Anna Deveare Smith on Communicating and Connecting for Social Justice

Sep September 14 Fri 2018

One of the most innovative voices in American theater and cultural entertainment made a return visit to Stanford to do what she does best; listen.

Actress, playwright, and social justice activist Anna Deveare Smith has a rich history with Stanford University, including ten years as the Anna O’Day Maples Professor of the Arts in the Department of Drama.  Professor Smith came back to The Farm for part of last spring and summer as an Artist in Residence at the invitation of Dr. Laura Roberts, Chair, and Dr. Victor Carrion, Vice Chair, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.  Her mission was two-fold; to investigate whether, and how, art might help inform the practice of psychiatry, and to suss out whether one of the department’s primary goals, furthering social justice, was being “lost in translation” across the many studies, clinics, research and community outreach projects underway.

Anna Deveare Smith

In her style of journalistic, or documentary theater, Smith interviews a cross-section of Americans, famous and ordinary, before distilling their stories into a collective narrative to address some of the most pressing issues of our time.  Her latest work in this form is her play, and now HBO film, “Notes from the Field,” the centerpiece of “The Pipeline Project,” which investigates why too many poor and minority kids are being swept into the criminal justice system.   Her first-person storytelling, in the voice and character of her subjects, creates a unique listening and learning experience for the audience. As she says, it all begins with her doing the listening.

Smith employed this practice of giving audience to others in her examination of Dr. Carrion’s two questions. Does art have a place in psychiatry, and is the mission of social justice prevailing in the department’s work?  She interviewed some two dozen mental health experts, in and out of the department, participated in group discussions and attended Grand Rounds.  She heard that art can, indeed, provide value in psychiatric treatment, serving as an additional portal to reach people who may have shied away from mental health care or even the acknowledgment it might be needed.  Art can be used to bridge cultures and generations, breaking through those myriad stigmas, while also creating space for sharing empathy and even humor in the healing process.

But, it was the inquiry into the social justice mission of the department that held the spotlight for Smith, and for those she interviewed.   Across staff and faculty, Smith heard over and over that using their work to promote social justice was front of mind, and in some cases, the singular reason for the work or research itself.   Whether tailoring a healing program for groups with specific risks and stressors, marshaling technology to understand the intricate systems of the brain, or offering scientific proof of psychiatric damage in cases of human rights violations, the desire to serve those most in need, but least attended to, was clearly stated across all disciplines.  Smith concludes, “‘Is the social justice mission of the Department of Psychiatry getting lost in translation?’ The simple answer is no, but it is getting held in silos.”   And those silos require breaking down, says Smith, for more interdisciplinary collaboration.

Every person Smith interviewed expressed a desire to do more, and do better for their patients and society.  More communication and partnerships could foster that by creating opportunities for more diversity in providers, study participants and treatment methods, by harnessing the fresh potential of trainees and residents to further the social justice mission, and by incorporating the wisdom of patients themselves in modes of treatment, as well as care providers with other specialties… from housing to spirituality.

Smith says everything she learned in her time in Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences points to a ripeness of moment for a significant leap forward in promoting social justice in mental health.

As Smith put it to Dr. Carrion in her closing thoughts, “The faculty and staff are truly extraordinary, and you have a perfect opportunity at the right time with the right leadership [ ... ] to push the mission forward."

Perhaps, in reference to breaking down those “silos,” as Anna Deveare Smith described them, another playwright and social activist of his day said it best;

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

- George Bernard Shaw