Campus Highlight: Community Arts for Dialogue, Reflection, and Energy (CADRE): The Evolution of a Drama in Education Program in the Bronx

By Sarah L. Hoiland, Assistant Professor of Sociology, and Tere Martínez, Playwright and Adjunct Professor of Theatre—both of Hostos Community College

Hostos Community College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, was established in 1968 in the South Bronx “to meet the higher educational needs of people from this and similar communities who historically have been excluded from higher education.”[1] Our namesake, Eugenio María de Hostos, a Puerto Rican intellectual, educator, agitator, and proponent of education for women and Puerto Rican independence, is a constant reminder of our roots. Our student body is small (7,000 students) and incredibly diverse—only 1.5 percent of our students identify as white; one-third are male; and only 16 percent fall within the eighteen to twenty-one age range.[2] Over half (52 percent) of CUNY community college students are first generation and 71 percent come from households earning less than $30,000 per year.[3] They are also moms, dads, grandparents, friends, community members, gifted artists, musicians, orators, and actors.

Despite the diverse and inclusive campus, many students don’t feel like they belong in higher education—and this sense of isolation and exclusion has been compounded by the rhetoric of the 2016 election and subsequent divisive language and policies. Students fear they don’t belong, not only on campus, but as citizens of the country. A sociology student wrote, “Presidential candidate wants me out” as part of a five-word novel exercise.

With this tension among an incredibly diverse, artistic, resilient, and capable student population who have a palpable sense of anger and frustration with few avenues for action, the idea for Community Arts for Dialogue, Reflection, and Energy (CADRE) was born, stemming from two cross-institutional collaborations. Our focus for the project was on (1) building full participation in higher education in the Bronx and (2) using the arts to promote dialogue and collective action to advance racial and social justice. We hoped, through CADRE, the arts could be a vehicle for understanding, communicating, and promoting a culture of belonging in higher education through embedded dialogues. We wanted to make students the centerpiece of activities that generate concrete public dialogues, institutional outcomes, and long-term culture change and cross-institutional impact by embedding reflection, research, and artistic collaboration.

In addition to our consortium as three unique New York City campuses, our project’s principal investigators— Susan Sturm, a professor at Columbia Law School (CLS); Simone Rodriguez-Dorestant, a dean from Bronx Community College (BCC); and Sarah L. Hoiland, an assistant professor of sociology at Hostos—also wanted to intentionally partner with a non–higher education entity to broaden opportunities for outreach beyond our campuses. Adjunct faculty Tammy Arnstein (BCC) and Tere Martínez (Hostos) were also involved from the outset. Building on our experience with previous collaborations and our students’ excellence in the arts, we partnered with three Broadway artists who were dedicated to using the arts as a vehicle for understanding, communicating, and promoting a culture of belonging.

Within a few weeks of receiving Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) funding through their Greater Purposes Campus Dialogue Grants, the CADRE team mobilized and created a written application for students at Hostos and BCC in addition to forming informational workshops on each campus. Since our funding allowed us to award small student stipends to CADRE members, we reviewed each application and selected as many students (six to eight from each campus out of ten to twelve applications) as our resources allowed. It was important to us to open CADRE to any students on campus rather than handpicking performing arts students or students involved with leadership initiatives. From the beginning of the project, it was critical to involve students as stakeholders in order to holistically design the dialogues to fit their lived experiences.

During the rehearsals in February and March at Hostos and April and May at BCC, CADRE students held informal dialogues with the Broadway artists, faculty, and students from CLS who served as dramaturges and listened, took notes, and assisted the artists in creating a script based on the overarching question, “Who am I?” One of the Broadway artists who served as the creative director of the project in spring 2017, Ben Wexler, composed original music to accompany the student narratives. Broadway artists Britton Smith and Zhailon Levingston worked closely with students during weekly rehearsals. CADRE students at Hostos and BCC were inspired by working so closely with young, talented Broadway artists. 

With dance, rap, spoken word, and song, students shared their stories with several diverse audiences. On March 27, 2017, Hostos’s CADRE members performed for the first time at New York City’s Council Chamber as part of the National Conference on Sanctuary Cities.[4] In May, the Hostos group performed at two professional development events for faculty and staff and in an English as a second language classroom at Hostos. The on-campus activities were received well by faculty, staff, and students and the CADRE student performers were thrilled to be part of the event at City Hall and for the opportunity to work with Broadway artists.

Though phase one of the project exemplified a burst of creativity and action, it also presented challenges. There were many moving parts, and it was incredibly time-consuming to coordinate the people, rehearsal spaces, venues for performance and dialogue, student stipends, and independent contractor payments. It was a challenge to maintain consistent student participation once they received their stipends and as the end of the semester approached. Several students graduated, which made it difficult to sustain the core group from one academic year to another. We also struggled to incorporate dialogues with the various audiences after student performances since they were embedded into preexisting events with structured agendas. We realized that to grow and sustain the project, we needed to simplify, utilize existing artistic resources, and shore up support among stakeholders, especially campus faculty and larger numbers of students.

Part of involving more students meant attending to the context of their everyday lives. The devastation of Hurricanes Irma and María in fall 2017 deeply impacted students, faculty, and staff, and we felt the need to incorporate this into phase two of our campus dialogue series. Tere Martínez was already working on collaborating with Puerto Rican schools and psychologists struggling from the Puerto Rican fiscal crisis to develop an educational theatre project that would bring drama in education techniques into high school classrooms to teach students critical thinking and leadership. The hurricanes and their aftermath increased the urgency of this work, and Tere Martínez spent six weeks in Puerto Rico from December 2017 to January 2018 implementing a pilot project to assess the needs of students and their communities.[5] This experience brought a new perspective to the CADRE Project. We wanted to continue to explore issues of identity and belonging within the classroom that would motivate students to critically examine social justice issues and take action.

We enlisted support from faculty who saw the benefits of using the arts as a teaching tool and asked them to tell us what they thought were the most pressing issues within their students’ communities. Faculty said that issues like racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant rhetoric were impeding student success. Martínez then used these topics to craft unique drama in education workshops. At the beginning of each workshop, she enthusiastically greeted Hostos classrooms with a brief introduction before asking the question, “Who am I?” She then asked students to line up around the classroom facing each other in a U-shaped formation and respond in rapid-fire succession with a noun or adjective to describe themselves. If the noun or adjective was a “repeat,” Martínez would smile and say, “OUT!” until there was only one student left in the game. Students had to think on their feet, listen carefully to each other so they wouldn’t repeat a word someone else already said (and also to help Martínez “catch” the repeats), exercise critical thinking, and move outside of their comfort zone. They were able to see how similar they were to their classmates and express various components of their identity. The last student standing was applauded by their classmates, which elevated a sense of belonging.

We continued phase two in this vein, using Hoiland’s existing service-learning partnership with Patterson Senior Center, located within the New York City Housing Authority’s large Patterson Houses complex a few blocks from Hostos. Hoiland and Martínez conducted a pilot workshop with a dozen seniors who participated in the warm-up exercise with the prompt, “What is community?” In English and Spanish, seniors said things like, “familia, neighbors, el respeto, and love” amid giggles; like Martínez’s earlier sessions, when a senior paused and didn’t respond quickly enough, Tere Martínez said, “OUT!” Then Martínez gave a brief lesson on the components of a drama (e.g., characters, setting, and conflict) and seniors formed small groups and created dramas to respond to the question, “What are some issues in your community?” Several groups acted out scenarios in their community that involved young people, drugs, and guns. Informed by Martínez’s lesson and inspired by our warm-ups, these exercises served as safe spaces for students and seniors to share their feelings of helplessness and frustration, not only on campus but in their hallways, common spaces, and families.

Looking forward, we are currently working with one of the CADRE students from spring 2017 and the president of the Patterson Tenant’s Association to (1) bring CADRE to young people at Patterson through additional drama in education workshops led by Hostos students, (2) create Hostos community activism workshops and classes for seniors with encouragement from one of our deans, and (3) teach students and seniors to advocate for policy changes that will address some of the issues raised by the seniors. Thus, we hope to use performance as a tool to increase access to higher education for our neighbors (from youths to seniors) at the Patterson Houses and to foster a sense of belonging at Hostos and in the South Bronx among current students.

The future of CADRE will involve a partnership with Hostos’ Service-Learning Committee, which works closely with Hostos’ Center for Teaching and Learning to disseminate best practices for drama in education workshops, and by collaborating with theatre and performing arts faculty who would support faculty from other disciplines who want to use these techniques to ignite authentic dialogues about issues such as identity, belonging, and community to advance social justice in New York and around the world. CADRE also seeks to raise awareness and support efforts to advance racial, economic, and social justice in the United States and abroad and to bring students and communities together in dialogue and action.


[1]  “Our Mission,” Hostos Community College, accessed July 16, 2018, http://www.hostos.cuny.edu/About-Hostos/Our-Mission.

[2]  “Student Profile for Fall 2017,” Hostos Community College, accessed July 16, 2018, http://www.hostos.cuny.edu/Hostos/media/Office-of-the-President/Institut....

[3]  “2016 Student Experience Survey Report Highlights,” CUNY Office of Institutional Research Surveys, accessed July 19, 2018, http://www2.cuny.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/page-assets/about/admini...

[4]  To see CADRE’s performance at City Hall and for more information on Ben Wexler, please see https://www.benwexler.com/watch.