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Leaving a Bright Spot: Practicing Therapeutic Arts with Underserved International Populations

Stemming from her own experiences delivering art therapy workshops around the world, Ikuko Acosta, director of NYU Steinhardt’s Graduate Art Therapy program, and clinical associate professor, wanted to offer her students the invaluable experience of practicing art therapy internationally.

More than a decade ago, Acosta established a global internship program at Steinhardt to provide “the opportunity for students to develop racial and cultural self-awareness, work with diverse communities, hone critical thinking skills, and explore the role of art therapy in another culture.” Says alumna Krystal Atwood of her decision to enroll in the internship in Buenos Aires, “I wanted to learn everything I could to provide the most nuanced and culturally fluent art therapy services possible to a range of client populations.”

Coordinated in collaboration with several of NYU’s global sites, Acosta’s interns have practiced therapeutic arts in a wide array of foreign settings, including Florence, which welcomes its third cohort in July 2019. Some of this year’s group will serve a geriatric population that has worked with two different intern cohorts. Acosta recalled that this population was especially receptive to engagement in creative activities, noting “their facial expressions became cheerful, moods were boosted, and their social interactions improved.” In Accra, Ghana, students have worked at a rehabilitation center for young men with mental, cognitive and physical disabilities. A grouping, Acosta said, that contrasts with “facilities in the US where patients are usually separated based on the nature of their disabilities.” The men are also provided with “job training and various types of skills to survive in society” explained Acosta. During the three weeks that the men worked with interns, she emphasized that “they are not treated in a clinical sense, yet a very positive change can be seen in their self-esteem due to their increased ability to express themselves freely without being judged. Their general attitudes became more positive.”

NYU interns delivering art therapy class to young disabled menReturning to NYU’s global sites offers faculty the opportunity to observe the long-term impacts of programs. In Ghana, when the van entered the driveway to the rehabilitation center one year later, Acosta and her students were greeted by shouts of “art therapy!” “And,” she added, “the young men went right back into making art as if they had done so yesterday.” When returning to the geriatric facility in Florence two years later, the demeanor of the residents immediately became “uplifted,” and they “even remembered the names of some interns from prior years,” providing “evidence,” that the “experiences were etched in their memories.” Acosta says that “while what we do may be little, at a basic human level, the experience leaves a bright and memorable spot in their mind.”

Indeed, Acosta notes that “the program is not geared toward addressing mental illness directly” and that “it would be unrealistic to treat a patient in three weeks.” Furthermore, she explained that “applying a western concept of art therapy to non-western societies can create tension with local attitudes around mental illness. And therapeutic techniques that are not adapted to the culture situate the therapist as a colonialist.” But while mental illness is viewed in various ways around the world, she emphasized that “the symptoms and behavioral manifestations of mental and psychological disturbances are very similar.  What differs are cultural attitudes and treatment.” Yet she has observed that art therapy brings together commonalities in international settings. “Art is universal and so too is human suffering.”

Regardless of location, Acosta says, art therapy students work to build a “human connection.” In every country in which the course has been held, Acosta has seen “students establish relationships despite not speaking the local language. They learn to become highly receptive and attuned to the subtleties of body language and other non-verbal cues.” She added that her students “thoroughly enjoy getting to know each client’s personality beyond his/her disability through creative communication.” Inevitably, explained Acosta, “basic human bonds are formed during experiences that are not bound by geography. Connecting in this way is really a universal phenomenon.”

Other skills that students quickly acquire, said Acosta, are “flexibility and adaptability, because their clinical training does not translate directly in foreign locations.” She went on to say that “outside of the US, concepts of boundaries between patient and client are much different, particularly those that are physical – it is common and natural for patients to openly and physically express affection to their therapists in many cultural contexts. Another example is corporal punishment, which seems to be an acceptable form of discipline in some countries.” Therapists in the US, Acosta explained, are trained to report signs of “abuse,” so it can be “difficult to set aside feelings of confusion about roles and responsibilities during the internship.”

Reflecting on her experiences in Buenos Aires, Atwood explained that she “felt humbled by the grace and dignity with which Dr. Acosta acknowledged our interpersonal struggles while maintaining hope for all of the involved parties and, ultimately, guiding the student interns toward providing life-changing art therapy services to the clients.” The level of care delivered by the interns is possible, says Acosta, because they “very quickly, learn to take a humanistic perspective and adapt to local mores.” “Interns observe, learn, and respect the host country and are not there to negate or impose their cultural norms,” she explained, and added that “after we leave, they resume their own lives, yet are instilled with memories of the brief but undeniable human connections that we all shared.”

“Students also learn to adapt their planning process for clinical sessions,” said Acosta, as “they develop activities appropriate to the population […] and seek out locally available art materials.” During an early iteration of the program in India, coordinated by Cross-Cultural Solutions, a New York-based non-profit that provides volunteer service to communities around the world, Acosta said her students “found beautiful textiles with which they made dolls with women at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. They also collected many found objects from the streets, which they incorporated into a piece of artwork.” In Florence, a capital of the art world, “students find low cost materials at art stores and unusual items from junk shops.” Acosta elaborated that “these experiences too contribute to students’ creative growth and help them to become more flexible and less confined in their practice of art therapy.”

“Through exposure to how others survive amidst adversity,” Acosta noted, “with very limited resources and significant hardship, students gain a sense of humbleness.” For Atwood, her work with refugees and asylum seekers in Buenos Aires provided a glimpse into individuals’ experiences – many had fled war and violence, and struggled to live with uncertainty in the confines of refugee centers. During the internship, explained Krystal, she saw increases in “self-efficacy and a reduction of isolation as they connected with other refugees and asylum seekers in art therapy groups.”

“There is an amazing resilience that each location reveals,” said Acosta. “The internship leads to a questioning of one’s values in a way that can’t be gained inside a classroom. And that is essential as a therapist because personal value systems can’t be brought into clinical sessions.”

NYU Florence Hosts “A Very Strange Dream”: The Memory of the Holocaust and European Jews of North African Origin

On April 10, NYU Florence will host a dialogue with Dario Miccoli, Lecturer of Modern Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. When thinking about the Holocaust, almost everyone refers to the Jews of Europe and, particularly, countries like Poland, writers like Primo Levi, and places like Auschwitz. Few people remember that the Jews of North Africa also experienced the Second World War and, in some cases, the Holocaust: think of the Jews of Algiers subject to Vichy’s anti-Semitic legislation, or the Libyan Jews deported to Bergen-Belsen in 1944. Even though the situations of the Jews of Europe and North Africa during the war can hardly be compared, over the last few years a number of Jews of North African origin now living in Israel or Europe have started to discuss the idea of a ‘North African Holocaust’ through literature, movies and in spaces such as museums and heritage centers. Focusing on the work of Italian, Israeli and French writers and artists of North African Jewish origin, Miccoli will investigate the emergence of the idea of a ‘North African Holocaust’, asking to what extent this constitutes the rediscovery of hitherto little-known memories, or something that largely bespeaks contemporary societal and political agendas in the context of today’s Europe and Israel. Special emphasis will be placed on the case of Libya under Italian rule, the vicissitudes of the Libyan Jews during the Second World War, and the impact of the Holocaust on the memorialisation processes put forward by Jews of Libyan origin – from the writer Victor Magiar to the heritage activist David Gerbi – living in contemporary Italy.

NYU Florence Considers The History of European Integration and the Common Market

On March 4, NYU Florence’s La Pietra Dialogues will host an event considering the history of European integration and the common market. Hosted by Davide Lombardo, a Lecturer at NYU Florence, the questions to be considered include:

  • How did the European Union, after World War II, grow from six to twenty eight member states?
  • How has it met the challenges following the end of the Cold War to emerge as the economic and political power that it is today?
  • Will it survive its present challenges?

Inside Italian Politics at NYU Florence

A crucial general election was held in Italy less than one year ago. The outcome of the election was a hung parliament, with no party or coalition of parties winning the majority of seats on its own. The most remarkable result was the unprecedented success of the two populist parties, the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League, at the expense of the two mainstream parties, the Democratic Party and Forza Italia. After three months of complex negotiations, an M5S-League government was formed. While the new dividing line in Europe that sets eurosceptic, anti-immigrant and anti-globalization parties against europhile, pro-multiculturalism, and pro-globalization parties seems to be gaining momentum, so far Italy is the only country in Western Europe where the populists stand in office unopposed. This may have consequences for the future of the Italian political and party systems as well as for the relationship between Italy and the EU. 

On February 4, NYU Florence will host an event, Inside Italian Politics, featuring Roberto D´Alimonte, LUISS Guido Carli Rome and NYU Florence, and Alessandro Chiaramonte, University of Florence and NYU Florence.

Check out student coverage of the Italian Elections of March 4, 2018 on LPD´s Italian Politics Brief (run by NYU Florence students). 

Departing NYU Florence Director Ellyn Toscano Given Keys to the City

NYU Florence Director NYU Ellyn Toscano will soon be departing and assuming a new position with NYU in Brooklyn. On 29 November, the city of Florence recognized her contribution to the city by presenting her with a set of keys to the city. This honor was given in recognition of her “commitment to sharing her knowledge and love of the city of Florence with generations of students.” Ellyn is the founder and director of both La Pietra Dialogues and The Season, which have contributed significantly to NYU Florence / Villa La Pietra’s place as an intellectual and cultural center in the city of Florence.


NYU Florence Hosts From Tuscany to Harlem: James Baldwin and Yoran Cazac´s Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood

On 18 October, NYU Florence’s La Pietra Dialogues will host Nicholas Boggs from the NYU Department of English. Dr. Boggs will discuss the collaboration between James Baldwin and Yoran Cazac, a French painter and illustrator living in Tuscany. Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood was recently republished to great acclaim by Duke University Press.

NYU Florence Hosts Event on Feminism & Intersectionality in the Arts

On Thursday October 11, NYU Florence will host an event on Feminism & Intersectionality in the Arts.

Feminist theory has been criticized for failing to consider the intersections among patriarchy and other forms of inequality in social and political relations. The term intersectionality arose out of critical race theory to propose an analysis of “relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations” (Kimberlé Crenshaw). Expanding on the conversation started last year in the conference Resetting the Table: A Symposium on Feminist Art and Herstory we will explore the intersections of feminism with various other fluid and multidimensional markers and aspects of identity—including race, class, and gender identity – in approaches to art history, curating and practice, and the opening of opportunity in other institutional cultural spaces. We will begin with a discussion of the legal theory of intersectionality with NYU Law Professor Paulette Caldwell followed by a discussion with art historians Kalia Brooks and Maria Antonia Rinaldi,  curator of the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum Carmen Hermo and artists Patricia Cronin and Lerato Shadi.

NYU Florence Considers – Can Creativity Change the World?

On 24 September, NYU Florence will host a dialogue with Adama Sanneh, Co-Founder and COO of the Moleskin Foundation.

The Moleskine Foundation is a non-profit organization that believes that quality education is key to producing positive change in society and driving our collective future. Focusing on communities affected by cultural and social deprivation, the Foundation is committed to providing youth with unconventional educational tools and experiences that help foster critical thinking, creativity and life-long learning. With a special focus on Africa and its diaspora, the Foundation works closely with local organizations to fund, support and co-create a wide range of distinctive initiatives. Sanneh will present the new strategy of the Foundation and its main initiatives with a specific focus on the role that creativity and art can play in social transformation.

Adama graduated in Linguistic and Cultural Mediation from the University of Milan, he worked for several years in East Africa on rural development and humanitarian emergency programs. He obtained a Master in Public Management (MPM) from the Bocconi School of Management and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Geneva. After graduating, he worked as a management and strategy consultant for various public and not-for-profit organizations among which the United Nations, in education, social entrepreneurship and innovation. As Co-Founder and COO of the Moleskine Foundation, he is committed to promoting and advocating a more profound understanding of the African continent, focusing on the role that art and culture can play in social change.

Health and Human Rights Conference at NYU Florence – Conversation with CGPH Dean Healton

In this second post, Dr. Cheryl Healton, Dean of the College of Global Public Health and Professor of Public Health Policy and Management, talks with us about the third annual Health and Human Rights Conference at NYU Florence. In addition to her management responsibilities, Dr. Healton is responsible for building the College of Global Public Health’s academic, service, and research programs, which focus on domestic and international health with an emphasis on prevention, systems intervention, and innovation in public health practice. We are thrilled to share her perspective and insights on this important topic.

1. Can you tell us what the vision is for this conference and why it is important?

When I first joined NYU, I was excited by the various efforts going on university -wide in the area of human rights. I knew the Global Institute of Public Health, as we were called then, needed to become active in this area. Three key events happened that made it possible. First, and most important, I was approached by HealthRight International about forming an alliance. After much negotiation and the help of former EVP Robert Berne and the NYU legal office we signed a Memorandum of Agreement with them to collaborate on curriculum, research, and practice. We provided a physical home for them and we now employ the Executive Director, Dr. Peter Navario, who is an inspiring leader. Second, I met Joanna Pozen, referred to me by John Sexton our former President, who is an expert in health and human rights and was uniquely qualified to help us build this area. She also is an expert on women’s health and human rights, a subject near and dear to my heart. Finally, I got to now Ellyn Toscano, site director at NYU Florence who also has a keen passion for human rights and is deeply connected with human rights activists and political leaders in Italy. We were delighted to have her join our faculty too. 

The vision was simple – Could we catalyze more effective activity in the health and human rights arena by bringing together academics, NGOs, activists, government officials and students? Could we design a world class curriculum? Could we stimulate research efforts to better track and assist in meeting the needs of the large and growing numbers of refugees, displaced persons and migrants? Could we learn from each other and gain insights that none of us could achieve within our own silos? 

There are now more people without a home or homeland since the end of World War II. Many are dying in transit, many are dying in the camps meant to protect them, and and many are suffering from the sequelae of trauma. A handful of European countries play a key role in what the course of history will be in this crisis. The growing wave of fear toward immigrants and refugees is ominous and fits with the swing to the right happening in many locations around the world. Unless rational voices join in a chorus, a desperately bad situation will grow worse still.

2. I understand that this is the third annual event. Will it continue?

We just completed the third annual event and we hope to continue this effort and grow it into an annual global event attached to an appropriate international meeting. I have suggested that a global organization dedicated to health and human rights be formed to expand and accelerate momentum toward improvement in the health of those adversely affected by the wave of global dislocation occurring and also to take up the important cause of working with human rights colleagues to end this global crisis. Our current working title is The Society for Health and Human Rights.

3. Why was the event hosted in Florence? Are there any special strengths that NYU’s global presence brings to these sorts of conversations?

The Florence site is ideal for many reason but most especially due to the leadership at the site and the key role Italy has played in the refugee crisis. it is one of three countries receiving the bulk of refugees fleeing their own continent, the others are Greece and Turkey. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Nate Bertelsen who is co-appointed at the CGPH but principally with the medical school, our second meeting brought together leaders from these countries as well. At that meeting we were delighted to be addressed by the Mayor of Florence who has been especially active in the refugee crisis.

4. Were there any noteworthy points of discussion or outcomes this year?

The meeting was packed with terrific presenters and lively discussion. I was moved by the many efforts going on in other countries to address the crisis and in countries turning away refugees in large numbers. I was impressed by the efforts of academics, NYU Prague in particular, to document the rapid change in public opinion about migrants apparently precipitated by the relentless xenophobia of politicians fanning nationalistic flames. Sadly, some speakers pointed out that these politicians are emulating politicians here in the US. The efforts in Tuscany, Turkey, and elsewhere were also showcased. These countries too are burdened by changing political winds. 

5. Is there anything else the NYU community should know about this dialogue?

It is urgent for leaders, include those in academia, to work to deescalate the anti-immigrant sentiments that are rising globally. Only through dialogue and understanding can we counteract the many nefarious efforts presently underway to exaggerate the risk of immigration and downplay the advantages. Dislocation due to war, economic deprivation, as well as those fleeing from the risk of genocide are as widespread as ever in history and we must, as a world community and civil society, find solutions together. The formation of rational policies and approaches can benefit greatly from sound research and constructive dialogue. 

Health and Human Rights Conference at NYU Florence – Refugee and Migration Crisis

This is the first of two posts focusing on a recent Health & Human Rights Dialogue on the Refugee and Migration Crisis held at NYU Florence. On March 26-27, 2018, a diverse and multidisciplinary gathering of scholars, students, activists, political and civic leaders, NGO representatives, and rights advocates gathered to discuss multiple aspects of the complicated health and human rights problems posed by the current refugee crisis in Europe and beyond. This was an especially compelling opportunity for students to engage with leading public health thinkers.

Diana Klatt, a first year GPH MPH student studying at NYU Florence who participated in and presented at the Refugee and Migration Crisis Dialogue, proposed practical initiatives to address the stigmas of migrants in Italy and the sociocultural barriers they face. She found the experience rewarding, saying, “I chose to come to Florence to get a different perspective on applications of public health. It is no secret that Italy is currently receiving many migrants and that Europe is experiencing a crisis. Having the opportunity to be here and to visit and meet with various organizations and camps has been invaluable. I came to CGPH for a career change and having this experience here for a semester has made me feel like I made the right choice to work in the global public health sector.”

Rory Curtin, a student in the Cross-Continental MPH program studying at NYU Florence also participated in the Dialogue and reflected on the importance of these kinds of conversations. “Improving health and human rights world-wide starts with increasing social awareness and cultural cohesion through initiatives that promote a migrant-friendly Europe. Particularly in this dialogue, it was pertinent that all parties from UN representatives, to university deans and students, to NGO workers, were collaborating. Europe should expect to see exponential growth in their migrant population, and we as academics, humanitarian aid personnel, and everyday citizens, need to be open and prepared for this. The concept of ‘safe third countries’ such as Libya has to de-bunked, and borders re-opened to ensure humane treatment of asylum seekers. Additionally, asylum procedures need to become less complex, expensive, and time intensive, to facilitate the migration process. Finally, Dublin III and other unreasonable EU deals should be discontinued and replaced with procedures for secondary movements and resettlement of migrants. Therefore, having all those who participated come together and generate the idea that a ‘society for health and human rights’ be established is incredible, and has the potential to shake things up!”

Rory also finds that NYU’s global presence “absolutely” facilitates these types of programs. “It’s important for students to not only experience other parts of the world, but become entrenched in politics, social issues, and therefore passionate about making a difference in our increasingly interconnected world. These sorts of programs are the result of otherwise disparate groups coming together, united by at least one thing, which is that education is a certain catalyst for change.”