(Photo by Edwin Einbender-Luks)
Northeast Philadelphia is changing. The area, historically home to working class whites with Eastern European roots, is rapidly becoming one of the most culturally diverse in Philadelphia.
All you have to do to understand that is take a look at Northeast High School (NEHS) — or, rather, have a listen. Over 3,300 students attend NEHS. Over 56 languages can be heard on campus at any given time.
“Walking through the hallways, you can hear so many languages spoken,” said Nora Elmarzouky, director of education at West Philly-based Arab art and culture nonprofit Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. “It’s a microcosm of what’s changing in the city, or maybe the country.”
Elmarzouky has been overseeing Al-Bustan’s Tabadul Project at the high school since September. The multifaceted, year-long program intends to foster cultural connections within the school’s diverse community through the arts. (Tabadul is an Arabic term for “exchange.”)
Ultimately, Al-Bustan’s Tabadul aims to answer the question: How can we use the arts to better understand identity?
Not identity strictly in the sense of heritage, said Elmarzouky. While the project started with a focus on ethnic heritage, it’s expanded to be more inclusive of lifestyles.
"Arts provide a wonderful lens for looking at the ways in which cultures can intersect and for finding their commonalities."
“It’s more than a nationality or heritage. Maybe you associate with being a runner and that’s important to who you are,” she said. “There’s an entire culture and lifestyle to running.”
Those traits, the ones that typically help teenagers define their own identity, are easily lost on peers who might only understand them as the Chinese student or the Arab student. How we understand ourselves is immediately impacted by the ways in which we understand others — and vice versa.
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“Arts provide a wonderful lens for looking at the ways in which cultures can intersect and for finding their commonalities.”said NEHS teacher Dr. Jay Fluellen, who’s been directly involved in Tabadul since the program began. “I’ve seen my students really embrace that quality of accepting of other cultures.”
Those connections are being made in school and out of school. While Fluellen’s classes have hosted percussionists, poets and photographers, Tabadul isn’t just for students in his classes — nor is it strictly for students at NEHS.
Elmarzouky and Al-Bustan have hosted community workshops for the students, their families and their teachers, but they’ve also been taking the NEHS community on a tour across the city, engaging with schools such as Germantown Friends School, North Kensington’s U School and Academy at Palumbo in South Philly.
Tabadul, both Elmarzouky and Fluellen said, has been a work in progress — not unlike the new relationships the program aims to bridge across communities in the Northeast.