Art and Social Action in Cambodia:
Transforming Students into World Citizens
By Carlos Silveira, professor of art at California
State University–Long Beach
CSULB Professor of Art Education
Carlos Silveira works on art projects with the
children at Little Folks, a Maryknoll Missions nongovernmental organization
that supports healthy Cambodian youth who are
the primary caretakers for their AIDS-infected
parent(s). (Photo by Erin Henning/Cut Loose Productions)
Social justice community service learning is a powerful
tool that prepares students to engage as global citizens.
In my work as an art educator, I view service learning
as producing a transformative attitude change akin to
what Paulo Freire (1970) calls the development of “critical
consciousness.” Through “critical consciousness,”
students become world citizens, developing their political
voices as social advocates not only in their national
communities, but also throughout the globe. This is
particularly true of art education, where social justice
service learning has proven to be extremely powerful.
Art Education and “Critical Consciousness”
For several years, I have had the opportunity to observe
my art education students’ development of “critical
consciousness” through their domestic social justice
service-learning projects. My students become social
advocates, designing and implementing art projects in
collaboration with several Long Beach advocacy groups
(such as women’s shelters, agencies for runaway
youth, and agencies for HIV-positive or AIDS clients).
These projects lead my students to think critically
about their life experiences and challenge their current
social values as they reflect on the implications of
class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation,
religion, and culture. As a result, these students develop
valuable skills, critical thinking, and a sense of social
responsibility that will enable them to be effective
future educators and social advocates.
CSULB student Amanda Mithers
(yellow apron) helps the children at Little Folks
paint an art mural on the cement wall that surrounds the property.
(Photo by Teresa Hagen/Cut Loose Productions)
I feel very fortunate to be in the field of art education,
where I can encourage my students to utilize art as
a tool for empowering underserved communities. Art,
in all its many forms, has the power to transcend cultures
and bridge social and economic gaps. It allows individuals
to express their feelings and frustrations in a way
that is both easily understood and nonconfrontational.
Art instruction assists students in identifying social
and political challenges and helps them connect what
they learn in the classroom to what they experience
in their communities. In this way art instruction becomes
a vehicle for social action. Through art, students can
move the soul while also encouraging social awareness.
With such a powerful tool at their disposal, students
can become cross-cultural humanitarians.
Globalizing Social Justice Outreach
write the first draft of their lesson plans while
in the U.S. Upon their arrival in Cambodia, each
pair of American students joins two Cambodian
students to form a group. The U.S. students present
the drafts of their lessons to the Cambodian students.
They then modify or completely rework their lesson
plans based on the Cambodian students’ feedback
and ideas. Similarly, in their first visits to
the community agencies, students present their
ideas to the children they are teaching and ask
them for feedback by providing some options. They
then modify their lesson plans for the last time
on the basis of that feedback.
Lesson plan requirements:
a) The design of lesson plans is focused on the
declaration of human rights by the United Nations
and the development of awareness of three types
of identity: personal identity, group or collective
identity, and cultural identity. Usually the first
lesson is based on concepts of personal identity
and self-expression, leading to lessons in community
and civic engagement and cultural identity.
b) Lesson plans should have a strong therapeutic
component developed through the use of play and
by building interdisciplinary connections between
art, music, theater, and dance.
c) Lesson plans should involve the rich Cambodian
heritage in the arts. Students must research traditional
Cambodian art forms and translate their knowledge
into their lesson plans.
Lesson plan project examples:
Community murals—Past themes have included
My Community, My Future, and Life as a River.
Social advocacy posters (printmaking)—Children
play the role of social advocates and design
posters for their communities with messages
based on the United Nations Universal Declaration
of Human Rights.
Shadow puppets—Children produce shadow
puppets and develop plays with pro-education,
antiviolence, and antidrug messages, or with
morals based on Cambodian mythology.
Emotional self-portraits (painting and dance)—Children
portray their emotions through color and movement.
In the fall of 2003, I was a faculty fellow at the
Community Service Learning Center at California State
University–Long Beach (CSULB). As CSULB began
to globalize its curriculum, the curricular committee
charged me with developing an international service-learning
initiative at our university. After visiting Cambodia
during the winter session of 2004, I became inspired
to develop an international social justice service-learning
model in the arts. I hoped that I could push American
students out of their “comfort zones” and
encourage them to experience social justice issues on
a global level. As Richard Kiely points out, “participation
in an international service-learning program with a
strong social justice pedagogy can trigger extremely
powerful reactions from students who begin to critically
reflect on long-held assumptions about themselves, lifestyle
choices, cultural norms, U.S. capitalism, careers, relationships,
social problems and the world around them” (2004,
Working from Kiely’s premise, I developed an
internationally tested, cross-cultural curricular model
designed to foster social advocacy and multicultural
sensitivity in college students. This model also aims
to provide individuals, particularly disenfranchised
youth, with positive life alternatives and heightened
In the winter session of January 2005, I taught Art
and Social Action in Cambodia, an international service-learning
immersion course based on the model I developed. For
this three-week course, I took twenty-seven CSULB students
to Cambodia, where they joined students from Panassastra
University of Cambodia (PUC) in Phnom Penh. Cambodian
and American students paired up in teams. The students
learned how to design, teach, and implement community-based
art education projects that are sensitive to the needs
of the populations involved and reflect the rich tradition
of Cambodian arts. They implemented these projects with
groups of disadvantaged youth in Phnom Penh, including
HIV-positive children, teenagers who are their HIV-positive
parents’ caretakers, and young women rescued from
This program proved to be the most rewarding experience
I have ever had as a professor. I clearly observed transformations
in the attitudes of both the disenfranchised youth and
the college students. CSULB students underwent, in their
own words, a “life-changing experience.”
They empowered themselves by becoming world citizens.
In their final reflection papers, students indicated
drastic changes in their worldviews, including their
views of U.S. diversity. Their responses implicitly
illustrate how U.S. diversity and global awareness are
not parallel contemporary issues, but are intersecting
and complementary challenges in the path of students’
empowerment. Many students attested that after being
in Cambodia and witnessing extreme levels of poverty
and human rights abuses, their views of oppression no
longer center on ethnicity. Instead, they have developed
holistic and complex views of how the interconnections
of political systems, class structures, gender, race,
and ethnicity perpetuate cycles of poverty among communities.
Moving Forward with Lessons Learned
Art and Social Action in Cambodia is going to take
place for the fourth time in the winter of 2008. Art
and Social Action in Brazil, a similar course, took
place in the summer of 2006, and Art and Social Action
in India will take place in the summer of 2008. The
success of my model depends not only on an effective
social justice curriculum, but also on strong partnerships
between California State University and Cambodian, Brazilian,
and Indian universities and nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) in these countries. Such collaboration is vital
to the cross-cultural dialogue and represents another
level of cross-cultural exchange for social justice
excerpts are from the reflection papers of two
Art and Social Action in Cambodia enhanced my
vision of the possibilities of advancement that
can be achieved through investigation in the visual
arts. Through this experience, I became aware
of the potential to raise critical awareness in
individuals through participation in artistic
endeavors. My level of consciousness about my
own responsibilities as a member of the human
race has been enlightened through my interaction
with the curriculum Carlos has presented and the
ideology that he has shared with me.
—John, former art education
student. John is currently living in Cambodia
where he teaches English in the mornings and in
the afternoons develops art projects with children
rescued from dump sites.
I have learned from this course that through
art, we can give less fortunate children the opportunity
to have a voice and to realize that they have
the power to change the world they live in. I
went into this course not knowing exactly what
to expect, and I honestly didn’t think that
I’d be touched like I was. I now find myself
having the same drive and passion for using art
as a tool of empowerment. I returned from Cambodia
wanting to do more, and I plan to make that my
career, to help people through the power of creativity
and self-actualization. I know that I cannot help
all of the less fortunate children in the world,
but I know now that I can touch some of their
lives in some way and give them the power to change
their lives and others around them.
—Amanda, former art education
student. Amanda is currently living in Cambodia
as an artist-in-residence for Arts for Global
Citizenship. She is in charge of developing and
implementing a social justice art program to children
rescued from the dump sites.
My work in these courses has taught me several lessons
about social justice education. I discovered how important
students’ preparation is for successful social
justice service learning. I have always scheduled several
meetings with students prior to the service learning
experience. These meetings introduce students to the
foundations of Cambodian culture and history, U.S. foreign
policy, social justice, and art and social action. Students
learn how to avoid colonialist or missionary perspectives
when working among underserved sectors of the Cambodian
society. After the first few trips, I came to the realization
that these few meetings were not enough. Beginning in
the fall semester of 2007, students will take a class,
Art and Social Action: A Global Perspective, to prepare
them for their international service-learning experience.
They will follow up with a Special Topics class in the
spring, which will help them to reflect on their experiences
and translate their new concept of civic engagement
into their daily lives.
My goal is to develop sustainable social justice art
programs in Cambodia, Brazil, and India by strengthening
my partnership with the NGOs with which the students
and I worked. I hope to accomplish this through a newly
established nonprofit organization, Arts for Global
Citizenship. I envision this organization as a powerful
vehicle for bringing together international and local
art educators and artists, as well as community resources,
to reach disenfranchised youth, helping them to find
a voice for social activism through artistic expression.
My long-term vision is to encourage a multinational
and multicultural artistic dialogue, much like the one
my students have begun to develop.
Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the oppressed.
New York: Continuum.
Kiely, R. 2004. A chameleon with a complex: Searching
for transformation in international service learning.
Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning
Editor's note: California State University—Long
Beach is a participating institution in AAC&U’s
Shared Futures: Global Learning for General Education
For more information about the Arts for Global Citizenship project, please visit the Web site: www.artsglobal.org.