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Vox Populi: The Impact of Class Divide

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By Jeffrey James, director of the Hopkins Center for the Arts

There is a quiet moment in Anne Galjour's new play You Can't Get There from Here when a young mother in the Upper Valley discovers that one of her daughter's friends won't come to her birthday party because they live in a subsidized housing project. It's one of those jabs of reality about class difference-its petty insults and daily battles-that flashes by with a poignancy and heartbreak that only a stage drama can deliver.

Jeffrey James

When the Hopkins Center for the Arts launched its Class Divide Initiative two years ago under the leadership of Director of Programming Margaret Lawrence, creating moments like this was a driving motivation. We hoped that artists' voices could be illuminating on a subject that is mostly unspoken and avoided. Now that we have arrived at the eve of the world premiere of You Can't Get There from Here, commissioned by the Hop as a culminating project in Class Divide, we've seen that those voices can indeed show their power in multiple ways.

Galjour's play is a central focus of the project, but the addition of many other activities has given Class Divide a momentum and volume beyond our hopes. Some of this activity has been Hop-developed and administered. As important, though, much has arisen because partners on campus and in the wider Upper Valley community have joined in. They have brought a wealth of energy and intellect to studying it, debating it, and addressing its consequences in our community and beyond.

We were heartened last year when the Dartmouth Center's Forum made Class Divide its year-long theme, with multiple organizers bringing to campus many distinguished speakers. Among the lasting effects will be curricular developments related to class difference, funded by the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Next winter term, the theater department will offer The Grapes of Wrath as a Class Divide-related Mainstage production.

Under the Hop's aegis, there have been multiple threads as well. Nearly once each term for the past two years, a Hop visiting performing artist has addressed Class Divide issues in his or her work, often in residencies involving faculty, campus organizations such as the Tucker Foundation, and many students. The Dartmouth Film Society featured the subject last year, showing 26 films ranging from Atonement to Waging a Living. Class Divide student interns have brought student-produced events around the campus. We have engaged Class Action, a regional nonprofit, to lead class-oriented workshops and training for participants on and off campus. A community advisory board has assisted in shaping much of this, including projects in local public schools, and an intra-Hop Class Divide Task Force has developed a number of recommendations to make the Hop itself more economically accessible.

By multiple measures-audience attendance, audience reaction, press coverage, student and faculty participation, community input-we know that the subject of Class Divide, now nearing the end of its final year, has had a bright and artist-influenced light shed upon it. We have clear indicators of new, and one hopes permanent, networks linking the Hop, other campus entities, and community-based groups. And we've set ourselves a benchmark, setting forth some extraordinary ways in which the arts-and an arts center-can illuminate important issues and demonstrate our role at the heart of a creative campus.

"Vox Populi" (the voice of the people) is an ongoing series of commentary and opinion by members of the Dartmouth faculty and administration. To submit an idea for this column, write to VOX of Dartmouth.

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08