Interview

Public Works and Seattle Central College: Spreading Joy, One Student at a Time

Seattle Central College (SCC) has been one of a handful of Public Works partner organizations able to maintain ongoing virtual classes during the pandemic. We talked with SCC drama instructor Shelley Douma about her students’ experiences with Public Works since our partnership began in 2019.

Seattle Rep: SCC prepares each student for success in life and work, fostering a diverse, engaged, and dynamic community. How does Public Works complement your inclusive educational model?

Shelley Douma: Public Works’ core values—equity, imagination, and joy—align beautifully with SCC’s mission. The equity commitment resonates with our diverse population, and when we add imagination and joy, students begin to see how much further equity can go in reimagining the world the way we want to see it. Many of my students don’t believe they have a place at the table, but Inji [Kamel, Public Works Director] and Lia [Fakhouri, Public Works Associate] take the time to build a connection and show them they belong. Their humanity and creativity matter. When someone makes a student feel like that after so many others haven’t, it means the world and makes a difference in their lives.

SR: Public Works is embedded in SCC’s Intro to Acting course. What does that look like in practice?

SD: SCC’s teaching artists collaborate with Inji and Lia to create a plan each quarter that can support both the learning objectives of my class and the goals of Public Works, and teach classes together. Most students do not plan to pursue acting professionally and many have never been to a play before because they think “That’s just for rich people.” Public Works shows them that acting isn’t just a career—it’s part of a full and happy life. And when they visit Seattle Rep to see performances and share a meal with folks from other partner communities, they begin to see themselves as an important audience for theater.

SR: How did the transition to remote learning during the pandemic affect SCC’s Public Works classes?

SD: SCC began remote learning right after the March 2020 shutdown order, so we didn’t have much time to adapt to our plans that quarter. We learned that Zoom can be a really flat environment. When we came back in the fall, we focused more intentionally on collaboration to disrupt isolation. We had students devise scenes about how diverse people can come together and build a community. Last quarter they built puppets and created puppet shows. My students often balance school with family responsibilities and don’t tend to have much time, but they took extra time with their puppeteering projects because there was so much joy in working together.

SR: How has Public Works virtual programming impacted your students over the past year?

SD: Public Works has really come through during the pandemic and given my class an added dimension it needed. I have seen students draw on this class to stay happy and just keep going. Public Works just emanates and spreads joy, both in normal times and especially when things are dark, and helps us combat that darkness by sharing our inner spark. It’s essential that we sustain programs like this beyond the pandemic because creativity is what saved me and my students as well. Once a week, letting go of the scary stuff and focusing on what can bring us joy, has gotten us through it.  

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Article header image features Seattle Central College students in a February 2020 Public Works class. Photo by Seattle Rep.