Statement from Institute for Somatics and Social Justice Students
TO OUR COMMUNITIES:
We are artists, activists, dancers, healers, movers, organizers, educators, counselors – and students from across the country and world, who are gathered in Philadelphia to attend the first intensive for the Institute for Somatics and Social Justice. The Institute presented itself as a training program towards a 500-hour certification in Somatic Movement Education within a social justice framework. The Institute’s website pictured a diverse team of eight faculty members in addition to the Director, seventeen guest faculty members, as well as nine sister organizations listed as ‘Family.’ On July 3, 2018, after two weeks of instruction, the Director of the Institute, Nicole Bindler, abruptly and unilaterally suspended the program. This suspension was a response to a document the students collectively created that laid forth the problematic structural gaps in leadership and pedagogy we were experiencing, and the harm this was causing. This document asked for collaboration, requesting that Nicole work alongside us to address these problems. Instead, she chose to discontinue the program.
We have written this public statement in order to begin an accountability process with the Director, and to ask that the Philadelphia movement arts and social justice communities join us in addressing the systemic issues within the Institute and the somatics community at large.
Currently, we are aware that the Director has framed the dissolution of the Institute as an effect of a concussion she suffered shortly before the Institute began. We understand the sensitive condition of this injury and hold compassion for the complexities of navigating a concussion. We do not agree with the Director’s deflection of responsibility onto the concussion, as it dismisses our collective grievances around the program’s design. Based on the website description, pictures of twenty-five faculty and guest faculty, and conversations with the Director, we understood the Institute’s infrastructure included a robust network of support and shared leadership in all aspects of the Institute’s design and operations. From the website: “the great number and diversity of teachers will allow for cross-pollination of ideas among movers and movement makers in Philadelphia and beyond.” It was only after the program began that we learned that the Institute’s infrastructure hinged almost entirely on a single core faculty: the founder and Director.
When the Director sustained an injury, this structure proved to be unsustainable and did not model the values of interdependence that we had believed were embedded in the creation and organization of the program. The Director’s response, to close the school in reaction to criticism, demonstrates a lack of adherence to ISMETA Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice while adopting a mission for social justice.
Twenty-seven students joined the Institute with shared expectations based on the school’s published mission statement: to learn basic organizing principles and tools for teaching somatics; to integrate learning processes with embodied experiences of identity, race, gender, class, dis/ability in community; and to redress the history and supremacy of wealthy, white, thin, cisgendered, able bodies in somatic spaces. This 500-hour program, over the course of two years, offered a path towards ISMETA-approved certification for Somatic Movement Education, which appealed to those seeking professional accreditation.
Five days before class was set to begin, students were informed via email that the Director had received a concussion; significantly, this message did not indicate that there would be any issues with delivery of the curriculum. Based on what we understood to be a robust support and accountability network surrounding the Institute, we expected that we would be supported by the other faculty pictured on the website, especially while the Director recovered from her injury. When we arrived, the faculty for Week 1 consisted of the Director (Nicole Bindler) and Co-facilitator (Jolyn Arisman). The Director was responsible for the majority of the teaching and group facilitation process in Week 1 and did little fold in guest workshops with our class materials.
Based on our interactions with teachers and disparate class content, it became apparent that the faculty was not a cohesive network but instead a series of individually-contracted teachers with no oversight of the Institute’s processes or broader content. The Director, a white woman, wrote the syllabus and hired Jolyn Arisman, a woman of color, as support facilitator without involving Jolyn in any of the curriculum writing process. After reaching out to organizations listed under “sister organizations” or “family” on the Institute’s website, we started to understand that some, if not all, were hardly connected to the institute. With a single leader model, unclear facilitation, unstructured administration, limited community relationships, fragmented curriculum, and an imbalanced student-faculty ratio, the program had structural problems from the start.
Moreover, the somatic content lacked adequate political analysis and social awareness. Within a few days, students expressed concerns about the absence of appropriate contextualization and rigorous inquiry situating bodies in societal context. Students’ requests for content clarity and shared community agreements were met with the Director referencing her injury as an explanation for these gaps; yet did not lead to any adequate methods of redress. Our repeated efforts to engage in serious dialogue with the Director were not met. Repeated asks for group trust-building processes were met with no immediate response and, after much delay, on day 9 of the program, students (not paid faculty) facilitated the community agreement process.
Ultimately, the Institute neglected to build strong community relationships, a collaborative leadership structure, and accountability processes; thereby betraying its mission to be an organization oriented towards social justice. This deeply concerned the student body. A grievance procedure for students toward faculty and the program as a whole is a requirement of ISMETA approved training programs, yet the Institute did not have such a procedure in place. On July 2, students met together and compiled a document outlining key issues with the program’s structure and content that we hoped the director could address. We emailed this message to the program director Nicole, co-facilitator Jolyn, and a guest faculty, Mark Rietema. In response, in an email the following evening on July 3rd, Nicole unilaterally suspended the program, without offering any alternative or possibility to continue.
To date, we continue to face difficult communications with the Director to address financial accountability and the Institute’s structural failures. Our collective requests to meet with the Director have been denied since July 17th; we have been directed to speak with her lawyer only. Her lawyer advised us not to speak to Nicole and told us that “continued efforts are inappropriate and will be viewed negatively.” Prior to this communication from the lawyer, some students have been given the opportunity to meet with Nicole individually to speak about personal concerns, while others have not been given this opportunity.
While we are in the process of recovering tuition refunds, the substantial financial losses and significant emotional toll of this situation exceeds tuition costs. The impact of this experience affects our lives and extends into all our networks of support. Overall, we are saddened by this lost opportunity resulting from the Director’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue. We feel that it is now necessary to initiate a public dialogue so that the development and dissolution of this summer’s program is addressed by its relevant communities.
As a student body, we have different ideas for working towards redress and rightful acknowledgement of our grievances. We all respect the time required for Nicole’s concussion to heal. We also believe that beginning a simultaneous process of community accountability is vital to our collective healing from this experience. We have identified key actions that reflect our shared values as a group:
- In-person conversations about social justice and collaborative arts organizing between Nicole and Philadelphia movement arts and somatics community, especially those listed as faculty, family, and sister organizations.
- A public statement of accountability, acknowledging student grievances and Nicole’s decision to unilaterally shut down the program, published on the Institute’s website (currently offline) and Facebook page (and all social media communications connected to the Institute).
- Engage a mediating party to assist Nicole in addressing financial accountability, including donations given to the Institute’s LLC, any future fundraising, and fair compensation including reimbursement of students and teachers.
We are committed to building a process that centers healing, transformation, self-care and community care. It is in this spirit of collective healing that we are choosing to initiate this accountability process. We hope that this statement begins the work of integrating the learning lessons from this experience for the future of social justice in the somatics community.
Signed by 23 out of 27 Students
of the Institute for Somatics and Social Justice
Addendum (as of July 19, 2018): To provide further context and detail, we have included supplementary materials with extensive information on the timeline of events over the last 3 weeks, as well as student accounts of our individual experiences. This is a live document and will be updated as appropriate.