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Residential College lecturer uses art as a therapeutic tool

By Jo Chang

A dance professor and a Great Lakes researcher from U-M team-up to bring Detroit school kids closer to nature through facilitating a variety of creative activities on Detroit's Belle Isle.

Though Deborah Gordon-Gurfinkel has loved drama and the arts since she was a child, it wasn’t until she moved to America in 1986 that she realized her passion could be part of something greater.

Gordon-Gurfinkel, the arts education program coordinator and a lecturer in the Residential College, moved to San Francisco at the peak of the AIDS epidemic there and joined a theater company. As she became more immersed in the community of people drastically affected by the crisis, she also became aware of the rising numbers of children living in homeless shelters.

“I think a lot of my social justice awakening happened then,” Gordon-Gurfinkel said. “Starting with advocating for the gay community and then opening up to other areas. I began volunteering at a local shelter for children and thought, ‘Well, why don’t I use my knowledge and skills as a drama and education specialist to support young people and their literacy skills?’”

Gordon-Gurfinkel received her undergraduate degree from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Her area of study involved applying the theater arts in cross-curriculum. However, once she began teaching in the classroom, she began to notice an interesting trend among her students.

“My understanding about the therapeutic aspect of the theater arts all started when I was in schools and engaging with students in a more educational setting,” Gordon-Gurfinkel said. “But the material wasn’t intentionally therapeutic; the focus was more about learning content, learning skills. However, the students’ responses to it had emotional elements to it. Later, when I came to America, I discovered this concept of drama therapy.”

The initial focus for Gordon-Gurfinkel was to establish a program that employed the arts to promote literacy. With a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, she founded what later became Telling It. She partnered with SOS Community Services and the Ozone House, two shelter-based organizations in Washtenaw County.

However, over time she noticed that the therapeutic aspect of her teaching started overpowering its literary focus. More and more Telling It students began to open up to the site leaders and program coordinators about their life experiences and traumas.

“It became very clear that we needed to get it together to respond to and be educated about how to support these young people who were sharing these things, either directly or indirectly,” Gordon-Gurfinkel said. “Telling It became a quest from moving them forward to pedagogically responding to their past traumas and stories.”

Since establishing Telling It, Gordon-Gurfinkel has experienced growing self-awareness and emotional development herself alongside her students.

“Even though there’s a lot of our differences (historical racism and lack of resources) that I don’t relate with, there are overlaps that I can definitely recognize around trauma and development,” Gordon-Gurfinkel said, regarding her relationships with her students. “I recognized that and became a little more versed in that understanding and my own story, and my own way of being in the world.”

Gordon-Gurfinkel was initially invited to teach at U-M as a visiting artist, using the university’s vast resources and opportunities to form more connections with local community leaders.

She has remained at U-M and currently teaches a course titled, “Community Empowerment Through the Arts.” She is also teaching “Advanced Practice in Community Engagement,” for students who want to delve deeper into the practices of trauma-informed practice. She is passionate about teaching her students about active and informed community involvement.

However, while Telling It continues to grow, Gordon-Gurfinkel remains firm that the program should be driven mostly by the communities of students and local people themselves.

“I think what our partners really appreciate about us is that we always want to listen and learn before we do anything else,” she said. “We strive to make sure that the people on the front lines of Telling It are diverse. If not from the community, at least from the same racial background, and I think that’s really important.”


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

When a functionally illiterate teen started writing poems and then performed some of them at a public celebration.

What can’t you live without?

Murder mysteries, chocolate and my family!

Name your favorite spot on campus.

The Residential College and Wave Field on North Campus.

What inspires you?

Other people and the expressive arts.

What are you currently reading?

A murder mystery by Ruth Rendell called “The Birthday Present” and “We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom” by Bettina A. Love.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My mother, drama-in-education pioneer Dorothy Heathcote, my friend Neil, Oprah and Maya Angelou.