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Art And Social Action In Cambodia

Published: August 1, 2014

Art’s Carlos Silveira (wearing red hat) with CSULB students and Cambodian children on a recent trip.

“Art and Social Action in Cambodia,” a class that marked its 10th anniversary this summer and overseen by Art’s Carlos Silveira, saw 15 CSULB students visit Cambodia from June to July.

“We offer a program that sees CSULB students in Cambodia implementing art projects among children living in extreme poverty,” explained Silveira, who combines a career as a painter with community service. “The main goal of `Art and Social Action in Cambodia’ is to utilize art as a healing instrument among underserved children.”

Silveira, a Brazilian native who won CSULB’s Faculty Community Service Award in 2004, first arrived in Cambodia 10 years ago with the goal of establishing an international service learning component at Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). “The PUC is a private university originally established in 1997, and opened in 2000,” he explained. “It provides an English-based education in all subjects and is accredited by the Royal Government of Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.”

Silveira was on his way to a conference in Thailand when he connected with a one-week course on service learning at PUC hosted by CSU Fullerton. “I fell in love, not only with Cambodia, but with its potential role as a model for service instruction,” he said. “PUC was founded in part by Cambodians who earned their doctorates in the U.S., even at CSULB.”

The journey to Cambodia begins with a three-week preparation available online explaining how the Southeast Asian nation confronts global issues. “The goal of this course is to discover how art can be used as an instrument to deal with those issues,” said Silveira. “The key to the advance of developing countries is the creation of a critical consciousness. Education is the best way to trigger that.”

For the online preparation, students were asked to study six modules about Cambodian culture and social issues. “I was really pleased by the discussion boards,” he recalled. “Students are shy in the classroom but bold on the boards. They learn how to avoid certain behaviors that imply colonialism. We are not the big Westerners here to help poor kids. That kind of thinking elevates the students in a kind of hierarchy and that must be avoided.”

Participating students are a mix of Cambodians and non-Cambodians.” Out of the 15 students this summer, five are Cambodian-Americans,” Silveira explained. “I’m confident this program has reached close to 200 CSULB students in the 10 years it has been in existence.”

Silveira was impressed by the transformation he saw. “Even after three weeks, our students come back with a completely different frame of mind,” he said. “They come back questioning everything from friendship to capitalism.”

Silveira hopes the program has a positive impact on the Cambodian-American community. “Cambodian-American students develop a passion for their culture,” he said. “They discover what they can do from here as Cambodian-Americans. I recall a student who returned from her trip to found a Cambodian dance group. She understood the importance of trying to get in touch with her cultural background. Experiences like these can be very powerful.”

Silveira has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Brazil’s Federal University, a Master of Fine Arts in painting and drawing from Northern Illinois University and his Ph.D. in art education from Texas Tech University in 1995.

His goals for the course include sustainability.

“It is important to create courses that are sustainable in order to help Cambodian students,” he said. “CSULB students find themselves teaching students who never have touched paint in their lives. They see happiness in their eyes. How much better it would be to offer opportunities like these year-round. My goal is to see Cambodian artists teaching Cambodian kids. It is a major goal to make the project sustainable.”

He sees a bright future for the Cambodia project. “I want to expand the program to other countries but I also think that Cambodia may be the perfect place for a program like this because the people there are willing to work with us,” he said. “Through the arts, it is possible to communicate the concepts of leadership. This is my dream.”

Click here to watch “To Touch the Soul,” the award-winning documentary on Carlos Silveira’s first trip to Cambodia in 2005, produced by CSULB’s Teresa Hagen.