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Prof. Cynthia Cohen solves the world’s problems with creativity

By Brianna Cummings

Section: Arts

October 7, 2016

Professor Cynthia Cohen is a noteworthy intellectual, who has made major contributions to both Brandeis and the world. The current director of the Peacebuilding and the Arts program and the acting director of the Ethics Center, Cohen has also created the Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation (CAST) minor at Brandeis.

Cohen has been working at Brandeis and studying coexistence and the arts since 1997. During this time, she says that the students at Brandeis inspired her with the idea to create the CAST program. “As I came to know Brandeis students, I realized how many of them were interested in both contributing to social justice and cultivating their talents as artists,” Cohen says. She adds that, “meanwhile, I was learning about the work of artists in zones of violent conflict and developing educational and training materials for the emerging arts and peacebuilding field. It seemed like a natural step to propose a minor. Also, I was encouraged very directly from a colleague, the Brandeis alumna Elaine Reuben ’63.”

Cohen is able to do such significant amounts of work thanks to her background in numerous subjects. Her education degree has helped her to explore the topic of reconciliation, having written a dissertation exploring the “educational dimensions of reconciliation.”

Cohen explains that “the basic idea is that reconciliation requires learning: learning about ourselves and each other. Because it entails, in part, learning to understand another’s suffering, it requires a kind of knowing that is sensory as well as cognitive. It requires letting go of certain kinds of defenses, and learning to be present with alert calmness and a kind of engaged detachment.”

Cohen elaborates, saying that reconciliation involves learning about the self and about others, a concept inherent to the CAST program and, “these kinds of knowing can be cultivated through engagement with artistic forms and processes that have carefully crafted to support these purposes.” She adds, “ideas surrounding the nature of the learning facilitated by aesthetic engagement, and the nature of the learning required for social transformation are at the core of my teaching and research related to the CAST minor.”

Cohen says that her master’s degree in city planning helped her learn to communicate with others, she explains, “my training in city planning informed my approach to creating the minor by consulting widely with different members of the faculty. It also informed my thinking about what kinds of skills and experiences students should have in the introductory course. That is why I almost always try to include a design lab in the syllabus of the intro course.”

Design labs are a vital part of the CAST program because they allow students to think critically about creativity and social justice. These labs attempt to design a solution for contemporary issues and new initiatives. In the past they have incorporated students from the class, as well as professors and professionals from local peace and arts organizations. Different topics can be explored with a CAST minor, ranging from how music helps unite different cultures, to how artwork brings opposing sides together. This program is where peacebuilding meets creativity.

“Creativity, I think, can help with almost any complicated problem,” Cohen said. “Creativity allows us to imagine what does not yet exist. It allows us to imagine the experiences of others. It allows us to imagine a future that is different, more just, more vivid, less violent, than current conditions. It allows us to put seemingly disparate elements into relationships that are meaningful and beautiful.”

A CAST minor does not lead to one single career. CAST minors have an array of opportunities awaiting them after graduation. They can “work as artists, arts administrators, museum educators, activists, policy makers, designers, architects, playwrights—in communities in conflict, in communities that need to be encouraged to think about privilege, in communities where difficult truths about both the past and present must be faced,” Cohen said.

“The field of arts and social transformation is growing in credibility in various national and international policy arenas, related to economic development, human rights, violence prevention, urban studies,” Cohen explained. “The CAST minor is not only for artists: Through CAST, people concerned about issues of social justice can learn to collaborate with artists, and to imagine how the creative sensibilities of artists can be brought into processes of planning and social change.”

Cohen cares deeply about the arts and peacebuilding. As she continues teaching the Introduction to CAST course this fall and serving as an advisor to students completing their CAST capstone projects, Cohen hopes that she can inspire a new generation of people to take a look at the world’s problems and solve them with a little creativity.

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