Alumni Spotlight: Lori Pitts, Voices Unbarred

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Lori Pitts is the founder and executive director of Voices Unbarred, a nonprofit organization that gives incarcerated individuals the tools they need to take control of their own narrative through theatrical mediums. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Lori about her experience with Theater of the Oppressed and her time in the Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in the arts?

Pitts: I have always been surrounded by the arts. Growing up, my mom took me to all of the concerts, plays, and symphonies she could. I was steeped in the arts from a very young age. My older sister is a professional ballerina, and when she made dancing her career it showed me that pursuing the arts was a legitimate career choice. I have to credit my family and my upbringing in that sense. But there was a turning point. I was always interested in theater, but it wasn’t until I discovered Theater of the Oppressed that I wanted theater to be my career. Theater of the Oppressed spoke to me as a tool for change. I had this passion for working with people and changing the world, and I didn’t see how theater could help me do those things until I was introduced to Theater of the Oppressed in a college class. It was a way to bring together my passions and interests and that led me to pursue it as a career path.

CPNL: You are the founder and executive director of Voices Unbarred, a nonprofit that brings Theatre of the Oppressed into prisons and guides participants in creating an original and personal theatrical piece that will be performed by the participants themselves. What is Theatre of the Oppressed and how does it help to drive social change in communities?

Pitts: Theater of the Oppressed can be so many things, but the short answer is that it is a toolbox. It is a set of theatrical techniques that allow people to engage in a discussion about any issue that is plaguing their community and explore potential solutions. It was created in Brazil by Augusto Boal in response to an oppressive militaristic regime, so it is inherently designed to fight oppression in a creative way. We’ve been able to expand Theater of the Oppressed and use it in different ways now. It’s a compilation of games and activities that allow people to start talking about deep subjects. The medium of theater gives people a natural way to initiate these discussions and start creating around them.

One example from working with my participants who are incarcerated is the subject of sentencing. When we begin playing these games, a dynamic in the game may remind them of how sentencing is in America or for them specifically. Through discussion, people are able to relate their own stories about sentencing, explore their own emotions around that experience, and find commonalities between their community. We use activities, images, and conversation to explore together. One of the other key aspects of Theater of the Oppressed is Forum Theater, where you dramatize a real story where there was oppression and the outcome wasn’t what you desired. People can jump into the scene and try out different solutions to try and end the oppression in the moment as well as long-term. It is a safe space to act out these issues so the next time they happen in the real world, you can have many different approaches in your toolbox that can lead to your desired outcome. Boal called it a “rehearsal for the revolution.”

What is really important to me is that our approach to creating change includes the community that is impacted. Theater of the Oppressed creates social change by giving the tools and the power back to the people who have been affected so they can then go out and advocate for themselves. Not only does it help on an individual level as people explore and build community, you are also creating potential solutions for change and a platform for people to be heard. We always end with a performance at Voices Unbarred, which is not always common with Theater of the Oppressed. The performance is offered in both the prison and in the community so more people can hear their stories and ideas. When more people are aware of what is going on and interact with ideas and potential solutions, we are able to advocate at more levels and more effectively. But the most important part is that it is led by people experiencing that oppression.

CPNL: How do theatrical tools help to amplify the voices of those impacted by incarceration?

Pitts: The theater comes from them. I never come in and say ‘this is what we are talking about’.  I just bring them the tools. Then I ask questions, I actively listen, and I guide them through the process. The feedback I get is very powerful. Participants often thank us for simply coming and listening. One participant said they forgot they were human in this oppressive environment and these tools helped them reclaim their narrative. A big piece of this work is listening to them and reminding them that they do have important things to say and they deserve to be heard. The role of theater is critical. It is a play that they are creating, their narrative, their story, their fears, their hopes, everything that they want to say that they maybe couldn’t before. These individuals have the platform to advocate for whatever they think is most important.

I also use my privilege and my platform, not having been incarcerated with my many years of schooling in theater and my social networks, to help their stories be heard by a wider variety of people. Being a nonprofit organization, we have a different audience that can amplify their voices and help these stories be heard, respected, and legitimized.

In the future, I’m excited to explore how we can reach even more audiences. COVID allowed us to begin exploring that with virtual platforms and videos. But I am excited to see how we can share these stories to create even more of an impact.

CPNL: What was your capstone project for the Certificate Program and how do you think it will strengthen your organization?

Pitts: My capstone project was about onboarding a founding board. Voices Unbarred is a relatively new organization, we’re three years old. I also come from a background of programming. That has always been a strength of mine. I feel confident leading these programs, going into the prisons and facilitating. But the business side of the work was something I wasn’t as secure in. We came to a point where we needed to become a more established organization–if we are going to grow, we need more support and we need structure.

Right now, having a board of directors is the most important thing for us. We are about to receive our official 501-c-3 status, but also so much of the current work is led by me. Having that board will open up avenues for idea sharing and fundraising opportunities. I am really excited about my project, it was something that scared me, but the opportunity to research best practices and hear what others have been doing has strengthened every part of our organization.

Another part of my capstone project that I wasn’t planning on incorporating until I started was how nonprofits are somewhat naturally based in white supremacy and help to uphold some of these systems. As I started creating, I realized Theater of the Oppressed is all about pushing back against the system and so that should be centered in every element of my work. I wrote out all of these questions asking how my board and how it’s structured contributes to oppressive systems to really start critically thinking about this issue. As we continue to flesh out the board manual I have created, hopefully we can build a very strong organization that is anti-racist and aligns with our mission.

CPNL: How do you anticipate the Certificate Program will help you in your career?

Pitts: It already has, like I said I came into this as an artist with a background in programming. I didn’t know exactly what I needed to do to run an organization and the program was instrumental in helping me begin this process. Beyond that, having the knowledge now to see what is missing instills confidence. I know what my strengths are, I know where I need to bring in help. If you don’t know where you are missing certain pieces, if you’re not aware of the parts you need, you can’t be as strong of a leader. Additionally, I am now able to see that I don’t need to take all of this work on myself. As a founder, that shift in mindset can be difficult. But the program has shown me that I can ask for help and I know where to find it. I almost want to do this again in a few years, but I know it has been an immense opportunity for growth that I will continue to circle back to.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Pitts: It is such a short period of time, so I recommend trying as much as you can to spend time immersing yourself in the program. Dive in, read and process all of the information. Make connections with the people in your program. Work to apply the information to your own organization as you go if you can. If you can’t, take good notes so you can apply this knowledge in the future. It is a transformational program, so find the time to dedicate to it as much as possible.