Raising Awareness Through Performance

Authors: Nicole Guzman & Katherine Cushing

According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, San Jose is one of the 20 metropolitan regions with the largest populations of undocumented residents in the U.S.  Immigration concerns are some of the most pressing issues in our local community. As a way to raise awareness and foster productive discourse, CommUniverCity partnered with Horace Mann Elementary School last semester through a project called “Social Issues Theater.” This project gave fifth grade students the opportunity to engage with SJSU students enrolled in the Communications Studies class “Performing Culture and Society” taught by Sarah McGaffey.

San Jose State University student performing and engaging with the audience.

For the course, twenty-four SJSU students performed excerpts from the book Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives by Peter Horner. 

The book details first person accounts of undocumented Americans from many different perspectives. With a minimalist background, the students presented dramatic one-minute monologues to their Horace Mann audience at the San Jose State Student Union in December. Many students took on the role of someone with a different ethnicity or gender than their own. The performances illustrated the range of fears, vulnerabilities, hopes, and risks the undocumented regularly encounter.

“It opened up my eyes to the struggles of others . . . It really makes you appreciate what you have.”

SJSU Communication Studies Students

All SJSU performers embracing the applause from the audience and preparing to take a bow.

The performances directly linked with Horace Mann’s International Baccalaureate fifth grade curriculum on social awareness and sensitivity. This spring the Horace Mann students will each work on a major project illustrating a pressing social issue. Being able to experience the SJSU students’ performance provided them with a personal context for thinking about their work.

“I learned about the different challenges people have had. You don’t know it by looking at them.”

—Briana, Horace Mann 5th grader

Associate Community Director, Jennifer Goto facilitating a discussion with students after the performances.

After the performance concluded, Ms. McGaffey led the performers and audience  through a reflective and sometimes emotional discussion on what they learned and how their newfound knowledge could be applied to daily life. As the group parted ways, Sarah encouraged all participants to  “continue the conversation.” In fact, she took her own recommendation and will help lead another iteration of Social Issues Theater with a new group of students this spring.

“It was very enlightening and memorable to see our performance have an impact on these kids and teach them more about crucial issues occurring around us.”

SJSU Communication Studies Student


  • 90 community participants
  • 24 SJSU student engaged learners
  • Over 1,300 hours
  • 94.4% of students enjoyed participating in event

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