Nefretete Rasheed, Ph.D
Artist of Interdisciplinary Arts, Theatre,
By Arthur T. Wilson
“Everyday is Graduation”
Dr. Nefretete Rasheed
* Nefretete Rasheed, Ph.D., a graduate of New York University, is an educator, writer, and therapist. She is also the Education and Clinical Director for Aspirations, Inc., an organization she founded that promotes teaching and healing through the arts. Dr. Rasheed has lectured at Rutgers University, NY State University (Westbury), and the Graduate Art Therapy Department at the School of Visual Arts.
She has received poetry and theater awards from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Princess Grace Foundation, D.C. Arts and Humanities Commission, and the National Academy of American Poets. She was invited to join a delegation of American poets participating in a reading tour of Russia by The Soviet Writers’ Union and as a dancer and singer, she toured Europe, Africa, and Australia. Her work has appeared in a number of arts and literary journals and as a Geraldine Dodge Foundation poet, she read and conducted writing workshops throughout the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. She was an Associate Director at the Joseph Papp Public Theater for many years where she effectively combined her talents and training in the arts, healing, and education by instituting a number of groundbreaking programs for the NY Shakespeare Festival’s Education Department. She also created a violence prevention program that was implemented in more than 21 New Jersey school districts. She has served as a panelist, program/assessment specialist, and evaluator for many arts councils and organizations. Dr. Rasheed co-authored Theatre in Action, a textbook for McGraw Hill, and developed therapeutic and educational programs for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and other cultural institutions.
Dr. Rasheed is an interdisciplinary educator who has taught Dramatic and Creative Writing, Theatre, Movement, Drama Therapy, Multicultural and Literary Studies. In her clinical work as a psychotherapist, she worked at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Jacobi Hospital, Interfaith Medical Center and in private practice.
Arthur Wilson’s interview with Dr. Rasheed~
Dr. Rasheed can you elaborate on the impact of being reared in Washington, D.C.?
(NR) – Growing up in Washington D.C. gave me quite an advantage. We grew up in a pleasant, engaging, and nurturing environment that I feel, especially now, put children first. We were exposed to many cultural, ethical and educational opportunities at home and at school. We also grew up in a cultural and religious homogeneous environment that gave us a strong and firm sense of our identity and we also learned to respect and appreciate diversity. Our role models were right in our homes and neighborhoods. They were in our classrooms and school buildings. The adults in our lives set the bar high for us and demonstrated by their very example what was expected of us. We also learned that there were adverse consequences for negative behaviors and favorable consequences and benefits appropriate, and positive behaviors. The choice was ours to make.
And can you describe any special advantage you feel you had growing up in the Capital of the United States?
(NR) – We grew up with a sense of history and destiny. We knew people from all walks of life – people who worked for the government and people who ran the government. There were no limits on the possibilities of what we could do. I understood that historically there was a line from the past that extended into the future and that how that future played out depended on what you were doing right now.
What influence did your parents have on your aspirations for education and the arts?
(NR) – I inherited my love of words and writing from my father, my love of beauty, art, and dance from my mother and my love of movement and music from my grandmother. They exposed us to things and let make choices for ourselves. I took refuge in art. It was my sanctuary. There was nothing more important to me growing up than expression and knowledge. I was a very sensitive child and a little annoyed that I could not figure everything out.
In summary, please discuss some of your early challenges and successes in training for the arts.
(NR) – Actually, my very first success was winning a dance contest when I was 4 years old. I later received a lot of attention and awards for graphic arts in school. Drawing and painting came naturally and easily to me – too easy – I enjoyed and loved it but I wanted more of a challenge. I won a scholarship to an arts program in my early teens and was exposed to theater and dance. I later auditioned for a local theater company and started working with them. There was nothing easy about it and it took over my entire life. We rehearsed virtually every evening and I had to juggle the responsibilities of school, travel, and late nights early in life. I learned about discipline, devotion, and being in strange places with strange people. I learned about flexibility and spontaneity and discipline. I learned about the ‘thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.’ Both aspects I came to know were necessary and important.
Share what you learned or obtained from a few of your art and education heroes?
(NR) – I learned that nothing is easy. The requirements for growth and success include vision, tenacity, endurance, and the courage of your convictions.
What are some of the highlights from your experience in the arts as a singer, dancer, actress, and poet?
Just having that template to grow up on – I feel the arts and all of those accompanying experiences has made me a more creative, contemplative, and joyous person. It also taught me about compassion and empathy. The arts have given me a perspective on life that is both expansive and empowering. I have not been bored one moment in my life.
(NR) – What advice or inspiration led you to consolidate your art aspirations and success into Education?
I feel that education is a window that open out onto a field of possibilities. You navigate that field through the creative power of your mind. The arts have the ability to help people exercise their mental, physical, and emotional powers in positive and constructive ways that can impact the quality of their lives. If you learn about the things that are inside of your mind, heart, and spirit, nothing outside of you has any real power over you.
How do you define your place in the world as an Afro-American Woman?
(NR) – That’s a little boxy for me. By boxy I mean ‘inside the box.’ In my world view, growing up in Washington, D.C. that was 90% Black – everyone else was a minority! I do not perceive my heritage as confining me to a particular space or place. It is certainly my spring board but I think we do ourselves a disservice by overly identifying or stigmatizing ourselves – we (human beings) are the ones that do the long division and compartmentalize and package people often based on our short sightedness and often our lack of humanity. We really are one family – the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. It is all who and what we are, We are slowly, slowly, waking up. There is no other option. Thank heavens we have so much access now to the global culture and community. One day I found myself eating the national dish of Senegal with chopsticks while listening to a CD of Sanskrit mantras. See what I mean about that box.
In your estimation, what contributes to establishing a well-rounded education and career? And what if anything, do you feel the educational system in our country sorely lacks?
(NR) – There is nothing that can replace effective, passionate, and caring educators – not methodology, pedagogy, not new programs, testing, or throwing money. You really can’t put a price tag on those ineffable qualities that grow a child or become the residue of a life well lived: love, service, humility, gratitude, authenticity, openness, honesty, responsibility, discipline, etc. I think Skinner said it best, ‘Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.’ I think the bureaucracy of education has often gotten in the way of teaching and so many of our fine educators resign themselves to the oppression of institutionalization.
What attracted you to Ananda College?
(NR) – Aside from the singular beauty and magic of the environment, the College embraces all of those qualities that I mentioned before in its educational philosophy – Education for Life (EFL). The EFL approach to learning integrates personal development, academics, & philosophy. The College is inspired by the educational & spiritual traditions of the East & West. It provides a distinctive, liberal arts environment that encourages and supports spiritual growth & inquiry. The College also provides a creative, transformational learning environment that helps each student develop the intellectual acuity and relevant skills they will need to find and express their life’s unique purpose.
What is your advise for today’s youth?
Don’t believe the hype.
“Everyday is Graduation”
Dr. Nefretete Rasheed
addresses students on Thursday, June 2, 2011,
at Ananda College of Living Wisdom……
“Distinguished faculty, staff, guests, and members of the class of 2011. I am honored and blessed to stand here with you as we celebrate the achievements of our students today and this extraordinary college. I know it is a special school because I did not have to say no tweeting or texting in class – not even once! And the only drama I have seen since I arrived has been on a stage! It’s really very special – and you really can’t beat the commute! A few steps between your room, the dining room and your classroom!
Seriously though, this is indeed an exceptional institution and I want you to know class of 2011 that you are the testament – the material evidence of this fact. I also want you to know how very much it means to all of us to have you as our students.
…Feeling your excitement and energy – looking into your bright happy faces – what a contrast to my angst and ambivalence when I was your age receiving my first degree from Howard University. I remember feeling more than a little disappointed because after 4 hard years of work and study, I had few additional answers to my deeper questions and I knew my search would have to continue. It was just not a concept then – that you could fuse a career with your spiritual path and ambitions – unless (heaven forbid!) you wanted go into the church.
I sat in the warm sunshine looking over the field of black and gold robes and caps and wrote a poem called Everyday is Graduation out of my frustration. I don’t remember all the lines from the poem but only a couple – I asked: ‘…Have the lessons of school given me the lessons of life? I have only this – a paper scroll to wage my battles…’ But YOU should have no such quandaries. You – are here – in this singularly wonderful place – the Ananda College of Living Wisdom. Consequently, you will be able to embrace and integrate the best of both worlds. You will be able to incorporate the deeper messages and higher teachings of how to live not only with yourselves but in the world as well. The ground you stand on will be so much firmer – the road and your very direction – so much clearer. You may choose to spend a few more years in school – or you may begin right away to work in earnest to build your lives and careers – either way you already have a ‘winning’ edge and it is a ‘holistic’ one.
Dr. Moreno the, father of psychodrama (I reference him because of strong philosophic, social, and educational parallels between him, Yogananda and Swamiji). Great minds really do seem to think alike. Moreno, once said to Freud in reference to his clients – “You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyze and tear them apart. I help them…put the parts together…” This was a radical approach – revolutionary thinking during the first half of the last century – and that revolutionary and visionary spirit is shared by Ananda College. We also negotiate that sharp edge between conservative and new educational models. This is not your grandma’s school! Ananda College is a school for the 21st century. A school for the mission and needs of young people today and for generations to come. Ananda’s role, as I see it and as Moreno articulated it in his work – is designed to counteract the technological materialism of the age. He of course, was referring to the Industrial Age but it is still if not even more so applicable to our age of technology today. (Technology and machinery should not super-cede or syphon the critical resources required for the welfare and health of people. Technology was made for people. The people were not made for technology.)
Moreno was a medical doctor but he clearly understood the social validity and importance of an empowering educational model and a holistic community. I hear the philosophical echoes of Yogananda and Swamiji when Moreno says that: (1) that spontaneity and creativity are the propelling forces in human progress; (2) Love and mutual sharing are powerful indispensable working principals in group life. Therefore, it is imperative that we have faith in our fellow man’s intentions, a faith which transcends mere obedience; and (3) that a super dynamic community based on these principles can (and should) be brought to realization through new techniques. Moreno, I am certain would have loved the Ananda Community and this college.
Ananda College inspires and encourages these values. It is not a traditional institution and I hope it never becomes one – if by becoming traditional it has to diminish or de-emphasize those intrinsic spiritual elements that make it so distinct – because I believe, like Dr. Moreno, – that after you have studied history, linguistics, psychology, languages, and science – after you have learned trigonometry, physics, and histology – even after you have had your lobotomy – you still have to learn HOW to live in the world.
And I tell you class of 2011, you guys know how to live! You have been given a special gift – a unique education. You have already lived here and learned here that singular ‘Biggest Idea:’ That it is not what you take from the world – but what you give to the world – in service, in love, and in gratitude for life.
So, class of 2011, I congratulate you one and all and with reverence and joy for the journeys you are about to embark upon I wish you God’s peace, love, and endless blessings today and always.
I would like to leave you with this poem dedicated to my students and the class of 2011 – It now has a three part title:
“Everyday is Graduation – Pt II: The Mental Body (my students will recognize this reference) and Spring – Why aren’t We There Yet?”
Everyday is Graduation – Pt II: The Mental Body
Measure the valleys, measure the hills…
…Now, I sit between the high grass and dimming sky
the fallen suicidal stars and consider The Mysteries
I wrestle phantoms. The same winter ghosts that pluck the blooms
& surrender us to sleep…
I want you to Think
that each day your Mind
like a giant cedar in the center of a cosmic forest
is a confluence of dying and growing thoughts
is a combustion of spring and winter
Everything is graduating
advancing like this reluctant season
rising turning returning but
open to the possibilities and the ironies of spring
understanding the seed will never see the flower
Everyday is a graduation
Thinking accounts for seasonal change
and what fruit comes to bear
from both verdant &
storm slaughtered branches
in those woods of tumbling kama kazi thoughts
we harvest again and again and again
until we cultivate the budding
graces of endurance
Everyday is a graduation
the endless music from the fountain
WILL finally reach our ears
and the attending humming birds
WILL convert that sweetness into flight…
Everyday is a graduation
Now, some folks have that petrified forest
thang going on. Where NO living thing can emerge
Still others wander in an expressionistic blur
No sharpness. No edges. No injury.
Everything is a graduation
And somehow almost surreal in clarity
That Biggest Idea emerges
Up from Tokyo Bay
Up from the night’s transcendent forms
those angels of our discernment
shift the trajectory of our desires
& inherited demands
Everyday is a graduation
as we bundle and gather history
the artillery of our thoughts
and Keep the dreams we must
I want you to think
because all is Mind. Mind is all.
This chrysalis will fall away and the soul
will find the art it sets out for
Everyday is a graduation
We are not unlike that mindful tree
fastened to the ground straining
upwards in our radiance with the privilege of gradu-ating
with the privilege of growing more humanely human
Every day is a graduation
So gather your brightness from
these Sierra Hills and rush the world
Gather your brightness from these
hills and storm the world with
your gold and your light!
Your graduation is TODAY”
-Nefretete Rasheed (c)
The Yoga of Drama and Therapeutic Arts
by Dr. Nefertete Rasheed
Dr. Rasheed joins the faculty in Interdisciplinary Arts & Psychology. She has taught in colleges throughout the US, was Associate Director of the Joseph Papp Public Theatre for many years, and is co-author of McGraw Hill’s “Theatre in Action” drama textbook.
I often think about a homeless, anguished woman I worked with in the hospital who was dying of AIDS. She wanted nothing more than to be a mother before she died. This was in the early days of the epidemic when treatment was almost non-existent and a diagnosis was almost synonymous with a death sentence. We used drama as her therapeutic modality and she was able to experience and satisfy her maternal instincts in the roles she played out in our group and was able to take some of those nurturing qualities into her life as she learned to care for others on the unit whereas she previously isolated herself. This woman was not expected to live much longer but a few years after she left the hospital, I was watching television one evening and there she was! She had had not only one child but was expecting another. The children had a 50% chance of contracting the disease (I believe the first one was healthy) and they had been given a newly renovated apartment on the west side of New York. There are so many stories. One man, internally preoccupied and incoherent, had moments of clarity and coherence when we played certain music. A teen paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident played a gang leader and the lead dancer – dancing from the waist up and pirouetting on the wheels of his chair to the applause and cheers of onlookers. Many stories, less dramatic are yet, still powerful. I remember the child who was able to stand up, say his name in a loud clear voice, and read a story for the first time in front of his classmates. A room full of stressed out stockbrokers one day and a group of intimidated teachers on another day who both were moving, role-playing, and acting like a bunch of happy kids on the playground. This process of engagement, creating, enactment, moving and relating is what I most enjoy about the arts. It is just plain unbridled joy and fun. It is both an internal and external process that can open your heart and take you to higher and higher developmental and interpersonal levels.
I came to understand the business and production side of theater but I was engaged more so by the process. I grew up doing Repertory Theater in Washington, D.C. It turns out that drama comes from the Greek work dran that literally means ‘to do.’ We spent endless days and hours ‘doing’ – creating, developing, and mastering improvisational techniques and, essentially, working on ourselves. We had many performance and preparation rituals, practices, and disciplines. I always say that this was my first monastic experience. I learned early on how trans-formative and dynamic this process could be. It could be used not only to improve the quality of life but also as a tool for personal development and healing. I am thrilled that now most of the core arts – art, music, dance, poetry, and drama are embraced by the clinical community as relevant and useful treatment interventions and that Arts in Education became a virtual movement in the schools across the country.
Educators and clinicians now embrace and understand what we knew decades ago from working with the visually impaired, the physically challenged, and at-risk youth – the arts are incredibly healing, humanizing, and transcendent. Time, space, and as we say ‘disbelief’ can be suspended and these phenomenological quirks can be used to therapeutic advantage. There are a number of distancing steps that provide participants with an interesting vantage that can alter or change limiting self perspectives: (1) Individuals are able to leave themselves behind and step into new roles and relationships; (2) They are able to be something or someone that everyday life has never given them the chance to be, become, or encounter; (3) They are able to see their behaviors enacted by someone else and get a better understanding about how they present themselves in the world and their impact on others; and (4) They are able to manipulate reality and create unique and singular experiences for themselves. This happens in situ – in what we call the surplus reality of the psychodramatic stage – the individual is able to have certain ‘act hungers’ satisfied so that he/she can finally move on (sound familiar?). They are able in the therapeutic environment using a dramatic process to have these latent desires identified and fulfilled in a safe and non-threatening manner. They do not need to participate directly in an activity or enactment – the group can do the work for them – but by observing and the process of identification, they may be able to have a catharsis or emotional release.
I certainly hope to bring some of that same luminous energy to my work teaching here at Ananda College of Living Wisdom. If I can be used to infuse joy, laughter, and vibrancy through the arts at the college and contribute to what is already so unique and special about this spiritual academy, I know we will continue to create a vibrant and rich learning and living environment for all of the students we serve.