Solving the Impossible
Through a thought-provoking Q & A, Susan Sgorbati, the Director of Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), reveals a refreshing philosophy and original means of working toward a better world. Interview by Chief Writer Ashley Jowett.
Susan Sgorbati, the Director of Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), has combined her interest in dance improvisation, complex systems, and conflict transformation to innovate her way through an exciting and world-changing career.
A: You started as a dancer. Tell me more.
S: I have had so many parts of my life that have led me to where I am now. I went to Bennington as an undergraduate to study dance. Then my teacher, Judith Dunn, and the Dance faculty brought me back here, and I was hired as an adjunct faculty to teach improvisation. I then became the first graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts in dance program. I named a form of dance improvisation ‘emergent improvisation’ through a collaboration with some visionary scientists, including Stuart Kauffman, Gerald Edelman, and Bruce Weber.
During that period, I also helped resolve a large conflict. Several colleagues said I should go get training in mediation, so that led me into a whole other career, studying with the Quakers in Philadelphia and at Vermont Law School. I began a professional practice in mediation which led me to start teaching classes and creating the conflict resolution program for the College. From the improvisation work with the scientists came a deep interest in complex systems and systems thinking, which really informs all the conflict work and the CAPA work. I still teach the Advanced Improvisation Ensemble in collaboration with Michael Wimberly.
A: Wow. What an unusual path. You seem more open to change than most people.
S: My experience at Bennington College provided me the space and flexibility to grow and change. People in a traditional academic setting are often locked into their academic silo. Bennington really encourages faculty and students to keep developing their potential and leverage their passion. That's very different from a lot of institutions.
A: How did you begin at CAPA?
S: When the idea was brand new, former Bennington College President Elizabeth Coleman sat with me and indicated that she was intentionally not creating a template for the Center. The mission is to respond to the urgent problems of the world. Among the founding principles is that undergraduates are capable of being involved in this work. They don’t have to wait for graduate school to begin tackling the world’s most serious issues. So that’s literally where I started when I became the Director. There was no imposed structure. It was meant to be responsive from faculty, students, staff, and the outside community. That’s where I say my improvisation work was so helpful, because rather than thinking “Oh, no. This will never happen,” we said, “OK. Let’s really take a look and see how this structure gets built by the passion, experience, and knowledge of the people who came forward.”
A: What are some of the programs that have emerged at CAPA?
- The Prison Education Initiative was one of the early programs when Elizabeth Coleman was Director of CAPA. Annabel Davis-Goff, a literature faculty member with a passion for criminal justice reform, inspired and created the opportunity to develop an education program at a maximum security men’s prison in upstate New York. It has grown to offer 24 classes per year to 45 inmates. Now it is its own independent program.
- Bennington Translates, founded and directed by Marguerite Feitlowitz, hosts translation practitioners and students for unique forums on literary, humanitarian, medical, and legal translation.
- GANAS, a program initiated by Bennington students and directed by Jonathan Pitcher, offers partnerships to address the needs of migrant laborers in Bennington County.
- Our new Leahy Public Policy Forums, under the guidance of Senator Brian Campion, our Director of Public Policy at CAPA, has provided forums on the principles of democracy, environmental stewardship, and education for students and our local community.
- Judith Enck, founder and Director of Beyond Plastics, is internationally recognized for her ground-breaking work on eliminating plastic pollution.
- Under Yoko Inoue’s direction, Social Kitchen and Slow Cooked Movement are addressing healthy food and building community at Bennington College.
- Five years ago, my partners at the University of Vermont’s Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security and I created the Transboundary Water In-Cooperation Network in Montreal. The group’s mission is to strengthen and mobilize existing organizational networks that work locally, nationally, and globally towards equitable and reasonable sharing of water resources across borders.
- Through a Mellon Foundation grant to address Food Insecurity in the Town of Bennington, we helped facilitate a process that has resulted in opening the first Bennington Community Market in downtown Bennington that has been designated a food desert.
- There are many more, about twenty programs altogether. You can go down through the programs and say, “this was student initiated. This was community initiated. This was a group internationally that came to us. These are faculty driven.”
A: This seems like a lot. How do you manage it all?
S: We have a great team of CAPA staff. About thirty faculty and staff are involved with CAPA courses and programs. They create courses that are exclusive to CAPA or cross listed with another area of study. And the last time we saw the data, about two thirds of students are involved in CAPA classes or a project in some way. What’s different about it from other colleges, is that the public action is not extracurricular. It’s not service learning. All of this community engagement is based in students’ class work and connections to their Plan Process.
A: Even with all of the people involved, it still seems like a really big effort.
S: We take an improvisational approach. One can see the patterns if you are looking for them.
I illustrate using a flock of birds. The birds are on the ground. They have to migrate south in order to live. That’s the underlying objective and a clear goal. Their success depends on many factors: how many of them show up, the weather conditions, their formation. No one stays the leader for long. They have to fall back and let another bird fly up front. They give space to the younger birds to pull them in to create the new patterns. All these things are variables. They improvise together all the way from here to South America.
This is self organization. It’s how we conduct most CAPA projects. There are windows of opportunity. Someone comes along with an idea. You ask, “what is your objective, how do you build the infrastructure to get there, where’s the funding, how do you evaluate whether it’s successful, what is the time frame…” The structure really depends on the objectives and all of the practical realities. That is what is so unique about the emergence of CAPA; we are not tied to a very specific framework that we must make work or not. That’s also what makes it interesting but also very flexible. You have to be willing to deal with a certain amount of chaos until the order emerges.
Our brains, a flock of birds, organic structuring across all natural processes work in this way. That’s why nature is so adaptable and robust. Because that is what evolution has created. When you start to understand, you can see that these things are not scripted but have patterns that amplify and adapt to changing conditions. Working in this way with other people, people who understand it, is such a pleasure. It’s like dancing. Personally, this is what I am most interested in.
A: Give me a sense of how emergent improvisation looks in terms of community development.
S: Take the problem of water quality and the effects of climate change related to transboundary water conflicts. With my partner Dr. Asim Zia, who is the Director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security at the University of Vermont, we convened a group of water engineers and managers from Afghanistan and Pakistan in Montreal in 2018. We sat at a table and gathered information about the conflicts around water in the Indus River Basin.
What’s been done, what’s been looked at, what are the views of the people who are affected by floods and drought, what are the biggest challenges to water quality among the communities? We were surprised by the commitment of the participants, and what emerged was that they all wanted to form a permanent organization. We intentionally had conversations about complex systems and improvisation.
Together, we formed TWIN, the Transboundary Water In-Cooperation Network. We created the infrastructure together and called it a “network of networks.” We don’t accept any money. All funding goes directly to the communities on the ground or through UVM or Bennington College as part of the research.
In five years, we are working on six continents with community partners in the Indus River Basin, the Jordan River, the Mekong River, the Amazon River, the Congo River, and recently, the Niger River. This is really an example of emergent structuring. We have now been asked to work with the African Centre for Climate Action and Rural Development on a United Nations Convention to save the river deltas.
A: Congratulations on the success so far. To close, what’s the future hold for CAPA?
S: We are about seven years old, so we are at a moment where we are taking stock of where we are and thinking about where we are going. This converges well with the overall strategic planning of the College. I continue to be inspired by the faculty, staff, and students who are so passionate about their work to make a difference in people’s lives. With so much conflict and challenges out in the world right now, it is not easy to focus on imagining and working towards a more just, sustainable, and equitable future. It is always easier to be destructive than to build.
That is who I am interested in working with, the people who want to build a collaborative future together that embraces our differences and finds ways of resolving our conflicts.