Faculty News

Turning Passions Into Action

Susan Sgorbati, director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), sat down with Nam Phuong Thi Doan '18 for a Q & A interview about her work.

Susan Sgorbati

What is it like to be the director of CAPA?

My role in CAPA is a tremendous opportunity for me to be involved with the kind of work that I care about and want to do. I feel like my past experiences with improvisational practices and my professional work in conflict resolution have all contributed to the knowledge that I bring to making the Center for the Advancement of Public Action a space that can affect real change and make people’s lives better. I am passionate about inspiring students and faculty to fulfill their own desires to be involved with urgent problems in the world right now and get involved to take public action.

How would you describe the mission and vision of CAPA?

CAPA has an evolving mission. At its conception, there was this strong vision for addressing the urgent problems in the world, and the idea that students at the undergraduate level could become engaged and truly able to do research and implement work around public action, to make a difference. Often, people believe that you need to be in graduate school and even be out in the professional world in order to affect change in any way that’s serious and can make positive work happen.

The idea of CAPA was that undergraduates can inspire this change, and I’ve seen it firsthand. I think that’s distinctive and important. Recently, I was just notified that there was a book with a harsh critique of the best colleges in the country, “the most elite colleges,” but they cite Bennington as a college that has a meaningful education and that CAPA is a space where undergraduates can be involved in public action and social change. That’s interesting that it’s being recognized out there. So that’s the mission: to pursue public action and social change with undergraduates and faculty working together and collaboratively with partners locally, nationally and internationally.

Bennington is a collaborative environment for passionate individuals. How can CAPA support the initiatives of students who wish to serve the broader community with their knowledge and skills?

From its inception, CAPA was about the work of students coming out of their classes, not a more traditional service-learning model or an after-class model, but that the work would actually be embedded in the curriculum. So regardless of what pathway or what Plan process a student has at Bennington, there hopefully is a class where they can do the work on the current problem that they are passionate about tackling. Student work is now resulting in senior projects, which is the CAPA Advanced Workshop that has been going on now for several years to inspire high-quality advanced work in different kinds of projects. This opportunity for students to begin work in their classes that results in their own serious work—where they can not only do in-depth research about what they are interested in, but also get to implement a project in our local community, or somewhere else in the U.S. or internationally—these projects vary depending on what students are interested in, our CAPA partnerships, and faculty oversight.

What are the priorities right now for the country and for CAPA? How does what’s happening at CAPA relate to what's happening in the rest of the country?

We are living in a particularly challenging time right now, where our democratic institutions are under siege. Internationally, we are facing crises related to climate change, dictatorships around the world, intractable conflicts, water shortages, and forced migration, where people are being pushed out of their countries from terrible events and the world is not responding with the compassion that it needs. These are all serious challenges, and I think that young people have to confront these as well as any of us. Being in college doesn’t mean you’re disassociated with what’s happening in the rest of the world. And so trying to figure out how, in a college setting, you can confront and face these issues with undergraduates as part of us all trying to figure out how to cope and change these things is serious and important.

To me, these are the priorities right now, these things I just named, and in general, the protection and support for human rights. How do you give people the sense that they not only are granted human rights based on the universal definition of human rights at the United Nations that almost every country has signed onto, but how do you make that feeling real, how does every person have the ability to fulfill their potential, and therefore all these other aspects we could talk about—climate change, immigration, dictatorships—are preventing people from having the human rights that they deserve.

To me, those are the big questions, so in a school setting, we make sure that undergraduates understand what that means: how to treat each other, how to then treat people out in their communities, and the kind of work they can find to make this possible rather than just accepting these destructive and negative things that are currently happening, which are clearly just supporting the wealthy or a small group of people who are in power.

Do you have any words for students, both at Bennington or beyond, who want to engage with CAPA in the future?

I think I would love to figure out—maybe this is the future of CAPA—ways that more current students and people outside of CAPA at other schools and in other settings could access this work, so the collaboration gets larger and spreads in ways that can be more effective politically, to scale up. Some of the things we’ve learned, we’ve actually been pretty effective at because we had to build from the ground up.

We have some models now that could scale up and could reach out, and maybe that’s what next year is about. We’ve learned a lot about PFOA in our water systems, transboundary water conflicts and how to solve them, how artists can intervene in their communities to make them better, how to address local food systems and social justice, the best recommendations and practices for prison reform and how to build a first-rate prison education program. It is astounding how much is going on in CAPA right now, and I would always encourage a student or a community member to pursue the topic they are passionate about and work towards improving their community in any way they can.