to Abuja and had no idea what they were doing or what they were in for. These students were “rebels” indeed. I would like to imagine they were the ones who had the opportunity to actually defy violence and conflict in their region, the ones who’d traveled from far and further afar to Abuja to learn filmmaking, acting, editing and animation. They were eager 20-somethings desperate for a creative outlet to spread their war-weary wings and fly.  Hopefully we teachers could help them arm themselves with art and the power of storytelling. Their pens had to be mightier than the sword. They were now rebels without machetes or guns but with pens, scripts and acting in hand. I had to show up for them, however fatigued, uncomfortable and confused I was.

The sandstorm eventually subsided. The AC started working again, and we picked up where we’d left off. As I walked around the classroom checking in with my students, I heard the song beats of “Gangsta’s Paradise” in my head again.  I smiled as my “rebel students” rehearsed their scenes, hoping to fulfill my role as the inspirational teacher that they’d never forget. I hoped many of them would become the Nouvelle Vague of Nigerian cinema, if not civic leaders who questioned their current political and social circumstances through the arts and storytelling. It was in that moment that I figured out the how and why I ended up in Africa. I was there as both a teacher in front of the class and a student of this particular life experience.




Don’t Judge a Book by its Title (How the N-Word Changes Everything)

Could the N-word stop a book from being shared?  

Last week, just a few days before the 25th anniversary of the national holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I finally released an audacious collaborative ebook on Scribd.com;  a collection of 34 essays by students from my fall 2010 racism course at Baruch College-CUNY. We unanimously chose to call the ebook of op-eds about racism COULD YOU BE THE BIGGER NIGGER?  But the title has been causing a little anticipated controversy, and some unexpected concern. 

Since my first ebook on Scribd had reached over 1100 ppl fairly quickly over the last 9 months, and my 2nd collaboration with a group of students in my anthropology course a year ago reached almost 5000 in less than 6 months, I was hoping people could trust me and read the ebook to get the point explained below but it was clear from early responses that some change was needed. But I couldn’t undermine the students’ vote.  


Then I got a Facebook message from a trusted friend from Nashville whom I’ve never meet in person. We adore one another on Facebook so I wanted to respond to his concern. After reading the ebook, he wrote:

i’ll be honest … i posted the link to the essays on racism that you had on your wall. i struggled greatly doing it because of the title but i felt like the value far outweighed my reservations. anyway ...

As a result of Jim Palmer’s message, last Monday I made a little tweak to the title so it could be read as COULD YOU BE BIGGER? without betraying the students’ decision. Someone reminded me not to “don’t judge a book by its title” and that gave me the opening needed for this post to launch the ebook. Here goes… 


Don’t Judge a Book by its Title

The title “Could You Be the Bigger Nigger?” may alarm you but 34 students arrived at it by a unanimous consensus. One of them said, “they’ll get it when they read our essays.” The price 15 year-old Elizabeth Eckford (the cover photo is attached) paid so that we all gained access to our educational civil and human rights must have required that she be “bigger” than she and especially whites “knew” her to be as a so-called “nigger.” In 2011, racism may be less overt for many blacks and perhaps more overt for Muslims and gays. These essays are our testimony to being the “bigger nigger” or simply, being “bigger” that we ever imagined when it comes to racism. Who we are in the small, ordinary moments that offend us around race and racism matters.

Racism Is Not Personal

At the start of BLS1003: The Evolution and Expressions of Racism, most students considered racism “a collection of individual-level anti-minority group attitudes” (L. Bobo in Gallagher 2009, 157). During the course we discovered the persistent structural inequities found in symbols (i.e., skin color), discriminatory laws and practices, and social group position, power and privilege that we all were born into whether experienced or not.

Why Op-Eds and Why Students Writing Op-Eds?

Last summer, I participated in The OpEd Project with the support of a grant for women in the Baruch College community given by philanthropist RuthAnn Harnisch. The intention of the OpEd Project, created by Catherine Orenstein, is to expand and increase the volume of female thought leaders in the world. I have a similar aim for college students as they embrace their adulthood.

According to data from 2009, of the over 307 million people living in the U.S., over 14% or almost 43 million are between the ages 15 and 29. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there were 18.3 million college students in 2007. Why is it that we so seldom hear, or listen to, the voices of young people and young adults in key public opinion forums when so many key issues directly affect their future? Writing op-eds (crafting a lede, learning to create an argument in various ways, crafting a “to-be-sure” response to anticipate opposition to your argument, and a conclusion) and then publishing them together disrupts the structural inequity and age subjugation that often separates each and every college student from publicly engaging in her/his own adulthood, learning to openly voice their citizenship and influence humanity.

Voicing Adulthood 

Why not take 34 emerging thought leaders and have each of them link an individual experience with racism to a systematic inequity or embedded disadvantage known as “structural racism.” Have them cite evidence from assigned readings and individually connect to the often elusive or overlooked of race as a social construct. The brilliance here is the collective wisdom from reading the stories of a student who is black with a white, a woman with a man, or––relative to the nationally-recognized ethnic diversity at Baruch––a Asian American with a Bangladeshi-American, a Pakistani Muslim with a Syrian Jew, a disabled mother with a Pagan lesbian and an undocumented student from North America (Mexico). Having these voices in op-eds about racism, publishing them together in a free e-book, has been the most powerful and emotional final project with a real-world or public impact I could ever imagine and fulfills what students ask for.

Create & Share a Racism Op-ed E-book

We invite your class or organization to publish op-eds together. Help us create a social media movement of student thought leadership. We used Scribd.com but whatever you use, SHARE it widely with your family and friends through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Share it with leaders in your school and community. Send it to your principal, dean or local politicians! Don’t limit learning to the classroom. Give it away! Social and collaborative learning can reach thousands or more. A former anthropology class published SPEAK! The Miseducation of College Students in May 2010. Speak! has been read by over 4500 people in less than 6 months.

Dare to be Different: Go Public!

Think about it! Publish a “little” idea, a little story with your classmates’ little ideas on race or social justice. Say to yourself “Maybe I’m right!” rather than starting from what if I’m wrong. Practice trusting yourself. Practice trusting your students. What young adults have to say matters! Openly sharing prepared (and not-so prepared) thoughts in public is the best education there is. Be the audacity of that!


Kyra Gaunt


Kyra D. Gaunt, Ph.D.   
2009 TED Fellow
Associate Professor at Baruch College-CUNY
Voicing “the unspoken” through song, scholarship and social media


An idea worth spreading: Agree to be Offended & Stay Connected. Reveal Your Connection to the Remarkable Oneness of Humanity.

“I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers” — Kahlil Gibran